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The Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon
Chapter XV. An Inspiring Memory


“Show me the man who made all this, for he must be worth knowing.”

Robert Napier had a wonderful career, and was certainly the architect of his own fortune. Born in Dumbarton of humble honest parents, he started life as a blacksmith, with no advantages, and by his diligence, integrity, and enterprise he became the most prominent business man in the West of Scotland.

When steam navigation was in its infancy, he grasped the situation and saw its possibilities. The narrow and shallow Clyde was by no means the natural home of marine engineering, and the difficulties to obtain its recognition as such were enormous. By superlatively good work he overcame the prejudices against Scottish contractors, and through his efforts Glasgow became the centre of the shipbuilding of the world.

With the successful inception of the Cun-ard Company he attained to a pinnacle of greatness, and this position he succeeded in maintaining till his death.

His great reputation attracted to the metropolis of the West orders which previously had been executed in London, Liverpool, and elsewhere.

Through his personal exertions, in the face of much opposition, contracts were obtained from the British and other foreign Governments, and the great shipping companies in Britain and Europe were induced to come to the Clyde.

Shipbuilding reacted on the coal and iron industries of Lanarkshire, and produced a rapid and extensive development of the City of Glasgow. It stimulated the improvement of the Clyde as a navigable river, whereby the prosperity of the town as a seaport was greatly increased.

In 1823, when Napier made his first engine, the annual revenue of the Clyde Trust barely amounted to £7000. To-day it approaches half a million sterling. Without shipbuilding, this development would have been impossible.

Napier possessed in great measure that talent which Carlyle considered one of the dominating characteristics of a Captain of Industry — the faculty of selection. This point need not be elaborated, as the subsequent careers of many of those who served him justify the assertion.

Most of the present leading engineering firms on the river were founded by men who had worked with him and his cousin David.

Prominent among these may be mentioned Messrs Denny, Messrs James and George Thomson (now Messrs John Brown & Co.), Messrs John Elder & Co. (now the Fairfield Shipbuilding Co.), Messrs William Beardmore & Co., Messrs Smith & Rodgers (now The London and Glasgow Shipbuilding Co.), Messrs Tod & McGregor (now Messrs D. and W. Henderson & Co.), Messrs Aitken & Mansel, Messrs Napier, Shanks, & Bell, Messrs Napier & Miller, Messrs Scott & Sons, Messrs Dunsmuir & Jackson, Messrs Napier Brothers, Messrs G. L. Watson & Co., and others.

The work which Napier succeeded in bringing, and the orders which were subsequently secured by the firms we have named, represented millions of money, which brought bread and comfort to many a toiling worker, and affluence to many a master.

Robert Napier, as we have already shown, started with no advantages. Glasgow was the city of his adoption. He had no influential friends there, and his capital was of the most slender description. His success may be traced to the cultivation of two great qualities—industry and civility.

From the day he entered on his apprenticeship with his father till he reached fourscore his life was a round of unceasing toil. When he first started there were neither steamers nor railways, and the exposure and discomfort attendant on long distance travelling were most trying. He inherited from his blacksmith progenitors a powerful bodily frame, which stood him in good stead in those early days, and enabled him to endure the fatigues of his arduous journeys.

His mental activity exceeded even that of his body. His correspondence was most voluminous, and personally conducted. Business was attended to at all hours, and his numerous letters often attest the fact of being written at nightfall. All through his life he was a man of most active habits, and he endeavoured constantly to keep himself abreast of the times. Napier, in the words of Lord Beaconsfield, “grasped the spirit of the age” in which he lived. True, he had not the brilliant mechanical genius of his cousin, but he did not profess to be an inventor. His success lay rather in selecting the inventions of others, and by patience and industry adapting these to the requisite needs, and bringing the result to perfection. His own words to Cunard sum up his position:  “Every solid and known improvement that I am acquainted with shall be adopted by me.”

Mr Napier was a man whom it was a privilege to know apart from his eminence in business. His native dignity of deportment, urbanity, and magnanimity of disposition marked him as one of Nature’s noblemen, while his unfailing courtesy and generous consideration of others endeared him to those who had occasion in any way to come into contact with him. He held to the old conception of the commonwealth that all orders must work faithfully together, and that trade was to be extended not by cheapness and free markets but by good workmanship and superior merit. Holding strongly such views, he considered that combinations were undesirable, and the position he took up was antagonistic to trades’ unions. His relations with his workmen were of the patriarchal order. Old servants were retained to the last, and those whose working days were over, he pensioned. His employees found it a pleasure to serve him, and, it may be said, regarded him with affection and veneration.

Napier was fired with ambition for noble ends. His great aim in business was to turn out superlative work. Mr Cunard’s idea of perfection was expressed in the simple words of his contract, “equal to the best engines ever made by the contractor”; and an American engineer, viewing the engines of the Cambria, remarked that “such superbly finished machinery ought to be put under a glass case.”

Mr (afterwards Sir) William Pearce, in bidding farewell to Napier’s men, said the watchword of Govan yard had always been “Good Work" and such questions as What time will this take? or What will this cost? were always subordinated to the crucial one—Is this the best?

If Napier’s sole object had been to accumulate wealth he could have amassed a very large fortune, as there were many avenues open to him for doing so. But for money as a possession he cared little, except for the pleasure it afforded him of spending and distributing it. While he lived in a princely style, he was always ready to assist in schemes of benevolence; and being of a modest disposition, many of his good deeds were done in secret.

In private life he was one of the most genial and unassuming of men, gaining many friends and never losing one; and no one ever heard him speak an uncivil or unkind word. He was of a singularly equable temperament, and was always ready to face difficulties with a serenity and patience that are seldom met with.

His demeanour was uniformly that of a modest, humble-minded man, unaffected by prosperity, while at the same time exhibiting a firmness of character and loftiness of purpose that were admirable. His mind was, further, of a reverent, thoughtful cast, and open to the influences of a sincere, if unobtrusive, piety.

In summing up his life a writer says :—

So far as the Clyde is more particularly concerned, marine architecture owes more to Mr Napier than to any one else. He did much to bring that art to the high degree of perfectibility it has now attained; but what is of not less importance, he assisted in projecting those enterprises of great pith and moment without which it would have been impossible for the Clyde to have attained its pre-eminence in relation to the industry with which his name is so intimately associated.

Napier’s great work was his service to the City of Glasgow; and though not a native, he by his honourable career may be said to have contributed more than any of her sons to give effect to the proud motto—“Let Glasgow Flourish.”


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