Robert Napier’s Obituary



Mr Robert Napier, the celebrated engineer, died on Friday morning at three o’clock, at West Shandon on the Gareloch. He had reached a venerable age, having been born on the 18th June, 1791.

He was a native of Dumbarton, where his father carried on business as a master blacksmith, and was universally respected. Mr Napier was thus in a manner born into the iron trade, and was destined to participate in its development. At first he took his father’s business, and was esteemed an excellent tradesman, his workshop on settling in Glasgow being in a court off Canon Street, not far from the Old University, where James Watt had previously worked out his great invention in connection with the steam engine.

While beginning, however, in a comparatively humble department of iron craft, his active and ingenious mind soon induced him to branch into the manufacture of hydraulic presses and other machines, and ultimately to concentrate his energies on the construction of steam engines, in which he achieved the highest eminences and laid the foundation of his prosperous fortune. When he entered upon the trade of a general engineer, Mr Napier removed to Camlachie Foundry, where he obtained ample scope for the development of his business. Here he undertook the execution of very important contracts, and, among others, that for the pipes required by the Glasgow Water Company in bringing in a copious supply of water from the Clyde above the city.

The Vulcan Foundry, which he afterwards set up in Washington Street, became by degrees a mighty concern, and one of the lions of the city often visited by distinguished and sometimes illustrious strangers. It would be about the year 18[illegible]4 that he first began to acquire celebrity as a maker of marine engines, having supplied several Clyde steamers, which took an easy lead for the beauty, substantiality, and smooth working of their machinery. His very first effort in marine engineering consisted, we believe, in making the engines for a small paddle-steamer, named the Leven, which plied between Glasgow and Dumbarton. A cousin of the deceased, Mr David Napier, who had assisted the famous Henry Bell in the construction of the ‘Comet’, had removed to Lancefield from Camlachie Foundry when Mr Robert Napier entered upon its occupancy; and in time the latter gentleman again succeeded his cousin in the Lancefield Foundry, where a fresh impetus and greater room were afforded for his operations. The vessels engined by Robert Napier became the quickest on the river, and enjoyed an almost entire immunity from accident, owing to the thoroughness and solidity of their workmanship.

Throughout his career, from the time he entered into possession of Lancefield Foundry, Mr Napier had the good fortune to have his efforts seconded by a true mechanical genius, the late Mr David Elder, whose son, the late Mr John Elder, afterwards rose to distinction in the same walk. Mr Napier was also fortunate in the time in which his career of industry commenced. Marine engineering on the Clyde was in its infancy, with a vast future before it, and the opportunity was favourable for his at once aiding and sharing in its development. From the engineering of small river steamers, he gradually came to supply engines for first-class coasters, and for ocean steamers of the largest size, while with every fresh development of his now large business, he acquired fresh reputation, and an increasing amount of work.

He was thus brought into contact not only with the great shipowners of the country but with the Government, for whom he executed many important orders. His name as am engineer became in this way famous not only in England but throughout the world. For a long time his attention was exclusively devoted to engineering, but about 35 years ago he began to combine shipbuilding with the making of engines and from his building yard at Govan, the Black Prince, and other of the largest class of warships were launched. Some of the earliest Cunard liners also bore the Napier name and mark. He was indeed associated with Mr George Burns, Sir James Campbell, Mr McIver of Liverpool, and others, in the starting of that famous line. He engined the Britannica, Acadia, Caledonia, Columbia, Hibernia, Cambria, America, Niagara, Europa, Candia, Arabia, most, if not all, of which have now been superseded by larger vessels, both build and engined by Mr Napier, such as the Persia, 3000 tons and 850 horse power, the Scotia, 4000 tons and 1000 horse power (which is now laid up in Gareloch in consequence of the dull state of trade), and the China, 2540 tons and 550 horse power.

Mr Napier executed many important orders for the continental mercantile companies, and war vessels for the French, Turkish, Russian, Danish and Dutch Governments. For our own Government, besides the Black Prince, he build the Malabar, 4174 tons and 700 horse power; the Audacious and Invincible, armour-clad frigates, each 3775 tons and 800 horse-power. He also constructed a number of armour-clad turret vessels, and was the builder of the well known Hotspur, launched in 1870. But in this hurried sketch it would be impossible for us to attempt any detailed list of the many magnificent specimens of marine architecture which have given lustre to his name and renown to his native river.

The time of Mr Napier was so thoroughly engrossed with his extensive business that he took little or no part in municipal affairs. He was, however, a hearty supporter of the Glasgow Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders, a useful member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was ever ready to appreciate and encourage the genius of invention. His fame as an engineer and shipbuilder was worldwide, and he had many honours from abroad in recognition of his eminence. At the Paris Exhibition of 1855, where he was a juror, Mr Napier received from the late Emperor Napoleon the Decoration of Knight of the Legion of Honour. He was one of the committee who organised the Fine Art exhibition in South Kensington Museum in 1862, and indeed was never absent from the lists of the promoters of such objects of national and international importance. Mr Napier was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers during their meeting in Glasgow in the summer of 1864. He is succeeded in the firm of Robert Napier & Sons by his youngest son, Mr John Napier, who has conducted the business for a number of years. Mr James M Napier, the other son of the deceased is a member of several societies, and a well-known inventor.

From a social point of view, there was everything to admire and love in Mr Napier’s character. Benevolent in disposition, plain and unaffected in deportment, and affable and winning in his manners, he was personally a favourite with all classes. He was a great collector of articles of vertu, and a liberal patron of the fine arts, and his beautiful mansion on the Gareloch, where his declining years were spent, and where he has just closed his career, contains numerous treasures of rare and almost fabulous value. Mr Napier has left a grown-up family, but his wife pre-deceased him about six months ago.

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