Robert Napier & Sons

Robert Napier & Sons, Engineers and Shipbuilders, Govan.—

    The history of the illustrious house of Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons, now under the industrial and commercial supervision and control of Messrs. Alexander C. Kirk, John Hamilton, and James Hamilton, furnishes probably the best and fullest epitome available of the successful application of steam as a motive power to the purposes of navigation. First as engineers, and subsequently as shipbuilders — both of which departments are inseparably combined in the firm’s great business to-day — Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons won, sustained, and now retain in a continuously enhancing degree a reputation to the unsurpassed eminence of which maybe traced the foundation of their present prestige ; and to trace out, however briefly or superficially the various stages of progress and advancement which have led up to the achievement of that reputation, is a task as pleasing in itself as it is essential to the completeness of any review of the great industries of Glasgow and the Clyde.

    It is when such a firm as the one now under notice is to be dealt with that rigid and impassable limits of space become most irksome to the reviewer. Scores of pages might readily be filled (as far as plenitude of material is concerned), with interesting and always instructive records of the great things essayed and accomplished by this, doubtless the oldest now existent of the famous engineering houses of Glasgow. But it must be the aim of the present sketch to detail briefly, and with all possible accuracy, such prominent points and epochs only in the career of the firm in question as will afford some slight indication of the ways and means by which its high distinction has been achieved and maintained. To speak first of the origin and chronological progress of the concern.

    The firm of Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons was founded by Mr. Robert Napier in May, 1815. Robert Napier was born in Dumbarton in 1791, his father being a freeman of that burgh, and the proprietor of a successful business there as a master blacksmith and millwright. Early in life young Robert evinced signs and indications of the possession of no ordinary degree of aptitude for the mechanical sciences ; and this he supplemented by a practical skill of a high order as a workman, and also by a natural spirit of enterprise manifested in a thousand different ways throughout his entire career. He served an apprenticeship to his father, gaining thereby a valuable stock of fundamental experience in the work of the smith and the millwright ; and then, at the age of twenty, betook himself to Edinburgh, with a view to making his first effort as “architect of his own fortunes”. He entered (Robert Napier & Sons) the service of the Messrs. Stevenson, of lighthouse renown, but his stay with them and in Edinburgh was not of long duration, and was followed by a return to Dumbarton, whence he went later on to Glasgow, taking a position in the establishment of Mr. Lang, a well-known industrial machinist. Thus two or three years passed, and at length, in 1815, when barely twenty-four years old, Robert Napier founded the business in the after development of which he attained to an eminence of fame that has fallen to the lot of but a favoured and talented few in any department of steam engineering.

    He started as an engineer and blacksmith, and located his first workshops in Greyfriars Wynd, Glasgow. For some time, about this period, his cousin David had, controlled the Camlachie Foundry, and eventually Robert Napier transferred his own industry to that establishment, on its being vacated by his relative, and embarked there on a scale of considerable importance in the construction of factory engines. Marine engineering has been the specialite par excellence of Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons, and consequently an epoch in the history of the house is marked at the year 1824, when Robert Napier built his first pair of marine engines for the paddle-steamer Leven. These engines are now to be seen on the Dumbarton esplanade, having been presented to the Corporation of that burgh by the firm whose real career as engineers of renown dates from their construction.

    Four years after this first achievement in marine engineering Robert Napier left the Camlachie establishment and took up his industrial quarters at the Vulcan Foundry, which possessed the advantage of a situation in proximity to the Clyde. Here he remained for seven years, steadily progressing in the course he had marked out for himself, and supplying numerous vessels with the marine engines in which he now saw that his future prospects of success and celebrity more especially lay. “The enterprising are often fortunate”, is an aphorism charged with a great deal of profound philosophy, and its truth, in one sense, has hardly ever been more strikingly exemplified than in the progress of Robert Napier and his house from this time forward. He was nothing if not enterprising ; and this he proved by his adding the Lancefield to the Vulcan Foundry, the former having remained the headquarters of the firm ever since he acquired it, and which has gone hand in hand with the development of the business to the attainment of its present vast proportions. Noteworthy at this point is the fact that Mr. Napier’s right-hand man and works manager at the time of the removal to Lancefield was David Elder, whose son became later on the possessor of an universal renown as a shipbuilder.

    Highly interesting, also, is it to glance over the names and records of the many other eminent engineers whose terms of probation were served to such excellent purpose in Messrs. Napier’s works. In this list are included the names of such men as Charles Randolph, the founder of the firm of Randolph & Elder ; John Elder himself, who spent a considerable time with Messrs. Napier in the study of marine engineering under his father’s auspices ; Messrs. James and George Thomson ; Mr. Walter Brock ; Mr. (now Sir William) Pearce, the present head of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Limited, formerly John Elder & Co. ; and, finally, Mr. Alexander C. Kirk, who was with Robert Napier, and is now senior partner and head of the firm of Robert Napier & Sons.

    Having thus firmly established his business upon a footing that promised great things for the future, Robert Napier applied himself with all the earnestness of his nature to assisting the fulfilment of that promise. Many important contracts in the supplying of engines for notable vessels of those early days were satisfactorily carried to a successful issue, and in 1840 came the first Government order, calling for the mechanical equipment of the warships Stromboli and Vesuvius. Then the firm made its important connection with the Cunard Company, which organisation was at that time establishing the nucleus of its present splendid ocean navigation system, and for twenty years Messrs. Napier supplied the engines for all the steamers of that company.

    In 1842 the house commenced operations as shipbuilders, in addition to its engineering undertakings ; and this new departure afforded to Robert Napier increased scope for the exercise of his every notable quality of business capacity and industrial and scientific skill. It is needless to dwell at length upon the manner in which he thenceforward identified his name with the progressive development of his twin industries, or the closeness of his association with the rise and advancement of the science of iron shipbuilding and the introduction of the screw in lieu of the paddle-wheel. His achievements in these connections are certainly too well and generally known to derive any additional celebrity from being here chronicled in extenso. Both in shipbuilding and engineering the firm’s business was one of continuous development and increase, and a long succession of distinct triumphs and advances in each department brings the record down through many years to quite a recent period, at which the sign and token of another notable epoch, brought about by the death of Robert Napier, is encountered.

    When the business passed to its present proprietors, the year 1881 found Mr. Alexander C. Kirk at the head of affairs, and marking the epoch referred to by fitting on board the screw steamer Aberdeen engines of a class charged with the working of a revolution in steamship propulsion. These engines were designed by Mr. Kirk, and embodied the principle of the now universally esteemed and adopted triple-expansion engine, with high-pressure boilers. These engines proved a distinct and pre-eminent success onboard the Aberdeen, and to their development the firm turned at once with the utmost energy of purpose. It would be superfluous to record what has followed. The results of Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons’ efforts and enterprise in the improvement and perfecting of engines of this class are manifested to the fullest degree of satisfaction in some of the swiftest and most economically working steamships that plough the waters of the world’s five oceans to-day.

    Much space might be filled in mere enumeration of the names of the many first-class and powerful modern steamships built and engined within recent years by this distinguished firm. Such a stately craft as the huge Parisian, built by Messrs. Napier for the Allan Line in 1881 stands as an ample instance of their capabilities in the construction of steel steamships of the largest size, highest power, and most perfect modem equipment ; and those capabilities will be exemplified to their fullest present extent in the noble Atrato, now under construction for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.

    In the building and fitting of screw steamers for the highly important service of laying and repairing submarine cables, Messrs. Napier have been signally successful ; and their immense volume of Government work, both British and foreign, in this and various and other connections (notably the construction and equipment of the colossal floating fortresses of modem naval warfare), would be divisible into several industries of very respectable magnitude. One of Messrs. Napier’s most notable achievements in marine engineering for ships of war has been their demonstration of the capacity of triple-expansion engines to develop a horse-power greatly in excess of that put forth by compound engines, without taking up additional space in the vessel or increasing the aggregate weight of machinery and coal carried. In the belted cruiser, Galatea, built for the British Government, the firm proved the practicability of their theory beyond all gainsaying. Not only did they secure the extra 1,000 horse-power agreed upon, but an additional 700 horse-power over and above that, or 1,700 horse-power more than it was originally intended to obtain from the compound engines at first proposed. Briefly, the result of this was that the Galatea,, at the official trials, steamed a knot and a half an hour more than the designed speed, and her engines actually indicated more than 2,000 horse-power in excess of what was originally specified !

    All this Government work is, of course, quite independent, in consideration, of a vast amount of shipbuilding and engineering done for notable mercantile marine concerns. Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons have built and completely equipped vessels for the Cunard, Allan, Royal Mail, Castle, Peninsular and Oriental, and Pacific Steam Navigation Companies ; and the superb steamships that have left their yards and works to enter the various services of these distinguished organizations rank to-day among the staunchest and swiftest afloat. Such an industry as this must needs be quartered in notable premises, and the establishment of Messrs. Napier will amply realise any expectations that may have birth in the perusal of a record of its achievements.

    The firm’s works and yards in their entirety cover a very great area of ground, and lie on both sides of the Clyde, the engineering shops being situated on the north bank and the shipbuilding yards on the south. These works and yards open up a subject of far too great magnitude and importance to be dealt with extensively in a sketch whose space-limits are even now almost exceeded. But, after all, there is nothing to be said of the establishment that is not indicated in the splendid character of the work that has there been accomplished. A great writer, and a greater statesman, has said, “The mystery of mysteries is to view machinery making machinery”. It is, perhaps, sufficient here to affirm that no grander, no more marvellous illustration of the force of that statement could well be forthcoming at the present day than that offered by the works of Messrs. Robert Napier & Sons. The facilities, both at the engine works and at the shipyards, are of the most complete description, and the entire establishment when in full operation affords employment to an enormous force of men.

    As already stated, the control of the dual industry and the administration of all its practical and commercial affairs are vested in the three principals — Mr. Alexander C. Kirk, widely renowned as a marine engineer devoted to the constant exemplification of the best principles of scientific improvement and progress in that department ; Mr. James Hamilton, who superintends the shipbuilding branch, and possesses a reputation that is justified to the full by the work with which he has identified his name ; and Mr. John Hamilton, who, in his capacity of commercial partner and general business manager, turns the outcome of his colleagues’ practical talent to the highest advantage in a commercial sense. These three gentlemen guide and direct between them the course and progress of a system of undertakings that has few parallels in magnitude and influence in the engineering and shipbuilding world to-day.

    To the eminent founder of that system came fortune and lasting fame as the reward of effort and enterprise ; and all that has thus far been undertaken and accomplished by the present principals of the house stands as an assurance that for them also, and for the great business they control, such fortune and fame, augmented and accentuated, are in prospective as a fitting recognition of the administrative capacity they display and the sound principles they have faithfully observed.

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