Meeting Report - January 2023
For our first meeting of the year, Jacki & Bob Lawrence delivered an illustrated talk entitled "Smeaton of Austhorpe". John Smeaton, best known for building the 3rd Eddystone Lighthouse, was born at Austhorpe on 8th June 1724 and spent most of his life living and working there.
Jacki began by talking about John's boyhood living at Austhorpe Lodge with his parents Mary and William, a wealthy lawyer with asuccessful practice in Leeds. The audience were amused to hear of John's exploits as a child; forexample, when about six years old, how he scaled his father's barn to fix a weather-vane he had constructed onto the roof. And how a few yearslater, he built a model steam engine, attached it to a water pump he had previously made, and successfully drained the ornamental pond in front of the Lodge.
Moving on to his working life she described his dislike of the Legal profession, which his father had hoped he would follow and make his eventual career. However, after two years at the Law Courts in London he gave it up, and with his father's consent, set himself up as an Instrument Maker in London. Among his early successes was a Mariners Compass he worked on with his friend Gowan Knight, which was adopted by the Royal Navy. As his reputation for excellence and precision grew, he started to take on bigger and more ambitious projects, becoming involved in Water Mills, Windmills, Fen Drainage Schemes, Canals and other engineering projects. He was the first person to describe himself as a Civil Engineer and in due course no major engineering project would be started by the Government, without first consulting him on its validity.
Jacki went on to explain how he approached the design and building of his most famous work, the Eddystone Lighthouse, and how he had to first convince the authorities that he intended to build it in stone, which was generally accepted as not being possible. He used Cornish Granite for the outer walls and a special cement which he developed which actually hardened when wet. She described how, when constructing the base of the building, he first cut out sections of the rock in a dovetail fashion, then cut the interlocking stones to fit like a jigsaw, creating one solid base on which to build his lighthouse. After three years, standing at 80ft above the mean sea level, the light was first lit on 16th October 1759. It was last lit on 3rd February 1882 before being dismantled and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe where it sits today. The lower courses were so solid they could not be removed from the reef, and still remain there today.
Following on from his work on the Eddystone, Jacki went on to inform the audience of the variety and breadth of his other works. These included canals, viaducts, mills, bridges, harbours and other engineering projects, now being commissioned more as a consultant and advisor, but he was still personally drawing all his own designs and plans. The audience were shown a variety of illustrations, including the picture of the Hexam bridge which proved to be Smeaton's one failure; the sympathy of everyone in the room could be felt at Smeaton's devastating reaction to this disaster was described.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the talk were the descriptions of all the works he was involved in locally, since the audience were able to relate to these. Of particular interest was the explanation of the Hydraulic Ram he designed for Lord Irwin of Temple Newsam. This was a self-perpetuating water engine which simultaneously was driven by water pressure as it pumped water from Jacob's Well on the Estate to the house. Jacki's valiant efforts to explain the working of this apparatus was met with amused tolerance by the engineers in the audience.
The audience were also delighted to hear about John's family life and see the obviously great affection he was held in by his two daughters Ann and Mary. He died at Austhorpe Lodge on 28th October 1792, and he is commemorated in St Mary's Parish Church, Whitkirk, with a plaque placed there by his daughters.
Explaining how the talk had only touched on a small percentage of all the works he had undertaken, Jacki described how John Smeaton was a workaholic, and a perfectionist with a prodigious output. She concluded the talk by describing how he was regarded as a giant in his time, but had not always been given the recognition he deserves in later times. She expressed how engineers who followed him were heavily influenced by his works, and read the accolades from other famous engineers such as James Watt and Robert Stevenson, who regarded him as "a truly great man".
Smeaton's achievements helped fire up the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, and have even resonated into the 21st century, with NASA acknowledging the value of his coefficient in the history of Aviation. This was used in his experiments in wind and water power for which he was awarded the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1759. How iconic that in 1969, when man first landed on the moon, the experiments of an engineer, working at Austhorpe 200 years earlier would play a tiny part in that great achievement.
The next meeting on Friday 24th February will be an illustrated talk by Dr Christine Holdstock entitled "A History of Pigments from cave paintings to Leeds Street Art"
Photo 1: Portrait of John Smeaton by Mather Brown, ca 1788