Monday 17 June 2024

John Rennie's plan for Greenock's East Harbour

On 29 May 1805 the foundation stone was laid for what was to be Greenock’s East Harbour which stretched from what is now known as Customhouse Quay eastwards to the Dailing Burn (Dellingburn).  The foundation stone was laid with full masonic honours by the town’s chief magistrate, Hugh Crawford.  There was the usual procession of the trades of the town accompanied by the Freemasons for the ceremony.

John Rennie, Engineer

The contractor for the East Harbour was Andrew Brocket (1756-1832), mason from Glasgow who was also responsible for the Nelson Monument on Glasgow Green and the locks on the Crinan Canal.  The Harbour was designed by John Rennie (1761-1821), civil engineer and designer of many major waterways and bridges at the time.  He worked for a while with Greenockian James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton at the Soho Works in Birmingham.

This is a copy of the written details of the plan which Rennie sent to Hugh Crawfurd and Walter Ritchie, senior magistrates of the town in 1802:-  

The plan which has occurred to me, is nearly the same as was proposed by Mr Ainslie, (John Ainslie (1745-1828), surveyor and cartographer) in his former survey; namely, to build a quay or pier 100 feet wide, parallel to and close by the Deling Burn, which is the boundary of the powers granted by the Act of Parliament, and extending about 240 yards from the bridge. From the extremity of this pier, I propose another nearly at right angles and parallel to the great bank, of 60 feet in width and 150 yards in length. 

I propose the new quay to be extended about 66 yards behind the present pier and of the width of 40 feet, this will leave an opening between it, and the other 50 yards wide which I propose as the entrance or opening of the harbour.  It may be asked, why not have extended the eastern pier 66 yards further, and made the entrance to the harbour at the end of the present new quay?  To this I answer, that in the first place the harbour is so narrow at the present pier, that there is very little room for ships to get out and into it – and in the second place, that it is so narrow there is not sufficient room for the waves to spend their violence before they reach the breast of the inner quay, which would render the harbour very unquiet, and of course detrimental to the vessels lying in it.

I propose a breast wall to be built from the east end of the east quay, to that at the Deling Burn, which will close nearly nine statute acres of water, and give about 1000 yards in length of quay.  The quay next the town is proposed to be one hundred feet wide, as well as that parallel to the Deling Burn; the bottom of the harbour, which is not dry at low water, is proposed to be deepened to about 2 feet under it.

The space between the breast or quay wall, and the shore, is intended to be filled with earth, and the piers are proposed to be formed by an out and an inside wall, with counterforts, having the space between filled with earth and paved over; this filling will consume about 112,000 cubic yards of earth more than will come out of the harbour; this earth must be brought from some other place not very distant from the harbour.

I do not propose to have any middle quay or tongue in this harbour, as upon comparing the extent of quay with the quantity of water, the one seems fully equal to the other.  A harbour should always have some room for those ships which are in ballast, or such as are laid up for the winter or are waiting for repairs, and after the whole quays are occupied by such vessels as will be loading and discharging their cargoes; there does not seem to be more space left than is necessary for the accommodation of such vessels, as I have before mentioned, and others moving to and from the quays.

A dry dock was proposed by Mr Ainslie in the southeast corner of this new harbour.  I have however thought proper to leave it out here, as a dry dock in this situation would occupy nearly 130 yards of the best part of the quay, and would be a great inconvenience to the harbour, besides there would not be sufficient room around it to contain timber for such vessels as may want repair.

The second part of the plan is that of enlarging the present quay by an outside wall which is also parallel to Greenock bank and filling the space between it and the present piers with earth.  The stones in the outside walls of the old piers will be of considerable use in forming some of the new works and will occasion a saving for which I have made no allowance, because in every work of this kind, there are accidents and expenses which can seldom be foreseen, and therefore the amount of this saving will probably be expended in such unforeseen matters.

I have also shewn that an enlargement may be made in the present harbour, by forming the inside of the north piers parallel to those of the outside; but, were this even done, although it would be a considerable improvement to the harbour, yet I think the experience would be greater than the advantage gained by it, I therefore do not advise its being done, nor have I made any estimate for it.

The quantity of earth wanted to fill the spaces between these walls and the piers, will be about seventy thousand cubic yards, which must be got from some other place same as the new harbour.

The expense of the works, for the new harbour as per estimate, amounts to £35,392.  For enlarging the east quay of the present harbour, and what is called the new quay as per estimate, £8,444

This appears to be a larger sum than the gentlemen of Greenock may have been led to imagine, but I doubt it will not be done at less than is here stated, for as all these outer walls must be laid considerably under low water, they can only we done with certainty of caissons, which are very expensive, and they must be of large dimensions to resist the action of the sea.  I have therefore given such dimensions, as appear to me public works of this sort ought to have; when they are done slightly, they are in constant want of repair, and very inconvenient in their use which such repairs are in hand.

Thus, Gentlemen, have I pointed out what appears to me the best plan, for the present and future improvement of the Port of Greenock – a plan which has not been formed without much consideration.  That it is perfect, I will not pretend to say, perfection does not belong to mortals; but I flatter myself, you will find sufficient in it to demand your attention; and I doubt not you will give it that candid consideration the importance of the subject requires and appreciate its merits accordingly.

I am, Gentlemen, with much esteem,
Your most obedient Servant
John Rennie
London July 12, 1802.

Over the years the harbour was adapted to suit the times and fortunately we still have its presence in the town of Greenock today and is known as the East India Harbour.  

East India Harbour, Greenock (1966)- source Watt Institution

East India Harbour looking west

When workmen were constructing the foundations of the adjacent Victoria Harbour, they uncovered a metal plaque containing an inscription, along with several coins which had been deposited when the foundation stone of the East Harbour was laid.  The inscription read:

In the Forty Sixth year of the Reign of our most gracious Sovereign George the Third.

And under the auspices of Hugh Crawford Esq, Chief Magistrate, Robert Bannatyne, Treasurer, Alexander Dunlop, Thomas Ramsay, Andrew Thomson, Alan Ker, Duncan McNaught and John Laird, Councillors.  

Pursuant to the Sanction of a Provident Legislature, This stone was laid on the 29th day of May in the year of our Lord 1805 and of the Era of Masonry 5850.  John Rennie Esq, Engineer.  John Aird, Superintendent.  Andrew Brocket, Contractor.

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