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John Murray (1804-1882)

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John Murray (1804-1882)

1804 September. Birth of a son at Kelso to James Murray, Civil Engineer.[1][2]

1833 John Murray, Engineer to the Sunderland Harbour, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[3]

1852 John Murray of Littleworth, Hednesford, Stafford joined the Inst Civil Eng. (Is this the same one? Seems to be the only John Murray belonging to the Inst. at that time).

1858 John Murray, of Littleworth, Hednesford, Stafford and later of Barnsley became a Member of the Inst Civil ENng

1859 Elected to the Council of the Inst Civil Eng; retained his seat until 1871


1883 Obituary [4]

MR. JOHN MURRAY, whose connection with the Institution extended over half a century, was born at Kelso, on the 12th of December, 1804.

His father and grandfather were civil engineers of some repute in their day, and it was early determined that he should follow in their footsteps. He was accordingly sent to London, where he became an articled pupil in the office of the elder Mylne, who had a large practice as a dock-engineer.

The beginning of Mr. Murray’s independent career dates from 1831, when he left London to take up his appointment as engineer to the River Wear Commissioners at Sunderland. This office was one just suited to his special abilities, and during its tenure he laid the foundation of a reputation as a hydraulic engineer very little, if at all, inferior to those of the Walkers, the Rennies, and the Hartleys of the last generation.

At the time Mr. Murray entered upon his duties, the state of affairs in regard to Sunderland harbour was far from encouraging. Its condition had exercised the minds of the inhabitants for generations, and with commendable perseverance they had endeavoured, often under trying circumstances, to effect improvement. From time to time the most eminent engineers of their day had been called in to give their advice, and divers were the schemes which had been proposed, and in some instances proceeded with. So far back as July, 1748, Labelye recommended the contraction of the channel at various points, and the construction of stone wharves to increase the scouring power of the stream, the reduction of the then several channels to one by wharfing, and the construction of a north pier to prevent the formation of sand banks at the harbour entrance.

In 1780, Smeaton approved a plan prepared by Mr. Shout, engineer to the Commissioners of that day, for the rebuilding and extension of the old pier. Fourteen years afterwards the advice of Dodds, another engineer, was sought. Jessop, reporting in 1807, advised an extension of the piers and a contraction of the entrance, to make the harbour quieter within, and to increase the depth of water over the bar. Prior to this, however, the construction of a north pier had (in 1788) been commenced by Shout, and completed in 1802 by his successor, Pickernell, and a lighthouse had also been erected on the end.

In 1819 an Act was obtained for an Admiralty survey of the river as far as Biddick Ford. This was undertaken by Mr. Giles, under the direction of Mr. Rennie, and was afterwards completed by Sir John Rennie. By this survey reliable data of a most valuable kind were obtained. Sir John Rennie also prepared plans for the construction of a new south pier, and the works were commenced by the Commissioners’ engineer, Mr. Milton, Mr. Murray’s immediate predecessor. They were in progress when the latter came to Sunderland, and were completed under his direction.

In connection with these works, Mr. Murray designed and carried out the formation of the Polka Basin, as a place in which the waves might spend their force before getting up the harbour. The value of this basin is demonstrated in every storm that assails the north-east coast, for when a vessel has once got safely over the bar, a few minutes suffice to bring her into smooth water. Describing the condition of the harbour when he became engineer, Mr. Murray, speaking many years afterwards, said he 'found the lower reach, between the business part and the pierhead, in a very tortuous condition, with a shallow draught of water through - in places deep holes, but generally shallow. Vessels used frequently to take the ground, sometimes in great number, on a shoal, or bar, that existed in the river opposite the yards of the Commissioners, and the shoal being very much complained of, it was removed by dredging, and the river straightened.'

To get rid of a bar which was forming very rapidly at the north pier end and causing such inconvenience, Mr. Murray devised a floating boom, below which was suspended a canvas web, kept down by weights, the effect of which was to divert the channel and concentrate the force of the tide on the sand. The accumulated sand, however, driven from one spot, formed a bar at another. But though unsuccessful in this, Mr. Murray was more fortunate in accomplishing a work of considerable importance higher up the river, whereby a projecting rock in front of the Hetton and Lambton Coal Staiths, which had long been a great hindrance to navigation, was removed.

Mr. Murray’s name is identified with one of the strangest operations recorded in the history of lighthouses. The eastern, or seaward portion of the North Pier, having fallen into a dilapidated condition, a new pier was built in place of it, to the east of the lighthouse, and into deeper water. The old pier and the lighthouse which stood upon it were consequently rendered useless, and preparations were made for the demolition of the latter.

Mr. Murray, however, conceived the idea of transporting it in one solid piece to the site on which it had been intended to build the new lighthouse, a distance of more than 150 yards. The project was a bold one, for at that time the public mind had not become accustomed to the removal of large buildings from one site to another. The lighthouse was 69 feet high, and 15 feet in diameter at the base; it’s weight was 757,120 lbs.; and the new pier was 19 inches higher than the old, whilst its direction was entirely different. A number of openings were made in the base of the tower, by which the latter was supported on a solid platform of oaken planks, whilst a framework of stays or props, strengthened by crossbeams, surrounded the tower from base to summit. The platform rested on one hundred and forty-four cast-iron wheels, flanged like those of a locomotive, and running on eight parallel rails, which, with their 'sleepers,' were laid along the masonry of the pier and jetty. On the morning of the 2nd of August, 1841, the work of removal was commenced.

After the mass bad been moved a few feet, the rails were lifted and laid down again in front of the machinery, and this was repeated until the new site had been reached. A body of labourers worked windlasses on which were wound the chains attached to the platform.

The first section of the work, 28 feet from south to north, was the heaviest, and involved the labour of forty men for about seven hours; whilst eighteen men were able in about thirteen and a half hours, to carry it over the second section, in a line of 417 feet from west to east. The operation of moving occupied a little over twenty working hours, and the lamp was lighted every evening during the progress of the operations, so that interference with the navigation was avoided. This achievement immediately established Mr. Murray’s reputation as a bold and skilful engineer. He was awarded a Telford Medal of gold for a Paper on the subject presented to the Institution, and also took medals at the Exhibitions in Paris, 1855, and in London, 18G2, for models showing how the removal was accomplished. A slab let into the masonry of the pier indicates the site on which the lighthouse formerly stood.

The rapid growth of the trade of the port and the larger class of vessels frequenting it, soon made it apparent that if Sunderland were to hold its own, ampler provision would have to be made for . the accommodation of shipping, It became clearer year by year that however much the river might be improved, the resources of the harbour would have to be supplemented by wet docks. Projects for the construction of docks had been put forward by Dodds in 1794, by Jessop in 1807, and by Robert Stevenson of Edinburgh in 1828 ; but nothing had come out of them.

In l831 meetings of the shipowners, merchants, and other inhabitants of the town were held, to urge upon the River Wear Commissioners the necessity of undertaking this work, and in the same year Giles and Brunel prepared designs for docks on both sides of the river, near its month, but these plans were rejected by Parliament.

Mr. George Rennie and Mr. Walker were in the following year called in to plan small docks for each side, to be capable of extension. They recommended, for the site on the north shore, the low ground between the sea and the cliff, and on the south side the Fort, part of the Town Moor, part of the Commissioners’ own ground, and extending to the shore. The Commissioners deposited these plans, but abandoned the North Dock project, in consequence of a desire on the part of the original proprietors to carry out the work themselves, and they were eventually obliged to withdraw the South Dock plans also, through being served with notice of an injunction from the Hetton Coal Company and others.

The North Dock was begun in 1835, and completed some three years afterwards. The shipping community on the south side had, however, to wait a good many years before their wishes were realised.

In 1842 Mr. Murray brought forward his scheme for converting the Wear into a floating harbour. He had already, in 1832, submitted a similar project, in which he proposed to take advantage of a bend in the river at a ferry landing, and thus obtain an area of 24 acres. The navigable channel was to be diverted through the town of Monkwearmouth, nearly in a straight line from the bridge to the river mouth, by which an increased force of water would have been obtained on the channel and bar. The estimated cost of this earlier scheme was £2200,000.

The plan of 1842 differed in one or two important particulars from that of ten years before. A better acquaintance with the locality had convinced him that other means must be contrived for the passage of the river water than the formation of a cut.ting through Monkwearmouth, which would have been attended with enormous expense and difficulty. He therefore hit upon an idea, which up to that time llad not been tried anywhere else, of providing navigable gates for t,he admission of the tidal waters. His scheme was, briefly, to convert the lower part of the river into a floating dock, by a wall of masonry, with a waste weir and sluicing gates, together with piers and navigable gates between them, running diagonally across the river from the High Coble Slip to the Folly End, and from that downwards to the Ham Sand, enclosing a tidal basin on the north side of the river. By this means 100 acres of water would be rendered available for shipping, producing at Pallion, about 3 miles from the river mouth, a depth of 5 feet in the channel, and in the vicinity of the gates an average depth of 12 feet. The gates were to be left open till three hours after high water, when the water on the outer side of the gates would ebb away, while it would be rising on the inner, or upper side. As soon as the penned-up water rose to the top of the gates the sluices would be opened, and the channel outwards would obtain the benefit of the scouring power of the liberated water. The gates were to remain closed till the tide should flow again to the level of the impounded water of three hours’ flood, when the tidal water would force them open, and the navigation of the river proceed as usual. The cost of these works Mr. Murray estimated at 560,000, and he was of opinion that they could be carried out within twelve months, without interruption to the navigation. The scheme encountered a good deal of opposition, notwithstanding which it was adopted by the Commissioners ; but ultimately it was abandoned, in consequence of the opposition of the Admiralty.

Undaunted by the failure of this last project, Mr. Murray submitted, in 1846, another scheme, upon his own initiative, for docks along the sea shore, with an outlet into the river at one end, and into the Hendon Bay at the other. His ideas were readily taken up, and under the auspices of the late George Hudson, the 'Railway King,' a private company was formed, in which many of the principal merchants and capitalists of the town interested themselves. The company obtained parliamentary powers, and tested the scheme practically by building three groynes running out seaward. These preliminary experiments having proved satisfactory, the directors proceeded with the work of making 184 acres of the northern portion of the dock and the tidal basin communicating with the river. As it was nut their intention at that time to make the sea-outlet, Mr. Murray designed a half tide basin, as an addition to the dock, in order to pass vessels in after the gates at the north end had been closed. Grave doubts had been expressed as to whether a south outlet would answer, and, in deference to these, after taking the advice of Mr. Rendel, Past-President Inst. C.E., the company had decided to postpone this work for a time. It was, however, subsequently carried out, after careful examination of Hendon Bay, in a more easterly direction than had originally been intended. If Mr. Murray was fertile in design, he was equally energetic in execution, for, once begun, the dock works were pushed on vigorously, so that within a little over three years after first submitting his plans they (with the exception of the sea-outlet section) were consummated. The foundation stone was laid on the 4th of February, 1848, and the Great Dock, with its basins communicating with the river, was opened on the 20th of June, 1850. The south outlet and graving dock were opened in the course of the year 1856.

The docks remained in the possession of the company until August 1859, when they were transferred to the re-constituted River Wear Commission, under whose control they have since been greatly extended. A new dock of considerable area has been added, and two years ago a sea-lock was opened, by which vessels are enabled to leave or enter at any state of the tide. It is almost unnecessary to refer to the influence these docks have exerted upon the trade of Sunderland. If their construction had been delayed but a few years, Sunderland would have sunk into a third- or fourth-rate port, frequented only by the smaller class of shipping. The splendid docks, which owe their creation to the skill of Mr. Murray, have alone enabled it to cope with the altered conditions under which the carrying trade of the world is now conducted.

On the formation of the Dock Company, Mr. Murray became their engineer, and left the service of the Commissioners. About the same time he commenced practice in London, from which he paid visits to Sunderland at frequent intervals, retaining his appointment with the Dock Company until that body ceased to exist.

He removed to Queen Square, Westminster, and entered into practice as a consulting engineer, his advice being largely sought in connection with harbour- and dock-works. The busy, middle period of his professional life now gave place to the practice of the committee-room and the arbitration-court, and he found leisure to take a leading part in the proceedings of the Institution, of which he had been elected a Member on the 12th of March, 1833.

In December 1859 Mr. Murray was elected to a seat on the Council, which he retained until 1871. Besides his duties as a member of the governing body, he was active in imparting information from his well-stored mind, at the weekly meetings. On all subjects relating to docks, harbours, the maintenance of rivers, and the arrest of destructive coast-action, his opinions were received with attention and respect.

He presented four original communications to the Society, three of which, being read before his appearance at the Council-board, were rewarded with medals and premiums. The first of these was the Paper already alluded to, being an 'Account of the Removal of the Lighthouse at Sunderland.' Subsequently came 'An Account of the progressive improvement of Sunderland Harbour and the River Wear' (vol. vi., p. 256); 'On the progressive Construction of the Sunderland Docks' (vol. xv., p. 418); and an essay, 'On the North Sea, with Remarks on some of its Firths and Estuaries' (vol. xx., p. 314), which largely dealt with questions relating to the tides, to which he had paid great attention. In the general Indexes to vols. i.-xxx. of the Minutes of Proceedings are not less than five columns of entries under Mr. Murray’s name, evincing the interest he took in the Institution. When it is added that he was a zealous attendant at the Council meetings, and took his full share of all Committee-work, it will be recognised that the Society has good cause to honour the memory of so staunch and indefatigable a supporter.

About the year 1870 Mr. Murray’s bodily powers began to fail, although the change was but slight, and his mental qualities remained unimpaired. Finding his practice leaving him, he resolved to retire and spend the evening of his days at Sutton, in Surrey. The cessation from the strain of professional life seemed to benefit him, and for nearly ten years he led a life of lettered leisure, gradually sinking under the infirmities of age, till he died quietly and painlessly on the 2nd of February, 1882, in his seventy-eighth year.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Caledonian Mercury - Saturday 15 December 1804
  2. The Scots Magazine - Saturday 01 December 1804
  3. 1833 Institution of Civil Engineers
  4. 1883 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries