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Philip John Messent

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Philip John Messent (1830-1897) M. Inst. C.E., of Tynmouth, Northumberland.

Engineer to the River Tyne Commissioners.

1897 Died.


1897 Obituary [1]

PHILIP JOHN MESSENT, born at Dover on the 7th December, 1830, obtained his engineering training partly from Mr. Joseph Gibbs and partly in the office of Messrs. Walker, Burges and Cooper. While with that firm he was engaged in making the preliminary survey and the contract drawingsf or the Tyne Piers, and in April, 1855, he assumed charge of the work as the representative of Messrs. Walker, Burges and Cooper.

The North Pier was commenced in October of the same year and was carried out by Mr. Lawton under a contract which expired in 1864. After that date the work was done by the Tyne Improvement Commissioners under the charge of Mr. Messent. The South Pier was commenced under the same conditions as the North Pier, the work beginning in the year 1856, and the contract was carried out by Mr. Lawton until 1864, since when the entire work has been carried on by the Commissioners under Mr. Messent's direction, without a contractor.

On the retirement of Mr. J. F. Ure, in 1873, Mr. Messent was appointed engineer to the Tyne Improvement Commissioners, and has since had entire charge of their large and important works.

Mr. Messent's name will remain associated with the improvement of the River Tyne. In a report, dated December, 1888, on the works carried out up to that time, he gave a description of the former state of the river, from which it may be of interest to quote the following extract:-

"Previous to the year 1860, except in the construction of the Piers and the Northumberland Dock, the works of improvement had been confined chiefly to groynes and training walls advanced into the river (behind which laud was reclaimed), and a comparatively small amount of dredging. The state of the river for navigation may be briefly described as follows, beginning at the mouth or entrance:- Here there was a bar, having a depth of water of about 6 feet at low-mater spring-tides, which gave a depth of about 21 feet at high-mater springtides, and about 17 feet at high-water neap-tides. The bar or diminished depth of water extended 800 feet from west to east, and the width of channel over it was about 600 feet. No vessel drawing much more than 20 feet of water could therefore enter or leave the Tyne even at high-water spring-tides, and whenever an east wind occurred the available depth was diminished according to the height of the sea waves. Vessels drawing between 17 feet and 18 feet of water have been detained two or three months after they were loaded on account of a succession of east winds occurring on the days of the high spring-tides. About 1,100 yards above the outer bar was an inner bar, called the 9-feet bar, and stones. About 400 yards above the 9-feet bar the channel was abruptly reduced in width to 400 feet opposite the Low Lighthouse, the contracted channel being called the Narrows. Shields Harbour, about a mile and a half in length, which commences above the Narrows and extends to the high end of South Shields, opposite Whitehill Point, consisted of a comparatively narrow, tortuous, deep-water channel, with large shoals on either side dry at low water, some of which, the In-sand and Middle Ground on the south, and the Dortwick Sands on the north side of the harbour, extended from the shores to and beyond the middle of the river. It required very careful navigation to take a laden vessel out of Shields Harbour at high water (the only time possible) and keep clear of the shoals. The river, from Shields Harbour to Newcastle, was then B series of shoals, with a narrow and generally serpentine channel between and past them, through which vessels of about 15 feet draught could get up at high-water spring-tides, whilst at low water it was not an uncommon occurrence for small river steamers, drawing from 3 feet to 4 feet of water, to be aground in their passage between Shields and Newcastle for two or three hours for want of depth of water. Above bridge, from Newcastle to Newburn, the river was navigable for keels and small craft alone, and for these only at the time of high water.”

All this is now changed. Great docks have been constructed; the river has been straightened; it has been deepened as far upwards as Elswick works for the passage of the largest ironclads; the Tyne Piers have been finished, and there is a deep-water channel at all states of the tide. The length of the superstructure of the North Pier is 3,059 feet, and that of the South Pier 5,317 feet. The width of the entrance between the pier-heads is 1,300 feet, and the depth of water in the channels is about 50 feet at high-water spring-tides. As originally proposed, the piers were to terminate in 15 feet of water, and, compared with the length subsequently decided upon, were to be comparatively short.

In 1859, however, when it was projected to make the Tyne a national harbour of refuge, new and extended designs were submitted by Mr. Walker, by which the piers were to be carried out to a depth of 30 feet at low spring-tides, or a length of 2,900 feet for the North, and 5,400 feet for the South Pier.

In 1864 Mr. Lawton’s contract expired, and the Commissioners decided to continue themselves the further extension of the piers. It was at this juncture that the Commission permanently secured the services of Mr. Messent, as acting Engineer for the Piers, he having till then been resident engineer from the commencement of the work. From that time to their completion in 1895 he had the piers under his particular charge. His initiative and technical knowledge, supplemented by an unwearying attention to the details of supervision, proved that he was the right man for the post.

In addition to the construction of the Tyne Piers Mr. Messent designed the lighthouses at their heads and the Groyne lighthouse at the entrance to the river. He also designed the mammoth cranes for extending the masonry superstructure of the piers without staging, and a concrete mixer which gave excellent results. The improvements in the river were chiefly effected by dredging, the plant used being most extensive and powerful. The quantity of material dredged from the bed of the river up to the end of 1896 amounted to more than 99 million tons. Important results of the improvement and deepening of the river have been the increase and development of shipbuilding on the banks of the Tyne and the reduction of the height of land floods.

Mr. Messent died in London on the 5th April, 1897. He had for some time been in indifferent health, and exposure during the previous winter, while engaged in inspecting a serious breach in the North Pier, aggravated the complaint from which he suffered.

In addition to his duties on the Tyne, Mr. Messent was engaged frequently as a witness before Parliamentary Committees and as arbitrator or consulting engineer in connection with important works, among which may be mentioned the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, Aberdeen Pier and Graving Dock, Swansea Harbour, Cardiff Docks, Port Talbot Docks, the Ribble Navigation, the Aire and Calder Navigation and the Lower Thames Navigation.

Mr. Messent was elected a Member on the 5th February, 1861. Although he never contributed a Paper to the Proceedings he frequently took part in discussions on subjects relating to river, harbour and sea-works.


1897 Obituary [2]



1897 Obituary [3][4]

"MR. PHILIP JOHN MESSENT, "the maker of the Tyne River," as he has .been aptly termed, died in London on the 5th inst., at the age of 67 years, to the regret of a wide circle of friends. He had come to the city to consult a specialist as to a painful internal malady from which he bad bet:m suffering for some time, and somewhat unexpectedly passed away at his sister's house in Westbourne Park.

Mr. Messent was born in 1830 - December 7 -at Dover. He was educated at Whickham, and served the regular period of pupilage as an engineer partly with Mr. Joseph Gibbs and partly with Messrs. Walker, Burges, and Cooper, a well-known firm in London in those days, being engaged at Harwich Harbour and Dovercourt Lighthouse.

He was next engaged for two years as resident engineer during the construction, and until the completion, of the Yarmouth Bridge, and then in 1855 he commenced, under his old firm of Walker, Burges, and Cooper, a connection with the improvement of the Tyne which may be said to have constituted his life work. He was for the six months engaged on the original survey for the new piers, &c., and when the works were sanctioned became resident, and practically responsible, engineer, and has continued actively engaged on the Tyne through all these years.

Some suggestion of the extent of the work carried out is found when the river to-day is compared with that prior to 1860. Improvements antecedent to this latter date were confined to dredging on a small scale, and to groynes and training walls thrown out into the river. A bar extending about 800ft. west to east at the river mouth gives at spring tides 21 ft. and 6ft. at high and low water respectively, with 600 ft. width of channel, but a little higher up the channel was contracted to 400 ft. Shields Harbour, about 1 1/2 miles long, was a narrow tortuous channel of fairly deep water, but with large shoals, and from this point to Newcastle there was a narrow, serpentine channel with many shoals, so that a vessel drawing 15 ft. could only pass at great risk. A dock of 55 acres of water area, with 24 ft. depth over the sill at high water of spring tides (the Northumberland Dock), was nearing completion when young Messent first went to Tyneside. His work was the construction of those piers right along the whole course of the river, whereby the width of channel at the narrowest point has been increased to 670 ft., while to Newcastle there is depth for the greatest of ships.

In the 20 earlier years of this work, 1860-80, over 60 million tons were dredged, the plant used along costing 300,000l., and Mr. Messent was practically his own contractor as well as engineer. An old stone bridge at Newcastle, which was an obstruction to the tide and navigation, was replaced by the swing bridge with openings of 104 ft., a dangerous bend at Bill Point removed, Northumberland Dock deepened, and a wharf of 1100 ft. constructed along the river front and staithes from which 800 to 1000 tons of coal are easily loaded in an hour were put up at intervals.

The new dock, now known as the Albert Edward was commenced in 1874. It is of 24 acres, with a depth at high water spring tide of 30 ft., the length of quays inside the dock being 2600 ft., and fronting the river 900 ft. ; but one could only give an adequate idea of Mr. Messent's works by describing the whole Tyne River and docks, and that has already been done. Reference, however, ought to be made to the Tynemouth Breakwater, an excellent piece of work. Mr. Messent became sole engineer for the Tyne Improvement Commissioners on the death, in 1882, of Mr. J. F. Ure, the consulting engineer, and since then he has been steadily improving the port in every detail, adding appliances for the rapid loading of coal and iron the staple products of the districts.

Mr. Messent was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He was frequently consulted by corporations and companies on dock, harbour, and hydraulic works, not only in this country, but also in the colonies. It is only due to his skill, experience, and rectitude that his services were much in demand as an arbitrator or referee in important disputes. He was a highly respected Tynesider. He was married twice, and leaves five daughters and two sons - one, Mr. P. G. Messent, the civil engineer to the Bombay Port and Harbour Trust, and the other, Mr. F . E. Messent, a solicitor in Newcastle."


1897 Obituary[5]

"DEATH OF MR. PHILIP JOHN MESSENT.-We regret to learn as we are going to press of the death, after a short illness, of Mr. John Philip Messent engineer to the River Tyne commissioners. As such he was responsible for the extensive improvements carried out on the Tyne and. at Shields Harbour, involving an expenditure of millions of money. We hope next week to speak of his career at greater length."



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