John Smeaton
introduction  •  early years  •  instrument making  •  bridges  •  Royal Society  •  water wheels & mill works  • inland waterways & fen drainage  •  lighthouses  •  steam engines  •  harbours  •  practice & legacy  •  family & final years  •  selected works & papers  •  sources
Inland waterways and fen drainage
Smeaton's first civil engineering consultancy concerned the drainage of Lochar Moss, near Dumfries, in 1754 when he was 30 and had just begun designing full size windmills. His proposals for Lochar Moss were not implemented. However, he went on to design three major fen drainage schemes and five inland waterway navigation schemes, the most impressive of which is the Forth & Clyde Canal, crossing Scotland east to west.
Requirements for land drainage and inland navigation were, and often still are, bound up with the competing needs of land users. Farmers wanted low-lying areas drained for agriculture but needed water for irrigation. People needed drinking water, millers regarded rivers as power sources and travellers and manufacturers used waterways for transport.
In the first half of the 18th century, continental engineers dominated hydraulics research and Smeaton was familiar with their work through books. To learn more, he visited what is now Belgium and Holland in June/July 1755. He landed at Dunkirk and travelled — mostly by canal — to Ostende, Bruges, Rotterdam, the Hague, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht and more. He also saw eminent scientist Prof. Petrus van Musschenbroek (1692-1761), inventor of the Leyden jar. Smeaton inspected dykes, sluices, harbours, docks and mills. He used what he learned to augment his own work on gauging flows in rivers and open channels, and on calculating discharges through sluices.
October and November 1757 found Smeaton surveying for the Calder & Hebble Navigation. He was appointed Engineer on 25th November 1759, but the scheme suffered from disputes among his employers, and on 31st January 1765 Smeaton was discharged in favour of James Brindley (1716-72).
In October 1767, an exceptionally high flood damaged the works and Smeaton was invited back. He resumed his post, apparently with no ill feeling. Further floods in 1768 disrupted progress but the scheme was completed in September 1770. In 1771, Smeaton advised replacing Brindley's pair of locks near Salterhebble with two single locks, for greater efficiency. This was done in 1783.
A canal across Scotland had been suggested first in the 17th century at a time when there were few purpose-built canals in Britain. When the idea came up again, Smeaton, already reporting on navigation on the River Clyde, was the obvious person to consult. He submitted initial details for the Forth & Clyde Canal on 1st March 1764, with additions on 22nd December. Funding was to be a problem throughout the project, however.
The canal runs from the Firth of Forth at what is now Grangemouth to the Firth of Clyde at Port Dundas, linking the North and Irish Seas. Its route is largely as proposed by Smeaton, with additions at each end to satisfy competing factions. Work began in June 1768. At his own request and to reduce the budget, Smeaton left the project in September 1773. Construction had reached Glasgow by 1777 when work stopped for lack of funding.
By 1785, the government had raised the money and work could continue. Smeaton was asked to return but declined saying, "it will be better to make a fresh beginning with a fresh engineer". Robert Whitworth (1734-99) was appointed and the canal was completed in 1791, although it opened in 1790.
Smeaton's three fen drainage schemes are located in adjacent parts of the flood-prone low-lying areas east and south of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, bordered by the Rivers Ouse (north), Trent (east) and Idle (south).
In 1762, for the first of these, Smeaton reported on options for draining the 1,720h Potteric Carr, which lies just south of Doncaster and is these days crossed by the M18. The works included a new bridge over the River Torne at Rossington and 27.5km of drainage cuts, completed in three phases: 1768, 1772-74 and 1774-77.
Parts of the 2,020h Adlingfleet Level, between the Rivers Trent and Ouse, were frequently under water. Smeaton visited the area in 1755 and in 1764. His report of 3rd December 1764 gave two options for Adlingfleet Drainage. The more expensive option was adopted, enabling the sluice gates to remain open and draining for longer. The main works were finished in 1769, with completion of the 29km of drains in 1772.
The River Don once flowed along the east side of Adlingfleet Level but was diverted by Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683) in the early 17th century as part of his drainage project for Hatfield Chase (Hatfield Moors east of Doncaster). However, the 6,880h of Hatfield Chase were still subject to winter floods. In the third of his fen drainage schemes, Smeaton suggested remedial works in September 1764 and October 1776. Phased construction began in summer 1776 and was completed in 1789.
While working at Adlingfleet, Smeaton was also working on the River Lee Navigation (1767-71) and the Ure Navigation and Ripon Canal (1767-72).
The River Lee runs for some 50km, from Hereford to the Thames in East London. It was much in need of improvement. By 1771, approximately 18km of Smeaton's scheme of cuts and at least 12 locks had been constructed, supervised by Thomas Yeoman. Smeaton advised on further improvements in 1771, 1779 and 1782. Meanwhile in Yorkshire, work was underway on making the upper Ouse and River Ure navigable, with a canal branch to Ripon.
Smeaton's last river work was the Aire & Calder Navigation (1775-79), which links to his earlier Calder & Hebble Navigation. Originally intended as improvement works, by 1774 the scheme had become a hybrid of cuts and locks on the River Aire and a bypass canal at Selby. The work was supervised by William Jessop (1745-1814).
Smeaton was consulted on many navigation and canal schemes that were then taken forward by others, often by Jessop, who was to be the leading river and canal engineer of the next generation.
introduction  •  early years  •  instrument making  •  bridges  •  Royal Society  •  water wheels & mill works  • inland waterways & fen drainage  •  lighthouses  •  steam engines  •  harbours  •  practice & legacy  •  family & final years  •  selected works & papers  •  sources
All items by John Smeaton  •  Everything built ... 1724 - 1792
main references  BDCE1, DNB, JS
painting of Smeaton  courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers

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John Smeaton
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Smeaton's sketch for the Adlingfleet Drainage scheme. The River Humber is to the north. The main works were finished in 1769, with completion of the 29km of drains in 1772.