1761 – 1821
John Rennie (1761-1821), civil engineer; prolific designer of canals, aqueducts, bridges, harbours and dockyards
John Rennie's work on canals, aqueducts, bridges and dockyards mark him as one of the greatest engineers of his age.
Rennie was born near East Linton, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. He played truant from school to watch Andrew Meikle, the local millwright and inventor of the threshing machine, and began to work there when he was 12, while continuing his education. He studied at Edinburgh University and then worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt , manufacturer of steam engines.
When he was 29, he moved to London and set up his own engineering business. His first works were the Lancaster Canal, the Kennet & Avon Canal, the Royal Military Canal, and improving the drainage of the Norfolk fens. He also designed bridges in stone and cast iron with daringly wide arches - like Kelso Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge, completed by his son George after his death. His docks and harbours included Grimsby, Leith and the London Docks. But his largest projects were for the Royal Navy as it built the infrastructure for its century of world domination, including Sheerness Dockyard and the great breakwater at Plymouth. Rennie also gave advice on novel maritime structures such as steam-powered dredgers, diving bells and the Bell Rock lighthouse.
1761 Born in Phantassie, Haddingtonshire, Scotland on 7th June
1773 Age: 12 Worked with Andrew Meikle, engineer and millwright
1775 Age: 14 Attended Dunbar High School
1779 Age: 18 Set up in own right as a millwright
1780 Age: 19 Matriculated at Edinburgh University
1783 Age: 22 Completed his studies at Edinburgh University
1784 Age: 23 Employed by Boulton and Watt to manage their London business. Erected engines for the Albion Mills at Blackfriars Bridge
1786 Age: 25 Albion Mills opened for business
1788 Age: 26 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 28th January
1790 Age: 29 Married Martha Ann Mackintosh. Appointed engineer to the Kennet and Avon Canal
1798 Age: 37 Elected Fellow of Royal Society
1800 Age: 39 Appointed engineer to the London docks
1803 Age: 42 Appointed engineer to the East India docks with Ralph Walker
1803- Age: 46- Collaborated with Robert Stevenson on design of Bell Rock Lighthouse
1811 Age: 50 Construction of Plymouth Sound breakwater began. Construction of Waterloo Bridge began
1814 Age: 53 Construction of Southwark Bridge began
1817 Age: 56 Declined knighthood on opening of Waterloo Bridge
1821 Age: 60 Died of liver disease at Stamford Street, Southwark on 4th October. Buried in St Paul's Cathedral
Rennie's greatest legacy lies in the many enduring works of civil engineering he created, including:
Canals: Lancaster Canal, Ulverstone Canal, Crinan Canal, Kennet and Avon Canal, Grand Trunk Canal (Leek Branch), Aberdeenshire Canal, Croydon Canal, Royal Canal Ireland, Royal Military Canal, Grand Western Canal;
Docks and Harbours: Grimsby Haven, London Docks, East Dock Leith, East India Docks London, Humber Dock, East India Dock Greenock, Margate Harbour, Howth Harbour, Berwick Harbour, West Dock Leith, Plymouth Breakwater, Sheerness Dockyard, Pembroke Dockyard, Deptford Dockyard, Kingstown Harbour, Chatham Dockyard dry dock;
Bridges: Wolsely Bridge, Kelso Bridge, Radford Bridge, Town Bridge Boston, Musselburgh Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Lucknow Bridge, Southwark Bridge,
John Rennie. C.T.G. Boucher, 1963.
Bridge across the Atlantic. W. Reyburn, 1972.
Lives of the Engineers Samuel Smiles, 1861
Arched bridges and their Builders. Ted Ruddock, 1979.
Rennie reports Archives of Institution of Civil Engineers
John Rennie by P Cross-Rudkin in Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers Vol 1; 1500-1830. Skempton et al (eds), 2002
Memorial to John Rennie, Civil Engineer at East Linton, East Lothian, erected 1936, relocated 1981
There are 16 portraits of John Rennie in the National Portrait Gallery
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)