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George Fosbery Lyster

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George Fosbery Lyster.
1866. River Mersey approaches and ferry.
1873. Proposed Docks at Liverpool.

George Fosbery Lyster (1821-1899).

M. Inst. C.E, F.R S., chief engineer to the Liverpool Dock Board.

1897 Retired. [1]

Died 1899 from pneumonia, aged 76.[2]

1900 Obituary [3]

GEORGE FOSBERY LYSTER, born on the 7th September, 1821, at Mount Talbot, Co. Roscommon, Ireland, was the third son of Colonel Anthony Lyster, formerly of the 23rd Light Dragoons, and of Lysterfield and Bushey Park in that county; his mother was a daughter of George Fosbery, of Clorane, Co. Limerick.

The subject of this notice was educated at King William’s College, Isle of Man, and at a private school. Although he was at one time marked out for the army, circumstances ultimately decided his selection of engineering as a profession. He served his pupilage under Mr. James Meadows Rendel, Past-President, and soon after its expiration was appointed by Government an Assistant Resident Engineer on the works for the improvement of the River Shannon, in Ireland, which position, after two years, he resigned to take a more important one in England, under his former chief, Mr. Rendel, with whom he remained until that gentleman’s death.

Subsequent to Mr. Lyster’s return to England, at that period when railway schemes were rife, he was engaged in parliamentary, railway, harbour and dock engineering.

On the commencement of the great harbour of refuge, carried out by Government at Holyhead, he was appointed Assistant Resident Engineer and, made the original survey, etc.

On the termination, in 1853, of seven years’ work at Holyhead, he was appointed, by the Government of Guernsey, Resident Engineer to the new harbour works at St. Peter Port then about to be commenced under the direction of his chief, and in 1856, on the death of Mr. Rendel, he was appointed to succeed that gentleman as Engineer-in-Chief of those works. The old harbour consisted of two rude, dry-built masonry piers enclosing a tidal area of some 48 acres in extent, sufficient for the accommodation of coasting vessels, but not for the growing steam trade of the port. Plans for its enlargement, submitted by Mr. Rendel, were accepted by the local Government, but soon after the commencement of the works, important alterations were proposed and carried out. They comprised wide esplanades on each side of the old harbour, having a total length of 2,500 feet by 150 feet in width. From the extremities of these sprang two breakwaters, that on the south joining Castle Cornet with the mainland, and extending 500 feet east of it, or about 3,000 feet in all. The north arm extends 2,300 feet from the land, and at its extremity there are deep water berths used principally by the steamers plying from Southampton and Weymouth.

These works, which were carried out at a cost of upwards of £300,000, have proved eminently successful. The first and part of the second section of the works were carried out by contract, but on the failure of the contractor, Mr. Lyster took the matter in his own hands, and under his able administration, the results proved so satisfactory that the Government of the Island entrusted the completion of the work to him without contractors.

In 1861 Mr. Lyster was unanimously selected from a large number of candidates to occupy the important post of Engineer-in- Chief to the Liverpool and Birkenhead Dock Estate in succession to Mr. John Bernard Hartley. The father and predecessor of the latter - Mr. Jesse Hartley - may be said to have made the Liverpool Docks as they existed when Mr. Lyster took up his duties, while from the time of Mr. Lyster’s appointment as Engineer-in-Chief in 1861 until the beginning of 1897, when he resigned the position, the story of his career forms an important part of the history of the Liverpool Docks, including the Birkenhead Dock system and the Mersey Estuary, and is a continuous record of the execution of vast engineering works rendered necessary by the unceasing expansion of the trade of the port.

At the time of his appointment important works were in progress at the port, more particularly at Birkenhead, where the docks had been handed over in 1858 to the newly formed Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The docks could scarcely be said to be more than faintly outlined on the shores of the Wallasey Pool, a large tidal creek on the left bank of the river estuary, but great schemes had been authorized for the completion of the system, and the works were partly constructed to the designs of Mr. John B. Hartley. It fell to Mr. Lyster to complete those works, including the low-water basin, the Alfred Dock and northern entrances, the Morpeth branch dock and Morpeth 85-feet lock, together with the development of the whole system by the construction of graving docks, provision of sheds on the quays, warehouses, coal hoists and tips, cranes, railway accommodation, etc., the completion of the Woodside landing stage, 800 feet long, and a floating bridge giving access to the same at all times of the tide. The work carried out by Mr. Lyster at Birkenhead went far to make the present extensive system of dock accommodation there, which, whatever the merits of the design may be, gives facilities for a much larger trade than has yet sought to take advantage of it.

A noteworthy feature of the works are the grain warehouses on the north side of the East Float, which are capable of storing considerably over 200,000 quarters of grain. Westward of them were constructed about the same time another block- of warehouses known as the composite block, and these warehouses, situated on excellent quays, and with available ground about them, have become in recent years the centre of a very large milling trade, transferred in an extended form from similar works on the Lancashire side of the river. The three graving docks constructed by Mr. Lyster in 1864 and 1877 at the west end of the West Float are among the largest in the world.

On the Liverpool side of the river a somewhat extensive improvement in the Waterloo Dock and Prince’s Basin, lying immediately north of the Prince’s Dock, was commenced in 1863. Prince’s Basin was converted into a half-tide dock having river entrances, the sills of which were laid at a level somewhat below that of the lowest then existing at Liverpool. This half-tide dock formed the vestibule to the Prince’s Dock on its south side, and to two new docks on its north side, the East and West Waterloo Docks. The former has on three of its quays a group of grain warehouses of fireproof construction, capable of storing 200,000 quarters of wheat, and fitted with a complete system of hydraulic machinery for housing and distributing the grain. These, like the Birkenhead grain warehouses, have served their purpose Well to the present day. At the extreme south of the estate, about the year 1866, the Herculaneum Dock was constructed, its main purpose being to serve as a vestibule to two important graving docks constructed at the same time. Some extension of the dock accommodation at the north end was given by the construction of a second branch dock out of the Huskisson Dock in 1871, and by the enlargement of the Canada Half-tide Dock - now called the Brocklebank Dock - in 1872.

The strong desire of those interested in the approaches to the landing stages at Liverpool to have extensive improvements made in them, resulted in the obtaining of an Act of Parliament in1 871 for the closing of George’s Basin, which then projected from the river into the space lying between George’s Dock and Prince’s Dock, and the connecting of Prince’s stage with George’s stage by means of a new stage, from which a floating roadway led to the site of the old George’s Basin towards the town. These important works made the great Floating Landing Stage at Liverpool, a structure 2,063 feet long, with a minimum width of 80 feet, and with seven ordinary bridges 110 feet long, and one floating bridge 550 feet long, the slope of which is never greater than 1 in 20.

This work, however, vast and costly as it necessarily was, formed only a part of a much larger scheme of improvement of this the most important portion of the river frontage, at least from the point of view of passenger and goods traffic between Liverpool on the one side and its Cheshire suburbs and North Wales on the other. Mr. Lyster had early grasped the situation, and had years previously prepared schemes for vast improvements of the stege and docks in its vicinity. The time was not then ripe for the complete realisation of such plans, but some thirty years later, in 1896, an agreement between the Corporation of Liverpool and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board provided for the filling up of George’s Dock and the transfer of its site to the Corporation; and, no doubt, when the plans are developed they will include continuations of some of the principal streets down to the river.

In the Session of 1873, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board applied to Parliament for powers to make a more important extension of dock accommodation than any made up to that date. For some considerable time previously the docks were in a very congested condition, but the opinions of those in authority were divided as to what form and extent the new accommodation should take. Mr. Lyster was requested to consider and report as to the capabilities of the Mersey Dock Estate, in its then condition, to meet the probable requirements of the great and increasing commerce o€ the port, and as to the alterations or additions which might be requisite for that purpose, or might appear to be called for on a comprehensive view of the general policy of the Trust. He gave the fullest consideration to the question, and submitted to the Board plans for extensions in three localities, viz., north of the Canada Basin, south of the Brunswick Dock, and east of Regent Road, in the vicinity of Sandon Dock.

The main part of the land for each of these extensive schemes had been acquired by the foresight of the Board some considerable time previously. The expenditure of large sums of money was involved, and faith was required in the extension of commerce generally, and particularly of the trade of the port, but then, as always, Mr. Lyster had confidence in the future of Liverpool, and his opinion was that large schemes were demanded and warranted. It was ultimately decided to apply to Parliament for powers to carry out the northern and southern schemes at an estimated aggregate cost of £4,100,000. The powers sought by the Board were duly granted on the condition, however, that the rate of expenditure should not exceed half a million per annum, and the works were proceeded with simultaneously at the north and south ends of the estate. These works were fully described by Mr. Lyster in his Paper on cc Dock Extensions at Liverpool ” read before the Institution in 1890, so that it is not necessary to dwell upon them here in detail. A considerable portion of the northern works was completed in 1881, and on the 8th September of that year the Langton Dock, Branch Dock, and Graving Docks, and the Alexandra Dock were opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales, the day being observed as a general holiday. By the works carried out under the Act of 1873, a total water area of 110 acres, and a lineal quayage of over 6 miles, much of it covered with sheds of the most commodious description and providing deep water accommodation for the largest class of vessels then in existence, were added to the port.

While these extensions were being carried out, the provision of further deep water accommodation was demanded. As a temporary measure, Mr. Lyster applied to an extensive group of docks, which may be called the Southern Central group of docks at Liverpool, from George’s Dock to the Brunswick Dock inclusive, a system of maintaining an artificial level by the aid of pumps which he had adopted several years previously for the purpose of giving sufficient depth of water over the sills of the old Sandon Graving Docks to enable large modern vessels to dock there. An installation of powerful centrifugal pumps was provided near the river entrance to Coburg Dock, by means of which a large amount of water is pumped, immediately before and after high water, from the river into the Coburg Dock, and thence distributed to the docks north and south of it; this being done on all neap tides. During such tides the level of the water in the docks in question is thus maintained at such a depth as to allow vessels of the desired draught to use the docks. This has specially been of use to the important quays in the Queen’s Dock, the Wapping Dock, and the Albert Dock ; and thus at a moderate cost, something like %50,000, the usefulness of these docks has been, for the time, largely increased. A similar system was adopted in the case of the Birkenhead Docks.

This expedient, important as it was, seeing that it brought into better use about 80 acres and 150 acres of water space respectively at Liverpool and Birkenhead, did not suffice, however, to meet the growing wants of the trade.

In 1890 it was decided to make important alterations in the neighbourhood of the docks lying between the Canada and Sandon Docks, with the view of giving additional and more convenient berthage there, and in 1891 Parliamentary authority was given for the expenditure of 51,600,000 on such works. These works, on the site of docks constructed some thirty years before, presented enormous difficulties, which were increased by the fact that no great part of the existing accommodation could be withdrawn from the trade at one time; yet they were steadily persevered with, and brought into use as finished. Canada Lock was lowered to a depth of 14 feet below Old Dock Sill, and lengthened from 500 feet to 600 feet, while the width of the lock, which in the days of wide paddle-steamers had been fixed by Mr. Hartley at 100 feet to allow of such vessels entering and leaving the Canada Dock, was retained. The great trans-Atlantic steamer of the White Star Line, the “Oceanic,” 705.5 feet long over all, and over 68 feet beam, has recently entered the docks by this entrance with the greatest ease. The number of vessels entering and leaving the docks by way of this basin is very large; for instance, on the P.M. tide of the 21st September, 1899, as many as 36 vessels, for the most part steamers of an aggregate tonnage of 58,442 tons, together with 298 flats and other small vessels, passed through it, inwards and outwards.

Qther portions of this scheme have since been opened, viz., the Canada Branch Dock, 1,100 feet in length and 300 feet in width, and a new 90-feet passage between the Canada and Huskisson Docks. The main entrances situated on the site of the Wellington Half-tide Dock are not yet completed.

It will thus be seen that Mr. Lyster made vast additions to the accommodation of the port. On his arrival there were a total water area in the Liverpool and Birkenhead Docks of 334 acres, and a quayage of 204 miles: on his retirement a water area of 531 acres and a quayage of 34 miles respectively. The deepest sill when he commenced work was 72 feet below the local datum, Old Dock Sill, giving, say, 172 feet at high water neap tides, and although the maintenance of deep sills clear from obstruction in the muddy waters of the Mersey must necessarily be a costly and troublesome process, he gradually deepened the sills of the new works to meet the requirements of trade, so that in his latest designs, now for the most part completed, the sills were intended to have a depth of 284 feet at high water neap tides. They have, however, since been actually constructed 2 feet lower to give a depth of 303 feet at high water neap tides.

While it is true that the permanency of docks at all important ports, particularly Liverpool, the great gate of the west, has been and is constantly threatened by the immense developments in shipping called for by the expansion of national commerce, and rendered possible by the use of iron, and, in recent years, of steel as material for the construction of ships and their machinery, yet there is probably no class of engineering work in which it is less permissible to build cheaply, in the bad sense of that word, than in Dock Engineering. Fully alive to the frequent necessity for changes, eager to meet and to anticipate them, Mr. Lyster, while paying due regard to economy, yet considered it the best policy to build solidly, and his works therefore rank for stability in the highest clam The money expended on works forms some gauge of their character and magnitude, and it has been said that during the time Mr. Lyster was the controlling head of his department, he was responsible for an expenditure of approximately 20 millions sterling, and this for the most part under his personal supervision without the aid of contractors.

While the making and re-making of docks may be said to have been the business of Mr. Lyster’s life, the part he bore in respect of certain other works is also interesting. Amongst these are the Liverpool Overhead Railway, and the dredging of the Mersey Bar. As the line of docks along the Mersey shore at Liverpool extended, and particularly when the north and south ends of the Dock Estate became the site of the principal docks, the insufficiency of the old slow-running horse omnibuses, which used the lines of docks railway, became sorely apparent, and in the year 1877 Mr. Lyster designed and submitted to the Board a scheme, followed by others, for giving better accommodation by means of a railway elevated above the level of the ordinary street, there being no space available for quick traffic at the street level, even if the cross traffic between town and docks had permitted it being carried on. The last plan which he prepared was one for an electric overhead railway on iron columns, made in the same form as that since carried out, but having a greater number of stations, these being in Mr. Lyster’s design twenty-three in number.

Complete plans and specifications were submitted to the board, who finally decided, however, in view of their responsibilities in the administration of dock affairs proper, that they ought not to undertake that of a passenger railway. An arrangement was therefore made with a company, who undertook the work and carried it out by their own engineers, Sir Douglas Fox and the late Mr. J. H. Greathead. An account of this railway appeared in the Proceedings of the Institution in 1894.

No record of Mr. Lyster’s life would be complete which did not refer to the part he bore in opposing in Parliament the application for powers to construct the Manchester Ship Canal. As the principal official of the public trust to which is confided the safeguarding of the physical advantages of the Mersey Estuary, he opposed step by step schemes which, in his opinion, were likely to be fraught with danger to the port. Space does not admit of reference here in detail to the various plans and modifications proposed in three successive sessions of Parliament, but it is of interest to note that the general line of the lower portion of the canal eventually adopted was that suggested by Mr. Lyster in lieu of a low-water channel trained down the centre of the estuary as first proposed by the Company.

The question of the deepening of the bar of the; entrance channel to the Mersey is one to which Mr. Lyster had to give very close attention, and previously to 1889, in which year certain experimental works were authorised, he had studied and on several occasions reported on the subject. The depth of water at the bar of the Queen’s Channel at low water of spring tides was then generally about 10 feet or 11 feet, and as this gave about 30 feet at high water neap tides, and about 40 feet at high water springs, practically any vessel could enter or leave the port for several hours during every twelve, and for a great number of slow vessels the inconvenience of waiting did not appear a serious matter. With the increase in size and speed of steamers, however, the matter assumed increasing importance, and in the year above named, Mr. Lyster recommended that an experiment in deepening the bar by sand-pump dredgers should be made. This was done in 1890, and the experiment gave such promise of success that it was followed by the construction of the 3,000-ton dredger “Brancker,” designed by Mr. A. G. Lyster, son of the subject of this memoir; and this vessel and the “G. B. Crow,” a sister ship, have effectually lowered the bar, so that there is now 27 feet on it at dead low water of spring tides.

Whilst a considerable portion of Mr. Lyster’s career may be said to be geographically limited to the comparatively small space around the mouth of the Mersey, that space contained within it every variety of marine engineering, so that he has left a record of dock and marine work probably unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries. The nature of his official duties necessitated the concentration of his energies at home; nevertheless, he kept in close touch with the profession all over the world, and his opinions on various great engineering problems were eagerly sought and highly valued.

Mr. Lyster was an indefatigable worker, and in his early days in surveying, levelling, and as a draughtsman, he was exceptionally quick and proficient. He possessed a strong self-reliant nature with an intuitive capacity for recognizing the essential necessities of a scheme which, combined with his fertility of resource and originality of design, enabled him to achieve many notable successes. Socially he was a most agreeable and pleasant companion, with a warmhearted and genial disposition that endeared him to a very large circle of friends. As a chief he was loved and respected by all, from the highest official on his staff to the humblest workman with whom he came in contact, always taking a kind and sympathetic interest in all under him, never finding fault without just cause, and taking every opportunity to praise merit. It was said by one of the oldest members of his staff that when he had occasion to censure he did it so pleasantly that the sting was taken out of the reproof.

From the commencement of the year 1890 he delegated the more arduous portion of his official work to his son and assistant, Mr. Anthony G. Lyster, and in the beginning of 1897 he resigned all active work in Liverpool, and thenceforward passed most of his time at his country residence near Ruthin, North Wales, or in London. On his way to London from Liverpool in May, 1899, he caught a chill which developed into pneumonia, and resulted in his death on the 11th of that month.

Mr. Lyster was elected a Member of the Institution on the 7th of December, 1858, and a Member of Council on the 2nd of June, 1896.

1899 Obituary [4]

"...passed away on Thursday, the 11th inst., one of many recent victims to acute pneumonia. Although Mr. Lyster had reached a ripe age, until his fatal seizure he had enjoyed excellent health, and his friends felt justified in expecting years of life for him. Leaving his country residence in the Vale of Clwyd, North Wales, he, a fortnight ago, went to Liverpool and look a great interest, though no active participation, in the trial of the action brought unsuccessfully by the owners of the steamship Fulda against the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the owners of the graving dock in which that vessel met with an accident. On his way thence to London he appears to have caught a chill which brought his life to a close.

Born towards the close of the first quarter of the century, and in due time becoming a pupil of the late James Meadows Rendel, F.R.S., and sometime President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the subject of our sketch has borne an active and important part in the great engineering works of the past half century, and particularly in dock and harbour works. After..."[More].

1899 Obituary [5]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1897/07/23
  2. The Engineer 1899/05/19, p493.
  3. 1900 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  4. The Engineer 1899/05/19, p497.
  5. Engineering 1899 Jan-Jun: Index: General Index