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James Leslie

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James Leslie (1801-1889)

1833 James Leslie of Dundee, a Civil Engineer, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1865 Messrs. James Leslie and Andrew Duncan presented a report on "The Proposed Removal of the Weir at the Hutchesontown Bridge" in Glasgow. This considered the effect such a change would have on the navigation of the river[2]


1890 Obituary [3]

JAMES LESLIE, born at Largo, Fifeshire, on the 25th of September, 1801, was the son of Alexander Leslie, architect and builder there.

He received the first part of his education at the parish schools of Largo and Newburn, and afterwards at Mackay’s Academy, at Edinburgh.

In 1815, and for two subsequent years, he attended the Edinburgh University ; his uncle, afterwards Sir John Leslie, being then Professor of Mathematics, and subsequently of Natural Philosophy there.

In 1818 young James Leslie was apprenticed to Mr. W. H. Playfair, the well-known architect, who was at that time engaged in the erection of the Edinburgh University buildings, and remained with him till 1824.

Although Mr. Leslie did not follow up the profession of an architect, his early training in this line enabled him, from time to time, to furnish with acceptance designs for public buildings, the most important of which are the existing Custom House at Dundee, and Wood's Hospital at Largo. Mr. Leslie early turned his attention to engineering, and in 1824 was taken into the office of Messrs. G. and J. Rennie, Civil Engineers, London with whom he remained about four years. During that time the greater portion of London Bridge was built, and the bridge over the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

He was also engaged under Messrs. Rennie with work in connection with Sheerness Docks, Plymouth Breakwater, Chemillpoint Victualling Yard, West India Docks, and other extensive works.

Mr. Leslie was, in 1828, appointed by the Leith Dock land Harbour Commissioners as Clerk of Works, to carry out, under the direction of Mr. Chapman, Civil Engineer, of Newcastle, the extension of the East Pier of Leith; and he was subsequently employed by the Navy Board to superintend the construction of the West Breakwater of Leith, also designed by Mr. Chapman.

While thus engaged, Mr. Leslie began to practise on his own account, and among the first works he carried out were the construction of a wet dock at Dysart, and a coal-shipping pier at St. David's, on the Forth.

In 1832 he was appointed Resident Engineer for the Dundee Harbour Works - an appointment unsolicited and unexpected; and almost simultaneously, he was elected to a similar post at Sunderland, which of course he could not accept. He remained at Dundee till 1846 ; and while there, along with many other important works, he carried out the construction of Earl Gray's Dock, designed by Mr. John Gibb, of Aberdeen, Mr. Telford having originally reported on the whole scheme of improving the Harbour of Dundee.

While resident at Dundee, Mr. Leslie carried out a further extension of the East Pier at Leith, under the direction of Mr. James Walker, Past President Inst. C.E., and also designed and executed the wet dock at Montrose, and harbour works at Arbroath, Kirkcaldy, and various other places. He also constructed locks for the Monkland Canal, Glasgow, and a handsome bridge across the River Leven, in Fife. I

n conjunction with Mr. Jardine, the Engineer of the Edinburgh Water-Works, he, in 1836, prepared the first water-scheme for supplying Dundee from the Monikie district; but the powers of the Act for this having been allowed to lapse, he was again similarly engaged in 1844.

In l846 Mr. Leslie removed to Edinburgh, and shortly after that he succeeded Mr. Jardine as Engineer to the Edinburgh Water Company, to take charge of their existing works, and also to carry out new works then in progress, and others under a Bill then in Parliament, in conjunction with Messrs. Rendel and Beardmore.

In 1849-50, he designed and executed a plan for taking empty boats afloat up an inclined plane at Blackhill, for the Monkland Canal, Glasgow, thereby saving both time, labour, and much water, as compared with the usual method of lockage. This ingenious expedient, which in some measure may be said to have foreshadowed the recently projected ship railways, has been much admired; and in recent years engineers from America and the Continent have visited Scotland to inspect it, with the view of adopting the principle at home.

In 1852, Mr. Leslie, in conjunction with Mr. J. M. Rendel and Mr. Mackain, was Engineer for a scheme for supplying Glasgow from Loch Lubnaig on behalf of the Glasgow Water Company. This scheme, however, did not pass. The Bill was keenly opposed by the Corporation of Glasgow, who shortly after that took over the control of the waterworks from the Company. They in their turn promoted and carried out the project of supplying Glasgow from Loch Katrine, which had originally been suggested as a desirable scheme by the late Professor Rankine, who, in conjunction with Mr. John Thompson, was the first to realise the important fact that, by tunnelling through the intervening watershed, the water of Loch Katrine could be conveniently introduced into Glasgow.

The first of the more important works carried through by Mr. Leslie after his appointment in 1845 as Engineer to the Edinburgh Water Company, by which the Pentlands were drawn upon to provide Edinburgh with water, was that which involved the construction of the Torduff, Clubbiedean, Bonally, and Loganlea reservoirs, and the heightening of the embankment of Glencorse reservoir, originally constructed by Mr. Jardine in 1820.

In 1856, under Mr. Leslie’s care, the Bill for appropriating the Colzium springs was carried through Parliament, and under its provisions the reservoir of Harperrig, for providing compensation to the water of Leith, was constructed ; and in 1863, a further extension from this district was carried out under his superintendence, when the Crosswood springs were utilized, which gave the city an additional million gallons of water per day.

In 1868, the question of water-supply in Edinburgh entered upon a very acute stage, and in the following year a keen Parliamentary fight occurred, connected with the taking over of the old Water Company’s undertaking by the Corporation.

In 1869, the Corporation were successful in taking over the business of the old Water Company, but they lost the works portion of the Bill, which that year was thrown out on Standing Orders. The newly-constituted Water-Trust elected Mr. Leslie Consulting Engineer; and at the same time appointed Mr. J. W. Stewart - who, along with Mr. Bateman, had been associated with the St. Mary’s Loch Bill - Resident Engineer.

Mr. Leslie was thereafter appointed to report on all the available sources of additional supply for the city, which had already been reported on by Mr. Stewart. The Trustees having received Mr. Leslie’s report, again adopted the St. Mary’s Loch scheme, and instructed Mr. Stewart again to prepare the necessary plans. A Bill was accordingly lodged for that purpose. Differing from Mr. Stewart as to the probable cost, Mr. Leslie refused to allow his name to appears engineer of the scheme, and, after having been keenly fought in both Houses of Parliament, the St. Mary’s Loch scheme was rejected by the Committee of the House of Lords.

After the next municipal elections in the city, Mr. Leslie became sole engineer of the Trust ; and in 1873 he and Mr. Hawksley, Past President Inst. C.E., with whom he had for many years been associated in the promotion of water-schemes, and for whom he always entertained the greatest regard and respect, were deputed to report as to the best means of obtaining additional supplies for Edinburgh. They issued a joint report, recommending that the necessary additional water-supply for the city should be obtained from the Moorfoot Hills ; and this scheme having been approved of by a plebiscitum of the citizens, the Bill was passed by Parliament during the following year. Under that great scheme, Edinburgh obtained an additional supply amounting to over 8,000,000 gallons per day, and with such a satisfactory result that the Trustees have since, and now are able to distribute the water to the citizens, at a much lower rate than was charged by the old Water Company.

Mr. Leslie was also Engineer of the Lintrathen water scheme, under which Dundee obtained from that district an additional daily supply of 8,000,000 gallons of water; and in the promotion of this scheme his hands were materially strengthened by the co-operation of Mr. Hawksley. Mr. Leslie’s advice was frequently sought in reference to the construction of reservoir embankments, and at the time of the Sheffield catastrophe, his specification was frequently quoted as one which might safely be followed in the reconstruction of the works, as well as in reference to the formation of reservoir embankments of equal magnitude both in India and Australia.

As Engineer of the Paisley Waterworks from 1854, he superintended the supply for that growing centre of industrial life, first from the classic braes of Gleniffer, and subsequently from the Rowbank district, and from time t,o time additions have been made to these works by his firm (J. and A. Leslie and Reid), by the latest of which, under an Act of Parliament passed in 1881, a large additional supply is being made available, the works connected with which are not yet completed.

Mr. Leslie was connected with the improvement works of most of the towns of Scotland, and acted as engineer, in conjunction with his partners, for the water-supply of Dunfermline, Berwick-on- Tweed, Dunbar, Peterhead, Dalry, Thurso, Irvine, Bathgate, Kirkwall, Galashiels, Bothwell, Hawick, Peebles, St. Andrews, and many others. He was also engineer for various harbour works, including those of Easdale, Stanraer, and West Wemyss.

Mr. Leslie had a reputation as an engineer which was not confined to this country, his advice having in 1861 been sought in regard to extensive reclamation works at Bilbao, in Spain; and on a subsequent visit to that country he had the satisfaction of seeing the result of his scheme having been carried into effect, and numbers of houses built upon land over which the sea had formerly flowed. He was consulted about floating docks at Cadiz, and by the Indian Government as to the improvement of the navigation of the River Godavery by means of inclined planes, on the principle formerly adopted by him on the Monkland Canal.

In l862 Mr. Leslie was appointed by the Home Office, along with Messrs. W. Ffennell and Frederick Eden, a Scottish Salmon Fishery Commissioner, an office which he held until the institution of the present Scottish Fishery Board in 1882, the duties appertaining to which he performed to the satisfaction of the authorities, by whom he was complimented on the conclusion of his term of office. The duties of the commissioners were to fix the boundaries of the districts of every salmon river in Scotland, the divisions between the upper and lower proprietors, and the limits of the various estuaries; also to frame by-laws for the regulation of the fisheries. Much of this work was not only difficult, but involved no small amount of fatigue, and even hardship, the greater part of it having to be executed in winter, and in great haste, and often in very inaccessible districts, and without the assistance of reliable maps. Mr. Leslie's sound knowledge on all engineering matters, and his acknowledged integrity, led to his being frequently employed as an arbitrator in important cases of dispute, both in Scotland and elsewhere.

He was well acquainted with the leading engineers of his time - Telford, the Rennies, George and Robert Stephenson, the Stevensons of Edinburgh, and many others. In connection with the Forth Bridge recently completed, it is not uninteresting to recall that it was Mr. Leslie who, in 1838, made a report on the best method of establishing a line of ferry boats between the Lothians and Fife. He examined many of the ports on both sides, and as the fruits of his investigations and report, the Burntisland Pier was built by Sir John Gladstone, the father of the ex-Premier, the Granton Breakwaters by the Duke of Buccleuch, and the ferries established which have been worked until the present time by the North British Railway. He lived to see the virtual completion of the Forth Bridge, which is to supersede the old ferries, and in that great engineering undertaking he took the deepest interest.

About the time of the “railway mania,” as it is sometimes termed, Mr. Leslie was a great deal engaged in this line of business, and although he was engineer for several projected schemes, the most important of which was termed the Glasgow and Dundee Junction Railway, and which, like many others at that time, was thrown out on Standing Orders in consequence of some utterly trivial reason, he never followed it up, but preferred to remain associated with mater and harbour works.

Mr. Leslie was a man of very vigorous constitution, and until he had the misfortune to break his leg by a carriage accident, which took place about ten years ago, he was capable of enduring great fatigue, frequently starting at six in the morning and returning late at night, after doing work which few younger men would have cared to undertake. He was well read in engineering literature, and no member of his profession was more respected by his brethren. He also enjoyed the esteem of a very large circle of private friends. He was a Liberal in politics, and took an active, though not a prominent part in all public and political matters. He continued Engineer to the Edinburgh Water-Trust until his death, he having in 1870 associated with himself in partnership his son, W. Alexander Leslie, and latterly his son-in-law, Mr. R. C. Reid. By this he was of course latterly relieved of much of the work of the office, although until near the end of his life he continued to give his valued advice in the more important matters connected with the business.

Mr. Leslie was connected with the Institution for more than half a century, having been admitted as a member in 1833, and at the time of his death he was the 'father' of the Institution. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and various other learned societies, including the Meteorological Society of Scotland, in which he continued to the last to take a deep interest, and from his own observations on rainfall, evaporation, and absorption, was enabled to contribute much valuable information to the literature of that body.

A man of generous disposition, Mr. Leslie was a liberal subscriber to every public purpose that approved itself to him, and he also gave largely to charitable institutions, as also to private wants. In spite of his serious accident, he continued daily to take exercise, though with much difficulty, and he occasionally paid visits to the various reservoirs in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, the welfare of which he seemed to have at heart. He was, however, entirely confined to bed for the last six months of his life, and endured no small amount of suffering, which he bore with patience and even cheerfulness.

He died on the 29th of December, 1889, in the 89th year of his age.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1833 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. The Engineer 1894/09/21
  3. 1890 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries