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John Francis Ure

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John Francis Ure (1820-1883).

John Francis Ure (1820-1883)

Educated mainly in Cumberland, Ure started work aged 15 in the Glasgow marine engineering works of Robert Napier. This was under the management of David Elder, whose son John later married Ure's sister. Ure moved into land surveying before, in 1839, becoming chief assistant to Andrew Thomson, a leading civil engineer.

He then attended Glasgow University before working, from 1845, with J M Rendel of London. In 1852 he was appointed resident engineer to the Clyde Navigation and Harbour of Glasgow, where he proposed comprehensive extensions and improvements. This led to his 1858 appointment, again successfully, as engineer of the Tyne, where he received parliamentary sanction for major improvements in 1861.

Ure later became senior partner of the Govan shipbuilders John Elder & Co, where he oversaw the completion of the Fairfield yard before retiring in 1879. He died, unmarried, in the south of France on 3 May 1883.

Up to 1860 was engineer to the Clyde Navigation Trust


1883 Obituary [1]

JOHN FRANCIS URE was the son of Mr. Alexander Ure, writer in Glasgow, in which city he was born in the year 1820. He received an excellent education, till he was about fifteen years of age, at Greenrow Academy, Cumberland.

His first start in professional life was in the engineering establishment of the late Robert Napier, then under the management of David Elder; but Ure did not take well to the somewhat rough life, and, four months later, preferring to be a civil engineer, he obtained admission to the office of the late Mr. William Kyle, land surveyor, where, and with Mr. Thomas Kyle, the successor to the business, Mr. Ure acquired a thorough knowledge of surveying and levelling.

In June 1839 he became principal assistant to the late Mr. Andrew Thomson, under whom he gained experience in the preparation of parliamentary plans and sections for railways, canals, and turnpike roads, and in superintending works on the Garnkirk and Glasgow Railway, the Monkland Canal, and the construction of the celebrated St. Rollos chimney, Glasgow.

From Mr. Thomson’s office he went for a short time to that of Gordon and Hill, Glasgow. With Professor Lewis D. B. Gordon, who preceded Rankine in the Chair of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Glasgow, Mr. Ure was a great favourite, and he spent two sessions at the University, and gained a sound knowledge of the scientific principles of his profession, as was evidenced by the character of the class prizes he obtained.

On leaving Messrs. Gordon and Hill, towards the end of the year 1845, Mr. Ure obtained an appointment in the office of Mr. J. M. Rendel, F.R.S., Past-President Inst. C.E., by whom he was engaged on the river Tyne, the river Lea, the Birkenhead docks, and the Garston docks; also on the Grimsby docks, the East and West India docks, the Devonport dockyard steam basin, the Guernsey harbour works, the East Indian Railway, and on railway works in Lancashire and Cheshire, in many cases as Resident Engineer.

The knowledge and experience thus acquired as to river, dock, harbour and hydraulic engineering generally, induced him, in the spring of 1852, to apply for the position, then vacant, of Resident Engineer to the Clyde Navigation Trustees, under whose control the river had been so greatly transformed as to fit it for the passage of large steamers, such as were then being built on its banks, or which were trading to almost all parts of the world.

This application was successful, and his future professional career was thus determined. About midsummer 1852 he took up the appointment, and one of his earliest duties was to institute a complete survey of the river. No systematic observations on, or engineering survey of the Clyde had been made since the year 1839 ; and it was at Mr. Ure’s suggestion, and on the recommendation of Mr. James Walker, the Consulting Engineer to the Trustees, that he was commissioned to undertake such an important work.

From the year 1755 onwards there had been reports from various eminent engineers ; but at the time of Mr. Ure’s accession to office there was no thoroughly reliable information available for him to work from, in designing such improvements as he might consider necessary to fit the river for the demands that were daily being made upon it, both by shipbuilders and by shipowners.

His first report, dated 11th May, 1853, while the survey of the river was in progress by Mr. Kyle, embodied suggestions for new works and other improvements, the estimated cost of which was put down at nearly one million pounds sterling. Such a scheme of river and harbour improvement at once showed the River Trustees that in Mr. Ure they had secured the professional services of a resident engineer whose mind could rise to the wants, not only of the present, but to those of the early future.

The principal constructional work in hand at this time was Mavisbank Quay, which had been planned and resolved upon before he entered the service of the Trust. It had been designed, it is believed, by Mr. Walker, who was a great advocate for sheet-piling ; but Mr. Ure, who had a sort of prescience of what was coming in the way of vessels of 3,000, 4,000, and 5,000 tons, and even upwards, insisted that main-piling should be used, knowing that otherwise the dredging of the river to obtain the necessary depth would gradually cause the failure of the quay. He disclaimed all responsibility for the Mavisbank Quay works; and Mr. Walker, having for the time the support of the Trust, went on with the quay, and appointed resident engineers to see the works executed. Things eventually turned out as Mr. Ure had anticipated, and in the end he had to carry out the works in accordance with his own views.

In the month of Nay 1854 Mr. Ure completed a report to the Trustees on the question of graving-dock accommodation. Further on in the same year, according to instructions, he prepared a highly suggestive report dealing with the comparative advantages and expense of constructing a wet-dock, as contrasted with the expense of a tidal basin, on lands acquired by the Trustees, having in view the capability of the ground, the existing or probable wants of the trade, and the number and size of vessels likely to avail themselves of the accommodation of a dock or tidal basin respectively. He first dealt with the plans on which the Windmillcroft Dock and the Stobcross Docks had been projected; secondly, he considered the comparative advantages of wet docks and tidal basins for the port of Glasgow; and thirdly he gave his opinions at some length on the kind of works best calculated to provide for the accommodation of the growing trade of the port.

Mr. Ure’s next formal report was prepared about a year afterwards, and the subject of it was the plan for the Windmillcroft Dock, as authorised by Act of Parliament. In the course of this report he showed that the proposals to occupy the same grounds for dock purposes had brought forth no fewer than six plans, one of them being by Rennie so far back as the year 1807. The recommendations embodied in this report did not meet with the approval of Mr. Walker, who had prepared plans for the dock in 1840 and in 1849 ; but Mr. Ure eventually carried the day, as his ideas as to the depth of the dock and the depth of the entrance were more in accordance with the prospective wants of the port than were those of the consulting engineer. One strong argument that weighed with Mr. Ure was the size and draught of the vessels then building on the Clyde, one of these being the Cunard liner Persia, having a length of 400 feet.

Apparently the last report prepared by Mr. Ure for the Clyde Trustees is one dated September 1, 1858. It embodies a detailed account of the works executed in the harbour and river during the year prior to that date, with the amounts still due on the unexpired contracts, together with his views as to the whole works which it would be most beneficial to carry out in the following year.

Beside the reconstruction of Mavisbank Quay and the execution of other works already referred to, Mr. Ure successfully carried out a most extensive system of deepening and widening the river. He also designed and superintended the construction of No. 6 dredger, in the year 1854, a vessel in which there were introduced a number of structural novelties which proved to be very satisfactory. It was at his suggestion and from his plans that the large crane at Finnieston Quay was constructed and erected, the builders being Messrs. James and George Thornson, of Clydebank Foundry. Mr. Ure also planned and took charge of the construction of the Erskine-Ferry piers, and of the steam ferry-boat working in connection with them.

Though Mr. Ure subsequently did great work on the Tyne, his improvement of the Clyde entitles him to greater credit. It was owing to his skill and perseverance that the enormous outlay in removing the spoil from the dredgers was reduced to the present low cost. Had this not been done neither the Clyde nor the Tyne could have been made what they now are. When he took charge of the Clyde works the only way of getting rid of the spoil was to discharge it from the punts and deposit it on adjacent low-lying lands; and heavy rents were paid to the proprietors by the Clyde Trustees for the privilege of improving lands which before were worthless. It was in consequence of a dispute between the Trustees and Lord Blantyre, as to an increase of rent for ground to lay spoil on, that the whole system was altered. Mr. Ure, rather than pay an exorbitant sum, designed the present steam hopper barges, which now take millions of cubic yards out to sea at a mere fraction of the former expense for employing the punts alone, to say nothing of rent and other charges.

Amid the worry to which he was subjected, and the extraordinary amount of hard work which he got through, Mr. Ure longed for an opportunity of obtaining full scope for carrying into execution the large views he possessed on river-improvement. He soon attained all that he had desired, but in a totally different sphere of usefulness. His name and his abilities as a river-engineer had become so well known to the Tyne Improvement Commissioners, that they made him an important witness in their favour before the Royal Commissioners on the Tyne Navigation in the year 1855.

Subsequently, in 1857, a deputation of the Tyne Conservancy Commissioners (including the present chairman, Mr. J. C. Stevenson, M.P.) visited the Clyde, and made a minute inspection of the improvements effected or in progress, the mode in which the deepening and widening was carried on, and other matters. It was then silently resolved that no effort should be spared to secure for the Tyne those professional services which had been attended with such success on the Clyde.

Eventually, on the 3rd of December, 1858, on the motion of Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Ure was appointed Resident Engineer of the River Tyne; and early in the following year he entered upon his official duties.

The story of the improvements of the Tyne throughout the 193 miles over which the Conservancy Commissioners hold sway, has been so often told, in a variety of ways, and is doubtless so well known, that it is almost unnecessary to enlarge upon it. A few of the leading facts, however, ought to be mentioned in connection with this sketch of Mr. Ure’s professional career. During the greater part of the years 1859 and 1860 Mr. Ure was engaged in making a complete and exhaustive survey of the then state of the river, of its past treatment, and of its requirements, with a view to maturing, and reporting to the Commissioners on the measures which he might eventually resolve to recommend for effecting a real and permanent improvement.

In the month of October 1859, he presented to the Commissioners the first of his principal reports, in the course of which he stated that the mode by which he aimed at accomplishing the deepening of the river was by the application of extensive dredging-machinery, and in it he recommended the construction of large new dredgers, which he described. Entering heartily into the spirit of the scheme which he submitted to them, the Commissioners at once took the necessary steps to obtain from Parliament the means of accomplishing his able and comprehensive measure of river improvement.

In the following session the Commissioners promoted a Bill which became law as "The Tyne Improvement Act, 1861."

In due course three powerful steam-dredgers (Nos. 4, 5, and 6) were constructed by Wingate and Co, on the Clyde. There were also built a fleet of ten steam hopper-barges, nine of which were supplied by the firm just named.

By way of indicating the extensive improvements commenced or carried out on the Tyne by Mr. Ure, it may be stated that the bar which existed at the month of the river has been removed, and where there was a depth of only 6 feet at low water there is now a depth of fully 20 feet, and this depth is maintained for a considerable distance up the river. Where the obstructive ‘Narrows' existed the river has been widened from 100 feet to 670 feet. So completely have the dangerous shoals been removed which existed in Shields Harbour, that there is now mooring space in a depth of 30 feet of water over a length of about 16 mile at low spring tides ; and over the whole distance from Shields Harbour to Newcastle there is now a depth of about 20 feet at low spring tides where river steamers drawing only 3 feet or 4 feet of water used to ground for hours. The deepening has also been continued above Newcastle 60 as to give a minimum depth of 18 feet at low water over a distance of 3 miles. From the year 1860 up till the end of last year the quantity of material dredged from the bed of the river had reached the enormous total of 66,000,000 tons.

Of the other important works which have been completed or are in progress, a prominent place is due to the Coble Dene Docks, constructed from designs prepared by Mr. Ure and Mr. P. J. Messent. To Mr. Ure is also due the famous Swing-Bridge, almost immediately under Stephenson’s High-Level Bridge. When thinking of the contemplated improvements in the river proper, Mr. Ure saw that they would be shorn of much of their value if such shipping as could pass under the High-Level Bridge could not get up above the fixed barrier where the old Newcastle Bridge had hitherto been. He was therefore led to design the Swing-Bridge, the idea of which was heartily approved by the Commissioners, who at once gave authority for it to be put into practical execution. It was opened for public traffic in the summer of 1876.

By his comprehensive ideas and great practical abilities Mr. Ure had made himself an invaluable servant to the Tyne Commissioners. Entertaining an exceedingly high estimate of him, it is but natural that they were profoundly grieved on learning from him, in the year 1870, that an urgent call had been made upon him to return to Glasgow. It was by his only sister that the call was made, she being the widow of the late Mr. John Elder, whose death took place in the month of September, 1869, and who at the time was the sole partner of the firm of Randolph, Elder and Co. Her desire was that a new firm should be constituted to take up and carry on the business, and that her interest in it should be represented by her brother.

Mr. Ure was so much engrossed in his work on the Tyne that it was with difficulty he could be persuaded to give up his connection with it ; but eventually he allowed himself to be nominated as senior partner of the new firm of John Elder and Co, John L. K. Jamieson, who had for several years been the general engineering manager of the old firm, becoming the engineering partner, and William Pearce (then in a responsible post with Robert Napier and Sons) becoming the shipbuilding partner. The partnership just indicated came into existence in July, 1870, and it continued till the beginning of 1879, when Mr. Ure and Mr. Jamieson retired, leaving Mr. Pearce as the sole partner.

Mr. Ure’s connection with the Tyne did not, however, cease at this period, as, at the request of the Commissioners, he continued to act for some time longer as their engineer. But feeling the double responsibility to be too great, he asked the Commissioners to accept his resignation, when he became their consulting engineer, the active work devolving upon Mr. Messent, who was appointed resident engineer for the River Tyne, as well as for the Break water-works at the mouth of the river.

Mr. Ure began to find his health giving way so much in the year 1878, that he decided on discontinuing all responsibility for the great works he had initiated on the Tyne. In July of that year the Commissioners passed a special resolution expressing their unwillingness that the connection should wholly cease, and asking him to accept for the future a retaining fee of one hundred guineas per annum, so that he might still be consulted on matters relating to Tyne works. Marked evidence of their appreciation of the deceased was seen in the presence at his funeral of Mr. J. C. Stevenson, the Chairman of the Commissioners, Mr. Hodgson (one of the Commissioners), and Mr. Messent, the engineer. On the 17th of May, 1883, at the monthly meeting of the Commissioners, the Chairman submitted the following motion :- 'Resolved that the Commissioners record the expression of their sincere regret at the death on the 3rd inst. of Mr. J. F. Ure, civil engineer, and their high appreciation of his remarkable ability and energy in designing and carrying out the magnificent scheme for the improvement of the River Tyne, propounded by him twenty-three years ago, and which, by its comprehensiveness and completeness, and its engineering and financial success, has abundantly justified the confidence and support accorded to him both by the public and the Commissioners, and entitles him to rank amongst the greatest engineers of modern times. Resolved also that a copy of this resolution be sent to the sister of Mr. Ure (Mrs. Elder), with an expression of the Commissioners’ sympathy with her in her bereavement.” In supporting this motion the Chairman remarked that Mr. Ure certainly planned and executed the most comprehensive course of river work ever accomplished, and which conferred the greatest benefit on the district served by the River Tyne.

Mr. Ure was elected a Member on the 24th of May, 1859, and during the earlier part of his connection with the Institution occasionally took part in the discussions.



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