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Robert Bruce Bell

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Robert Bruce Bell (c1823-1883)


1884 Obituary [1]

ROBERT BRUCE BELL was the son of a merchant in Edinburgh.

After receiving an excellent education, he proceeded to Glasgow to undergo a practical training to qualify him for his future profession of civil engineering. Acting on the advice of his friends, he determined, in the first instance, to serve, an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer, and with that object in view, he took service with Messrs. Murdoch and Aitken. He afterwards finished his course of mechanical engineering under Mr. Robert Napier, by working as a journeyman at the Lancefield Foundry and Engine Works.

Mr. Bell next served a regular pupilage under Mr. Lewis D. B. Gordon and Mr. Lawrence Hill, the former of whom was then the Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics in the University of Glasgow - the first occupant of the chair, and he was subsequently a working assistant in his office.

It was in the same office that he made the acquaintance of Mr. Daniel Miller, with whom he afterwards entered into partnership and close personal friendship.

About 1848 Mr. Bell entered the employment of the late Sir James Matheson, proprietor of the Island of Lewis in the Hebrides, and as Resident-Engineer for that gentleman he carried out a number of important improvements upon the estate, more especially certain sea-walls and dock-works connected with the harbour of Stornoway.

In 1850 he returned to Glasgow, and with Mr. Miller settled down in that city to civil engineering practice. The first work of any importance which the firm took in hand was the construction of a slip-dock for Mr. Robert Black on the estate of Kelvinhaugh, now within the harbour of Glasgow, and occupied by Messrs. Aitken and Mansel, shipbuilders. In this ship-dock there was first brought into use the hydraulic-purchase machinery invented and patented by Mr. Miller in the year 1849, and the slip itself was designed for the use of ships up to 800 tons register.

Shortly, after the completion of the Kehinhaugh slip-dock, another was constructed on the same principle for vessels of 1,500 tons, and laid down at Williamstown, Melbourne. Subsequently other slips with the same kind of machinery were constructed at a number of ports at home and abroad, including Cronstadt, Alexandria, and Riga.

Until about a quarter of a century ago there was not a single graving dock at Glasgow, or one nearer to it than Dumbarton. The first dock of the kind constructed in connection with the harbour of Glasgow was a private one, the owners being the firm of Messrs. Tod and Macgregor, the builders of many of thc early iron steamers engaged in the Atlantic mail and passenger service. This dock was designed and carried into execution by Mr. Bell and his partner; and several years afterwards they made a slip-dock for the same firm alongside of the graving-dock, but opening from the Kelvin rather than directly from the Clyde. The same purchase machinery that was then laid down is still in use.

About the year 1862 Messrs. Bell and Miller commenced a series of surveys of the harbour of Greenock, in view of certain improvements which it was resolved to carry out under the local Harbour Act. In the first instance they laid out and superintended the construction of what is now the Albert harbour, and as a result of that work being commenced, a difficulty arose as to the mode of disposing of the spoil excavated for the dock enclosure; the so-called "difficulty” had a happy solution, as it eventuated, in a great public improvement in the shape of an esplanade along the western shores of the town, a work which was also carried out by the same engineers.

At the same time they brought to a successful issue another great improvement at Greenock harbour, namely, the Prince’s Pier, in the construction of which there were used piles of greenheart timber, many of which had to be driven to a depth of 100 feet.

The Port Glasgow harbours were also put into the hands of the firm, in order that important improvements might be made upon them, and partly with the view of having the harbourage brought into connection with the Greenock branch of the Caledonian railway system. Then, at the same port, some years afterwards they practically made a new graving-dock on the site of that which had been constructed by James Watt, and which was the first work of the kind in Scotland.

They also designed plans for a work of a similar kind at Singapore. One of the largest dry-docks in the kingdom is that known as the Govan Graving Dock No. 1, the designing of which was entrusted to Mr. Bell and his partner by the Clyde Navigation Trustees. Its capacity is such that the "Servia,” the "City of Rome," and the "Alaska" have all been docked within its gates; while in the summer of 1883 Sir Edward Reed there inclined, and experimented upon, the ill-fated "Daphne," even though the dock contained two other vessels at the same time, one of them being a very large "Anchor" liner.

Shortly after completing the Govan graving-dock, Mr. Bell’s firm successfully carried out at Cadiz a spacious graving-dock and a deep-water basin, both suitable for the use of the steamers employed in the mail and passenger service between that port and Cuba, Havana, and the Spanish West Indies generally.

In the year 1863 Mr. Bell’s firm were engaged by the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast to survey and to report upon plans suitable for an extensive system of harbour accommodation at that port. Several years afterwards they were instructed to report upon feasible improvements that might be made upon the navigation of the River Ribble and on the construction of docks, the Corporation of Preston being desirous of making their town into a great port.

In the year 1872 they executed a similar commission for the Cork Harbour Trustees, who aimed at the improvement of the River Lee, and the construction of an extensive system of dock accommodation. They, also made a survey of the coast of the River La Plata for an Anglo Argentine Company in 1869, and made a report and designs for a harbour and docks, and a dredged channel for Buenos Ayres. The plans were approved of by the Government of the late President Tarmento, and a concession was promised; but owing to differences between the National and Provincial Governments, these works were postponed.

One of the largest dock- or harbour-schemes engaged in by Mr. Bell’s firm is that known as the Thames deep-water docks at Dagenham, in designing which they have been associated with Mr. James Abernethy, Past-President Inst. C.E. This scheme involves the utilization of some 400 acres of land, of which 160 acres are intended for an enclosed water area with entrance locks, one of them 700 feet long by 80 feet wide, and the depth of water aimed at is 34 feet.

About the year 1875 Mr. Bruce Bell was selected by the Harbour Commissioners of Montreal as one of a Commission of Engineers to report upon a general scheme of improvements for that harbour, his colleagues being Major-General Newton, of the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army, and Mr. Sandford Fleming, C.M.G., M. Inst. C.E., Ottawa, Engineer-in-Chief of the Intercolonial and Canadian Pacific railways. Mr. Bell was elected to serve as the chairman of the Commission.

Mr. Bell chiefly though not entirely devoted himself to dock and harbour work. His firm designed and superintended the construction of the Albert Bridge over the Clyde at Glasgow, which was completed in 1871. Anothcr work of a similar sort was a bridge over the Kelvin, on the road leading from Glasgow to Dumbarton. Messrs. Bell and Miller practically reconstructed the Portland-street Suspension Bridge, Glasgow. They also designed and successfully carried out at least three water supply schemes, namely, for the town of Grangemouth, and for the cities of Rio Grande and for Pelotas, in Brazil.

Mr. Bell was long a leading member of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, serving on the Council as a Vice-President, and as President during the years 1876-78. He was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 5th of April, 1864. Mr. Bell had settled permanently in London, with a view of directing the business of his London firm; but the weakly condition of his health, which was of several years’ standing, rendered him unable to withstand an attack of pleurisy, from which he died at West Croydon on the 13th of August, 1883, aged sixty.



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