Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 132,806 pages of information and 210,387 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
Robert Napier (1791-1876) was a Scottish engineer, and is often called "The Father of Clyde Shipbuilding."
See Napier Genealogy
1791 June 21st. Robert Napier was born in Dumbarton to James and Jean Napier; his younger brother was David Napier (1799-1850).
James was of a line of esteemed ball-wrights, blacksmiths, and engineers. He was partner in the Dumbarton engineering business of John Napier. James' brother (also named Robert) served as blacksmith for the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle.
Robert was educated at the burgh school where he took an interest in drawing, which reflected in his later life in an interest in painting and fine arts. Against his father's hopes that he would become a minister in the Church of Scotland, he developed an interest in the family business.
c.1807 At age sixteen, he was confronted by a Royal Navy press gang who intended to conscript him into service during the Napoleonic Wars. Instead of allowing his son to be conscripted, James Napier signed a contract of formal indenture with his son, making him immune to conscription.
c.1812 Robert's apprenticeship with his father lasted for five years, after which time he moved to Edinburgh and worked for Robert Stevenson, builder of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.
1815 he went into business for himself, opening up a blacksmith and engineering shop in Glasgow, and taking on two apprentices. On August 21st he was made a Burgess of Glasgow and on August 25th he joined the Incorporation of Hammermen - the organisation which regulated Glasgow's engineering trades.
1818 he became a collector for the Hammermen, and became a deacon in 1820.
1818 He married Isabella Napier, the daughter of his uncle John Napier (and sister to David Napier), who also had a business in Glasgow.
1821 Robert succeeded his cousin David Napier in the occupancy of Camlachie Foundry; among his first orders was a contract for supplying the large iron pipes used by the Glasgow Water Works Company. He was constantly employed in the construction of boilers and land engines.
1823 he won a contract to build a steam engine for the Leven steamer. The engine was so good that it was later fitted to another ship, the Queen of Beauty. The Leven engine - his first - now rests at the Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank branch of the Scottish Maritime Museum in Dumbarton.
1827 Robert Napier had the unique distinction of having built the engines of both of the two fastest ships to compete in the Northern Yacht Club's August Regatta. These were the Clarence and the Helensburgh. This distinction earned him a reputation as a shipbuilder, which furthered his career.
1828 Robert Napier found his engines in such great demand that he was obliged to establish Glasgow's Vulcan Foundry.
Many of Scotland's most esteemed shipbuilders apprenticed under Robert Napier, including James and George Thomson, who founded the shipyard J. and G. Thomson (now known as John Brown and Co). Robert Napier continued building steamship engines, eventually expnding into steam engines for ocean-going vessels.
1835 Napier procured a controversial contract from the East India Trading Company to build an engine for their ship, the Berenice. The Berenice, using Napier's engine, proved faster than her sister ship, the Atlanta - beating it to India by 18 days on their maiden voyages.
1838 Robert Napier was contracted by the Admiralty to produce engines for two of their ships, but eventually backed out of the deal. When Parliament questioned the deal, the reply proved that Napier's engines were cheaper and more reliable than those built in the Admiralty's usual shipyards on the Thames. Thereafter, Robert Napier was the Admiralty's primary engine builder. Robert Napier's largest success, however, came from his business deals with Samuel Cunard. Together with Cunard, James Donaldson, Sir George Burns, and David MacIver, he co-founded the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.
1840 Robert Napier of Glasgow, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
1841 he expanded his company to include an iron shipbuilding yard in Govan.
1843 Produced their first ship, the Vanguard. He also procured a contract with the Royal Navy to produce vessels, notably the Jackal, the Lizard, and the Bloodhound. He also allowed naval officers in training to visit the yard to familiarise themselves with the new vessels.
1848 he took over the bankrupt Parkhead Forge in the east end of Glasgow to supply wrought iron plates and forgings for his works.
By the early 1850s Robert Napier dominated the fast-expanding Clyde marine engineering and shipbuilding industry, attracting a galaxy of able young managers and apprentices, many of whom went on to found or control their own businesses.
1852 he moved permanently to West Shandon, which he had much enlarged, partly to house his large collection of old masters, porcelain, sculptures and other curios.
1856 of Vulcan Foundry, Glasgow
1856 R. Napier, Esq, of Glasgow subscribed £100 to the Smith Testimonial Fund, commemorating the work of F. P. Smith in promoting the screw propeller.
1859-60 Lost money on construction of their first ironclad ship Black Prince because of the difficulty of manufacturing wrought iron armour plate to the Admiralty specification. With Napiers on the verge of bankruptcy, William Beardmore senior was recruited to Parkhead, and solved the problem. However, Napier's financial problems persisted, exacerbated by an open disagreement between Robert and his sons about the future direction of the enterprise.
1866 Patent to Robert Napier, of Glasgow, Engineer and Ship Builder, in respect of the invention of "improvements in building ships and vessels of war."
By 1871 the Bank of Scotland was unwilling to advance any further money to help win new custom, and Napiers were forced to sell their interest in the Parkhead Forge. Robert Napier was persuaded finally to retire.
1875 His wife died on 23 October 1875
1876 June 23rd. He died at West Shandon
Robert Napier, Engineer and shipbuilder, of Glasgow, late President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and Commander of the Order of Danneborg (First Class), was born at Dumbarton on the 18th of June, 1791, his father being a blacksmith and a respected burgess of that town.
In 1807 he was apprenticed to his father for five years; from 1812 to 1815 he wrought in Edinburgh and in Glasgow as a blacksmith and mechanic, working for a short time under Robert Stevenson, M.Inst.C.E., in the former city.
In 1815 Mr. Napier received £50 from his father, with £45 of which he bought the tools and the good-will of a small blacksmith’s shop in the Gallowgate, Glasgow, leaving £5 of working capital, with which sum he started in business, employing at first only two apprentices.
In 1821, the business having increased, he engaged in iron-founding and engineering at Camlachie, at the east end of Glasgow, where, in 1823, he made his first marine engine for the 'Leven' steamboat, built to ply between Dumbarton and G1asgow.
The success of this engine led so rapidly to other orders for marine engines that he found it necessary, in 1828, to remove to larger and more convenient premises in Washington Street, adjoining the harbour of Glasgow, and in 1835 he added to these the engineering works at Lancefield, and, in 1841, the shipbuilding yard at Govan, about 1 mile from Glasgow.
At this yard Mr. Napier (and subsequently the firm of Robert Napier and Sons) built many first-class steamers of all sizes for the mercantile marine and for war purposes, for various countries, employing at times upwards of three thousand work people.
Mr. Napier’s early connection with steam navigation deserves to be specially noticed. In 1830 he was associated with the City of Glasgow Steam Packet Company, and engined most of their vessels running between Glasgow and Liverpool.
The success of that line led to his being applied to, in March 1633, by a company in London (Mr. Patrick Wallace being his correspondent) for his opinion on the practicability of successfully navigating the Atlantic with steam-vessels between Liverpool and New York.
His report was decidedly favourable, but the scheme was ultimately abandoned for want of funds.
In 1834 the steam-ships Dundee, Perth, and London, belonging to the Dundee and London Shipping Company, were contracted for and engined by him; the hulls, by John Wood, of Port Glasgow, being long noted for their fine finish, for keeping their sheer so well when compared with other vessels, and for great regularity in sailing.
In 1836 he supplied the Honourable East India Company with the Bernice.
In 1839 he provided the machinery for the steam-ship 'British Queen' built to ply between this country and New York, which machinery was constructed to work either with the common jet-condenser, or with the late Mr. Samuel Hall’s patent surface condenser.
He also, about this time, built the steam paddle yacht 'Fire King,' for the late Mr. Thomas Assheton Smith, which vessel was the first of any size with fine hollow lines. She was built from Mr. Smith‘s own model, and on trial proved the fastest vessel then afloat.
In this year also (1839) Mr. Napier, besides subscribing liberally towards the trial voyage of theSirius, from Great Britain to America, contracted with the Hon. Samuel Cunard for three steamers of 1,000 tons and 300 H.P. each, to ply between Great Britain and North America with the mails. Mr. Napier being, however, convinced that vessels of this size were too small for such a trade, induced Mr. Cunard, after a time, to adopt his views; and, although the vessels originally contemplated had been commenced, what was done was put aside, and in their place four vessels of 1,200 tons and 400 H.P. were laid down, to meet the extra cost of which vessels, Mr. Napier, at Mr. Cunard‘s request, got some of his friends, Messrs. Burns, Messrs. Thornson, and M‘Connel, Mr. M‘Iver, and a few others, to join him in the contract.
From this originated the now celebrated Cunard Company, the great success of which was mainly due to the business character of Mr. Cunard, to the sound advice given, and to the honest, careful, and substantial work turned out by Mr. Napier, and to the superior manner in which the vessels were managed and officered by Messrs. Burns and M‘Iver.
In 1853 Mr. Napier took his sons James and John into partnership; the former retired a few years after, when the business was carried on by Mr. Napier and his younger son.
For a considerable time before his death Mr. Napier took very little active charge; but in the early stages of steam navigation, when so much of the success of steam companies depended on sound and correct views, he spared no pains, but went most carefully into all calculations for the size, power, carrying capacity, working expenses, &C., of the different schemes or lines that were brought before him; and to his honesty of purpose and perseverance in working out such details a great part of his success in life was undoubtedly due.
Part, however, of his prosperity was owing also to his tact in getting the right people about him as managers and foremen, by whom, as well as by all with whom he had occasion to come into contact, he was held in the highest respect. He never could put up with bad or slovenly work, and if a thing did not please him, either as to design or workmanship, he did not hesitate to have it at once pulled to pieces and reconstructed.
Mr. Napier was a man of great common sense, very equable in temper, trying always to do his best, and, this done, leaving the result to a higher Power. Despite a rugged apprenticeship and laborious manhood, his handsome figure and courteous bearing to all proclaimed him one of Nature’s noblemen. He was no public speaker, but always had a thoughtful word to say on almost every topic that might be started. He had a great dislike to hearing ill spoken of any one, and was, it may be said, without an enemy.
From one of his teachers, Mr. Trail, of the Grammar School of Dumbarton, Mr. Napier imbibed a taste, while quite a young man, for the fine arts; and the collection of paintings and articles of virtue in his residence at West Shandon, on the Gareloch, was a continual source of enjoyment alike to himself and to his numerous visitors.
Mr. Napier was elected a Member on the 31st of March, 1840.
He died at West Shandon on the 23rd of June, 1876, aged eighty-five years and five days, surviving by eight months his wife, to whom he had been married about fifty-seven years
1877 Obituary 
ROBERT NAPIER was born on 18th June 1791 at Dumbarton, his father being a blacksmith of that town, to whom he was apprenticed in 1807 for five years, after which he worked as a blacksmith and mechanic in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In 1815 he started on his own account in a small blacksmith's shop in the Gallowgate, Glasgow; and in 1821 he engaged in ironfounding and engineering at Camlachie, at the east end of Glasgow, where in the same year he built his first engine, of 12 H.P., for a flax-spinning mill in Dundee. In 1823 he built his first marine engine for the "Leven" steamboat, to ply between Glasgow and Dumbarton.
In 1828 he removed to larger and more convenient premises, the Vulcan Foundry in Washington Street, adjoining the harbour of Glasgow; to which in 1835 he added the Lancefield Engine Works, and in 1841 a shipbuilding yard at Govan, a mile below Glasgow. Here many first-class steamers of all sizes have been built by himself and the subsequent firm of Robert Napier and Sons, for the merchant service and for the navies of various countries, employing at times more than three thousand work people. About 370 vessels were either engined or built, or both engined and built, by himself and his firm. He was early connected with steam navigation, being associated in 1830 with the City of Glasgow Steam Packet Company, most of whose vessels running between Glasgow and Liverpool were engined by him.
In 1839 he joined in the establishment of the Cunard line of mail steamers to ply between this country and North America with the mails, the great success of which was largely due to the sound advice given by Mr. Napier, and to the high character of the vessels built by him. The first steamers for the Cunard line were commenced of 900 tons and 300 H.P.; but by his advice a larger size was substituted, and he made the first four of these steamers 1200 tons and 400 H.P., a size which was subsequently more than doubled.
He also built in 1856 the "Erebus," the first of the armour-clad vessels ordered for the British navy; and subsequently twelve more armour-clads for this and other countries.
He became a Member of the Institution in 1856, and was President for the years 1863, 1864, and 1865; he received the members at his residence at West Shandon, on the Gareloch, on the occasion of the Glasgow Meeting in 1864.
His death took place at West Shandon on 23rd June 1876 at the age of 85.
1876 Obituary 
The following is a list of the vessels either engined or built, or both engined and built, by Mr. Napier. His usual practice was to contract both for hull and engines. When, in the earlier days of his career, the vessels were of wood, the hulls were built by sub-contract, generally by the late Mr. John Wood, of Port Glasgow, with whom he worked amicably for many years.