(23 January 1745
- 18 November 1814
) was a noted English civil engineer
, particularly famed for his work on canals
and early railways
in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Jessop was born in Devonport, Devon
in 1745, the son of Josias Jessop, a foreman shipwright in the Naval Dockyard. Josias Jessop was responsible for the repair and maintenance of Rudyerd’s Tower, a wooden lighthouse on the Eddystone Rock
. He carried out this task for twenty years until 1755, when the lighthouse burnt down. John Smeaton
, a leading civil engineer, drew up plans for a new stone lighthouse and Josias became responsible for the overseeing the building work. The two men became close friends, and when Josias died in 1761, two years after the completion of the lighthouse, William Jessop was taken on as a pupil by Smeaton (who also acted as Jessop’s guardian), working on various canal schemes in Yorkshire
Jessop worked as Smeaton’s assistant for a number of years before beginning to work as an engineer in his own right. He assisted Smeaton with the Calder and Hebble and the Aire and Calder navigations in Yorkshire.
Grand Canal of Ireland
The first major work that Jessop is known to have carried out was the Grand Canal of Ireland
. This had begun as a Government project in 1753, and it had taken seventeen years to build fourteen miles of canal from the Dublin end. In 1772 a private company was formed to complete the canal, and consulted John Smeaton. Smeaton sent Jessop to take control of the project as principal engineer. Jessop re-surveyed the proposed line of the canal and carried the canal over the River Liffey
, via the Leinster Aqueduct. He also drove the canal across the great Bog of Allen
, a feat comparable with George Stephenson
’s crossing of the Chat Moss
bog with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway
. The canal was carried over the bog on a high embankment. Jessop also identified sources of water and built reservoirs, so that the canal was in no danger of running dry. Having seen to all of the important details Jessop returned to England, leaving a deputy in charge to complete the canal. This was finally done in 1805. It seems that Jessop was closely involved with the canal in Ireland until about 1787, after which time, other work flowed in.
Relationship with other engineers
Jessop was a very modest man, who did not seek self-aggrandisement. Unlike other engineers, he was not jealous of rising young engineers, but rather encouraged them. He would also recommend another engineer if he was too busy to be able to undertake a commission himself. He recommended John Rennie
for the post of engineer to the Lancaster Canal
Company, an appointment that helped to establish Rennie’s reputation. When Jessop was consulting engineer to the Ellesmere Canal
Company, in 1793, the company appointed the relatively unknown Thomas Telford
as resident engineer. Telford had no previous experience as a designer of canals, but with Jessop’s advice and guidance, Telford made a success of the project. He supported Telford, even when the Company thought that the latter’s designs for aqueducts were too ambitious.
In 1789 Jessop was appointed chief engineer to the Cromford Canal
Company. The proposed canal was intended to carry limestone, coal and iron ore from the Derwent and upper Erewash valleys and join the nearby Erewash Canal. The important features of this canal are the Derwent Viaduct, which was a single span viaduct carrying the canal over the River Derwent
, and the Butterley Tunnel
(formerly the Ripley Tunnel). In 1793, the Derwent Viaduct partially collapsed, and Jessop shouldered the blame, saying that he had not made the front walls strong enough. He had the viaduct repaired and strengthened at his own expense. The Butterley Tunnel was 2,966 yards (2712m) long, 9ft wide and 8 ft high and required thirty-three shafts to be sunk from the surface in order to build it. Jessop built the Butterley Reservoir above the tunnel, extending for fifty acres.
In 1790 Jessop founded, jointly with partners Benjamin Outram
, Francis Beresford and John Wright, the Butterley Iron Works
to manufacture (amongst other things) cast-iron edge rails
– a design Jessop had used successfully on a horse-drawn railway
scheme for coal wagons between Nanpantan
(1789). Outram was concerned with the production of ironwork and equipment for Jessop’s engineering projects.
Grand Junction Canal
The Oxford Canal
had been built by James Brindley
and carried coal to large parts of southern England. However it did not provide a sufficiently direct route between the Midlands
. As a result, a new canal was proposed to run from the Oxford Canal at Braunston
, near Rugby
, and to end at the Thames
, a length of ninety miles. Jessop was appointed Chief Engineer to the Canal Company in 1793. The canal was especially difficult to plan because, whereas other canals tended to follow river valleys and only crossed a watershed when unavoidable, the new canal had to cross the rivers Ouse, Nene and others. An aqueduct was built at Wolverton
to carry the canal across the Ouse valley. Whilst the three-arch stone aqueduct was being built, a set of nine temporary locks were used to carry the canal down one side of the valley and up the other. The aqueduct failed in 1808, and was replaced by an iron one in 1811. Two tunnels also had to be built, at Braunston
. The Blisworth Tunnel caused great problems, and was unfinished when the rest of the canal was ready. In fact Jessop considered abandoning it and using locks to carry the canal over the ridge. Jessop’s temporary solution was a railway line laid over the ridge to carry traffic until the tunnel was completed. The Grand Junction Canal
was enormously important in encouraging trade between London and the Midlands.
West India Docks
The West India Docks
, built on the Isle of Dogs
, was the first large wet docks built in the Port of London
. Between 1800 and 1802 a wet dock area of 295 acres was created with a depth of 24ft, and accommodating 600 ships. Jessop was the Chief Engineer for the docks, with Ralph Walker as his assistant.
Surrey Iron Railway
In 1799 separate proposals were put forward for a canal from London to Portsmouth
and for a tramway carrying horse-drawn carriages over the same route. The first part of the proposed Surrey Iron Railway
was to be from Wandsworth
, and Jessop was asked for his opinion on the two opposing schemes. He declared that the tramway was a better scheme, as a canal would require too much water and would unduly reduce the supply in the River Wandle
. It was agreed to build a tramway from Wandsworth to Croydon, as well a building a basin at Wandsworth. Jessop was appointed Chief Engineer of the project in 1801. In 1802 the Wandsworth Basin and the line were completed. There seems to be doubt as to the gauge of the line with some estimates stating 4 ft 2 ins and others stating 4ft 8½in.
In 1803 the next phase was authorised. This was for a line from Croydon via Merstham to Godstone in Surrey. Jessop was again appointed Chief Engineer, with his son Josias as his assistant. The line reached Mestham but was never continued to Godstone. The total distance of the tramway from Wandsworth was 18 miles. The tramway was eventually overtaken by the advent of steam locomotives.
From 1784 to 1805 Jessop lived in Newark
, where he twice served as town mayor.
In his later life, Jessop became increasingly inflicted by a form of paralysis, and 1805 marked the end of his active career. He died at his home, Butterley Hall, on 18 November 1814. The Jessop Memorial was erected a year after his death , this can be seen east of Ripley in Codnor park. The 70ft Doric column can no longer be scaled due to being unsafe. His son Josias became a successful engineer in his own right.
Jessop was in the unusual position of bridging the gap between the canal engineers and the railway engineers who came later. His name did not gain the lasting fame that it deserved because of his modesty. Indeed some of his works have been wrongly attributed to engineers who acted as his assistants. Unlike some engineers, such as George Stephenson, Jessop did not stoop to undignified wrangles with fellow professionals. He was highly regarded by almost all those who had worked with him of for him.
List of Jessop’s engineering projects