The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

Ramsgate Harbour

Mark Samuel

The Dry Dock at Ramsgate has been believed for a long time to be the work of John Smeaton, however recent research for Thanet District Council as part of an application for funding for the Yacht Valley Project has revealed more about its history. The results of this research appeared in the Conference proceedings of the Construction History Society (2018).

John Smeaton constructed John Rennie is now best known for the construction of the breakwater at Plymouth but his role in naval architecture was all-encompassing. His complete rebuilding of the Dry Dock was part of a project to make Ramsgate a modern naval base and is relatively less well-documented.

Smeaton’s involvement in Ramsgate harbour construction was long-standing. His experience of building the third (and successful) Eddystone lighthouse and his research into fluid dynamics allowed him to make many other practical applications to coastal works. His design of a dry dock came late in his career and there were two abortive attempts by others to execute modified versions of his designs before he was able to apply his knowledge of hydraulics to finally deliver a workable dry dock.

His solution included a cross-wall to divide up the basin with the part furthest from the sea being closed off by this wall and emptied by sluices. This provided a solution to the repeated silting up of the dock that had quickly manifested itself. However the dry dock and the cross-wall were giving serious concerns within twenty years of his death in 1794.

John Rennie had first been invited by the trustees to examine the Harbour in 1807. In the next year, he was appointed by the Navy to select a suitable site for a new Naval station; the choices being Folkstone, Dover or Ramsgate. He recommended instead improvements to all three harbours.

Rennie wrote that “…the dry dock being lengthened 20 feet… would improve the profitability of the harbour”. In the event, the dock was extended to the east by about thirty-six feet (11 m) and a complete rebuilding had been effected by February 1816. The harbour cross-wall was enormously thickened and the sluices enlarged and simplified (1817). Stone for the works was imported from Leeds and Edinburgh based on a very detailed stone specification. Rennie was able to learn from the challenges at Ramsgate to design a much more successful dry dock at Chatham in 1820, the year before his death.

The 10” – 1 mile Ordnance Survey map of 1872 provides the chief record of what was actually built. The dock finally went out of use in 1893 and various developments obscured it from public view until the 1980s when an ice store, pillbox and a car park office were removed, as was a pillbox.