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

Researching Rennie

Carol Morgan

As a consulting engineer active for over 35 years, Rennie produced hundreds of reports for a range of clients. This has resulted in reports, maps and plans being deposited in record offices and possibly private archives around the country, as well as thousands of letters.

Institution of Civil Engineers

ICE holds one of the largest collections of archives relating to both John and his son Sir John. In 1936 Rennie’s descendant John A Rennie presented us with a number of items including 12 numbered volumes of reports by John Rennie dated 1790-1821 and a General Report Book 1802-11. There are also separate projects based report books relating to the Rochdale and Lancaster canals, and London and East India docks. From a social interest rather than an engineering point of view, there is a volume of household accounts 1794-1800. This includes such items as Rat paste (2/6) , hay (£6.6s), a clarinet and music book (£4.6s), tuning piano (£1.2s.6d) and a new whip (10/6). There do appear to be some business entries mixed in, particularly expenses at Bath, Hungerford, Worsley etc.

The collection also includes 14 volumes of reports by his son Sir John Rennie, who continued Rennie’s works after his death in 1821, some volumes of letters and a draft of an autobiography by Sir John. There are also two collections of prints which belonged to the family and many depict their works. These were presented bythe Rennie family in 1912.

The ICE archive also holds a book of drawings of structures on the Kennet and Avon canal belonging to the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers and a notebook of drawings of Rennie’s projects by his eldest son George. The records of the Smeatonian Society with which Rennie was a leading member for many years are also deposited at ICE

We have six signed drawings by John Rennie showing proposed bridges and aqueducts on the Lancaster canal. They are signed by Rennie and either John Pinkerton or William Ross, contractors and dated 1794.

We also have John Lee Archer’s rough sketchbook which includes drawings of some of Rennie’s projects including bridge at Stoneleigh Abbey, Southwark Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges and the river wall at Custom House Quay. Archer (1791- 1852) worked under John Rennie from 1813-18 as a drawing clerk

The Rennie collection records are listed on the National Archives Discovery database All the items mentioned above are listed on the ICE Library and archive catalogue

National Library of Scotland

The other main repository of Rennie material is the National Library of Scotland which has a collection relating to John Rennie and his family, including pocket notebooks containing notes on a number of topics (MSS.19831-19966)and also 16 letters (MS 2909).

Beyond these sources, a quick search on The National Archive’s Discovery Database bring results from almost every record office in England demonstrating how widely Rennie worked. The main collections include:

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

The National Maritime Museum holds Rennie records including Navy Board correspondence. Many of these items are copies of Rennie’s reports relating to harbours and breakwaters. Some may be copies of reports held by ICE.!asearch

Birmingham Central Library

Rennie began his career in Boulton and Watt’s Soho Foundry and Rennie continued to use B&W’s engines in his projects. There is correspondence between Rennie and Boulton and Watt in the B&W collection.

The National Archive

Canal plans and drawings, particularly of the Lancaster Canal and drawings of Good Hope observatory.

Edinburgh University

The collection includes 19 letters from Rennie to various correspondents including 11 to Firmin de Tastet and Company, 1791-1817 and 3 letters about the proposed Glasgow and Saltcoats Canal, 1803. There are also 2 letters to Jackson Mason about the Wigan Petition, the Kennet and Avon Canal, 12 February and 24 September 1794. There are 5 letters to Thomas Townshend about engineering projects, 1802-1804, namely canal construction in Dublin, and 4 other letters about engineering projects, 1813-1815. There is also a letter to Robert Swan about engineering dated 13 April 1814.

The following record offices also have records relating to Rennie’s works; this is not an exhaustive list:

Bath and North East Somerset Record Office – report on the Kennet and Avon Canal, 1795

Birmingham University Information Services, Special Collections Department – MS opinion on the Shardlow and Nottingham Canal, 1793, NRA 13208 Midlands canals

British Library, Manuscript Collections – report on Northfleet New Arsenal, 1807, Ref. Add MS 27884 and letter and reports to Viscounts Melville, 1810-1819, Ref. Add MS 41345;

Cambridgeshire County Record Office – Reports on Fen drainage particularly the eport on the Middle and South levels, 1810

Cambridgeshire County Record Office, Huntingdonshire – Reports on Fen drainage, 1814, , Huntingdon, Ref. Acc 235 NRA 9006

Canal and River Trust Archive, Ellesmere Port – ms plans and reports relating to various canals

Devon Record Office – Report and correspondence relating to Tamar Navigation Canal, 1795-1797, Ref. W1258 T1258M NRA 9813 Russell

Glasgow City Archives – Correspondence and papers relating to Clyde Harbour, 1798-1809, Ref. 3/11-29 NRA 13871 Clyde Port;

Lincolnshire Archive – Correspondence and papers relating to Boston Bridge, 1799-1815, NRA 11483: Also papers re. Rive Witham, Boston Haven and various fen drainage schemes including East, West and Wildmore Fens

London University Library – Specification for rebuilding London Bridge, 1823, Ref. MS 158;

Rochester Bridge Trust – Correspondence and reports on Rochester Bridge Ref NRA 10539 Rochester

Southampton Archives Office – Reports on Southampton Docks, , Ref. D/PM NRA 20055 Page

Staffordshire Record Office Report on the Leek Canal, c.1800,

Warwickshire County Record Office – letters to Sir Roger Newdigate, 1778-1807, , Ref. CR 136/B1310-97 NRA 26325 Newdegate

The text of Samuel Smiles Lives of the engineers: Smeaton and Rennie is available online at

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