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

The Dublin Custom House Docks and Stores

Elizabeth Shotton

Figure 1: The Custom House Revenue Stores and Docks in Dublin, John Taylor, 1824 (adapted from Cox, 2009)

By the time John Rennie (1761-1821) was contracted by the Irish Revenue Commissioners to extend the docks and stores for the Dublin Custom House in 1813 he had already provided three previous proposals, the first drawn up in some haste in 1809 having been pressed for something to discuss by Sir John Foster, Commissioner of the Irish Treasury, as he later recounted (REN/RB/9/130a). This first proposal and the third survive in the Dublin City Archives and the National Library of Ireland respectively, though the last proposal differs slightly from the project as built (Fig 1). This included construction of George’s Dock, the Inner Dock and what was then known as the Tobacco Store to the east of George’s Dock and the L-shaped New West Stores opposite. Though Rennie is often credited for the Old Dock adjacent to the Custom House as well, this was designed by the British architect James Gandon (Shotton, 2015a) and completed by 1796, though was largely rebuilt by Thomas Telford after he assumed control of the incomplete Custom House project following Rennie’s untimely death in 1821.

This was by no means Rennie’s first time working in Ireland. His earliest foray into Ireland was in 1801, when he was called upon to give an opinion as to the state of Dublin’s harbour to the Ballast Office, forerunner to the Dublin Port Company (MSS/19874; REN/RB/3/235). This was followed quickly by appointment as consulting engineer on the Royal Canal project (1802-17), located just east and north of the later Custom House project. This last may have influenced his first proposal of 1809 to link the Old Dock at the Custom House to this canal system via a new dock (Fig 2). Though this link was never to materialize, Rennie continued to illustrate the potential for such a connection in the later third proposal (Fig 3). Rennie’s early work in Ireland also included consultations with Dublin city on its water supply, including the question of mills at Islandbridge (MSS/19874 and 19883) for which he was made freeman of the city of Dublin (Gilbert 1911).

Figure 2: First Proposal, described as ‘Mr Rennie’s Plan’, c. 1809-10, possibly a representation of Rennie’s proposal, rather than a drawing by Rennie (WSC/Map/34/2, Courtesy of Dublin City Library and Archive)
Figure 3: Plan of proposed bason, dock, etc., near Custom House, Dublin. Designed by John Rennie, 1816 (Map 16.G.16/49, Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

At the time of the first Custom House Docks proposal, Rennie had just started work on Howth Harbour (1809-18) to the north. And shortly after work began on the Custom House project in 1816, delayed due to questions about landownership (WSC/Min/28), he was awarded an additional contract for a harbour of refuge at Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown, 1817-1821) to the south. His Irish work also included smaller harbour projects, including Ardglass (MSS/19788/ii/58) and Donaghadee (MSS/19790/xi/252), both in Northern Ireland, and consultations regarding Balbriggan north of Dublin (MSS/19789/ii/32; REN/RB/10/048). It is small wonder then that Foster both knew Rennie and sought out his opinions on, and alternatives to, various proposals put forward for the Custom House project.

The work on the Custom House project was significant for its synthesis of many novel technical features, both in the docks and stores. The curvilinear wall structure of George’s Dock (Fig 4), was not novel, having been used by William Jessop as early as 1793 in the Cumberland Basin in Bristol (Bray & Tatham 1992) as well as the Dublin Grand Canal Docks completed in 1796 (Directors 1796). Rennie had also used this profile previously in London and at Humber Dock in Hull. However, by the time George’s Dock was underway, Rennie had improved the design by adding a heel to the back footing, a detail also used in a contemporaneous project at Sheerness (Bray & Tatham 1992). This was to increase its resistance to movement at the toe of the construction which could result in the collapse of the wall, as happened to Jessop at the Grand Canal Docks. Dock walls also faced sizable horizontal thrust from surrounding soils and any water in them, also leading sudden collapses during construction or when a dock was laid dry for repairs. Rennie accounted for this problem by constructing sewers around the perimeter of both George’s Dock and the larger Inner Basin to which it led, draining the surrounding soils of excess water into the River Liffey through flap-gates (REN/RB/11/295; MSS/19792). Both George’s Dock, the Inner Basin and their perimeter drainage are still extant, though boat access to the docks was blocked as part of the redevelopment of the docklands by the Custom House Dock Development Authority (CHDDA) in the 1990s, in addition to housing being built in the Inner Basin.

Figure 4: Conjectural Transverse Section through Old Dock, New West Stores and George’s Dock with perimeter drainage (Shotton 2012)

In early discussions with Foster regarding various proposals for the Custom House Docks Rennie had explicitly excused himself from commenting on the warehouses claiming a lack of expertise on the subject. However, by the time he was awarded the contract, he had nearly completed work on the new London Tobacco Dock warehouse (1811-14) with the architect Daniel Asher Alexander (1768-1846). Rennie explicitly drew on this to inform the designs of the stores in Dublin in addition to promoting a more extensive use of iron than had been possible for the West India Dock Company, who were wary of iron after a recent roof collapse.

The cast- and wrought-iron trusses Rennie designed for the Tobacco Stores, or Stack A as they were later called, are well known (see O’Dwyer article) and were the principal reason this building was selected to be conserved at the time of the CHDDA redevelopment. At the time of the conservation reports, the New West Stores (Stack C and B) had a timber king post roof structure, which was considered unnoteworthy in terms of conservation value (Tallon 1980; Griffith 1986; Glynn 1988), a finding which was to lead to its ultimate demolition. Unknown at the time was that, though the Tobacco Store was Ireland’s first completely iron-roofed warehouse (Cox 2009), it was the New West Stores which may have represented Rennie’s most advanced iron truss work (Shotton 2015b). That this achievement was overlooked was a result of the roof structure being replaced with the less adventurous timber roof following its collapse in a fire in 1833, ten years after its completion.

In a letter to the Commissioners of Customs and Excise in early 1820, Rennie described his intention to design the store as two long ranges running parallel to the docks, the east to serve Georges Dock and the west the Old Dock, separated by a solid masonry wall and roofed with cast-iron truss work similar to that used in the Tobacco Store (REN/RB/11/93). With no extant design drawings, the assessment of what these trusses were can only be conjectural. However, an early nineteenth century illustration by Samuel Davenport, etched prior to the collapse, for Rev’d G. N. Wright’s New and Comprehensive Gazetteer published in 1834, shows 2 parallel roof structures, complete with lantern structure and a hipped structure at the south end. The configuration of the internal masonry wall, in its height, width and foundation, suggests just such a configuration, with the wall supporting a roof over each range (Fig 4). With a span of 52 foot 6 inches, these trusses would be Rennie’s most significant achievement, as roof spans in iron did not commonly exceed 50 feet until a decade or more later (Swailes & Marsh 2005).

In contrast, the vaults of the New West Stores were identified in the conservation reports as the most interesting feature on the site, though despite some modest effort to incorporate them into the new International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) development, these too were largely demolished. Unlike the parallel barrel vaults of the Tobacco Stores, these vaults mirrored the Tobacco Dock vaults in London, with granite pillars which supported brick groin vaults (Fig 5). It was Griffin who first spotted the relationship between these vaults and the Tobacco Dock project in London, likely due to the publication of Thorne and Cruickshank’s essay in the Architectural Journal (AJ) the same year as his survey in 1986. Of interest was a later Arup analysis of the Tobacco Dock vaults, which noted that the vaulting had the capacity to successfully deform in response to eccentric loadings (Glynn 1988, Courtney & Matthews 1988). A small portion, representing the south end of the stores (Stack B), remain intact in a building now owned by Trinity College Dublin (Quinlan 2020).

Figure 5: Vaults of the North West Stores surveyed by P.J. Quigley in 1988 prior to demolition (IAA 05/099/Y18, Irish Architectural Archive)

The most striking feature of the New West Stores is the clever manner in which Rennie negotiated the six foot difference in dock heights through the section of the building (REN/RB/11/93). The section allowed for goods to be moved directly from George’s Dock into the store, while goods from the Old Dock would be craned into the same floor or to make use of elliptical openings to the vaults below. This unique sectional relationship that Rennie envisioned for the building was unfortunately undermined by the failing of the Old Dock. Rennie had been asked to look at the Old Dock in 1820 and identified the failure of the lock gate, which he intended to replace (REN/RB/11/303). But following Rennie’s death in 1821 Telford, now consulting engineer on the project, in tandem with John Aird as resident engineer, undertook a substantial rebuilding not just of the lock but the walls of the dock, raising the quay by 2 feet, which was to engender an irreparable shift in the clever relationship between quay and the vaults with their elliptical openings.

Of equal interest to architects, was Rennie’s consideration of the west façade of the New West Store facing the Dublin Custom House. The Tobacco Stores, or Stack A, was relatively plain, with light provided by the clerestory rather than windows. The New West Stores, having 2 floors over the vaults, necessarily relied on more windows on all façades. But the west façade was elaborated in more detail, with symmetrical end and centre pavilions slightly proud of the main wall, with arched upper story windows, giving the façade a more formal character from its eastern face, seemingly to address its more urban context.

Figure 6: New West Stores west elevation facing Custom House (Shotton 2012)


Dublin City Library & Archives, Ireland, Wide Streets Commissioners (WSC)

The collection contains fifty numbered volumes of minute books and 800 manuscript maps of work associated with the Commissioners. Citations from the minute books are noted WSC/Mins/volume/page. The maps are cited as WSC/Maps/map number.

Institution of Civil Engineers, London, UK, Rennie Bequest (REN/RB)

This collection consists of a series of twelve copy books kept by John Rennie’s office of all outgoing business correspondence in chronological sequence. Citations are designated with REN/RB, for Rennie Bequest, followed by the volume number (01-12) and number of the first page of the document: REN/RB/Vol/Page.

National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, Rennie (MSS)

This collection of papers covers Rennie’s entire working life from 1784 to his death and consist of large folios, MSS 19771-19830, which are arranged by undertaking, and smaller octavo notebooks, MSS 19831-19929, which Rennie carried with him and are ordered chronologically. Citations are designated MSS/folio number and, when available, a page number.

Baldwin, M.W. (1998). “The Engineering History of Hull’s Earliest Docks.” In: Adrian Jarvis eds. Port and Harbour Engineering. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Bray, R.N., and P.F.B Tatham. (1992). Old Waterfront Walls: Management, maintenance and rehabilitation. London, New York: Taylor & Francis.

Gilbert, J.T. (1911). Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin in the possession of the municipal corporation of that city. Vol. XV. 1797-1806. Dublin: Dublin Corporation.

Courtney, M.A., and R.J. Matthews. (1988). “Tobacco Dock.” The Arup Journal. Vol. 23. No. 3: 6-11.

Cox, Ronald. (2009). “Telford in Ireland: Work, Opinions and Influence.” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Vol. 162. Engineering History and Heritage.

Directors. (1794). “Minute Book of the Court of Directors of the Grand Canal.” Office of Public Works. Dublin: National Archive of Ireland. OPW/10/1/11.

Directors. (1796). “Minute Book of the Court of Directors of the Grand Canal.” Office of Public Works. Dublin: National Archive of Ireland. OPW/10/1/13.

Griffin, D.J. (1986). Custom House Dock Survey Notes: Stack C. Dublin. Irish Architectural Archive Manuscript RPD 195.9. Unpublished.

Glynn, W. (1988) Report on Stack C Vaults. Dublin: CHDDA. Unpublished. Retrieved from Burke Kennedy Doyle & Partners Architects Archive.

Quinlan, R. (2020). “Trinity College Dublin acquires IFSC block for €16m.” The Irish Times. Wednesday 1 April 2020.

Shotton, E. (2012). Building on the River Liffey: Memory, Perception & Design. Unpublished PhD. Dublin: University College Dublin.

Shotton, E. (2015a). “The Divergence of the Professions: James Gandon, John Rennie and the Building of the Revenue Docks.” In: Bowen, B. Friedman, D., Leslie, T., Ochsendorf, J. eds. Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress on Construction History. Raleigh, NC : Lulu Press.

Shotton, E. (2015b). “The Evolution of the Iron Truss in the Work of John Rennie.” In: Bowen, B. Friedman, D., Leslie, T., Ochsendorf, J. eds. Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress on Construction History. Raleigh, NC : Lulu Press.

Swailes, T. and Marsh, J. (2005). “Development of long-span iron roof structures in Britain.” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Structures and Buildings. No. 158 (Issue SB5): 321-339.

Tallon, R. (1980). Custom House Docks Report on Redevelopment 1980. Dublin: Scott Tallon Walker Architects, McCarthy & Partners. Irish Architectural Archive Manuscript RPD 239.10. Unpublished.

Thorne, R. and Cruickshank, D. (1986). “Rebirth of a Rogue: Origins of the Skin Floor.” The Architects’ Journal (AJ). Vol. 184. No. 30: 29-38.