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Jesse Hartley Dock Engineer

Jesse Hartley Dock Engineer 

When Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous iron ship Great Britain was launched in Bristol by Prince Albert on the 19th July, 1843, she was larger than any vessel then in existence-and the dock entrance was not deep enough for her to pass through. But she found a suitable berth in Liverpool and from there she operated a service to New York. The man who planned and built the docks that could accommodate what was then the largest ship in the world was Jesse Hartley.

Jesse Hartley was born in Pontefract, Yorkshire on 21st December, 1780. His father was a stonemason, architect and bridge master and Jesse’s earliest professional works were executed in the West Riding under his father’s direction. Until his appointment in 1824 as Civil Engineer and Superintendent of the Dock estate in Liverpool, Hartley concentrated on the design and construction of masonry bridges. By then his experience of bridge building was very wide-it ranged over works in Yorkshire, Lancashire, London and Ireland. His appointment to the important Liverpool job is interesting because he had no direct experience of dock construction, and among the thirteen rival applicants were several well- known engineers. Nevertheless, Hartley’s appointment as dock surveyor gave him the chance to express the grandiose ideas and expend the prodigious energies which became the trademarks of his tenure.

Salthouse Dock, late 19th Century
Early in November, 1824, less than eight months after his appointment, Mr Hartley, the Dock Surveyor, laid before the Trustees of the Docks a General Plan of Dock Works for the Improvement and Accommodation of the Port, accompanied by a very full report thereon.’He had not wasted any time. His plans for dock works included construction of a river wall and works to the north of Princes Basin as well as schemes for the Dry Dock, the Salthouse Dock, the Brunswick Basin, the proposed Brunswick Dock, the South Basin and the Graving Dock. The Dock Bill which had been formulated mainly on the basis of the Surveyor’s recommendations received the Royal Assent on the 27th June, 1825. Similar enabling acts, to allow the Dock Trust to raise revenue and govern its estate, were an integral part of the management of that estate, and the pattern of plan preparation, submission, argument, production of expert witnesses and so on became a familiar one to Mr Hartley. The Liverpool docks built under his direction were Clarence, Brunswick, Waterloo, Victoria, Trafalgar, Albert, Canning Half-tide, Salisbury, Collingwood, Stanley, Nelson, Bramley-Moore, Wellington, Wellington Half-tide, Huskisson and Canada Docks.

Hartley’s plans for new docks were hardly revolutionary, but he was responsible for several important innovations and his position gave him a unique opportunity to deal with each of his docks as a part of a whole system. Despite his predilection for curious architectural styles, he was a pragmatist. When planning what has become his most famous monument, the Albert Dock warehouses, he not only made models of the brick arches which he proposed for the new buildings but also conducted an experiment to ascertain ‘ how long sheet iron placed as a ceiling, under a wooden floor, could resist fire’. For the purposes of the latter he constructed a building 18 feet square and 10 feet high in the Dockyard and invited Dock Committee members to watch him set fire to it. The timber resisted combustion for 40 minutes. One of the results of the experiment was a design for an iron framed incombustible warehouse.

Harley's Albert Dock

 The Albert Dock warehouses exhibit some novel uses of iron, and they were equipped with hydraulic cargo-handling and dock machinery. Hartley’s business trips were sometimes to seek and sometimes to give counsel on architectural and engineering matters. Such contact, often with other eminent engineers such as James Walker, George Stephenson and George Aitchison, must have been stimulating and useful to Jesse Hartley. For instance, enclosed dock-warehouse systems were pioneered in London in the early nineteenth century.

The new docks offered two distinct advantages: with the use of locks to impound the water at a constant level, loading and unloading were unaffected by the rise and fall of the tides; and the docks were enclosed by high boundary walls which reduced opportunities for pilfering.

Hartley’s meticulous attention to every detail of each project under his superintendence is shown first in the design and then as completely in its execution. He liked things done properly. The S. & J. Holme’s contract for bricks for the Albert Dock specified bricks manufactured of the Clay called the North Shore Clay, to be hard burned and well shaped  and without any admixture of Clinkers or of broken or of Soft Bricks or Bricks containing Lime pebbles.  It was thereby agreed that the Surveyor of the said Docks should have the sole and uncontrolled power of rejecting all such of the said Bricks as he may in his own judgment deem soft, badly shaped or in the slightest degree defective  or otherwise unsatisfactory to the Surveyor of the said Docks in any manner howsoever.' Further, the rejected bricks had to be removed from the building site-within 24 hours, at Holme’s expense. Only the value of the contract and, presumably, Holme’s confidence in their product can have compensated for the many penalty clauses imposed on them by the Surveyor.

Before coming to Liverpool, Jesse Hartley worked for John Carr, a noted architect in the Palladian style. In Ireland Hartley worked for the Duke of Devonshire who also employed the architect William Atkinson; Atkinson specialised in Gothic and castellated styles. Much of Hartley’s work is utterly distinctive and beyond pastiche. It is also breathtaking, sometimes amusing, always interesting and occasionally beautiful. Picton was particularly scathing about Mr Hartley’s more outrageous structures, such as the (now demolished) hydraulic accumulator tower, at Canada Dock, a lofty structure in grey granite with some subordinate attached buildings in a sort of castellated style.

Hydraulic accumulator tower, at Canada Dock 

Economic factors well beyond Mr Hartley’s province gave him the opportunity and the means to realise his monumental visions. By the beginning of the nineteenth century Liverpool was the distribution port for the manufacturing districts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands. International trade with the West Indies, the United States and West Africa continued to grow, and the breaking of the East India Company’s monopolies opened the Indian and Chinese markets to Liverpool merchants. The capital accumulated as a result of increased trading activity was invested in infrastructure to handle more trade. The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 marked the beginning of railway transport and was the start of a vast railway network linking Birmingham (1837), London (1838), Birkenhead and Chester (1840) and Bury (1846). Related new capital works were the docks, quays, warehouses and other port facilities necessary for the increasing volume of goods to be handled. Jesse Hartley was quite equal to the challenge of dramatic increases in trade and shipping and he worked apace to provide Liverpool with the means to handle, store and despatch the ever greater tonnages the shipping companies and merchants directed through his port. Having spent nearly half his life working in Liverpool, Jesse Hartley died at home in Bootle on August 24th, i860 and was buried under a plain granite headstone at St Mary’s, Bootle. A road-widening scheme has displaced his gravestone, and reconstructions have obscured and obliterated some of his dock works, but many impressive samples of the architectural and engineering legacies of Jesse Hartley remain.



Liverpool Central Library
Dock Engineers and the Port Of Liverpool
Nancy Richie Noakes

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