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CHAPTER VIII. HARBOURS AND RIVERS. 1811–1843.
There is scarcely a harbour or river in Scotland about which, at some time, Mr. Stevenson was not asked to give his advice. His opinion was also sought in England and Ireland, and he executed works of greater or less extent in many of the cases in which he was consulted.

We may select from his reports the names of Dundee, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Stonehaven, Granton, Fraserburgh, Ardrossan, Port-Patrick; the rivers Forth, Tay, Severn, Mersey, Dee, Ribble, Wear, Tees, and Erne, as among some of the many places in the United Kingdom where he was employed.

In a subsequent chapter extracts will be found illustrating Mr. Stevenson’s views on various professional subjects, and from these it will be seen that he brought his large experience and study of the waves to bear advantageously and practically on his harbour engineering. He was, as will be gathered from the extracts, at an early period fully alive to the value of spending basins for tranquillising a harbour, and of the proper disposition of the covering piers, in reference to the line of exposure, so as to avoid throwing sea into the131 harbour’s mouth, or causing it to heap up on coming in contact with the piers; while, as regards rivers, he was no less alive to the value of backwater in keeping open estuaries, and to the necessity of removing all obstructions to the free flow of the tide in river-navigation.

At an early date, for example, Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Price were jointly consulted as to the navigation of the Tees, and I am indebted to Mr. John Fowler of Stockton, the engineer to the Tees Navigation, for the following statement as to the result of that joint reference:—

“The Navigation Company consulted Mr. Stevenson and Mr. H. Price, who differed in opinion as to the general treatment of the river. Mr. Price recommended that it should be contracted by jetties, and Mr. Stevenson that the banks should be faced with continuous walls, stating as his reason for this recommendation, that ‘to project numerous jetties into the river, I regard as inexpedient, being a dangerous encumbrance to navigation, and tending to disturb the currents and destroy the uniformity of the bottom.’ The plan adopted by the Navigation Company was, however, that of Mr. Price; and jetties were constructed on the river to a large extent,” and Mr. Fowler adds, that “after a trial of twenty-seven years it was found that they were liable to all the objections that had been urged against them by Mr. Stevenson.”

Accordingly, under Mr. Fowler’s direction, the whole of the jetties have been removed.

One of the early harbour schemes in which my father132 was engaged in England, was a harbour at Wallasey Pool, on the Mersey, in which he acted in conjunction with Telford and Nimmo. The following reports will show the nature and extent of work then contemplated as a commencement of the Birkenhead Docks, now so valuable an adjunct to the port of Liverpool. But at the early period of 1828, when the reports were written, the public were not prepared to entertain a scheme of improvement based on so great a scale. It included, as will be seen, not only the formation of a floating harbour at Wallasey on the Mersey, but the construction of a harbour at Helbre on the Dee, with a connecting ship canal between the two estuaries.

    “To the Subscribers for the proposed Wet Docks at Wallasey Pool.

    “Preliminary Report of Robert Stevenson and Alexander Nimmo, Civil Engineers, on the proposed improvements at Wallasey Pool.

    “Liverpool, Feby. 23, 1828.—Having been requested to examine the situation of the Wallasey Pool with a view to discover how far additional accommodation might be obtained there for the increasing trade of the port of Liverpool, we did accordingly meet at Woodside on the 10th February 1828, and after examining the pool at high and low water, and the action of the tides on the northern edge of the Leasowe level, which we found to be overflowed at high water of the 16th and 17th and 18th February, with off-shore winds and moderate weather, we next examined the shore down to low water in that place called Mockbeggar Wharf, which we found to consist of turf and soft marl over a bottom of fine clay. We afterwards visited the western part of the level, which extends to the immediate vicinity of the estuary133 of the Dee, part of which we examined, also Helbre, Hoylake, and the Rock Channels, and directed certain surveys and levels to be taken for our further information, and though we have not yet obtained all the data requisite for forming estimates of the expense of improvement, we are generally of opinion as follows:—

    “That this situation of Wallasey Pool affords, beyond doubt, the most favourable position in the vicinity of Liverpool for an extension of the accommodation of the shipping trade of the port, at a very moderate expense.

    “The ground being level, the soil water-tight and of easy excavation, docks may be formed there of any extent. The bay in front between Seacombe and Woodside, though mostly shallow at present, affords the first place of shelter within the Mersey, and small vessels lie there out of the stream in perfect safety. It possesses a creek or channel which could easily be enlarged and deepened so as to form an outer tide harbour similar to the original harbour of Liverpool, but upon a greater scale, and for the scouring of which it would be easy to open up the tide in the pool to the extent of 250 acres, as far as Viners Embankment, and above that to any extent that may be thought desirable. This space having a deep creek through its whole extent forms a complete half-tide basin for facilitating the entrance into the Docks on either side, while on the shallow parts may be formed extensive timber-ponds. Works of masonry in this situation being out of the sea-way and of the stream of the tide, may be constructed with great economy; good building stones are to be found at Bidston Hill, and the whole soil is a brick earth.

    “The situation possesses other advantages of access not so obvious, but which may eventually be of the greatest importance. The Leasowe level at the head of this pool extends as far as the river Dee, and touches the sea-shore at Mock Beacon, where indeed it is occasionally overflowed by the tide. In this direction it would be quite practicable to open a direct passage for ships into134 the Horse Channel, by excavating in marl and clay, only quite clear of the shifting sands which are found in all other parts of the Mersey and Dee. And towards the Dee a ship canal may easily be cut with its entrance either at Dawpool in Hoylake, or in a tide harbour which could be formed at Helbre, a position which affords many maritime advantages.

    “That position has several good anchorages in its vicinity, three different passages to sea, and is only five miles from the floating light, the distance of which from Liverpool by Wallasey and Helbre is exactly the same as by the Rock Channel; and nine miles of it would be inland navigation, instead of an intricate passage among sandbanks, the whole of which inland navigation is an addition to the floating harbour.

    “Having thus briefly shown the facilities possessed to seaward, we may next turn our attention to those connected with the inland navigation. It is evident that to the ‘flats’ which navigate the Duke’s Canal, Mersey and Irwell, Ellesmere, Sankey, and Weaver Navigations, Wallasey Pool is just as accessible as the Docks of Liverpool, while by a canal to Helbre you communicate with the large navigation of the Dee, and the valuable mineral county of Flintshire; and if ever, as is extremely probable, the canal navigation should be brought nearer to Liverpool, the natural termination would be Tranmere or Wallasey Pool, between which a cut can be easily formed. By this means boats from the small canals in Staffordshire and the other inland counties can be brought down to the seaport and return their cargo without the trouble of transhipment,—an object, as being important to the proprietors of these canals, that there can be little doubt of their endeavouring to carry it into effect whenever the shipping can be accommodated on the Cheshire side.

    “Although in the present state of our survey, and until we meet our eminent friend and colleague Mr. Telford, we are not prepared to enter into any detail of plans or estimates of the135 expense of these improvements, yet we are satisfied he will agree with us in opinion that the cost of even the most expensive will be greatly inferior to that of obtaining any important additional accommodation upon the Liverpool shore, which being almost entirely occupied already, we consider it impossible to obtain there at any expense sufficient room for the increasing trade; and we would conclude this preliminary report by recommending to the thriving and enlightened community of Liverpool to weigh well the advantages above alluded to, and the benefit of now extending their operations to the Cheshire shore.

    “Robert Stevenson.
    Alexander Nimmo.”

    “Intended Ship Canal between the Rivers Dee and Mersey.

        “The Report of Thomas Telford, Robert Stevenson, and Alexander Nimmo, Civil Engineers, recommending Two extensive new Sea Ports, etc., on the Rivers Dee and Mersey, adjacent to Liverpool, with a Floating Harbour or Ship Canal to connect them.

    “The undersigned, having so far completed their land and water surveys as to enable them to speak with confidence upon the practicability of extending the accommodation for shipping to suit the rising demands of this great commercial emporium, beg leave to commence their report upon this important subject by describing the general outline of the proposed improvements, and then to proceed to discuss them in detail; but previous to this it is necessary to make a few preliminary remarks.
    “On the Estuaries of the Dee and Mersey.

    “In one or other of these must always continue to be the great port of the north-west of England, the preservation and improvement of which has become the more important since this last136 century has added so much to the progress of manufacturing and commercial enterprise, and to that extension of inland navigation, which has rendered Liverpool not only the great mart of the north-west of Britain and of all Ireland, but nearly of the whole western world.

    “The chief feature of these estuaries is the extensive range of sandbanks in their front, through which an intricate ship-navigation has to be carried. These channels have been always subject to variations, and are now only safely navigated by a careful system of pilotage.

    “In the progress of our investigations, and feeling the great importance of the measures we are about to recommend, we have carefully inquired into the various changes which have taken place on these banks, as far as can be collected from history or inferred from observation, in order to be enabled to judge what is likely to take place as to their future permanent condition.

    “In the time of the Romans the Ribble seems to have been the chief port of this district, and Ribchester is said to have been a city as great as any out of Rome; the port was Poulton below Preston, at the Neb of the Naze, so vastly inferior at the present time to various situations on the Mersey and the Dee that it is impossible not to admit that some extraordinary change has taken place in their physical condition since that period. Tradition says that the port of the Ribble was destroyed by an earthquake, and also that there were tremendous inundations in Cheshire and Lancashire about the termination of the Roman sway in Britain; and various phenomena we have seen seem to point to some such catastrophe.

    “It is well known that in the Saxon times the river Dee was an important navigation, and that Chester was then and for many ages after the great port of the west, and for the connection with Ireland, whilst the Mersey was little known, and Liverpool only a fishing village.

    137 “But in after times the port of Chester was so much obstructed by sandbanks in the upper portions that the city became inaccessible to vessels of large draught, and though serious efforts were made to remedy this evil, and have even partly accomplished it, yet the trade of the country was gradually transferred to Liverpool on the Mersey, which had become a place of considerable importance at the time of the Revolution, and had been created an independent port: before, it was only a creek of Chester.

    “In our inquiries into the early state of the navigations of the Dee and Mersey, the oldest chart we have found of any authority is that of Grenville Collins, in 1690. It is dedicated to King William, to whom he acted as pilot on his expedition to Ireland; and as that army embarked from Hoylake, as also that of the year before under General Schomberg, and as Collins was officially employed in making charts of the coast, there can be no doubt that, though rude, it conveys, as far as it goes, an authentic representation of the state of navigation at that time.

    “The roadstead of Hoylake was then spacious and deep, with five fathoms into it, and seven fathoms inside, from one half to three quarters of a mile wide, and covered by the Hoyle Sand, which was then one solid bank without any swash or opening across it, and was dry at neap tides as far as opposite the Point of Air and beyond.

    “The Dove Point then projected a mile and three-quarters from the shore, separating Hoylake from the Rock Channel, which was then nearly dry at low water as far as Mockbeggar, between which and Burbo Sand there was only one quarter fathom, and between Dove Point and Burbo only two fathoms.

    “The large vessels which at that time belonged to Liverpool put out part of their lading in Hoylake until they were light enough to sail over the flats to Liverpool.

    “The union of Hoylake and the Rock Channel formed, as at present, the principal passage to sea, called the Horse Channel, then138 a fair opening with three to seven fathoms, but considerably to the eastward of the present channel of that name; for Collins’s sailing mark through it was Mockbeggar Hall upon the Banquetting-House in Bidston, would mark the present Spencer’s Gut as having been the channel. The north spit did not then exist, or rather was part of the Hoyle bank; and the Beggar’s Patch seems to have been the extremity of Dove Point. The Formby Channel was said to have three fathoms on the bar, but was not buoyed or beaconed, therefore not used.

    “The Chester bar had nine feet least water; and Wild Road is marked as good anchorage, much used in the coal trade. About 1760, published in 1776, we have the Survey of Mackenzie, who was employed by the Admiralty to make charts of the western coasts of Britain, which are still in high reputation.

    “At this time Hoylake continued to be a good roadstead, though greatly altered; the depth at entrance was only two fathoms, eight fathoms in the middle, the width only three furlongs, and its length had diminished at least a mile. A passage was opened from the Rock Channel across to Dove Point into Hoylake, and across the east end of Hoyle Sand, with four to eight fathoms, forming the present Horse Channel.

    “On this chart we also perceive the beginning of another opening across the Hoyle Sand, now called Helbre Swash, then dry at low water at each end, having three fathoms in the middle, now a deep and fair channel with seven to nine fathoms, and two and a half least water at its mouth.

    “Since the opening of this channel or swash little or no tide sets through the Hoylake, which is gradually closing up, and now used only for small craft.

    “The existence of Hoylake was of material importance to Liverpool and also to the Dee, for vessels could run there at any time; the entrance to it was marked by leading lights in the middle of last century, one of the first applications of reflecting lights to the139 purposes of navigation; they are now of little use, as the sand has shifted to the eastward, and the entrance is nearly dry at low water.

    “The Rock Channel seems to have undergone a very important change by the time of Mackenzie’s survey. We have observed that in Collins’s time, 1690, it was dry at low water as far nearly as Mockbeggar. Although this is still nearly the case at the Perch at low tides, it is opened below that in a material degree. In the space of seventy years the channel had deepened to have three or four fathoms in Wallasey Hole; also between Mockbeggar Wharf and the north bank, which was dry at low water; and a channel had opened across Dove Point, with two and three fathoms, into Hoylake, and from thence across the east end of Hoyle, forming the present Horse Channel, as before described, with four to eight fathoms out to sea. On the other hand, the sand from this deepening had been carried down to seaward, forming a complete shoal across the original Horse Channel of Collins’s time, in whose sailing-line is marked a depth of four feet only, and this shoal connected with that called the Beggar’s Patch, and thence with the spit or flat along the west side of the Horse Channel, on which was six feet water. This last channel was direct and fair, with five to eight fathoms, and previous to the publication of Mackenzie’s chart, but after the time of his survey, was marked by two lighthouses at Leasowe shore, and subsequently by that on Bidston Hill under the direction of Captain Hutchinson, as was also the entrance into Hoylake by the two lights near Meols, as before described.

    “The Formby Channel is marked as deep upon Mackenzie’s chart, with four fathoms at the entrance, and between Taylor’s Bank and Middle Patch two fathoms; there is now only five feet over the flats at low water at its entrance, and it was buoyed in at Mackenzie’s time; but, though the deepest channel to Liverpool, it is, from its intricacy and instability, still very little used for navigation.

    140 “Lieutenant Evans published a survey of the Liverpool and Chester rivers, with a book of sailing directions, which is in good repute. We have preferred the chart by Mr. Thomas in 1813, made by order of the Lords of the Admiralty, for the purpose of comparison with the several before mentioned surveys, as more minute in detail.

    “At the time of this survey, fifty years after that of Mackenzie, Hoylake had diminished in breadth to one furlong; the depth at the entrance was three to seven feet; four fathoms near the Red Stones; since that time it is still shallowing, and now may be walked across at low water, from Dove Point to East Hoyle; so that this roadstead may be considered as lost.

    “Helbre Swash had opened to half a mile wide, with six or eight fathoms water, but with a shoal at its entrance of one fathom; there are now two fathoms and a half through that entrance.

    “The Brazil or North Bank had extended dry, at low water, as far as Spencer’s Gut Buoy, and the North Spit or four feet flats had extended into the Horse Channel across the line of sea lights, thereby forcing that channel further into Hoyle Bank. The lower part of the Rock Channel had enlarged by the formation of a passage on each side of the Beggar’s Patch.

    “The entrance to Formby Channel had very much altered since Mackenzie’s time, and, though better marked, still continued to be little frequented. The floating light placed opposite Helbre Swash and the Horse Channel, outside of all the banks, has made a great improvement in the access from the seaward in that direction.

    “The Rock Channel, from these circumstances, continues to be the main passage to and from the harbour of Liverpool, but it is only provided with day marks, and though well buoyed cannot be navigated by night; being very narrow, and having banks in its middle, it is difficult for vessels to beat through with foul winds in one tide, and as there is no secure anchorage, frequent delays and losses take place in this part of the navigation.

    141 “Within the harbour of Liverpool or in the river Mersey the principal places of anchorage are—

    “1st, Abreast the town.

    “2d, Off the Magazines, which is used by the outward-bound vessels.

    “3d, Up the river in Sloyne Roads, or Broombro Pool, which is almost confined to vessels under quarantine.

    “In the two first-mentioned anchorages a great sea tumbles in, with NE. gales, and this, with the rapid tide and bad holding ground, causes vessels to drift, even with two anchors down, so that it is necessary for all the merchant vessels, as soon as the tide serves, to proceed into dock and remain there until a favourable opportunity occurs of putting to sea, so as to get through the Rock and Horse Channels with daylight; hence a considerable accumulation of vessels within the docks at all times, but especially when there has been a continuance of northerly and westerly winds, and which has made it necessary to look now for additional accommodation on the opposite shore of Wallasey Pool.
    “Proposed establishment at Wallasey.

    “Small craft find good shelter on the banks at the mouth of Wallasey Pool, being there out of the stream, and land-locked by the Point of Seacombe.

    “The steamers also, to which dispatch is of moment, moor along this shore, and if there was more room in Wallasey Pool it would decidedly be the best anchorage about Liverpool.

    “Wallasey Creek runs nearly for two miles from the Mersey, where it is stopped by an embankment, through which the waters of 3000 acres of marsh land pass by a tunnel. The pool below the embankment covers nearly 250 acres at spring-tides, and by its backwater maintains a channel through the creek down to low water springs, and with seventeen feet at high water springs as far up as the embankment.

    142 “Previous to the embankment it is certain that this creek was materially deeper. On Mackenzie’s chart, opposite to its mouth, there are twenty fathoms marked, being much more than anywhere within the Mersey at present, and a bottom of rock. This channel would therefore be restored by any considerable addition to the backwater; and at all events, if the lower parts of the creek were opened by dredging, and, by a power of scouring it, low water obtained, a safer inlet for vessels to run to would be acquired than at presen............
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