Papers of John Rennie (1761-1821)

Scope and Content

Within the collection there are 19 letters from Rennie to various correspondents including 11 to Firmin de Tastet and Company, 1791-1817, at La.II.427. At La.III.427 (Rennie, 12-14) there are 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. The collection at Gen. 835 includes 5 letters to Thomas Townshend about engineering projects, 1802-1804, namely canal constructions 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.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Rennie was born at Phantassie, near East Linton, East Lothian, on 7 June 1761. He was the son of a farmer but showed an interest in mechanics from an early age, often spending time in the workshop of Andrew Meikle (1719-1811) the millwright and inventor of the threshing-machine. He was educated at a local school in Prestonkirk and then in Dunbar, and studied at Edinburgh University until 1783. After his education, Rennie worked as a millwright and established his own business. In 1784 he went to England, visiting James Watt in Staffordshire, and then took charge of the works at Albion Flour Mills in Blackfriars, London, for which Boulton and Watt were building a steam-engine. In 1791 he established himself as a mechanical engineer, setting up in business in Blackfriars. Rennie then directed himself towards canal construction, carrying out work on the Kennet and Avon Canal, the Rochdale Canal, the Lancaster Canal, and the Royal Canal of Ireland. He was also involved in the extensive drainage operations in the Lincolnshire Fens, the construction of the London docks, the East and West India Docks, Holyhead harbour, Hull docks, Ramsgate harbour, and the dockyards at Sheerness and Chatham. Rennie also worked on the construction of bridges and was involved with bridges in Kelso and Musselburgh in Scotland, and the former was his blueprint for Waterloo Bridge. He also designed London Bridge (completed after his death) and Southwark Bridge. Rennie gave advice during the construction of Bell Rock Lighthouse, built between 1807 and 1810 (off the Angus coast near Arbroath). His most imaginative and enduring work is probably the colossal breakwater at Plymouth, constructed across the Sound in deep water. Rennie had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 29 March 1798. John Rennie died on 4 October 1821, and was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

Rennie's second son, Sir John Rennie (1794-1874) was born in London. He acquired his engineering skills in his father's firm and assisted in the building of Southwark Bridge. He worked in partnership with his brother, George Rennie. His most important undertaking was the building of London Bridge, opened in 1831. Rennie was knighted the same year. Like his father, he carried out work for the Admiralty, and also in the Lincolnshire Fens. He and his brother also conducted some early railway work, and in 1852 he laid out a system of railways for Sweden for which he received the Swedish Order of Gustavus Vasa (riddare av Kungl. Vasaordern).

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letters about engineering projects in Dublin, acquired 1966, Accession no. E66.16. Letters to Townshend acquired 1959, Accession no. E59.27.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol.16. Pocock-Robins. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.

Related Material

The local Indexes show references to the papers of John Rennie's second son, Sir John Rennie (1794-1874), who was also a civil engineer (check the Indexes for more details): within the Laing Collection at La.II.427, letters of Rennie the younger to correspondents between 1822-1843 and some undated; and, letters to Thomas Townshend, 1823 and 1824, at Gen. 835.

Otherwise, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes this material relating to John Rennie the elder: papers, drawings and reports, c.1772-1821, Institution of Civil Engineers, NRA 16921 Civil Engineers; c1783-1821: correspondence, notebooks and accounts, c.1783-1821, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. MSS 19771-968, and papers relating to Whiteadder Bridge, 1800-1801, Ref. MS 19967, and miscellaneous letters, 1791-1821, Ref. MS 2909; correspondence and papers relating to Boston Bridge, 1799-1815, Lincolnshire Archives, NRA 11483 Boston borough, and reports and papers relating to Lincolnshire River Authority, Ref. LRA, 2-3, 5 LRA NRA 9935 Lincolnshire River; correspondence and papers relating to Clyde Harbour, 1798-1809, Glasgow City Archives, Ref. 3/11-29 NRA 13871 Clyde Port; reports on Fen drainage, 1814, Cambridgeshire County Record Office, Huntingdon, Ref. Acc 235 NRA 9006 Cambs RO, Hunts; ms plans, British Waterways Archive, see British Archives (3rd ed); report on the Kennet and Avon Canal, 1795, Bath and North East Somerset Record Office; report on the Leek Canal, c.1800, Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service, Staffordshire Record Office; specification for rebuilding London Bridge, 1823, London University Library, Ref. MS 158; report on Northfleet New Arsenal, 1807, British Library, Manuscript Collections, Ref. Add MS 27884 and letter and reports to Viscounts Melville, 1810-1819, Ref. Add MS 41345; correspondence and reports on Rochester Bridge, Rochester Bridge Trust, NRA 10539 Rochester Bridge; MS opinion on the Shardlow and Nottingham Canal, 1793, Birmingham University Information Services, Special Collections Department, Ref. Canal collection NRA 13208 Midlands canals; reports on Southampton Docks, Southampton Archives Office, Ref. D/PM NRA 20055 Page; report and correspondence relating to Tamar Navigation Canal, 1795-1797, Devon Record Office, Ref. W1258 T1258M NRA 9813 Russell; correspondence with Boulton family, Birmingham City Archives, Ref. Matthew Boulton Papers NRA 9497 Boulton, and letters to Boulton and Watt, 1784-1820, Ref. Box 23 NRA 14609 Boulton & Watt, and also letters to James Watt, 1792-1794, Ref. James Watt Papers NRA 22549 Watt; letters to Sir Roger Newdigate, 1778-1807, Warwickshire County Record Office, Ref. CR 136/B1310-97 NRA 26325 Newdegate; letters (10) to Samuel Whitbread, Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Record Service, Ref. W NRA 1123 Whitbread; and, letters, 1795-1804, Public Record Office, Ref. RAIL1008/87 NRA 28797 PRO railway.