Records of the Napier family, shipbuilders and marine engineers, Glasgow, Scotland

Scope and Content

  • Family and personal papers of the Ogilvie family. They relate mainly to James Ogilvie (c1775-1881: Deputy General Commissionary to the British Army), Robert Andrew Ogilvie snr (1870-1879: Surveyor General of the Customs), Robert Andrew Ogilvie jnr (1852-1938: Occupier of the Underwriting Chair of the Marine Department of Alliance Assurance Co Ltd), and Col Sir Andrew M J Ogilvie (1858-1925: Postmaster General);
  • Family and personal papers of the Napier family. They relate mainly to David Napier of Glenshellish (1790-1869), Robert Napier of West Shandon (1791-1876), James Robert Napier (1821-1879), Henry Melville Napier (1854-1940), Ellis Napier (b.1884), Robert Assheton Napier (1849-1894), and John S Napier (1871-1957);
  • Family and personal papers of the Muter family. They relate mainly to Thomas Muter, Robert Muter, Margaret A Muter, Andrew Muter, and to the firm of Patrick Mitchell (1784-1848) & Andrew Muter (d1887) a Calico Printing firm;
  • Napier business papers, including papers on technical development in the form of correspondence with Professor William John MacQuorn Rankine on engine economy and efficiency; with Scott-Russell on hull form; with William Froude of the Admiralty Test Tank on ship bow design and performance; with William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, on the problems of ships compasses and the deflections caused by iron hulls.

Administrative / Biographical History

David Napier (1790-1869), was the son of John Napier and was born in Dumbarton on 10th November 1790. He was educated at elementary level at Dumbarton Public School. He moved to Glasgow in 1802 when his father moved his business to new premises in the Jamaica Street area of the city. In Glasgow he was taught drawing and mathematics by Peter Nicholson, a well-known authority on architecture. By the age of twenty he had learned much of his father's trade and on the death of his father he took charge of the business.

In 1812 David Napier provided the boiler for the Comet (one of the first passenger carrying steam vessels), in association with Henry Bell. Recognising the potential in the field of steam navigation, he erected new works at Camlachie in the east end of Glasgow, where he built small marine engines to supply the river steamers which were then being built. He pioneered improvements in steam vessels in order that they would be able to withstand heavier seas and thus be able to venture out of the river into the open sea. When he began to extend his business he purchased land at Lancefield, adjoining the Clyde in the west end of Glasgow, where he built new works and made a wet basin/dock. The works at Camlachie were then leased to his cousin Robert.

In 1835, following a serious explosion on one of his steamers, the Earl Grey, Napier left Glasgow for London, where he worked with his sons and built iron steamers for the Margate traffic. He was involved in a number of other projects including the building of houses on land which he owned at the head of the Holy Loch. Here he also made roads and employed a steam carriage which was the first of its kind carrying passengers for hire. He also owned a small country estate at Glenshellish, near the north end of Loch Eck, from which he came to be referred as David Napier of Glenshellish. David Napier died in London on 23rd May 1869.

Robert Napier, (1791-1876, second son of James Napier of Dumbarton and Jean Ewing of Rosneath was born at Dumbarton on 18th June 1791. Like his cousin David, he was educated at Dumbarton Public School. One of his teachers, a Mr Traill, recognised his aptitude for mechanical and architectural drawing and encouraged him in developing this skill. Being the eldest son (his brother having died in infancy) and in accordance with Scottish custom, the intention had been that he should enter the Church. However, he felt more forcefully drawn towards following the blacksmith’s trade and at the age of fourteen began working for his father. In 1812 he went to Edinburgh, obtaining a post at Robert Stevenson's works. He returned to Glasgow in 1815 and opened a small blacksmith’s business in Greyfriar’s Wynd. His success there led him to lease the Camlachie works from his cousin David, when David moved his own business to Lancefield. At Camlachie his main business was ironfounding and engineering, constructing marine engines for steamships.

In 1827 he moved his business to larger premises at the Vulcan Foundry in Washington Street, which was nearer the harbour, and in 1835 he took over the foundry at Lancefield when his cousin David moved to London. Combining this with the Camlachie and Vulcan works, Robert Napier thus pioneered an integrated engineering and shipbuilding firm. At Lancefield between 1836 and 1840 he supplied engines for a number of vessels, including those of the East India Company and vessels which would run between England and New York. In 1840 he first became involved in supplying engines to Samuel Cunard, for vessels carrying mail to North America. At his recommendation Cunard was persuaded to increase the size of these vessels, and to enter into partnership with others, a move which proved to be the origin of the Cunard Company. Robert Napier supplied engines for all the paddle-wheel ships operated by Cunard over the next fifteen years. Napier's business was concerned mainly with supplying engines until 1841, when he opened a shipbuilding yard at Govan, building his first ship, the Vanguard, in 1843 for the Glasgow Dublin route. In 1818 he married his cousin Isabella, daughter of John Napier and sister of David. His sons James Robert and John were taken into partnership in 1853. He owned a country estate at West Shandon, and was a prolific collector of works of art and of pottery, his collection becoming known as the Shandon Collection. He died at West Shandon, Glasgow on 23 June 1876.

James Robert Napier (1821-1879), was the eldest son of Robert Napier of West Shandon. James Robert and his brother John followed their father into the shipbuilding business, and in the 1850s James was manager of the Govan yard. During the Crimean War the Government commissioned Napier's to build the iron vessel "Erebus." This ship, which measured 186 feet by 48.5 feet, was required to be built in a very short space of time, and the work was overseen by James Robert Napier. The ship was laid down in January 1856 and launched on 19th April 1856, 1200 men having been employed to ensure the speedy completion of the project. The strain of meeting the deadlines affected James Robert, and he retired from the company soon after the project was completed. After his retiral he continued his scientific interest, particularly in the field of navigation, and did work on compasses and deep-sea sounding methods which would later be perfected by his friend William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. His other projects included patenting domestic stoves and also the "Napier Coffee-pot". He was educated at Glasgow University, taking up further study in 1856 and achieving high standards in the mathematics classes taught by Professor William Thompson, the father of Lord Kelvin. He was a close friend and associate of Professor William John MacQuorn Rankine and, in conjunction with Isaac Watts, Frederick Barnes, and William John MacQuorn Rankine, he wrote a book entitled "Shipbuilding, Theoretical and Practical." He was also an active member of the Glasgow Philosophical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He married Emma Mary Twentyman, eldest daughter of Lawrence Holme Twentyman of Walthamstow, Essex, and they had four sons and two daughters. His youngest daughter Isabella married her cousin James Napier, author of "A Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon". His home was at 22 Blythswood Square, Glasgow, where he died on 13 December 1879.

Henry Melville Napier, (1854-1940) was the son of James Robert Napier and Emma Mary Twentyman Napier. He was educated at the High School of Glasgow and the University of Glasgow, studying Physics under Professor William Thompson and Engineering under Professor William John MacQuorn Rankine. On 4th April 1888 he married Margaret Agnes Muter, daughter of Andrew Muter, Calico Printer, and Margaret Muter. They had two sons and a daughter: Henry Andrew Muter Napier, Ian Patrick Robert Napier, and Ellis Muter Napier. Henry Napier followed his father into the shipbuilding business of Napier, Shanks & Bell and in 1898 Henry reconstituted the company as Napier & Miller Ltd. The business moved from Yoker to Old Kilpatrick in 1906, and the yard was purchased and closed by National Shipbuilders Security Ltd in 1930. He was a prominent figure within the shipbuilding industry, as shown in letters of condolence to his daughter at the time of his death. He appears to have had a strong interest in the writing of poetry and essays, some of which survives within the collection. Among his essays is a portrait of his grandfather, Robert Napier of West Shandon, which he wrote as an address to the Old Govan Club, of which he was an active member. Among his other interests was travel, one of his diaries containing a very detailed account of a sea voyage which took him around the world between 22nd November 1884 and 26 May 1885, aboard the SS Nagato Marie. Henry Melville Napier died at his home, Milton House, Bowling, on 18th December 1940.

Sources: Dictionary of National Biography, Ritchie, L A (ed), The shipbuilding industry: A guide to historical records, (1992, Manchester) Napier, James, Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon, (Edinburgh, 1904) Napier, David, David Napier, Engineer, 1790-1896: An Autobiographical Sketch with notes.


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

Access Information

Access to records within this collection is open, however an appointment may be required. Please email Archives and Special Collections for advice:

Acquisition Information

Placed on temporary deposit, then permanent loan, by Ms Bell, trustee of Ellis Napier, and Major Andrew Napier, nephew of Ellis Napier. Autograph letters of Robert Napier (1791-1876) purchased at auction in 1995.

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Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Archivist.Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents.

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This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 248 procedures

Custodial History

Most of the records (with the exception of the autograph letters of Robert Napier, 1791-1876) were in the possession of Ellis Napier, until she was admitted to residential care, when they were placed on temporary deposit at Glasgow University Archives. Following Ellis Napier's death the records were deposited here on permanent loan.


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