Basic Biographical Details

Name: John Rennie
Designation: Engineer
Born: 7 June 1761
Died: 4 October 1821
Bio Notes: John Rennie was born on 7 June 1761, the youngest of the nine children of James Rennie, farmer and brewery owner at Phantassie, East Lothian and his wife Jean (née Rennie). He attended the parish school and showed an early interest in and aptitude for machinery. When he was twelve he was employed by the well-known mill-wright and inventor of machinery Andrew Meikle and gained a basic knowledge of practical mechanics. He attended Dunbar High School for two years where he shone for his ability in mathematics and natural philosophy. Rennie set up as a mill-wright on his own in 1779. He earned sufficient income from his business to attend Edinburgh University from 1780-1783. He made friends with two eminent teachers there, the chemist Joseph Black and the professor of natural philosophy, John Robison from whom he gained a broad scientific knowledge and some grasp of engineering concepts.

In the latter year Rennie made a study tour of England, his final destination being Birmingham. He had a letter of introduction from John Robison to James Watt. Watt, who needed a millwright to improve the mechanical side of his steam engine, was impressed by Rennie. In 1784 he went to work for Boulton & Watt to design and execute their machinery at the Albion Flour Mills at Southwark. These mills aroused much interest at the time and assisted in establishing Rennie’s reputation as a mechanical engineer. However Rennie had much wider interests and talents and besides mechanical engineering and he was involved with designing and building harbours and docks, draining fens and building bridges and canals. In 1790 he was the appointed surveyor to the Kennet and Avon Canal and from this point his time was largely spent on civil engineering work.

Rennie’s bridges, both small and large, are fine examples both of engineering and of architecture. Colvin states he was one of the ‘great British bridge-builders of the 19th century’. His first major bridge was that over the Tweed at Kelso. He designed three major bridges across the Thames: Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge and London Bridge all constructed by Edward Banks (1770-1835). Waterloo Bridge, which was privately promoted, was the finest one and the most prestigious bridge project so far in Britain. In 1809 Rennie and William Jessop were asked to report on the plans for a new bridge which had been prepared by the engineer George Dodd with the assistance of J L Bond. Rennie found fault with these plans and was asked to provide a scheme himself. His plans were adopted and he was employed at a salary of £1000 per year. He anticipated that the removal of Old London Bridge would result in an increased scour higher up the river, he ensured that the foundations of the bridge were strengthened. The design of the bridge was based on the earlier Kelso bridge. The bridge was opened in 1817 and was highly acclaimed at the time.

Southwark Bridge was also a private undertaking. It consisted of three cast-iron arches, the central one being the widest cast-iron span ever built in Britain. It was replaced in 1920-21. His last major bridge was that to replace the medieval London Bridge. The Corporation had already requested a report from its surveyor, George Dance, who with a firm of engineers had suggested that the existing eight arches should be removed and replaced with four larger arches. A report by Rennie submitted in 1821 showed that the bridge should be completely replaces rather than the old one altered. An Act of Parliament was passed to take this forward but Rennie died in 1821. Although a competition was held for designing the bridge, in fact these were laid aside and Rennie’s bridge design was adopted. It was built under the direction of his son, Sir John Rennie, and completed in 1831. It was removed in 1968 and re-erected in a reduced form in Arizona.

Rennie had married Martha Ann Mackintosh in 1790. They had nine children. He died on 4 October 1821 after a short illness and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. His sons George and John carried on his work. His daughter Anna, married Charles Robert Cockerell. Rennie was a tall handsome man with both charm and determination. He was said to have a short temper in private but he made and kept good friends. He has been criticised for the massiveness and the cost of his structures but he built bridges to last. There are numerous portraits of Rennie in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and in the National Portrait Gallery as well as elsewhere.

Employment and Training

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this engineer (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 1John Chisholmec. 1800(?) Assistant 

Buildings and Designs

This engineer was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 171784Bridge over the Water of Leith, Stevenhouse Mill  MidlothianScotland 
Item 2 of 171793Peterhead HarbourPeterhead AberdeenshireScotlandImprovements proposed after storm in 1793
Item 3 of 171800Bridge over the River TweedKelso RoxburghshtreScotland 
Item 4 of 171800Leith Docks, Old East DockLeith EdinburghScotlandEast Dock
Item 5 of 171800Whiteadder Bridge   RoxburghshireScotland 
Item 6 of 17c. 1800Leith Docks, West Old DockLeith EdinburghScotland 
Item 7 of 17c. 1801Union Street and King Street and Union Bridge  AberdeenScotlandWas consulted on the desgn of this bridge.
Item 8 of 171802HarbourFraserburgh AberdeenshireScotlandInitial porposal for large harbour
Item 9 of 171806Bridge over the River EskMusselburgh MidlothianScotland 
Item 10 of 171806New Bridge over River EskMusselburgh MidlothianScotland 
Item 11 of 171807Bell Rock Lighthouse  AngusScotland 
Item 12 of 171812Newton Stewart Bridge over the River CreeNewton Stewart WigtownshireScotland 
Item 13 of 171819Bridge of EarnBridge of Earn PerthshireScotland 
Item 14 of 171819Cramond Bridge over the River Almond  MidlothianScotland 
Item 15 of 171819Union Suspension BridgePaxton BerwickshireScotlandGave advice on bridge
Item 16 of 171820Ken BridgeNew Galloway KirkcudbrightshireScotland 
Item 17 of 17c. 1820Helmsdale HarbourHelmsdale SutherlandScotlandSuggested breakwaters to shelter the mouth of the river but nothing appears to have been carried.


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this engineer:
Item 1 of 10APSD The Dictionary of Architectureed Wyatt PapworthThe Architectural Publication Society (8v 1852-1892) 
Item 2 of 10Boucher, C T G1963John Rennie Manchester 
Item 3 of 10Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 4 of 10Cresy, Edward1847Encyclopaedia of Civil Engineering   
Item 5 of 10Gifford, John2012The Buildings of Scotland: Angus and Dundee YaleP721
Item 6 of 10Institution of Civil Engineers2002Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers V.1 and 2 
Item 7 of 10New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography  Article by Andrew Saint.
Item 8 of 10Rennie, Sir Jpohn1875The Autobiography of Sir John Rennie   
Item 9 of 10Ruddock, Ted1979Arch Bridges 1735-1835   
Item 10 of 10Smiles, S1861Lives of the Engineers  volume ii, part vii

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this engineer:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 1Scotsman4 October 2014   

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this engineer:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 2Institution of Civil EngineersArchive Collection Rennie Papers
Item 2 of 2National Library of ScotlandManuscript CollectionMS.2009Letters by Rennie