Engineers Walk

Thomas Guppy Plaque
Plaque sponsored by
Bristol (Brunel) Probus Club

Thomas Guppy (1797-1882)

The Retired Professional Engineers' Club (Bristol) is grateful to The Institution of Civil Engineers for their kind permission to publish in full the following Memoir.

MR. THOMAS RICHARD GUPPY, of Naples, second son of Mr. Samuel Guppy, an eminent merchant of Bristol, during the latter part of the last and the beginning of this century, was born in that city in the year 1797. His father was connected with the copper trade, and invented a barbed nail for fastening copper on vessels, the patent of which he sold to the English Government for 㿔,000.
After his ordinary education had been completed, he made a voyage up the Mediterranean, and on returning, shortly after the termination of the war in 1815, he presented himself to Mr. Maudslay to become an apprentice, when that gentleman, after pointing to the deserted workshops and the rusty tools, said, "The war is at an end; the Government no longer gives me work; all my earnings have been spent in making tools, and in the extension of my works, and now I am about to be ruined. Go, and be any trade rather than that of an engineer." This incident will explain why he never served a regular pupilage. In 1820 he crossed over to America from Portsmouth in the sailing vessel "Electra". He landed at Philadelphia, and whilst travelling occupied himself with the sale of manufactured copper. About the end of that year his enterprising nature led him, without success, to make a proposition to the Governor of the State of New York for lighting the city of New York with gas. After passing nearly a year in the United States, he decided to visit Germany, for the sake of studying architectural drawing and improving his knowledge of the language. He first went to Leipzig, working there for some time under Professor Siegel; from thence he preceded to Dresden, where he made the acquaintance of Thormeyer, the king's architect, and, following his advice, became a student of the Royal Academy of that town. He did not remain at Dresden very long, but removed to Munich, where he continued his study of drawing. In 1823 he made his way to Paris; entered the "Academie des Beaux Arts," and completed his architectural education under the eminent Professor Baltard.

He returned to England in 1824, and soon after his arrival patented a plan for rigging vessels with two spars instead of a mast. About the year 1826, in conjunction with his brother, Mr. Samuel Guppy, he took the Friars Sugar Refinery at Bristol, which they carried on successfully for several years. However, engineering was more to his taste; so in the year 1830, in con-junction with the late Mr. I. K. Brunel, V.P. Inst. C.E., he started a company for constructing a railway from Bristol to London. In 1831 they applied to Parliament for a Bill; but the first year it was thrown out, and it was not until 1832 that they were successful.

In October 1835, at a meeting of the Directors of the Great Western Railway Company, one of those present spoke of the enormous length, as it then appeared, of the railway from London to Bristol. Mr. Brunel exclaimed, "Why not make it longer, and have a steamboat to run from Bristol to Now York, and call it the Great Western?" This suggestion was hardly noticed; but Mr. Guppy and Mr. Brunel talked the matter over afterwards; the idea was taken up, and a committee was formed to carry out the project. Mr. Guppy and Captain Claxton then started on a preliminary tour to visit the great ship-building ports of the kingdom, and the valuable information thus gained was contained in a Report dated January 1836.

Few people thought that this daring undertaking would be successful; and the building of the "Great Western" had not long been commenced before Dr. Dionysius Lardner began openly to question the correctness of the views held by Mr. Brunel and Mr. Guppy. At a meeting of the British Association at Liverpool in September 1837, under the Presidency of the Earl of Burlington, now the Duke of Devonshire, Dr. Lardner read a Paper in which he insisted, attempting to prove his assertion by calculations, that it would be impossible to build a steamship which could take sufficient coal, and have room besides for passengers and cargo, to last for a voyage from Bristol to New York. Notwithstanding these adverse criticisms, the building of the ship was steadily proceeded with, and the launch took place on the 19th of July, 1837.

During the trial trip a fire broke out on board, owing to the felt, with which the boilers were covered, having been carried up too far. It was, however, soon subdued, and she was able to resume her voyage to Bristol. The "Great Western" started on her first voyage to New York on Sunday, the 8th of April, 1838, at 8 A.M., and arrived at Now York at 2.00 P.M. on Monday, the 23rd of April, having consumed only three-fourths of the coal taken on board. The return journey was made in fourteen days, although twenty-four hours were lost by a stoppage at sea. After this she ran regularly between Bristol and New York until the end of 1846. In 1847 she became the property of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and was one of their best steamers, until at last she was broken up in 1857. Mr. Guppy therefore assisted, conjointly with the late Mr. Brunel, in the construction of the precursor of Ocean Steam Navigation

In 1843 he prepared, for Messrs. Darby & Hewett, complete plans and drawings for an iron barque of 450 tons measurement, called the "Richard Cobden". She was built by Messrs. James Hodgson & Co., of Liverpool, of Coalbrookdale iron, and was the first iron vessel to sail from Liverpool to Shanghai. She continued in active service for twenty six years, and proved herself to be, at that time, one of the strongest and best constructed ships afloat.

In consequence of studies made during the construction of the "Great Western", Mr. Guppy took out a Patent (sealed June 15, 1843; enrolled December 15, 1843; see "Repertory of Patent Inventions," February, 1844), for certain improvements in the building of metal ships and other vessels, viz., the substitution of plates of copper, or other suitable alloys of metal, instead of plates of iron, for covering the exterior parts of ships' bottoms; further, the construction of false internal sides and bottoms to metal ships, the spaces between the external bottoms and internal sides being divided into water-tight compartments. This is now termed the cellular system, and was adopted by Mr. Brunel in the construction of the "Great Eastern".

The Archimedes He afterwards became the Directing Engineer of the Great Western Steamship Company, of which Mr. Brunel was the Consulting Engineer, and at the company's works at Bristol he constructed the iron steamship the "Great Britain" in the years 1841 to 1844. That steamship, with her engines for paddle-wheels, was in progress when the experimental screw-steamer "Archimedes," commanded by Captain Chappell, R.N., arrived at Bristol on a trial cruise. Mr. Guppy was invited to be present at a trip in the Bristol Channel, when the performance was so satisfactory that he felt persuaded the principle of screw-propulsion merited investigation. In consequence, he took passage in the "Archimedes" on a voyage to Tenby and to Liverpool.

On his return to Bristol, he addressed such a report to the Directors of the Great Western Steamship Company, that Engine Drawing SS Great Britainthey, acting on the advice of Mr. Brunel, ordered that the construction of the hull and engines of the "Great Britain" should not be proceeded with during a period of six months, so that within that period the performance of appropriate engines and of the screw-propeller might be studied. Numerous experiments were made, and various forms of screws were applied to the "Archimedes". The advantages possessed by this new mode of propulsion appeared so evident, that Mr Brunel advised its adoption, when the Directors of the Company had the courage to resolve that the form of the ship should be adapted for the application of a screw-propeller, and that suitable engines should be constructed, and to this new task Mr. Guppy had to apply himself, the duties and responsibility accruing thereto being as can be easily understood, most arduous.

However, under the masterly superintendence of Mr. Guppy, the "Great Britain" was so far finished as to be launched, in the presence of H.R H Prince Albert, on the 19th of July, 1843. She carried four large life-boats of iron, and two of wood, in the davits, and one large life-boat of wood on deck, all constructed according to a patent taken out by Mr. Guppy. After many experimental trips, she left Liverpool on her first voyage for New York making the passage out in fourteen days and twenty-one hours, and the return in fifteen days and a half.

On the 22nd of September, 1846 on her outward voyage from Liverpool, a few hours after her departure, she ran ashore in Dundrum Bay, when it was supposed she was rounding the Isle of Man. All efforts to release her were unavailing, and she was not liberated until the 27th of August in the following year. On a general survey being made, it was found that she had not suffered any alteration of form, nor was she strained - thus testifying to the care and ability with which she had been constructed. Thus it may be claimed for Mr. Guppy that he materially assisted in the introduction of the screw propeller. The "Great Britain" continued in active service, to Australia and elsewhere, as a sound good steamship until recently - a specimen of the excellent workmanship of nearly forty years ago. Now she is being altered to a sailing vessel, is being sheathed with wood, and it is understood is to be repaired for a class in Lloyd's Registry.

At this time Mr. Guppy was also an active member of the Board of Directors of the Great Western Railway Company. In 1844 he accepted the post of manager of the Cwm Avon Works, under the Governor and Company of Copper Miners in England, a position which he held for several years, during which he introduced important improvements. In 1846 he put up a rice-mill in Dock Street, London.

In 1849 the state of his health induced Mr. Guppy to accept an invitation to proceed to Naples, where he established himself as a consulting engineer. His enterprising mind did not allow him to be long contented with such a position; so in 1854 he commenced a mechanical engineering establishment, which continued to extend and to prosper, and where he employed from four hundred to seven or eight hundred Italian workmen - in the construction of marine steam-engines, with paddles or screws, for the Italian Government; as well as of land steam-engines for mills, and for pumping; bridges, and all kinds of machinery for the general industries of Italy. He also undertook and carried out large contracts for public works, viz., the Florence markets, pumping machinery for the dry docks of the Italian Government arsenals of Spezia and Venice, and engineering work in general.

Mr. Guppy was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 3rd of May, 1842, and was transferred to the class of Members on the 19th of February, 1878. Ho was also an Associate of the Institution of Naval Architects. He enjoyed the confidence of the Italian Government, and was created "Cavaliere della Corona d' Italia". Since 1879 the feeble state of his health did not prevent his taking, up to the last, the greatest interest in the work which his firm was engaged; and of late years he still continued to visit the works, generally three times a week. Up to within three days of his death he was in the shops, personally superintending work he had designed. During his spare hours he turned his attention to the cultivation of vines; and, at his country house at Portici, near Naples, he laid out a model vineyard.

Mr. Guppy's professional career thus extended over a period of nearly sixty years. His work will bear witness, to after generations, of the painstaking care, professional skill, and with what powers of judgment and discrimination it was carried out. He loved his profession, and manifested a deep interest in all that concerned it. He died on the 28th of June, 1882, at Portici, admired and respected by everyone he had been thrown in contact with, on account of the uprightness of his character, and the wonderful power and love of work which he possessed.

Additional Notes

The Guppys are a West Country family tracing their roots back to the 1400s. The memoir makes brief mention Thomas Guppy's father Samuel. His mother Sarah Guppy, nee Beach, was a wealthy woman due to her family'ss estates in the West Indies. She had an interest in mathematics and achieved some note as an engineer and inventor in her own right. In 1811 she patented a method of making safe piling for bridges, and permitted Thomas Telford to exploit her patent without any charge, for construction of suspension bridge foundations. The family were leading lights of the Bristol and Clifton social scene and close friends of the Brunel's family.

Thomas Guppy also built two small iron steamships in the Great Western Yard, the Tintern and the Crete.

Thomas Guppy's nephew Robert Lechmere Guppy lived in Trinidad where he described a fish which was named Girardinus Guppii in his honour in 1866. It turned out that there was a prior description of the same fish from South America so the taxonomic name was changed, but it is still commonly known as the Guppy.

John Coneybeare
January 2011


Memoir from the Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Volume 69 of Issue 1882, January 1883.

Shipbuilding in the Port of Bristol - Maritime Monographs and Reports No. 27-1977 by Grahame Farr.
Published by the National Maritime Museum.