In the middle to late eighteenth century, John Smeaton was a national figure, renowned in various fields of civil engineering. Today he is known mainly for his successful design of the Eddystone Lighthouse, which was completed in 1759 when Smeaton was only 35 years old. The previous two or three lighthouses had failed to withstand the tempestuous seas.
Smeaton was then “at the height of his powers”, as described by one observer, and his talents were in great demand. Yet in 1764 he applied for the post and was appointed to be joint Receiver for the Greenwich Hospital for the north of England, along with Nicholas Walton. The Commissioners of the Greenwich Hospital had been Lords of the Manor of Alston Moor since 1734, the revenues collected by the Receivers being used to help mariners in distress.
Smeaton claimed that he intended to reside in the north for three or four months of the year and at other times as required. Whether or not he fulfilled this promise is not known, but on the occasions when he did come north to carry out his duties, he was based mainly in Newcastle. The man on site who carried out the bulk of the duties was Nicholas Walton. For instance, it was Walton and not Smeaton who travelled to London in 1776 to present the hugely important proposals for the Nent Force Level to the Hospital Commissioners, even though it was claimed to be largely Smeaton’s idea. However, Smeaton must have been familiar enough with Alston Moor to be asked for his involvement in driving a level at Rotherhope Mine, to be asked, no doubt for reasons of prestige, to design the new parish church and his expertise with water power made him the obvious choice when the Hospital wished to build a new corn mill in the town, which was finished and available for rent by 1775.
With Nicholas Walton, Smeaton at least nominally made many reports and surveys on the Greenwich Hospital mines, and in 1767 they reported on the desirability of the Greenwich Hospital to possess its own smelt mill. The result was the construction of Langley Smelt Mill in 1768.
As well as the recommendation for Nent Force Level, later to be nicknamed “Smeaton’s Folly”, Smeaton set out another level, this time at Rodderup Fell Mine, “running straight for 2,900 ft. to the Victoria vein, then another 1,300 ft. to the main vein”, it was also intended to act as a drain for the mine.
In Smeaton’s time hydraulic engines were introduced to the lead mines in the area, initially at Coalcleugh, just over the county boundary in Allendale, Northumberland. Smeaton introduced an improved design of water wheel at Nenthead, which greatly increased the efficiency of the machines.
Folios 125 to 129 in the catalogue of Smeaton’s designs at the Royal Society are his plans of the building and the machinery for the High Mill at Alston. Designed by him in about 1767, the original wheel was 30 feet in diameter with a width of 10 inches. The “scoop feed of for the water was an unusual feature. Both features probably (indicated) the lack of a strong water supply”.
Smeaton was commissioned by the Greenwich Hospital to design a new parish church for Alston. It was built in 1769/1770, at a cost of about £1,500 to the parishioners. This might seem cheap but as William Wallace observed, “It was not, however, uncommon to give free labour and cartage instead of donations of money”. The church was about 40 feet wide and, including the chancel of about 9 feet, about 78 feet long. The tower was about 12 feet square inside. In the design Smeaton showed himself to be an engineer rather than an architect, which is reflected in comments on the church. It was described in 1777 as being “handsomely rebuilt”, in 1794 as being of “a plain but convenient form”, in 1811 as “a good church of modern structure”, in 1829 as “a good modern edifice”, in 1833 to Thomas Sopwith it was “a plain and neat edifice, the interior remarkably so”. 1840 saw it as “neat and well-built but without any architectural ornament”. The 1847 Trades Directory saw St. Augustine’s as “a neat and well-built structure, but destitute of architectural ornament, erected about the year 1769, at the expense of the parishioners. It consists of a nave and one of those modern projections at the east end, intended to be as an apology for a chancel, with a tower”. The chancel was simply a shallow, three-sided east end to the church. In 1858 it was “a plain stone building, without any pretensions to architectural design or beauty”. By the 1860s, when Victorian gothic grandeur was at its height, Smeaton’s plain church was decidedly out of place. In 1869/70 it was rebuilt “from the foundation” to a design of G.D. Oliver of Carlisle, as a “handsome edifice in the Early English style”, at a cost of £6,000. Wallace states the cost to have been £4,500 for the main body of the church without the tower and spire. These were built in 1886 at cost of £1,000.
Smeaton did have what could arguably be called failures in his years in the post of Receiver. He designed a bridge over the River Tyne at Hexham that was swept away in severe floods after standing for only five years. Poor foundations were blamed by Mr. Mylne, the man who built the succeeding bridge.
One author believes, “It could be that Smeaton’s part-time employment was a mistake. To the Eddystone Lighthouse he gave his undivided attention. Clearly he did not spend enough time on his Tyne Bridge, and his new church at Alston had to be rebuilt again after only a century”.
Whether the 1769 church can be classed as a failure is open to question. Yes, it only stood for a hundred years, not long in the life of a church, but its demolition and replacement might simply have been a matter of out-dated fashion and changing requirements (especially since the Methodists had recently built a much grander chapel at the top of the town!).
Another failure might the Nent Force Level. “Smeaton’s Folly” started under Smeaton’s nominal direction in 1776 and was completed in 1842 at a final cost of £81,270.18s.11¾d. It failed to find the new ore veins hoped for, but it did drain the existing mines, that allowed mining to continue to lower levels. The Level was an experiment on a grand scale in the then current spirit of adventure. It might have worked for all people knew at the outset.
While he was with the Greenwich Hospital, Smeaton certainly had many other interests that required his attention, among them thirty-eight miles of canals in Scotland, London Bridge, the harbour at Ramsgate, and the foundation of the Smeatonian Society of Engineers in London.
John Smeaton left the Greenwich Hospital in 1777 at his own request, on the plea of other heavy commitments and lived on to the ripe old age, for those days, of 68.
125: Plan of the building for Alston mill. Ground plan, 1:48. Ink wash. n.d.
126: Building for Alston Mill. End and side elevations, 1:96. Ink wash. n.d.
127: Design for Alston Mill. Plan and elevation of the hurst, 1:2. Ink wash. n.d.
128: Elevation of the machinery for Alstone mill. Elevation showing water wheel and mechanism, 1:24. Ink wash. n.d.
129: Design for the bridges & brayers for Aldstone mill. Plan and two elevations, 1:12. Ink wash, n.d.
(The variations in spelling for Alston are interesting.)