John Rennie

Professor Roland Paxton and Northern Lighthouse Board have kindly granted permission for the Society to make the following article available, with acknowledgement to the Institution of Civil Engineers Scotland Museum, Heriot-Watt University.

In East Lothian Biographies (published by East Lothian Antiquarian & Field Naturalists’ Society in 1941), the following account is provided for John Rennie.

“Rennie, John, civil engineer, was born at Phantassie, 7 June 1761, the youngest son of James Rennie, farmer, there.  After attending the parish school of Prestonkirk and the burgh school of Dunbar, he entered Edinburgh University where he studied for three years.  His mechanical bent was early displayed, first by his working alongside of Andrew Meikle and then by managing a millwright business on his own account.  Proceeding to England in 1784, he made the acquaintance of James Watt, and took charge of certain flour mills in London, for which Boulton and Watt were installing a steam engine, the machinery for which Rennie designed on an original plan.

About 1791, Rennie set up as a mechanical engineer in Holland Street, Blackfriars, London, from whence throughout the rest of his life he conducted engineering works as important as they were colossal.  At first he was employed in constructing canals in various parts of England, and in draining the Lincolnshire fends, the latter a vast undertaking.  His attention then turned to docks and harbours, and among those either constructed or improved by him were the London docks, East and West India docks, and those at Sheerness and Chatham.  The harbours included Holyhead and Ramsgate.

But perhaps Rennie’s greatest achievement was the construction of three bridges across the Thames in the heart of London – Southwark Bridge, London Bridge and Waterloo Bridge.  The last-mentioned will shortly give place to a wider and more up-to-date structure.  Rennie also built the bridges at Kelso and Musselburgh.  But for sheer magnitude nothing excels his construction of the breakwater at Plymouth.  It consisted of a massive wall stretching across the Sound for fully a mile, and in deep water.  This gigantic structure absorbed more than three and a half million tons of rough stone, besides 22,149 cubic yards of masonry on the surface.  The work was begun in 1811 and was not completed at his death ten years later.  The final stages were superintended by his son, Sir John.  Rennie added to his wonderful record in other respects.  He greatly improved the diving-bell, and he was the first to use extensively the steam-dredger, with its chain of buckets.  Rennie’s prodigious and incessant labours led to a premature end.  He died at his house in Stamford Street, London, 4 October 1821, and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

A handsome East Lothian memorial to Rennie was unveiled by the Earl of Wemyss in October 1936.  Erected by public subscription, the monument occupies an ideal site on the south side of the bye-pass road at East Linton, and over-looking Phantassie.  The design, by J Wilson Paterson, CVO, takes the form of a seat and platform partially recessed.  The masonry, from local quarries, is stepped to suit the rise in the bank, while the stone seat has teak or oak-sparred coverings.  In the centre of the platform, and resting on a base with an appropriate inscription, is a baluster from the old Waterloo Bridge in London.  Behind, and in the centre of the wall, is a bronze plaque in relief of Rennie’s bust, the work of Alexander Carrick, RSA.  The masonry was prepared by William Laing, builder, East Linton.”

Rennie Memorial

The Rennie Memorial is now located beside the B1377 to the east of East Linton.

Rennie Memorial, Phantassie, East Linton (source: Designing Buildings Ltd at

The memorial includes an inscription which reads: “This memorial to John Rennie (1761-1821) Civil Engineer was erected in 1936 and relocated to this site in 1981 by: East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists Society, the Institution of Civil Engineers, Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons Limited”.

In September 1981, East Lothian Antiquarian & Field Naturalists’ Society was granted a lease for 999 years over the site of the memorial.

Further Reading

Other works by Professor Paxton and references to John Rennie can be found on the website of the Institution of Civil Engineers Scotland Museum, Heriot-Watt University:

Lectures and Papers – ICE Scotland Museum (

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