Any western social and economic history of recent times will focus centrally on the Industrial Revolution (usually dated from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries) – which paved the way for our modern state of development. Industry and production shifted from cottages to factories, from country to cities, and serviced not just the home but many foreign markets as well.
Our subsequent prosperity rests upon many factors – some, such as the ruthless exploitation of ‘colonies’ – rarely alluded to! A good transport system and improved harbours were also essential.
Here we focus on the work of one man, little lauded and hardly remembered, who made a significant contribution not just in his home country of England, but also in Ireland – and specifically in Newry.
The engineering works of Thomas Steers (1672-1750) at Liverpool port helped raise it to the premier position in the whole world of the time: even while he continued to work there he served as Chief Canal Engineer on the Newry Canal, a navigation that soon helped to raise our own town to the fourth most important port of the whole of Ireland.
Thomas Steers had a good early education before he entered the army (King’s Own Regiment of Foot) and he served both at the Battle of the Boyne and in William of Orange’s subsequent campaigns in the Low Countries. He was involved both with the sieges of Huy and Namur, on the navigable Meuse, before returning to England after the Peace of Namur in 1697. William’s army was poorly supplied with engineers, so Steers was in a good position to develop those skills that were later to serve him well professionally. He also studied recent developments in hydraulic engineering in the Low Countries (a country still, because of its topology, to the forefront in such technology).
Abroad he had come to the attention of the Hon. J Stanley who commanded the 16th Regiment of Foot in Flanders. Later Stanley became Lord Derby and Mayor of Liverpool. Back in Liverpool Derby became his patron and Steers soon rose in the ranks of that city’s hierarchy.
Early in 1708 the merchants and politicians of Liverpool decided to build a wet dock – similar to that at Rotherhithe – to increase the town’s trade. Steers was second choice to design it, but his plans needed less excavation – and so less investment – and they were accepted and destined to set the standard for all further dock construction in Liverpool. In the future only Stanley Dock was built on land not reclaimed from the river.
The Dock opened for shipping by 1715. A new Act of Parliament in 1717 authorised the construction of a dry dock and three graving docks next to the entrance to the dry dock. S teers reported completion in 1721, when the new Customs House was also opened.
Meanwhile Steers was involved also in other works, among them the Mersey and Irwell Navigation and the Douglas Navigation. Construction was hindered by the ‘South Sea Bubble’ – a financial scandal that carried off much investment funds.
He was asked in 1729 to be engineer on the Newry Navigation project but his request for a hundred guineas a month was rejected. An Irish architect Edward Lovett Pearce was appointed with Richard Cassel, his assistant, taking over on Pearce’s death in 1734. In 1736 Steers was paid fifty guineas for a survey. In the following year he took over responsibility from Cassel, who was dismissed. Steers agreed to be in Ireland for four months in 1737 and for two months in each of the following two years. However the work was not completed until 1741 by which time he had received