Thomas Steers

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Thomas Steers was thought to have been born in 1672 in Kent and died in 1750. He was England's first major civil engineer and built many canals, the world's first commercial wet dock, the Old Dock at Liverpool, St. George's Church at the site of Liverpool Castle, and a theatre. He designed Salthouse Dock in Liverpool, which was completed by Henry Berry after Steers' death.

Kent County of England

Kent is a county in South East England and one of the home counties. It borders Greater London to the north west, Surrey to the west and East Sussex to the south west. The county also shares borders with Essex along the estuary of the River Thames, and with the French department of Pas-de-Calais through the Channel Tunnel. The county town is Maidstone.

Civil engineer engineer specialising in design, construction and maintenance of the built environment

A civil engineer is a person who practices civil engineering – the application of planning, designing, constructing, maintaining, and operating infrastructures while protecting the public and environmental health, as well as improving existing infrastructures that have been neglected.

Canal man-made channel for water

Canals, or navigations, are human-made channels, or artificial waterways, for water conveyance, or to service water transport vehicles.


Early life

Thomas Steers was born in 1672, probably at Deptford or Rotherhithe. He is thought to have had a good education, in view of his obvious skills in mathematics, and he joined the army during his teenage years. He was part of William of Orange's 4th Regiment of Foot (The King's Own), which fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and subsequently campaigned in the Low Countries against the French until the Peace of Namur was signed in 1697. He probably learnt about hydraulics at this time, a skill which served him well in later years. In 1698 or 1699 he married Henrietta Maria Barber, and her father gave them a house in Queen Street, Rotherhithe. [1]

Deptford district of south-east London, England

Deptford is a district of south-east London, England, within the London Borough of Lewisham.

Rotherhithe residential district in southeast London, England

Rotherhithe is a residential district in south east London, England, and part of the London Borough of Southwark. Historically, the area was the most northeastern settlement in the county of Surrey. It is located on a peninsula on the south bank of the Thames, facing Wapping and the Isle of Dogs on the north bank, and is a part of the Docklands area. It borders Bermondsey to the west and Deptford to the south east.

William III of England Stadtholder, Prince of Orange and King of England, Scotland and Ireland

William III, also widely known as William of Orange, was sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672 and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known in Northern Ireland and Scotland as "King Billy".

At the time, the Great Dock at Rotherhithe was being constructed, on land leased from Elizabeth Howland, which formed part of the Howland Estate. There is no record of Steers's direct involvement in the project, although he produced a survey of the completed docks in 1707, and seems to have been employed as a surveyor for the estate. A lease agreement at the time described him as a house-carpenter. [2]


In 1708, plans for a dock at Liverpool, similar to that at Rotherhithe, were formulated, and had been drawn up by George Sorocold and Henry Huss by mid-1709. Neither man accepted the offer to act as engineer for the construction of the docks. On 17 May 1710, the Town Council learned that Steers was in Liverpool, and had his own designs for the project, which involved reclaiming land from the Pool, rather than building the dock of existing land. The precise reason for Steers' arrival in Liverpool is not clear, but may well be connected to the rise to power of James Stanley, who became mayor in 1707 and Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire until 1710, and who had noticed Steers in Flanders, while commanding the 16th Regiment of Foot. Steers' design was accepted, and the construction was overseen by him, assisted by William Braddock. He also contracted for some of the excavation work, and although it was incomplete at the time, the dock opened for shipping in 1715. A tidal basin and three graving docks or dry docks were authorised by another Act of Parliament obtained in 1717, and during their construction, various alterations and extensions were made to the original dock. The works were completed in 1721. Since 1717, Steers had also acted at Dock Master, for which he was paid £50 per year, and Braddock had been the Water Bailiff. From 1724, he took over Braddock's role as well, though was no longer paid, as this post included a number of perks and fees. [3]

George Sorocold British engineer

George Sorocold was an engineer in Derby, England, in the eighteenth century.

James Stanley, 10th Earl of Derby English politician

James Stanley, 10th Earl of Derby, styled The Honourable until 1702, was a British peer and politician.

This is a list of people who have served as Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire. The Lord Lieutenant is the Queen's personal representative in each county of the United Kingdom. Historically the Lord Lieutenant was responsible for organising the county's militia, but it is today a largely ceremonial position, usually awarded to a retired notable, military officer, nobleman, or businessman in the county.

Concurrently with his work on the Liverpool Docks, Steers was active in other projects. He surveyed the rivers Irwell and Mersey from Bank Quay at Warrington to Manchester in 1712. An Act of Parliament authorizing the Mersey and Irwell Navigation was passed in 1721 and the work, which included eight locks in a distance of 15 miles (24 km) to overcome a rise of 52 feet (16 m), was completed about 1725. It is generally believed he was the engineer. [4] The authorising Act named him as one of the Undertakers.

River Irwell river in Lancashire, United Kingdom

The River Irwell is a 39-mile (63 km) long river which flows through the Irwell Valley in North West England. Its source is at Irwell Springs on Deerplay Moor, approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) north of Bacup. It forms the boundary between Manchester and Salford and empties into the River Mersey near Irlam.

Warrington Place in England

Warrington is a large town and unitary authority area in Cheshire, England, on the banks of the River Mersey, 20 miles (32 km) east of Liverpool, and 20 miles (32 km) west of Manchester. The population in 2017 was estimated at 209,700, more than double that of 1968 when it became a New Town. Warrington is the largest town in the county of Cheshire.

Manchester City and metropolitan borough in England

Manchester is a city and metropolitan borough in Greater Manchester, England, with a population of 545,500 as of 2017. It lies within the United Kingdom's second-most populous built-up area, with a population of 2.7 million. It is fringed by the Cheshire Plain to the south, the Pennines to the north and east, and an arc of towns with which it forms a continuous conurbation. The local authority is Manchester City Council.

He also made surveys for the Douglas Navigation which connected the Ribble estuary to Wigan in 1712, and was again named as an Undertaker in the Act of Parliament obtained in 1720. He built a lock and a bridge, straightened a section of the river, and started the construction of a tidal lock, but his partner William Squire, who was raising finance for the scheme in London, became involved in the South Sea Bubble, and appears to have lost most of the money he raised. [3] With the money gone, Steers moved on. The navigation was eventually completed in 1742, and carried coal from Wigan to Liverpool and onwards to Ireland by ship. [5]

Douglas Navigation

The Douglas Navigation was a canalised section of the River Douglas or Asland, in Lancashire, England, running from its confluence with the River Ribble to Wigan. It was authorised in 1720, and some work was carried out, but the undertakers lost most of the share money speculating on the South Sea Bubble. Alexander Leigh attempted to revive it eleven years later, and opened it progressively between 1738 and 1742. Leigh began work on a parallel canal called Leigh's Cut to improve the passage from Newburgh to Gathurst, but progress was slow and it was unfinished in 1771.

River Ribble river that runs through North Yorkshire and Lancashire in Northern England

The River Ribble runs through North Yorkshire and Lancashire in Northern England. It starts close to the Ribblehead Viaduct in North Yorkshire, and is one of the few that start in the Yorkshire Dales and flow westwards towards the sea.

Wigan Town in Greater Manchester, England

Wigan is a town in Greater Manchester, England, on the River Douglas, 10 miles (16 km) south-west of Bolton, 12 miles (19 km) north of Warrington and 17 miles (27.4 km) west-northwest of Manchester. Wigan is the largest settlement in the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan and is its administrative centre. The town has a population of 103,608, whilst the wider borough has a population of 318,100.

His most significant navigation achievement was the Newry Canal, in Ireland, which was the first summit-level canal in the British Isles. The promoters asked him to act as engineer for the scheme in 1729, but then declined to pay him the fees he requested, and so the initial construction work was overseen by Edward Lovett Pearce. Pearce died in 1734, and his assistant Richard Castle took over the role. Steers returned to the project in 1736, when he conducted a survey of the existing work. Castle was sacked in December 1736, and Steers then supervised construction until 1741, working on a part-time basis. The work took longer than expected, [6] and the canal finally opened in the spring of 1742. The 19.4 miles (31.2 km) of canal included 13 locks, and ran from Newry, where it connected to Carlingford Lough and the sea by a narrow channel, which was made into a ship canal in the 1760s. At its northern end it ran to Portadown where it joined the Upper Bann River to reach Lough Neagh. It was built to transport coal from the Tyrone collieries to Dublin. [7]

In order to build locks with a larger fall than was possible with conventional gate paddles, Steers built two of the locks with sluices and ground paddles, which fed water into the bottom of the lock through the side walls. Water supply for the summit level was taken from local streams, supplemented by water from Lough Shark, which was used as a reservoir. As a whole, the work was not well executed, and the innovative locks had to be rebuilt soon after 1750. [6]

Other activity

Besides his work on docks and canals, Steers was involved with a wide range of other projects. Even the Mersey and Irwell Navigation and the Douglas Navigation were promoted not just to make carriage of existing trade easier, but to generate new trade which would contribute to the prosperity of the region. Jointly with Sir Cleave Moore and Sir Thomas Johnson, he promoted the Liverpool Waterworks in 1720. He set up a smithy making anchors near the Liverpool Docks, and was a partner in the Dove, a ship which traded between Liverpool and the West Indies.

He appears to have been a keen amateur architect (before that term was in popular parlance) and as well as the work on Liverpool Old Dock, executed alongside chief mason Edward Litherland, is paid in the accounts of The Blue Coat School (1715) once again with Litherland, "a new Street, called Chorley Street or Squire's Garden" (1720), St. George's Church (1725) (Litherland cited as mason) and what would become Salt House Dock once again winning the contract along regular collaborator Litherland. Their working relationship ended with Litherland's death in 1739. His best known architectural work was that of "Seel's House" on Hanover Street, Liverpool which would later become a bank before making way for the Liverpool One Tesco supermarket. It is highly likely that he designed a number of other buildings in Liverpool, no longer extant, including buildings on Paradise Street.

In 1725 he became a commissioner for the turnpike road from Prescot to Liverpool, and drew up plans for St George's Church on the site of the Liverpool Castle. He subsequently was responsible for the construction of its foundations and steeple. He built houses for poor and destitute seamen in 1739, and opened the Old Ropery Theatre in the following year. [8]

Steers became a Freeman of the town of Liverpool in 1713, and served on the town council in 1717. In 1719 and 1722, he was a Town Bailiff, became mayor of Liverpool from 1739 to 1740, and was an Out-burgess in Wigan in 1746. He was responsible for the fortification of Liverpool during the Jacobite rising of 1745.


Steers' first marriage to Henrietta Maria ended in 1717 with her death. Of their seven children, four died in childhood, while the other three are thought to have become seamen, and all had died by 1732. In 1719 he married Ann Tibington, who came from Rotherhithe and was the widow of a seaman. She had a son called John, and they had four children of their own, two of which died in childhood. He died in 1750, and was buried in the grounds of St Peter's Church. His only surviving son, Spencer, carried on his anchor making business after his death. [9]

There was also a Thomas Steers, lime burner of Greenwich (probably the owner and/or digger of "Jack Cade's Cavern" and of a nearby sand mine) who was born about this time and in the right area, but who was probably not the same person. Other Steers were involved in pottery. This hints at an extended Steers family with interests in kilns and building mortar.


Despite his considerable contribution to civil engineering, his death went almost unnoticed, although the civil engineer John Smeaton, writing to the Calder and Hebble Navigation in 1757, noted that Steers was an esteemed man of character and ability in his profession. He built the first successful commercial dock in the world, and the United Kingdom's first summit level canal. He trained his assistants well, as several went on to have illustrious careers of their own. Above all, he understood his work in its wider social context, being active in the politics and trade of Liverpool, and understanding the need for the town to be well-connected to its hinterland. His work paved the way for Liverpool to become one of the world's greatest ports, and was a contributory factor in the industrial revolution which began shortly after his death. [10]

See also


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  1. Skempton 2002 , p. 651
  2. Skempton 2002 , pp. 651–652
  3. 1 2 Skempton 2002 , p. 652
  4. Rolt (1969)
  5. Hadfield & Biddle 1970 , pp. 61–62
  6. 1 2 Skempton 2002 , p. 653
  7. Cumberlidge 2002 , pp. 65–67
  8. Skempton 2002 , pp. 652–653
  9. Skempton 2002 , pp. 652–654
  10. Skempton 2002 , p. 654
Preceded by
Engineer to Mersey Docks and Harbour Board
Succeeded by
Henry Berry