William Jessop

Exploring the life and legacy of a modest engineer

William Jessop


“There are many veterans still living who, having been engaged on Jessop’s great works in England and Ireland, have not ceased to regard him with a kind of religious awe.” Samuel Hughes.

There’s little doubt that William Jessop was a gifted and esteemed engineer. He is famed for his work on canals, harbours and early railways in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, yet little is known about the man himself. Many reports say he was a kind, modest and self-effacing character who brought little attention to himself, which is perhaps why he tends to receive less limelight than some of his peers. Let’s take a closer look at this eminent engineer, who brought us such wonders as the Grand Junction Canal and Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

An excellent apprentice

William Jessop was born on 23 January 1745 in Plymouth. His father, naval shipwright Josias Jessop, was good friends with engineer John Smeaton and oversaw the rebuilding of the iconic Eddystone Lighthouse. Young William proved himself to be a gifted scholar, particularly in maths and science, so Smeaton hired him as his apprentice, taking him to Austhorpe Lodge in Yorkshire.

Venturing out on his own

Jessop cut his teeth on various engineering projects under the guidance of his master, such as the Calder & Hebble and Aire & Calder navigations, but his first big project was the completion of the Grand Canal of Ireland, which connected Dublin with the River Shannon. Smeaton’s young protégé delivered well, directing the canal across the Great Bog of Allen – considered quite a feat at the time. Soon he was mastering engineering projects in his own right.

The man who can

In 1773, before he even reached 30, Jessop was elected a member of the Smeatonian Society and became the go-to engineer for major projects in the Midlands and the south of England during the Canal Mania years, such as the epic Grand Junction Canal and Cromford Canal. He even managed to find time to be Mayor of Newark on two occasions when he lived there from 1704 to 1805.

Friendship with Telford

Jessop worked on many projects with the young Thomas Telford including Ellesmere Canal, built to connect the River Mersey with the River Dee at Chester. One of the most iconic structures on the canal we know today is Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the canal 127ft over the Dee. Jessop and Telford had a good working relationship, and it can be said Telford owes much of his success and fame to Jessop for his masterful guidance.

Passing on the baton

As well as canals, bridges and aqueducts, Jessop was a skilled builder of docks and harbours. He constructed the mighty West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs to welcome rum, sugar and coffee from the West Indies. In 1809, he enlisted the help of his son, Josias Jessop, to build the Floating Harbour at Bristol – an artificial lake formed by damming the tidal River Avon. This led to the expansion of Bristol becoming a major industrial and commercial port.

Despite all these achievements, Jessop was never elected to a Fellowship with the Royal Society – an honour bestowed on some of his juniors, such as John Rennie and Thomas Telford. One peer said of him, “Totally free of all envy and jealousy of professional rivalship, [Jessop’s] proceedings were free from all pomp and mysticism, and persons of merit never failed in obtaining his friendship and encouragement.”

Jessop suffered creeping paralysis in his later years and eventually died of a stroke at his home, Butterley Lodge, in 1814. He is buried in Pentrich Churchyard, Derbyshire.