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Biography of William Chapman, engineer of the harbour at Seaham

William Chapman, engineer of the harbour at Seaham

1749 - 1832


William Chapman (1749–1832), civil engineer, was born on 7 March 1749 at Whitby, one of at least three sons of Captain William Chapman (1713–1793) and his wife, Hannah, née Baynes. The Chapman family were Quakers, and well known in the north-east as shipowners and mariners. Chapman at first followed his father's profession and for some three years he commanded a ship trading with western and northern Europe. By 1778 he and his brother John (1750–1814) had leased Wallsend and Byker collieries, and they installed at Byker the first Boulton and Watt steam pumping engine to work on Tyneside. William's interest in the steam engine led him to enter an open competition to improve the pumping engine at Rotterdam, where he won the second prize. The brothers' colliery enterprise was short-lived, however, for sinking the first shaft at Wallsend led to financial difficulties and they were declared bankrupt in 1782.

After this set-back, John Chapman set up in business as a coal merchant. William decided to continue as an engineer; he had recently developed an improved method of coal-winding and had been corresponding with Watt on various other aspects of the steam engine. He went to Ireland with Matthew Boulton in the autumn of 1783 and remained there, apart from brief visits home, for the next eleven years. He at first acted as agent for Boulton and Watt, among other activities, but increasingly undertook civil engineering projects, planning and overseeing the construction of canals, bridges, and docks, with the assistance of his brother Edward Walton Chapman (1762–1847). In 1794 he was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, but the same year he decided to return home, where he was elected into the Smeatonian
Society of Civil Engineers; he attended its meetings for over thirty years. The date of his marriage to Elizabeth, who came from Morton in co. Durham, is unknown; they had one child, Elizabeth Hannah. His first commission, to report on a proposed canal from the Tyne to the Solway, led nowhere, but Chapman then took on a number of major land drainage and flood protection schemes in west Yorkshire, as well as various harbour works. He acted in partnership with John Rennie (1761–1821) on the construction of the Humber Dock at Hull, started in 1803.

After the spate of canal building, there were fewer new civil engineering projects available, though Chapman continued with drainage schemes, working as far south as the River Orwell in Suffolk, where he cut several new navigation channels. In 1806, seeking to diversify, Chapman turned again to coalmining, leasing East Kenton and Coxlodge collieries jointly with Robert Knowsley. He laid the associated railway line and devised a ‘coal-drop’ which lowered the wagons into the ships instead of shooting loose coal into their holds. In 1812 he and Edward patented a chain-haulage steam locomotive, which proved unsatisfactory, but the same patent included the first description of a pivoted bogie, which turned out to be a useful idea as it enabled heavier locomotives to run on existing track as their weight was spread over six or eight wheels rather than four. He also had an interest in a rope manufactory at Willington, near Newcastle, where Edward was manager, and they filed a number of patents for improvements to rope-making machinery. In the years following the Napoleonic wars Chapman was asked to report on major projects in the midlands, notably the Laneham drainage scheme in Nottinghamshire, and the Sheffield Canal, where construction began in 1816. He was involved with works at Shoreham harbour, Carlisle Canal, Leith harbour, and finally Seaham harbour, which he did not live to see finished.

Known to his professional colleagues as a studious and reserved man, Chapman earned their respect for the quality of his work and for his courteous and friendly bearing. He could sometimes take offence at clients whom he saw as ill-treating his engineers, or disputing his fees, which were never immodest. Besides his many reports, Chapman wrote a book on cordage, published in 1808, which gave a good account of the early development of rope-making machinery; his other books dealt with canals (1797) and preservation of timber (1817), and he wrote numerous technical papers for various professional journals. After his return from Ireland, Chapman resided chiefly at Ridley Place, Newcastle, and he died there on 29 May 1832. His voluminous library of books, maps and plans was sold by auction in April 1833. His printed reports were presented by his widow to the Institution of Civil Engineers (of which Chapman had never been a member) in 1837.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies


S. Smiles, Life of George Stephenson, railway engineer, 3rd edn (1857) · S. Smiles, Lives of the engineers, 3 vols. (1861–2) · private information (1887) · A. W. Skempton, ‘William Chapman (1749–1832), civil engineer’, Transactions [Newcomen Society], 46 (1973–4), 45–82 · R. Welford, Men of mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed, 1 (1895) · S. Hughes, ‘Memoir of William Chapman’, (Weale's) Quarterly Papers on Engineering, 1 (1843) · DNB


E. Sussex RO, report on New Shoreham Harbour | Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with John Dunkin and Ann Dunkin · Inst. CE, letters to Thomas Telford relating to Carlisle–Newcastle canal project



W. Walker and G. Zobel, group portrait, engraving (Men of science living in 1807–8; after F. J. Skill, J. Gilbert, and E. Walker), NPG · portrait, repro. in Skempton, ‘William Chapman’, 46

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Anita McConnell, ‘Chapman, William (1749–1832)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5127, accessed 24 Nov 2011]

William Chapman (1749–1832): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/5127