South Shields Local History Group

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Messent, Philip John

Philip John Messent’s work on the piers and transforming the River Tyne into a modern navigable river makes him and the Tyne Improvement Commission, for whom he was Engineer, by far the most important person and organisation in South Shields and Tyneside’s history over the last 150 years! A very bold statement but without the dredging and straightening of the River Tyne and the protection offered to shipping by the North and South Piers, large ships could not have entered or left the Tyne.  This would have prevented the growth of large scale shipbuilding, ship repair, manufacturing and coal export. The River Wear being only seven miles away would have captured all these industries and South Shields would have declined, as it would not have been able to compete with Wearside when large metal ships became the norm after the 1850s.

P J Messent 1884 Engraving (Illustrated London News)

Philip John Messent (1830 to 1897) worked on the building of the piers for over 40 years – as the following article calls him Philip John Messent – The Maker of the Tyne River.

Philip John Messent (Painting from Frances Cairncross)

1897 Obituary from Grace’s Guide

“MR. PHILIP JOHN MESSENT, “the maker of the Tyne River,” as he has been aptly termed, died in London on the 5th inst., at the age of 67 years, to the regret of a wide circle of friends. He had come to the city to consult a specialist as to a painful internal malady from which he had been suffering for some time, and somewhat unexpectedly passed away at his sister’s house in Westbourne Park.

Mr. Messent was born in 1830 – December 7 -at Dover. He was educated at Whickham, and served the regular period of pupilage as an engineer partly with Mr. Joseph Gibbs and partly with Messrs. Walker, Burges, and Cooper, a well-known firm in London in those days, being engaged at Harwich Harbour and Dovercourt Lighthouse.

He was next engaged for two years as resident engineer during the construction, and until the completion, of the Yarmouth Bridge, and then in 1855 he commenced, under his old firm of Walker, Burges, and Cooper, a connection with the improvement of the Tyne which may be said to have constituted his life work. He was for the six months engaged on the original survey for the new piers, &c., and when the works were sanctioned became resident, and practically responsible, engineer, and has continued actively engaged on the Tyne through all these years.

Some suggestion of the extent of the work carried out is found when the river to-day is compared with that prior to 1860. Improvements antecedent to this latter date were confined to dredging on a small scale, and to groynes and training walls thrown out into the river. A bar extending about 800ft. west to east at the river mouth gives at spring tides 21 ft. and 6ft. at high and low water respectively, with 600 ft. width of channel, but a little higher up the channel was contracted to 400 ft. Shields Harbour, about 1 1/2 miles long, was a narrow tortuous channel of fairly deep water, but with large shoals, and from this point to Newcastle there was a narrow, serpentine channel with many shoals, so that a vessel drawing 15 ft. could only pass at great risk. A dock of 55 acres of water area, with 24 ft. depth over the sill at high water of spring tides (the Northumberland Dock), was nearing completion when young Messent first went to Tyneside. His work was the construction of those piers right along the whole course of the river, whereby the width of channel at the narrowest point has been increased to 670 ft., while to Newcastle there is depth for the greatest of ships.

In the 20 earlier years of this work, 1860-80, over 60 million tons were dredged, the plant used along costing 300,000l., and Mr. Messent was practically his own contractor as well as engineer. An old stone bridge at Newcastle, which was an obstruction to the tide and navigation, was replaced by the swing bridge with openings of 104 ft., a dangerous bend at Bill Point removed, Northumberland Dock deepened, and a wharf of 1100 ft. constructed along the river front and staithes from which 800 to 1000 tons of coal are easily loaded in an hour were put up at intervals.

The new dock, now known as the Albert Edward was commenced in 1874. It is of 24 acres, with a depth at high water spring tide of 30 ft., the length of quays inside the dock being 2600 ft., and fronting the river 900 ft.; but one could only give an adequate idea of Mr. Messent’s works by describing the whole Tyne River and docks, and that has already been done. Reference, however, ought to be made to the Tynemouth Breakwater, an excellent piece of work. Mr. Messent became sole engineer for the Tyne Improvement Commissioners on the death, in 1882, of Mr. J. F. Ure, the consulting engineer, and since then he has been steadily improving the port in every detail, adding appliances for the rapid loading of coal and iron the staple products of the districts.

Mr. Messent was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He was frequently consulted by corporations and companies on dock, harbour, and hydraulic works, not only in this country, but also in the colonies. It is only due to his skill, experience, and rectitude that his services were much in demand as an arbitrator or referee in important disputes. He was a highly respected Tynesider. He was married twice, and leaves five daughters and two sons – one, Mr. P. G. Messent, the civil engineer to the Bombay Port and Harbour Trust, and the other, Mr. F . E. Messent, a solicitor in Newcastle.”

Philip John Messent – Graces Guide

For further reading on the piers: Piers – South Shields Local History Group

Elizabeth Messent nee Glynn (Painting from Frances Cairncross)

Family History of Philip John Messent from Frances Cairncross

He had three children by his first wife: Frank, Philip and Geraldine, and four children by his second wife. The family lived at 4 Northumberland Terrace, North Shields.

Both wives died very young. The first, Elizabeth Glynn (the aunt of my grandfather), was born in 1838 and died 8 July 1872, aged 34. The second – Anne Eliza Winship died 26 October 1887 at the age of 37.

From the Census, showing him born in Dover in 1831 and his wife (the second wife, very recently married) Anne Eliza Winship, 20 years his junior. Her first child, John, died in infancy.

Elizabeth Glynn, the first wife, had also lost a baby daughter, Lucy Elinor Margaret, in May 1867. She had three children who grew to adulthood – two boys and a girl. Two of the children by this first marriage are recorded in the census: Philip Glynn Messent aged 15; and 13-year old Geraldine. Missing from the household is his older son Frank, born in April 1865 according to the register of Charterhouse School, I imagine that Philip did too.

I came across a book called “Pioneers of the North” by Paul Joannnou and Alan Candlish, on the development of football in north-east England and Tyneside in the late 19th century. It mentions the influence of Charterhouse School on the evolution of football, in general and particularly on Tyneside, where Frank and Philip Messent both played, although it sounds as though Frank was easily the better athlete: his brother “acted as an umpire and referee in important local games.” The book has a photo of Charterhouse footballers, including Frank.

Frank went on to be a solicitor in Newcastle and was, I think, much involved with the Lifeboat service. Philip went to Bombay, where he became Chief Engineer of the Bombay Port Trust and oversaw the building of the Bombay docks. Long ago, when I visited Bombay (as it was still called), I walked along Dock Road – and found in the bushes at the end a board that called it “Messent Road”. None of the three surviving children of this first marriage got married.

Written by Frances Cairncross

Frances Cairncross
Graces Guide
Ian Hudson

British Newspaper Archives
Frances Cairncross

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