City of London - Engineering Hall of Fame

John Rennie (1761-1821)

Rennie was born near East Linton, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. He played truant from school to watch Andrew Meikle, the local millwright and inventor of the threshing machine, and began to work there when he was 12, while continuing his education. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and then worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt , manufacturer of steam engines. His work on canals, aqueducts, bridges and dockyards was to mark him as one of the greatest engineers of his age. His work for the City of London culminated in his design of new London Bridge, (1831-1974), which served London for 140 years and when it was replaced, its stonework was sold and transported to the USA for use in a replica bridge that is still the central landmark of Lake Havasu City, Arizona.

New London Bridge under construction.
New London Bridge under construction.

City of London Connections

Rennie lived and worked in London from the age of 23 until his death at age 60. He was the designer of two major London docks and three iconic Thames bridges, contributing to trade and communication that advanced the prosperity of the City of London. After education at the University of Edinburgh, Professor John Robison wrote a letter of recommendation to James Watt. Rennie moved to London in 1784 to represent Boulton & Watt, supervising the erection of engines in the Albion Mills at Blackfriars. In 1790 he set up business in London as a consulting engineer. Engineer to the London Docks (1800); East India dock (1803); Waterloo Bridge (1811); Southwark Bridge (1815); and designed London Bridge (1820 – constructed 1824-31). He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1821.

Waterloo Bridge under construction.
Waterloo Bridge under construction.

Contribution to Engineering during Lifetime

Rennie’s greatest contribution lies in the many enduring works of civil engineering he created, including (London projects in bold):

Canals: Lancaster Canal, Ulverstone Canal, Crinan Canal, Kennet and Avon Canal, Grand Trunk Canal (Leek Branch), Aberdeenshire Canal, Croydon Canal, Royal Canal Ireland, Royal Military Canal, Grand Western Canal;
Docks and Harbours: Grimsby Haven, London Docks, East Dock Leith, East India Docks London, Humber Dock, East India Dock Greenock, Margate Harbour, Howth Harbour, Berwick Harbour, West Dock Leith, Plymouth Breakwater, Sheerness Dockyard, Pembroke Dockyard, Deptford Dockyard; Custom House, River Wall, London, Kingstown Harbour, Chatham Dockyard dry dock;
Bridges: Wolsely Bridge, Kelso Bridge, London Bridge, Radford Bridge, Town Bridge Boston, Musselburgh Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Lucknow Bridge, Southwark Bridge.

Rennie also gave advice on novel maritime structures such as steam-powered dredgers, diving bells and the Bell Rock lighthouse.

Southwark Bridge (1815-1921).
Southwark Bridge (1815-1921).


His Thames Bridges and London and East India docks were essential arteries of trade and communication for the City. Widely recognised in his lifetime at least on a par with Thomas Telford as the nation’s greatest civil engineer. His works outlived him, and his sons carried on the family tradition, completing works designed by the father after his death such as London Bridge which survived until 1967. Since his death, the longer-lived Telford, and the later engineering achievements of Stephenson and Brunel have perhaps overshadowed Rennie’s memory. With a prodigious output in his time, and a reputation for designing enduring, reliable structures, he deserves to be much better known.

One of only seven engineers in Samuel Smiles biographical “Lives of the Engineers” 1861.

One of seven carved portraits on the outside of the original ICE headquarters in London.

One of 16 names inscribed around ICE Lecture Theatre.

There are 16 portraits of Rennie in the National Portrait Gallery.

Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 28 January 1788, 

Elected Fellow of the Royal Society on 29 March 1798.

Declined a knighthood (1817) on the opening of Waterloo Bridge.

Inducted into Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame 2014.

Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge – painted by William Westall 1828.
Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge – painted by William Westall 1828.

Waterloo Bridge was considered his masterpiece and was the most prestigious bridge project in Britain, described as ‘perhaps the finest large masonry bridge ever built in this or any other country’. The Italian sculptor Canova called it ‘the noblest bridge in the world’ and said that ‘it is worth going to England solely to see Rennie’s bridge.’

References and Further Reading

John Rennie ‘Engineer of many splendid and useful works’. Peter Cross-Rudkin. Railway & Canal Historical Society, 2022

John Rennie. C.T.G. Boucher, 1963.

The Rennie archives are in the Institution of Civil Engineers library and archive.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Rennie Memorial Garden: Blackfriars Road, London

Bust of John Rennie at Wapping

The Life and Works of John Rennie with google map of his projects

London Bridge – the Story of Four Bridges (YouTube)

Contribution to Sustainable Development Goals

John’s greatest contribution to London was his design of three major bridges across the Thames, transforming its transport infrastructure, and enabling surges in cross-river trade, greatly adding to London’s viability as a trading hub and financial centre.

SDG Targets 11.2; 9.1

Images courtesy of the Institution of Civil Engineers

Year of Induction
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