Dr Ronald Cox, engineering historian and visiting research fellow in the Department of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, has written a book Dublin Port Chief Engineers, which was published by Dublin Port Company recently. In two extracts, the first of which is published now, Dr Cox explores the life and works of Bindon Blood Stoney. In Part II, he will examine John Purser Griffith. 

Dublin Port Chief Engineers is available to purchase from Wordwell Books here

(Part II, on John Purser Griffith, can be read here.)

Dublin Port Engineers navigates the story of two of Dublin Port’s most pioneering port engineers in recent decades, Bindon Blood Stoney (1828-1909) and John Purser Griffith (1848-1938). This beautifully presented publication is the culmination of detailed research undertaken by Dr Cox over many years into the lives and illustrious work of both engineers, and draws on a trove of maps, images, and information held in Dublin Port’s 300-year-old archive to tell their story. 

Bindon Blood Stoney was Dublin Port engineer from 1862 to 1899 and the modern city of Dublin along the River Liffey reflects his engineering prowess in the bridges and quay walls he built using his wonderful Diving Bell, better known today as Dublin’s smallest museum on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.  

Extract 1 – Bindon Blood Stoney

The construction of deep-water berths in Dublin Port would have been pointless if the river channel had remained in a shallow state and had not been deepened. Prior to 1860, the average annual amount of material dredged from the harbour did not exceed 150,000 tons, largely representing the demand for ballast by the shipping using the port.

Following the establishment of the Dublin Port & Docks Board, the Harbour Improvement Committee estimated that, after completion of the various works contemplated, future annual dredging would exceed 700,000 tons. The dredging power available in 1869 was deemed inadequate to maintain a navigable channel, yet alone improve the situation. Tenders were therefore advertised for a powerful new steam dredger, three steam hopper barges, and six iron floats.

The new dredger arrived in the port towards the end of 1871 and, after having its buckets fitted, proceeded to undergo trials. The hopper barges did not arrive until the following year. Well over £500,000 was expended on new plant between 1869 and 1873 for preserving and improving the navigation of the river.

Diving Ball and bell float.

John Purser Griffith, who had joined Stoney’s staff in 1871, in his paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers on the Improvement of the Bar of Dublin Harbour, alluded to the size of the dredging plant employed. He gave it as his opinion that it was probably unsurpassed in any port, noting however that dredging was essentially the application of sufficient mechanical power, whereas the improvement of the bar by artificial scour was essentially a triumph of civil engineering in its more restricted sense, forming a noble example of “directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man” (a reference to the original Charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers).

Once the new dredging plant, had been acquired, an extensive programme of dredging was begun, priority being given initially to deepening the river opposite the new quay walls along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and the North Wall.

Deepening and straightening the channel

Attention then turned to the longer-term project of deepening and straightening the channel to provide access to the berths at all states of the tide for the class of shipping using the port, in particular the channel between Ringsend and the Pigeon House, and later to the Poolbeg Lighthouse at the port entrance. The Trawler Pond on the south side of the river opposite the North Quay Extension was also considerably extended by dredging.

The annual tonnage of dredged material indicates clearly the period of intense activity associated with the various quay reconstruction and new quay building projects resulting from the implementation of Stoney’s recommendations to the Harbour Improvement Committee.

In the 1870s, dredged material was used to fill in between the two lines of blocks forming the North Quay Extension, but the work was frequently interrupted by the dredge floats being required to meet the sudden large demands for ballast by shipping.

The peak of over one million tons dredged in 1876 was due largely to the completion of dredging in front of the new quay walls. This allowed the dredgers to work longer at straightening and deepening the channel east of Ringsend, where the work was more regular and less interrupted by constant shipping movements than was the case along the quays.

At the same time, the North Wall (subsequently named the Alexandra) Basin was being dredged out to depths varying from 14 feet to 24 feet below low water, the greater depth being alongside the new quay walls.

Alexandra Quay West under construction and the sandpiper.

The bulk of the dredged material was taken out in large hopper barges, designed by Stoney, each of which carried 850 to 1,000 tons of material, according to the state of the weather, to a distance of eight miles from Dublin, or about two miles beyond the Bailey Lighthouse off the Nose of Howth, and there deposited in deep water beyond the influence of tides within the bay.

This method of disposing of the dredged material proved very economical and was a major factor in the success of the project to create a deep-water port for the city of Dublin. As the dredging proceeded further eastwards towards the harbour mouth, much of the deep dredging was executed in very hard ground, thus accounting to a large extent for the reduction in the annual tonnage of material recovered.

Harbour survey

In October of 1880, Commander Langdon, RN was invited to carry out a survey of the river showing depths below the Dublin Harbour datum. Langdon was acting at the time as one of the Fishery Pier Commissioners, working out of the Custom House and commenced the harbour survey on completion of his duties for the Commission.

The survey, which was subsequently published by the Admiralty, showed that considerable improvements had taken place in the river channel since the previous survey in 1856.

By 1881, it was clear that the dredging plant was rapidly wearing out, and a contract was placed with Messrs McIntyre & Co of Paisley for the supply of a new steam dredger, and with Messrs Workman, Clark & Co. (Ltd.) of Belfast, to supply three hopper barges. These vessels added materially to the efficiency of the dredging department.

Deepening and widening of the channel was chiefly concentrated on those locations where the sounding survey showed it to be necessary. A further survey of the river was carried out by Purser Griffith in 1889, which showed that the channel, although considerably improved, still required a large amount of dredging to bring it up to the standard set by Stoney.

John Purser Griffith at North Wall Quay.

Dredging could at times be a risky business, exposed as the crew were to the elements and forced, by the very nature of the task, to long periods of relative immobility in the midst of the busy shipping lanes. This is amply illustrated by referring to a serious incident that took place around 7pm on October 22, 1883.

Steam dredger No 4, whilst moored in the channel, was run into by the steam collier Annie about 350 feet SSW of the Flash Light on the North Bank below the Pigeon House. Immediately afterwards the unfortunate dredger was also hit by the P S Duke of Leinster, both of which sank in deep water.

A contract was placed with the Glasgow Salvage Co to raise the dredger, and seven months after the sinking, it was delivered to the Board with serious damage to its hull, engines, boiler and machinery.

The Board commenced a suit against the Annie for damages and judgement was subsequently entered in favour of the Board. Proceedings were taken against the Board by the owners of the Duke of Leinster for damage caused to their vessel and a cross case was entered by the Board against the said owners.


The Court of Admiralty decided that the collision occurred through default of the Board, but subsequently that decision was reviewed by the Court of Appeal, who decided that the damage arose from inevitable accident, and that neither party was to blame.

A petition of appeal to the House of Lords was then lodged by the Dublin & Glasgow Steam Packet Co, owners of the Duke of Leinster, against the judgement, but the Lords upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal and awarded costs to the Board.

Damage was also often caused by steamers passing the dredgers at a high rate of knots. Rules had in fact been laid down by the Board in 1872, including an instruction to masters of vessels navigating in the river to stop their engines whilst passing any of the port vessels engaged in dredging or other works.

Arising from a complaint from a steamer captain of abuse from a member of the crew of one the dredgers, Stoney was forced to extract an explanation from the Supervisor of Floats, John Nolan, as to the circumstances under which the incident had occurred.

Nolan’s reply sums up the feelings of the dredger crews and, in particular one James Brady, and is quoted ‘in extensio’. The incident also serves to illustrate how immune we have become to hearing expressions of dubious language which would have shocked our Victorian ancestors!

"I have to inform you in reference to Capt Boxer’s complaint (that) the crew of No 1 Hopper told me that the Alexandra passed them nearly at full speed on Christmas Eve while alongside No 3 Steam Dredger, making such a large swell in the river that it snapped one of the float’s cast-iron timber heads. James Brady one of her crew cried out ‘go slow you bugger’ being much annoyed at the unnecessary trouble the Alexandra gave them.

"The men of the hoppers complain that lately they never slacken speed when passing the steam dredgers, often causing their spring ropes to break and on that occasion the damage might have been much more serious as the hopper had (on board) 800 tons of mud and (there was) a great fresh in the river at the time. I asked Brady if he knew the meaning of the word bugger and (he) said he did not nor mean any offence to anyone on board the Alexandra."

Disposing of some hopper floats

As dredging requirements declined in the late 1880s, the Board began to dispose of some of the hopper floats, a number of which were sold to the Tilbury Lighterage Co of London.

The steam dredgers were generally laid up and recommissioned whenever a large dredging job required to be carried out. In 1895 a contract was entered into with the Dutch firm of J&K Smit for the machinery for a large capacity suction dredger.

The dredger began work the following February, chiefly tackling the deposits of fine sand which drifted into the channel from the North and South banks. However, the new dredger was not able to work to full capacity owing to the shortage of hopper floats, sold off earlier in an effort to reduce expenditure.

In addition to this, the suction dredger was damaged by an incoming steamer in October, 1897, and laid up, bucket dredger No 5 being substituted. It was clear, however, that the suction dredger was superior to the bucket dredgers, particularly when raising mud and sand.

Lebby in America is generally credited with being the first to use suction dredging in Charleston Harbour in 1855, the Dutch and French making progress with its development in Europe in the 1870’s.

By the 1890s, suction dredgers were gaining in popularity, Liverpool introducing them in 1893, followed, two years later by Stoney at Dublin. Griffith was able to take full advantage of suction dredging when he took over from Stoney in 1898, thereby considerably accelerating the dredging programme. 

Dublin Port Chief Engineers is available to purchase from Wordwell Books here

(Part II, on John Purser Griffith, can be read here.)

Author: Dr Ron Cox is a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a Fellow of Engineers of Ireland, a Fellow of the Irish Academy of Engineering, and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Recent books include Ireland’s Bridges (2003), Engineering Ireland (2006), Ireland’s Civil Engineering Heritage (2013), Called to Serve (2013) and Called to Serve Two (2019).