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'Father of civil engineering' celebrated at his local Leeds church

First published on: 29th May 2024

People from St Mary’s Whitkirk have been to a service at Westminster Abbey to celebrate John Smeaton, the “father of civil engineering”.

A group of parishioners went to the special service on Wednesday, May 29, to lay a wreath on the plaque there which commemorates John Smeaton.

They were joined by distinguished guests from the Smeatonian Society, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Astronomical Society.

2024 is the 300th anniversary of John Smeaton’s birth, and he is buried at St Mary’s.

John Smeaton was a man of simplicity, retaining his Yorkshire accent throughout his life, and was known for his integrity, his modesty and his generosity towards friends, colleagues and clients.

He believed that ‘the abilities of the individual are a debt due to the common stock of public happiness’.

He is regarded as “the father of civil engineering”.

His achievements and interests were wide-ranging – from astronomy, scientific instruments and steam engines; canals, harbours, bridges, lighthouses, and mills.

He undertook many engineering works across the country, and his most famous work was the design and construction of the third Eddystone Lighthouse, on an extensive reef in the English Channel south-west of Plymouth.

In his own part of Yorkshire, his works were numerous.

These included providing advice to the local coal owners with regards to drainage problems, designing a hydraulic ram for Temple Newsam, to raise water into the hall, and plans for improvements to several Yorkshire canals, including the Aire and Calder navigation scheme between Leeds and Selby.

He played an active part in church affairs and worshipped regularly at St Mary’s, Whitkirk.

In 1780 he supervised the hanging of the ‘Great Bell’ in the church tower.

In 1786 it was agreed that the Church Clock should be removed, repaired and altered “according to Mr Smeaton’s direction”.

St Mary’s Church, Whitkirk, contains the final resting place and the memorial tablet to John Smeaton: ‘A man whom God had endowed with the most extraordinary abilities, which he indefatigably exerted for the benefit of Mankind in works of science and philosophical research’.   

St Mary’s is also hosting a weekend of talks and events on John Smeaton, his life and his work over the weekend of Friday, June 7, to Sunday, June 9.

Details can be found here.

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