Son of James Rendel, country surveyor and farmer of Okehampton
and grandson of an architect John Meadows FRS, James was born at
Thornbury Farm, Whiddon Down near Okehampton in 1789. He passed
his youth in the neighbourhood of Teignmouth receiving his
education at a country school and was initiated into the
practical operations of a millwright by his uncle who resided
there. From his father, who had charge of a district of roads,
he obtained a degree of familiarity with the rudiments of civil
engineering. Then, when he was about twenty eight years old he
went to London and obtained an appointment with Thomas Telford,
who employed him on surveys and experiments for the proposed
suspension bridge across the River Mersey at Runcorn.
Five years later he settled in Plymouth and commenced practice of his own being chiefly employed in the construction of roads in North Devon. In September of that year, having commenced on a proposal for a suspension bridge for crossing the Tamar at Saltash, he came under the notice of Lord Morley, who as Lord Boringdon had employed another civil engineer, James Green, some fifteen years earlier. He presented a plan in 1823 for a new road from the White Hart Inn in Okehampton to the Hatherleigh Road and to Five Oaks on the Launceston Road
In 1823 Lord Morley entrusted to Rendel the design of a suspension bridge to cross the River Plym at Laira. When the necessary Act of Parliament was obtained for a bridge, Samuel Brown who had built the first suspension bridge of iron chain over the River Tweed complained that Rendel had ‘made an exact transcription of his plan for the Tamar’ and the idea of a suspension bridge was dropped. Roger Hopkins, a civil engineer from Plymouth, proposed a wooden bridge but at the last moment Rendel won the day by presenting an alternative elegant cast iron structure designed for five spans with the ironwork provided by William Hazeldine. He completed his bridge in 1827 and it lasted until 1962. For this fine bridge Rendel gained a Telford medal, having previously been elected a corresponding member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1824.
Rendel’s experience of suspension bridge design with Telford was not wasted. He appreciated the importance of longitudinal stiffening girders to provide aerodynamic stability, advising on this for the Montrose, Scotland, and Menai bridges. He rebuilt the latter in the 1830's and later designed suspension bridges in St James’s park, London, and Inverness. It is unclear when he first developed the idea of a deep longitudinal truss as his drawings for the Laira proposal do not exist; the illustrations for his design for Clifton Gorge suggest that this idea may have been in place by 1830.
Soon after the completion of Laira bridge, Rendel constructed some roads for Lord Morley, the Cann Quarry, Plymouth, tramway and a sluice of unusual construction at the northern end of James Green’s Chelson Meadow embankment along which Lord Morley had built a roadway to join Saltram House to Laira bridge. He also improved several turnpike roads including a southern road between Sequer’s bridge, near Modbury, and Totnes, the road from Plymouth to Cornwall via Saltash and the road from Devonport to Liskeard via Torpoint. In 1826 he constructed Bowcombe bridge over a creek of the Kingsbridge estuary with four masonry arches and an opening span which originally was a drawbridge and where the first use of hydraulic power was applied to machinery to operate bridges.
The Cann Quarry tramway built for Lord Morley was a short branch of 4ft. 6in. gauge (1.38 metres) off the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway leading to the quarry. A two-span cast iron tramway bridge crosses the river Plym on the Cann Quarry route. The bowstring girders of 7.6 metres span are 2.9 metres apart, have cast iron cross girders carrying a longitudinal sleepered deck for the railway. In 1828 Rendel commenced a survey for a suspension bridge across the river Dart at Dittisham, but this project was blocked by the landowner, James Elton.
Rendel then turned his attention to a proposal for pulling a boat along a fixed chain using steam power and in 1831 a floating bridge was constructed for crossing the river Dart at Dartmouth. The ferry comprised two pontoons side by side with a steam engine between them that hauled on chain using a wheel with sockets shaped to lock onto the links. The chain was adjusted for length by weights at each end in vertical shafts so it would normally lie on the river bed but be sufficiently taut to maintain the ferry's direction of travel. Two chains were used and the wheels, located outside the pontoon, were connected to the engine by a shaft. This, now known as the Higher Ferry, also required 2.4 kilometres of new road to Hillhead, where the road from Brixham meets the Churston to Kingswear road.
After building a similar ferry across the Tamar at Saltash in 1832-1833, which lasted until the suspension bridge was built in 1961, he established another floating bridge across the Tamar at Torpoint in April 1834. This crossing, now known as the Torpoint Ferry, is now so busy that there are three parallel units. Two more ferries were built to his designs, one at Woolston, Southampton, and the other at Gosport. While these two are no longer working, such ferries can be found today at Cowes, Poole harbour and Trellisik near Truro.
In January 1830 he applied for the post of County Surveyor of Somerset, without success, and in January 1831 he offered, in Devon, to do the work for £300 against James Green’s salary of £550. Green retained his post but at the reduced salary of £300. During his time in Plymouth, Rendel reported on nearly every harbour in the south west of England, which founded his mastery of this branch of civil engineering on which his fame largely rests. In 1829 he designed the harbour at Par, in Cornwall, and in 1835 he enlarged the sea lock and basin of the Bude Canal.
In 1836 he designed the harbour and breakwater at Brixham in Devon, using the rock obtained from Berry Head; the breakwater has since been lengthened twice. In 1839 he was engaged in preparing various schemes for a railway from Exeter to Plymouth over Dartmoor, via Dunsford, Chagford, near Princetown, Sheepstor and Roborough Down, and in 1841 he constructed the Millbay pier, Plymouth, a work of considerable difficulty, owing to the great depth of water. Here he first introduced the method of construction, since employed with so much success, at the great harbours of Holyhead and Portland. This was the end-tipping of large blocks of stone from railway trucks and the progressive building of the railway on the stone so as to move forward with the construction.
A paper published in Transactions, 1838, earned Rendel a second Telford Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers and about this time he moved to London, leaving Mr Beardmore as his partner in Plymouth. Rendel then concentrated on harbour works, although he also acted as a consultant on railways in India.
He was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1852 and 1853 and died in November 1856.
James Meadows Rendel devoted much of his life building roads fit for the ever-increasing traffic in Devon. His legacy to the 21st century is evident in many of the 8,800 miles of road (14,200 kilometres)now established in the county.
A B George