Information about Thomas Steers early life is elusive, but he was probably born in Kent in 1672. He wrote with a clear, bold hand and examples of his calculations show his familiarity with mathematics indicative of a well educated man. Family tradition suggests that he was present at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and he is entered in the Army List of 7 July 1702 as a Quarter-Master in the 4th Regiment of Foot (The King's Own) though not on active service at that time. This regiment was present at the Battle of the Boyne and also served in the Low Countries, being involved in the sieges of Huy and Namur before returning to England after the Peace of Ryswick in 1697. William's army is said to have been poorly supplied with engineering and transport officers, so there would have been plenty of opportunity for someone with engineering aptitude to develop those skills and Steers position as Quarter-Master could have involved him in surveying and excavation work as well as dealing with contractors and merchants who supplied the army. He would also have been able to see the hydraulic engineering techniques used in the Low Countries at that time.

Steers returned to Kent in l697 and in l698 or 1699 married Henrietta Maria Barber whose father settled property on the couple in Queen Street, Rotherhithe. At this time the Howland Great Dock, originally planned as a drydock and shipbuilding ground, was already under construction. Elizabeth Howland leased the site to John and Richard Wells, shipwrights, and advanced them UKP2500 for the work. The following year it was decided to construct a wet dock instead and the Wells' were granted a second lease, Elizabeth Howland advancing them UKP12,000 for the work. Two weeks before this second lease they had contracted for the building work with James Hurst and John Carrick of London, trustees named in the Act for the wet dock, and had agreed with William Ogborn of Stepney, house carpenter, for the construction of wharfing, docking and house-carpenters work.[1]

There is no evidence that Steers was directly involved in the construction of the dock although he was living in the neighbourhood when, in 1709, he leased half an acre of land from Elizabeth Howland for 60 years, part of the Wet Dock Field. A survey by Steers exists of the whole of the Wet Dock Field, drawn up at that time for Elizabeth Howland, suggesting that he may have been employed as a surveyor by the Howland Estate, although described as a house-carpenter in the lease.[2] By 1767 there were about nine houses built on the site which was bounded by Russell Street, Bedford Street and the Wells' Greenland Dock (formerly known as the Wet Dock) Close, the lease still being in the name of Thomas Steers, perhaps this is Thomas Steers junior, his third son by his first marriage.[3]

How then did Steers become involved in the construction of Liverpool's first dock? Early in 1708, Sir Thomas Johnson wrote to Richard Norris that he had talked to George Sorocold, the engineer, about the construction of a dock at Liverpool, and by mid 1709 Sorocold and his associate, Henry Huss, had drawn up a plan and estimate for it's construction, which was used to obtain the Act of Parliament necessary, Royal Assent being given on 24 March 1710. Neither Sorocold nor Huss agreed to become the dock engineer, perhaps they were too involved in the construction of the Derby Silk Mill to undertake the work at Liverpool. Whatever the reason, on 17 May 1710 the Town Council were informed that Thomas Steers had arrived in Liverpool and had set out the works to his own plans which required the reclaiming of the area forming the Pool and thus setting the standard for dock construction in Liverpool, only Stanley Dock being built on unreclaimed land.

It has generally been assumed that Steers worked under Sorocold on the construction of the Howland Wet Dock and that Sorocold recommended him for the position at Liverpool, but no evidence has come to light suggesting such a relationship. Another explanation for Steers appearance in Liverpool is that his work whilst in the army had come to the notice of the Hon .J. Stanley whilst he was commanding the 16th Regiment of Foot in Flanders. Stanley became the 10th Earl of Derby in 1702. Thomas Johnson had already sought his help in 1705 concerning the lease of the Castle and it's surrounding land to the Council and it was upon his recommendation that Johnson was knighted. He was Mayor of Liverpool in 1707 and Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire till 1710, so when the Council, especially Johnson, were looking for an engineer to replace Sorocold, it is possible that the Earl suggested Steers; having such influential backing could certainly account for Steers rapid advancement in the town's hierarchy. [4]

During the construction of the Dock, Steers, assisted by William Braddock, was responsible not only for it's design but was the contractor for the digging. Other contractors included Edward Litherland, responsible for the masonry; William Bibby for the lime and brickwork and Thomas Hurst and Thomas Pattison providing timber. The Dock was certainly open for shipping by mid-1715 but it is difficult to say how complete the works were at this stage. In 1717 a further Act was obtained in an attempt to regularise the financial situation, as the first Act used Sorocold's estimate, which involved much less work, and permission was necessary for extra money to be borrowed against the income from the Dock for it's completion. This money was raised in Liverpool from people such as Thomas Hughes, Edward Norris and Joseph Shaw, only two non-residents have been identified, a Mr. Barrett who lent UKP700 and Oswald Moseley of Ancoats in Manchester who was repaid UKP117-10-0 in 1722.[5] This second Act also allowed for a dry dock and 3 graving docks to be built at the entrance to the wet dock; further expansion was envisaged and Steers drew up plans for a southward extension in 1718. Work was still in progress in 1720 when the north side of the dock was raised to stop flooding. Steers reported completion in 1721, the same year that the new Custom House was opened. It has not been possible to discover how much he was paid for overseeing the dock work but the Council Treasurer's Accounts show payments of UKP290-4-0 in 1721 and UKP429-10-6 in 1723 on account of the dock, presumably for construction work, as documents relating to a case in Chancery concerning the finances of the town and dock, brought during the political disturbance in the late 1720's,[6] give UKP137-0-0 as having been paid to him for digging the dock, the money being paid out of fines for land leased about the dock, but only UKP10-0-0 being paid on account of his salary. Unfortunately there are no dates given and the accounts are incomplete.

During the construction of the Dock, Steers had time for other occupations; in 1712 he proposed, by surveys, the navigation of the Mersey and Irwell to Manchester and the Douglas to Wigan and although powers were not granted by Parliament at this time, they were upon reapplication in 1720, with Steers being named as an undertaker in both cases. Amongst the other undertakers in the former were Richard Gildart, Henry Trafford and Oswald Mosley whilst the other undertaker in the latter was William Squire (Richard Norris' brother-in-law), all of whom were involved in the Dock. He was active in the same year about the Liverpool Waterworks together with Sir Thomas Johnson and Sir Cleave Moore, the evidence here suggesting that he was more involved in the share dealing and finances than in the engineering aspects.[7] His financial interests at this time also included an anchor smithy near the Dock, an occupation which one of his sons continued after his death, and joint ownership of the vessel "Dove" trading to the West Indies in which he was in partnership with Richard Gildart and Peter Hall. An account of a voyage to Monserrat in 1720 shows that he provided UKP186-17-0 towards a cargo valued at UKP499-13-0, and UKP50-0-0 for victualling, the outward leg being via London and Cork and returning via London.[8] He speculated in land, leasing, in 1715, an area along the foreshore to the south of the Dock which would have been a good investment had the Dock been enlarged as suggested in 1718. Later, in 1720, he built five houses in Derby Square near to his smithy.

Political activity has long been a Liverpudlian characteristic and it was soon acquired by Steers. He became a Freeman in 1713 and was elected to the Town Council in 1717, becoming one of the Town Bailiffs for 1719 and again in 1722, eventually becoming Mayor for 1739. He was also an Out-burgess for Wigan by 1746,[9] possibly through his work on the Douglas Navigation, though the politics of Liverpool and Wigan were interlinked. At this time Liverpool was a Whig stronghold with few powerful Tories, there was however a second political division, between factions for and against the Council, those for trying to control the creation of Freemen and hence it's composition. This came to the surface in 1727 when the Tory Thomas Bootle resigned as Mayor to stand for one of the two Liverpool seats in Parliament. Then, in 1729, Foster Cunliffe, who was Mayor at the time, left the Council Room when the pro-council group were trying to enroll more Freemen [10] and as a result the anti-council group took them to the Court of Chancery, the Bills and Answers there [11] giving much information about the finances of the Town and Dock at this time, a detailed discussion of which is outside the scope of this paper. However from this source it can be seen that Steers was amongst those of the pro-council persuasion, which included many of the most prominent merchants.

Despite being a member of the controlling group on the Council, Steers was also their employee from 1717, when he was appointed Dock Master at an annual salary of UKP50, his assistant William Braddock being made Water Bailiff. This arrangement changed in 1724 when Steers took over the Water Bailiff's post as well, although from this time he ceased to be paid and had to rely upon the perks and fees associated with the posts and to pay Braddock UKP25 per annum as an allowance. The position of Water Bailiff proved unremunerative and Steers asked to be relieved of it in 1725, instead the Council paid Braddock's allowance till he died in 1727. Steers continued in the post as, on 2 December 1725, he asked the Corporation to indemnify him concerning part of a shipment of wheat he had seized, for his fees and the town customs, from a vessel owned by a "Wilson not of this borough"[12], In the same year the income from the Dock was sufficient for a start to be made on the Corporation church of St. Georges, the finances of the church and Dock being closely linked. Steers, together with James Shaw, drew up plans and estimates, which were accepted by the Council, for a church to be built on the site of the old castle, the construction taking from 1725 to 1734 at a cost of UKP2984-17-10[13]. He was responsible for the foundations and building of the steeple but the castle site must have caused problems as the steeple became unsafe and had to be rebuilt in the early 1820's.[14]

His financial position may be gauged by his offer, in 1725, of a loan to the Council. This is also reflected in his lease, on 1 November 1727, of the playhouse in Chorley Street and later, in 1740, he opened a new theatre on the site of the Old Ropery, an interest in the arts he maintained until his death. A suggestion of philanthropy can be seen in his offer, during his time as Mayor in 1739, to build a number of houses for poor and destitute seamen on waste land belonging to the Corporation. His appointment as one of the commissioners for the turnpike road from Liverpool to Prescot in 1725 and his representation for the Council before the Parliamentary committee considering the application for a new Act of Parliament for the Weaver Navigation in 1737 suggests that he continued to have a deep interest in the transport infrastructure of the region and realised it's great importance to the trade of Liverpool though appreciating that it must be paid for as on 9 February 1740 he complained to the Council that foreigners importing corn, particularly to ports higher up the Mersey, were attempting to evade the duties. 1736 found him checking the buoyed channel on Hoylake Bank while the following year he presented a plan to the Corporation for a new dock and pier needed to reduce the overcrowding in the existing dock works. It was at this time that he became involved in several projects in Ireland.

He was approached to be the engineer for the Newry Canal in 1729 at which he replied that his fee would be 100 guineas per month which was not accepted [15]. (At this time Steers scheme for the Douglas Navigation was being appraised by Thomas Palmer who was employed as engineer for the River Ouse Navigation by the City of York at UKP40 per annum plus expenses [16] which gives some idea of Steers professional standing.) In 1736 he was paid 50 guineas for a survey of work already undertaken and in the following year he took over responsibility for the construction of the canal from Richard Cassels at the 100 guineas per month he originally quoted, agreeing to be in Ireland for 4 months in 1737 and for 2 months in each of the following 2 years. The work took considerably longer than at first envisaged and was not completed till 1741, by which time he had received UKP1,651-17-6 inclusive of 14 months extra work and a small sum for a survey of the River Boyne.[17] Of the locks on the canal, 3 were constructed on the "French" pattern, with the sluices at the upper end built into the walls of the lock rather than in the gates themselves, the first use of this method in Great Britain.[18] These locks were rebuilt in the 1800's on the old pattern. In a letter to an Irish M.P.Steers was maligned for his work on the Newry Canal, mainly because he was English, whereas his Irish deputy, Gilbert, received much praise.[19]

1738 also saw him employed on the Ballycastle harbour for Hugh Boyd, the local land and colliery owner, where he constructed a pier using a piled wooden framework which was then filled with rubble.[20] It failed fairly quickly due to worms eating the framing and it was probably his experience here which led him, in 1743, to rebuild the wooden pier at Liverpool out of stone. At Ballycastle he was both designer and undertaker, being assisted by William Needham on site.[21] As mentioned previously, he undertook a preliminary survey of the River Boyne in 1746. Two years later he undertook a complete survey which was used subsequently when the river was made navigable. He was paid 250 guineas for this and was probably assisted by Henry Berry.[22] He was also part owner of salt works on the Boyne and the Newry Canal at Scarva.

At the same time as he was working in Ireland, Steers continued the improvement of facilities at Liverpool. The Act for the new dock was obtained in 1738 and by 7 June 1738 tenders had been put out for the masonry of the new pier. Steers was once again called upon to oversee the work and he was paid at the same rate as when he built the first dock. The old wooden pier was extended in 1740 but, as mentioned previously, it was rebuilt in stone in 1744, while in 1746 a drydock was ordered to be built at the north end of the new pier. This was one of the first attempts to overcome the continual problem of shipbuilding and repairing in the docks.At this time some ships were built around the Dock and the dock walls removed to launch them which was, obviously, not good practice, so in 1749 the shipbuilders were ordered to move from the Dock and Steers had to check the dock walls to ensure they had been repaired effectively. The New Dock eventually opened in 1753, Henry Berry overseeing the work after Steers death.

From 1740 he continued to be involved in a wide variety of work. In that and the following year he surveyed the Calder and Hebble Navigation together with John Eyes.[23] Eyes then produced, in 1742, a "Plan of the Docks and Piers in Liverpool", suggesting further collaboration. He also worked on the Douglas Navigation with Steers when he was called in by Alexander Leigh, the new undertaker, for advice in the early 1740's.[24] The town of Liverpool was not neglected as he surveyed the Exchange building in 1740 and was involved in the design of the New Exchange when it was built in 1748. In the same year he advised on the supply of stone for Saint Thomas'Church and during the Jacobite Rebellion, in 1745, he was responsible for the fortification of the town. He continued to have an interest in shipping, being part owner, in 1746, of the sloop "Hoadley" which traded with Ireland.[25]

He died late in 1750, being buried in St. Peter's Churchyard on the second of November in that year, the sole acknowledgement, for his work, found in the Town Records is the statement "Whereas Mr. Alderman Steers is lately dead, it is ordered that Henry Berey,late clerk to him, be continued to oversee the works till further order." The only other contemporary appreciation of his work I have found is contained in a letter from John Smeaton to the Calder and Hebble committee in 1757 referring to Steers and Eyes survey saying " those gentlemen were generally esteemed men of character and ability in their profession, particularly Mr.Steers..."which suggests the high regard he was held in by Britain's foremost civil engineer.[26]

1.                      G.L.R.O. Bedford Estate Papers.E/Ber/S; L7/1-5 Leases re Wet Dock, 1695-7; TII/C3 Articles of agreement re construction of Wet Dock, 1697.

2.                      G.L.R.O. Bedford Estate Papers, E/Ber/S; E5/2/2 The Honourable Mad'm Howlands Wet Dock Field, surveyed by Thomas Steers, 1709; L6/5 Lease of land from Elizabeth Howland to Thomas Steers, 1709.

3.                      G.L.R.O. Bedford Estate Papers, E/Ber/S; E5/2/11 Premises leased by Thomas Steers in 1709, to expire in 1769. (drawn 1767)

4.                      J.J.Bagley, The Earls of Derby, 1485-1985 (Sidgewick and Jackson,1985), pp125-130.

5.                      L,pool R.O. 352 TRE 1/1/1 Account Book Ledgers, 1720-31; P.R.O. E112/1147/14. Records of the Exchequer the Kings Rememberancer, Bills, Answers, etc.

6.                      P.R.O. E112/1147/14.

7.                      P.R.O. PL6/60/22 and 57. Palatine of Lancaster, Chancery Records, Proceedings in Equity, Pleadings.

8.                      P.R.O. PL6/61/100.

9.                      J.R.L. Crawford MSS. List of Burgesses, 1746, to whom letters have been sent.

10.                  L,pool R.O. ACC 2276.

11.                   P.R.O. E112/1147/14.

12.                  L,pool R.O. 352 CLE/TRE 3/6/1, Extracts from Liverpool Town Books re Town Dues.

13.                  L,pool R.O. 352 TRE 1/5/1, Treasurers accounts, 1721-34.

14.                  R.Brooke. Liverpool during the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century (Liverpool,1853) pp49-53

15.                  B.M. Add MS 21134. Papers re import and export trade of Ireland, 1670-1751. Letter from Mr.Knightley in Dublin, 24 May 1729.

16.                  Baron F. Duckham. The Yorkshire Ouse (David and Charles,1967) p62.

17.                  H. Peet, 'Thomas Steers' T.H.S.L.C. 82 (1930) 184.

18.                  W. Harris, The antient and present state of the County of Down (Dublin,1744) pp112-119.

19.                  Hydragogus. A true account of the canal between Lough-Neagh and Newry in a letter to a Member of Parliament in Munster. (in National Library of Ireland)

20.                  Hugh Boyd. An account of the collieries and harbour at Ballycastle. (in P.R.O.N.I. D562/1185)

21.                  Faulkner's Dublin Journal, extracts describing the improvements of the harbour at Ballycastle, 1737-8. (P.R.O.N.I. T2045); M. B. Mullins, 'Address on engineering in Ireland', Proc. of the Institute of Civil Engineers of Ireland, 6-7 (1859-63) pp89-90.

22.                  P.R.O.N.I. T2519/12 River Boyne accounts 1746-1822.

23.                  R. Stewart-Browne, 'Maps and plans of Liverpool and district by the Eyes family of surveyors', T.H.S.L.C. 62 (1910), pp161-2

24.                  Wigan R.O. D/D Lei B2/4 Accounts concerning the River Douglas.

25.                  M.R.C. Wool Acts Register.

26.                  A.W.Skempton (Ed.) John Smeaton, F.R.S. (London,1981) pp220-1, Smeaton's fees are given as 1guinea per day, rising in 1768 to 2.5 guineas per day and his annual salary for the Calder and Hebble Navigation was UKP250 per annum.

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