John Barnett Humphreys was an engineer who specialised in shallow-drafted steam vessels for river navigation. He lived in Southampton for about twelve years prior to 1840 and was connected in his early career with the Southampton shipbuilder John Rubie. It has been said that they were former school fellows (Rubie Family Tree: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry/). We first meet Humphreys in 1816 in Prussia, working in collaboration with John Rubie. The Prussian government granted Humphreys the exclusive privilege of providing steam navigation in the kingdom. Humphreys and Rubie were responsible the first steam ship built in continental Europe: the Prinzessin Charlotte, launched at Pichelsdorf on 14 August 1816: registered at 236 tons, she was constructed of wood, double-hulled with the paddle wheel in the centre of the vessel and equipped with a Boulton and Watt engine. Carrying 300 passengers, she worked the River Spree between Berlin and its suburbs until 1818. A further four steamers were built by Humphreys and Rubie. In 1816, the Prussian government contracted Humphreys to clear the Elbe of obstacles to free navigatuion. At his Potsdam wharf he built a simple machine, armed with pincers, which lifted out even the most stubborn tree trunks and piles. The trials, at low water, attracted huge crowds of spectators. Rubie left Germany in 1819, but Humphreys appears to have stopped on until the mid 1820s. The 1841 English census records that his wife Maria (then recorded as 35 years old) and elder son Alfred (recorded as 15) were foreign-born. His younger son (recorded as 13) was born in Hampshire, suggesting that he was in Southampton c.1828. Although the Prussian venture was largely a failure - the ships were underpowered and clumsy - there is a significant literature on him in German, summarized in The John Barnett restaurant marks the site of his wharf at Potsdam.

The Southampton interlude in Humphreys' career confirmed his standing as one of the most ingenious marine engineers of the day. He designed the 31-ton wooden paddle steamer Emerald, built in 1829 at John Rubie's Cross House Yard for William Colson Westlake of Chapel Mill and fitted with a revolutionary condenser to create distilled water from salt water. This alone cost Westlake £400, and was so secret that not even the vessel's own engineer for three years, George Blake, was allowed to see its interior. Humphreys had it made privately, and clearly intended to obtain a patent for his invention. The condenser was a failure and was never worked. However this did not detract from the vessel's performance, which sailed under Humphrey's command. Built for the ferry service to Hythe (the first steam ferry on the service), she was in 1832 reconfigured for the daily service to Cowes. Her speed, especially when outside Calshot Castle against a strong wind and sea, outmatched all her rivals on the Cowes service. Allegations that she had no safety valve for the engine and that the boilers were unsafe elicited a spirited defence from W. C. Westlake (Hampshire Advertiser, 30 June 1832). This included a testimonial from the boiler maker Samuel Marshall that "I never knew another master insist more strenuously on the best workmanship, or more strict in his personal inspection". In desperation the proprietors of the other boats on same station - notably Captain James Knight - bought the boat off Westlake for about £1200 and beached her on the mud at Northam, there gradually to rot away. She was continually plundered - including the theft of a water-closet tank - but (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 February 1841) Captain Knight "viewed the Emerald with such disgust that he would give no attention to the matter". The story came to light after three boys broke open the condenser and were arrested for selling off, in pocket handkerchief size bundles, the valuable copper piping they found inside to local ironmongers. They spent the money on cakes and apples. The subsequent trial in Southampton Police Court in February 1841 attracted intense public interest and press comment. A successor to the Emerald on the Hythe service was the Forester, built by Summers, Groves and Day at Millbrook in 1836: notable as the first iron ship built on the Solent. According to Adrian Rance, Shipbuilding in Victorian Southampton (1981), Humphreys was involved with the venture. The Forester ended as a hulk at Crabniton in 1844.

The Rio Doce was a build of a very different kind and demonstrates the true ingenuity of Humphreys. Launched in December 1839, she was, in the opinion of the Hampshire Advertiser (7 December 1839), "one of the best finished iron boats ever completed, possessing more improvements in build and machinery than we have before seen". Designed and constructed by Humphreys at Northam, she weighed 178 tons and was 136 feet long. Innovations included chain standing rigging for her three masts, slide valves patented by Humphreys himself and a compass, made by J R Stebbing, designed to counter the magnetic pull of the iron superstructure. She was designed to work in shallow water, making buoyancy and a small draft essential. She drew only 22 inches of water when launched (according to the Hampshire Telegraph) and was fitted with a revolutionary double shifting keel, moved by deck winches. Her name belies her purpose. She was commissioned by the Rio Doce Company, of which Humphreys was engineer. Founded in 1833, the company was a £250,000 joint stock venture designed to exploit the natural resources of the Rio Doce in south-east Brazil: to render the river navigable, to establish steam vessels thereon, to open up the surrounding lands - particularly the mineral-rich province of Minas Gerais - by opening canals, roads, building warehouses, saw mills, etc and to colonize the region with British settlers. In September 1835 the Imperial Brazilian government granted the company the exclusive privilege of navigating the Rio Doce by steam for forty years. In 1835/6 Humphreys spent about a year in the plains and rainforests of Brazil surveying and charting the river. The Rio Doce sailed from London in June 1840, under Captain Goodwin but with Humphreys as engineer, carrying a corps of artizans belonging to the company. She reached Brazil in August and, with the keel hoisted, became the first vessel of her size to cross the formidable bar at the mouth of the Rio Doce: without the services of the pilot, who ran away in fright. The venture was a failure. On a subsequent voyage, in July 1842, the Rio Doce ran aground inside the bar. Written off by many as a wreck, she was brought back to life by Humphreys. She worked in the carrying trade until March 1845 when, during a routine inspection at Rio de Janeiro by a marine surveyor employed by the Brazilian government, her boiler suddenly exploded, killing five of her crew instantly and fatally wounding the surveyor. The Rio Doce Company was wound up under the Joint Stock Companies Act in October 1849. Humphreys apparently remained in Brazil. A government decree of November 1857 granted him an exclusive privilege for fifteen years for "locomotivas a vapor".

The internationalism of John Barnett Humphreys is reinforced by correspondence he had with James Watt junior in the early 1830s. In April 1831 Humphreys introduces a Mr Arnous a Riviere, interested in French steam boats on the Loire and Seine, to Watt. In January 1833 (in a letter dated from Sugar House Yard) he refers a gentleman connected with India to Watt for his competency in matters of steam navigation (Boulton and Watt Collection, Birmingham Central Library, MS 1147/33/484: docketed in A man of infinite enquiry, Humphreys tried to introduce sericulture into England by breeding the South American Atlas moth (Bombyx hesperus), a relative to Bombyx meri, the silkmoth found in Asia from which the best mulberry or Japanese silk is made. The insects were brought over in chrysalis from the Brazilian rainforest. The subsequent larvae he kept in the attic of his house (13 New Road), exposed to the sun and with free range of the room. They were fed on the leaves of the castor oil plant cultivated in his garden. The botanist William Arnold Bromfield visited 13 New Road in August 1836, where he saw a numerous colony of caterpillars "quietly reposing in their silken tenements". He reported Humphreys' intention to make experiments on the silk of this species, "which he describes as being fitted for all the purposes of ordinary silk; and is indeed manufactured by the Brazilians into various article of clothing" (Magazine of Natural History, volume 9 1836, pp.602-03).


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