Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bentham, Samuel

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1304880Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04 — Bentham, Samuel1885John Knox Laughton

BENTHAM, Sir SAMUEL (1757–1831), naval architect and engineer, was the youngest son of Jeremiah Bentham, an attorney of good repute, and brother of Jeremy Bentham [see Bentham, Jeremy]. He was born He was born on 11 Jan. 1757, and his mother having died shortly afterwards, his father married, in 1766, the widow of the Rev. John Abbott. Samuel Bentham received his early education at Westminster, and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to the master-shipwright of Woolwich Dockyard, whom, a year or two later, he accompanied to Chatham. He is described as an industrious student in both the theory and practice of his profession, and during a few months' stay in France in 1775 he perfected himself in the French language. His inventive talent showed itself even during his apprenticeship in several small improvements in the fittings of ships, which were favourably considered by the navy board. In 1778, when just out of his time, he was invited by Captain Macbride, then commanding the Bienfaisant, to accompany him on the summer cruise of the Channel fleet, during which he had an opportunity of witnessing the battle of Ushant on 27 July, as well as of suggesting some improvements in the steering gear, and in the fitting of the guns, which were carried out under his personal superintendence. Being unable to procure any suitable employment at home, his friends advised him to travel, with a view to studying 'the ship building and naval economy of foreign powers.' Russia seemed to hold out the highest inducements, and, furnished with very strong recommendations to Sir James Harris, he arrived at St. Petersburg in May 1 80. From St Pet rsburg he travelled over the greater part of Russia, firom Archangel to the Crimea, and eastwards, through Siberia to the frontier of China, examining more especially the mines and methods of working metals, on which, on his return to St. Petersburg in October 1 782, he presented a report to the empress. Early in the next year he was offered from home a commissionership in the. navy, which, however, he declined, partly because his prospects in Russia seemed more advantageous, and principally, it would seem because his affections were settled on a young Russian lady of noble family. But the lady's father did not approve of his daughters marrying a foreigner, and, notwithstanding the friendly interest of the empress, Bentham's suit did not prosper. He was then glad to get away from St. Petersburg, and accepted the offer of Potemkin to send him to Cherson with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He afterwards settled himself at Kritchev, where the prince had a large property, and where, though some hundreds of miles from the sea, on a small tributary of the Dnieper, he was desirous of establishing a shipbuilding yard. The depth of water would not admit ships of more than 200 tons; larger vessels had to be sent down piecemeal, but, on the other hand, the abundance and cheapness of materials, and the unrestricted power conferred on Bentham, permitted him to reduce some of his ideal improvements to actual practice. 'I am at liberty,' he wrote to his father on 18 July 1784, 'to build any kind of ships, vessels, or boats, whether for war, trade, or pleasure; and so little am I confined in the mode of constructing them, that one day, in arguing with the prince about some alterations in a frigate he proposed building, to make a present of to the empress, he told me, by way of endings the discussion, that there might be twenty masts and one gun, if I pleased. Workmen and assistants I am to find where I can, and on what terms I can.'

Workmen, on any terms, were very difficult to find; some country joiners, with a few sergeants from the army as overseers, a Danish brassfounder, an English watchmaker, and a German schoolmaster were all that he could obtain. In September 1784 his military rank was made substantive, and he was appointed to the command of a battalion, the men of which he partially transformed into sailors, shipwrights, and mechanics. It was at this time, and in consequence of the very limited number of officers at his disposal, that he first introduced the plan of 'central observation,' the workshops all radiating from his own office. The 'Panopticon,' which occupied his elder brother Jeremy for many years [see Bentham, Jeremy], was a modification of this plan. In 1787 Bentham was ordered to Cherson, to direct the equipment of a flotilla intended to act against the Turks. This could scarcely be called a naval armament, consisting, as it did, chiefly of river barges and boats, none of which was supposed capable of carrying any gun larger than a three-pounder; but by the absence of the admiral, the sole command, administrative and executive, fell to Bentham, and he was thus able to give free scope to his inventive genius, and to introduce the most startling novelties into maritime war. In defiance of all professional maxims he adopted and proved a system of fitting guns without recoil, by which, and by strengthening the boats at his command, he enabled them to carry long 36-pounders and 48-pounder howitzers, whilst some he even made to carry 13-inch mortars. The armament was really most formidable, though the vessels which carried it were paltry. So the Turks thought them, but the first encounter in the Liman on 7 June 1788 showed them their mistake, and in an attack on a greater scale, ten days later, they were defeated with very heavy loss. Just at the last moment, as the enemy was approaching, Bentham was superseded from the command-in-chief by the cosmopolitan Prince of Nassau-Siegen, under whom, however, he continued in command of the flotilla, whilst the Scotch adventurer, Paul Jones, commanded a covering squadron of armed merchant ships. These last, however, had little share in the victory, which was achieved by the flotilla alone. The effect of its large guns, firing shell or carcasses for the first time in naval war, was altogether unprecedented. No less than ten ships of the line were set on fire and blown up, one was sunk; out of the eleven crews, numbering probably nearly 11,000 men, about 8,000 only were saved. Bentham's services on this occasion were rewarded with the military cross of St. George, the rank of brigadier-general, and a sword of honour. He was shortly afterwards, at his own request, appointed to a command in Siberia, where he applied himself to developed the resources of the country by opening up the navigation of the rivers, by explorations, and by promoting trade with the neighbouring China.

In 1791 he obtained leave of absence and revisited England, with the intention of speedily returning to his government. His return was, however, continually delayed, by the death of his father, by assisting his brother in fitting up a Panopticon for the reception of 1,000 prisoners, and afterwards again by business connected with various patents, amongst which may be more especially mentioned those for impregnating different substances, such as wood, meat, or hides, in vacuo, with salts, tannin, or other agents. Some correspondence with the admiralty in 1795, relative to the introduction of machinery into the dockyards, brought about a request that he would visit the yards, and make his suggestions in a more exact and formal manner. This was the beginning of his official connection with the English admiralty, which shortly led to his resigning his appointments in Russia, and devoting his whole time and energy to his country's service. For the next eighteen years, a time in which the naval strength of England was developed in an extreme degree, the improvements in the machinery, in the organisation and in the economy of the dockyards, as also in the build and the equipment of our ships, were largely — it might almost be said mainly — due to the genius, the acuteness, and the business talent of Bentham. To recount them in detail would be to relate the administrative history of that long war; it will be sufficient to particularise the invention of the caisson-method of closing the entrance of docks or cambers, the invention of the steam dredging machine, and the building and equipment of sloops of war of the Arrow class (see James's Naval History (ed. 1860), i. abstract, No. 4, and p. 456, iii. 34), which, armed with non-recoil carronades of very large calibre, fought some of the most remarkable actions during the war.

It is well known that the maladministration of the dockyards had, towards the close of the century, reached almost perilous height. It was officially stated by the attorney-general in 1801 that the losses to the country were not less than 500,000l. per annum, and it was commonly believed that they were more like four times that amount (Naval Chronicle, vi. 242, x. 63). Bentham considered that the remedy for this was to be found in administrative reform. Lord St. Vincent, the first lord of the admiralty, 1801–4, took a more summary method, instituted a long and searching inquiry, and succeeded in clearing away a great deal of the mass of corruption. But the odium which Bentham incurred by reason of his suggested reforms was almost as great as that which fell on Lord St. Vincent, and he had not the same strength to withstand it. He honestly endeavoured to serve the country, but to do so in his position was to wage war against peculation and corruption, and in the long run his enemies were too many for him. He had said to Tucker, the first lord's secretary, that 'if they punished inferiors, they ought to go further; there was not a single officer at Plymouth or at the navy board unimplicated; but it looked as if they didn't like to go higher than dockyard officers.' No doubt the gist of this conversation was known at the navy office, and the bitterness it naturally caused was enhanced by the issue of new and stringent regulations for enforcing close adherence to the terms of naval contracts. To these the navy board objected, and so drew down on itself the severe censure of the admiralty 'for the negligence, fallacy, and fraud which had pervaded and been fostered by the department under its direction.'

In the summer of 1805 Bentham was sent on a mission to St. Petersburg, to arrange, as he was instructed, for the building there of several ships for the English government. It appeared, however, that the Russian government had no intention of giving any effective consent. The business was long and tedious, and Bentham did not return to England till the autumn of 1807; when, on his arrival, he was greeted with the intelligence that his office of inspector-general of navy works was abolished, and that he was to be appointed one of the commissioners of the navy. His opinion had been, all along, that the mission to Russia was but the result of an intrigue for getting him out of the way; and, whilst still abroad, he had so written to Lord Spencer, adding: 'I was somewhat confirmed in this suspicion by the expression of a man whose influence at the admiralty was very great, when, with a most cordial shake of the hand, it came out, as it were, unawares, that "for his part, though he had the highest opinion of my talents and zeal, yet he would give his voice for allowing me at least 6,000l. a year, if by that means he could be assured I would never return again."' He now hesitated about accepting the seat at the navy board, and consented only on being urged to do so by his step-brother, the speaker Abbott. Individually, the other members of the board were friendly enough, but they looked on him as a man likely to prove troublesome. Troublesome he undoubtedly was, whilst during the next five years he continued his agitation for improvement in the organisation of the dockyard. It was in 1810 that the design of extending the naval establishment at Sheerness came prominently into notice. Bentham was entirely opposed to it. He maintained that Sheerness was an unsuitable place, and urged the superior fitness of the Isle of Grain; and the lapse of time would seem to have proved that his position was sound, for within these last years the admiralty have decided that Chatham, not Sheerness, is the proper site for our great eastern arsenal, and the Isle of Grain has been chosen as the station for an important line of mercantile steamers. Of his detailed objections to the plan submitted by Mr. Kennie, and accepted by the admiralty, it is impossible to speak here; it is enough to say that his own plan, sent in in February 1812, was rejected, and that the controversy did not make the relations between him and his colleagues smoother than they had been. At the same time he was engaged in another controversy, also with Mr. Rennie, on the subject of the Plymouth breakwater, and again Mr. Rennie was the successful competitor. On 3 Dec. 1812 Bentham was informed that his office was abolished, and it was at the same time intimated to him that any claim he might make for compensation would be favourably entertained. It was finally arranged that he should receive a pension equal to his full pay of 1,500l. a year.

After the peace in 1814 he went with his family to reside in France, and was at Tours during the hundred days' war of 1815. He afterwards settled in the neighbourhood of Angoulême, and did not return to England till 1827. He solaced himself during his retirement in preparing and arranging a number of papers on professional subjects, including much of his official correspondence, some of which had appeared in pamphlet form during his time of active service or immediately after his being shelved. They were published in a collective form in 1827, and it would appear to have been business connected with them that brought him once again to London. His literary pursuits occupied much of his time, but he was almost necessarily brought into contact with the admiralty. Years had, however, assuaged the old jealousy, and he continued in frequent and amicable correspondence with the several departments of the navy till his death on 31 May 1831.

Though known both privately and officially as Sir Samuel, there is no account of his having been knighted in England; he seems to have assumed, and to have been tacitly authorised to assume, the title, as knight of the Russian order of St. George, after his presentation to the king in 1809. For such assumption the king's sanction was, of course, sufficient, but its being granted in this way and on these grounds remains, we believe, unparalleled in modern times. In 1796 he married Mars' Sophia, the eldest daughter of Dr. George Fordyce, by whom he had several children. His wife survived him many years, and died, at the age of ninety-three, 18 May 1858.

[Life of Brigadier-general Sir Samuel Bentham, K.S.G., formerly Inspector of Naval Works, lately a Commissioner of his Majesty's Navy, with the distinct duty of Civil Architect and Engineer of the Navy, by his widow, M. S. Bentham, cr. 8vo, 1862. This is written mainly from Bentham's own journals and letters, and with a full knowledge and understanding of Bentham's undertakings. Lady Bentham died before the work was completed, but the loss was ably supplied by her younger daughter. On page x of the introduction to this, there is a full and detailed list of the numerous pamphlets and magazine articles of which, during his long life, Bentham was the author; as their interest is exclusively technical, it is unnecessary here to repeat the list. The Memoir by W. L. Sargant (Essays of a Birmingham Manufacturer, i. 226) with some interesting criticisms, is, in the main, an abstract and review of Lady Bentham's Life; Bowring's Life of Jeremy Bentham (collected works, vol. x.) chaps. vii.-x.]

J. K. L.