Labelye, Charles (DNB00)

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LABELYE, CHARLES (1705–1781?), architect of the first Westminster Bridge, son of François Dangeau Labelye, was born at Vevey, Switzerland, in 1705. He was baptised at Vevey on 12 Aug. 1705 as ‘Danjau, Charles Paul, fils de M. François Danjau La Bélye et de Mme. Elisabeth Grammont sa femme.’ In the entry of the baptism of a subsequent child in 1709 the father is described as ‘Monsieur François Dangeau, Sieur de la Bélye, refugié en cette ville par sa Religion.’ One of the godmothers of another child, baptised in 1714, was the Madame de Warens celebrated by J. J. Rousseau (J. Chavannes, Les Refugiés Français dans le Pays de Vaud, Lausanne, 1874, p. 262). The father is said to have been related to the well-known Marquis de Dangeau, a prominent figure in the court of Louis XIV, and the author of a volume of ‘Memoirs.’ Some confusion appears to have arisen in consequence of the various modes in which Labelye's name is written, but with one exception he always called himself Charles Labelye. He probably came to England about 1725, as he states in the preface to his account of Westminster Bridge that he ‘never heard a word of English spoken till I was near twenty years of age.’ He appears to have become acquainted with John Theophilus Desaguliers [q. v.], to whom he addressed a letter dated 15 April 1735, dealing with a certain view of the laws of motion then prevalent, and displaying much mathematical knowledge. It is signed ‘Charles de Labelye,’ is printed in Desaguliers's ‘Course of Experimental Philosophy’ (1745, ii. 77), and is the earliest authentic evidence of his presence in this country. He is said to have been employed in Hawksmoor's office as a draughtsman, but the only evidence for this seems to be that Hawksmoor, in his ‘Propositions for Erecting a New Stone Bridge at Westminster,’ 1736, gives at p. 18 the results of some calculations made by Labelye to determine the probable effect of the bridge upon the current of the river.

The original act of parliament for building Westminster Bridge was passed in 1736 (9 Geo. II, cap. 29), but it was not until May 1738 that Labelye was appointed ‘engineer,’ a word which had not been previously employed in the sense of ‘architect.’ His salary was 100l. per annum, and 10s. per day subsistence money. The appointment of a youthful foreigner gave offence to the English architects, and especially to Batty Langley, who, in a drawing in one of his books, shows ‘the Swiss impostor’ hanging in mid-air from one of the arches of the bridge.

The original idea was to build a bridge with a wooden superstructure, and Labelye's commission only extended to the construction of the stone piers. The foundations were laid in what are known as caissons, being huge wooden tanks, open at the top, eighty feet by thirty feet, constructed on shore, floated into position, and then sunk until the bottom rested on the bed of the river, a cavity having been previously excavated for their reception. The pier was then built in the caisson, and when it had reached above the level of high water the sides were removed. Labelye was not the inventor of this mode of building, as it was mentioned by Batty Langley in his ‘Design for the Bridge at New Palace Yard’ (1736), but it had never been carried out on any large scale. The first pile was driven on 13 Sept. 1738, and the first caisson launched on 15 Jan. of the following year. On the 29th of the same month the first stone was laid by the Earl of Pembroke. About a year afterwards the commissioners changed their plans, deciding upon a bridge entirely of stone. Labelye submitted a design, which was accepted, and the bridge was practically finished at the end of 1746; but soon after a serious failure of one of the piers became apparent. The public grew alarmed, and a ballad was written, ‘The Downfall of Westminster Bridge, or my Lord in the Suds,’ in which ‘My Lord’ (the Earl of Pembroke), the commissioners, and the architect were severely handled. The cause of the disaster was attributed to the unsoundness of the foundations. ‘The Crace Collection of London Views’ in the British Museum contains two contemporary drawings of the broken arch’ (portfolio v. Nos. 93, 94). The bridge was consequently not open for public traffic until 18 Nov. 1750. It was the largest work of the kind executed up to that time, and was an object of admiration for many years. The views of it which were published are very numerous, and had Labelye carried out his original intention of laying the caissons on a foundation of piles instead of on the unprotected bed of the river, the bridge would probably have stood longer. In this, as in other respects, he seems to have been swayed by considerations of expense. Labelye published in 1739 ‘A Short Account of the Method made use of in Laying the Foundations of Westminster Bridge,’ and in 1743 ‘The Present State of Westminster Bridge in a Letter to a Friend’ (anon.) But it was Labelye's intention to publish a full description of the bridge, and in 1744 he issued a detailed prospectus of the proposed work. It appeared in 1751 under the title ‘A Description of Westminster Bridge,’ which is practically a second edition of the ‘Short Account,’ bringing the history of the bridge down to the date of its completion, and containing the prospectus of 1744 by way of appendix. Both works are said to contain engravings, which, however, were never published. The original drawings are to be found in the library of the Institution of Civil Engineers, bound up in a copy of Labelye's ‘Short Account,’ together with a number of other drawings relating to the bridge. This volume was presented to the institution by Mr. Page, the architect of the present bridge. The drawings are signed ‘T. Gayfere,’ a clerk or draughtsman employed by the contractors, who subsequently became ‘college mason’ at Westminster Abbey. Labelye states in the ‘Description’ that as his health was failing he had arranged that all his papers were to pass into the hands of a competent person who would carry on the work in case of his death before its completion.

Labelye also published ‘The Result of a View of the Great Level of the Fens’ (1745), an abstract of his ‘Report relating to the Improvement of the River Wear and Port of Sunderland’ (1748), and a plan of a new harbour at Sandwich, engraved by Harris, but none of the suggested works were executed. He supplied Desaguliers with a description and drawings of Newsham's fire-engine, printed in the ‘Course of Experimental Philosophy,’ ii. 505. In 1746 he became a naturalised British subject by act of parliament (19 Geo. II, cap. 26), in which he is described as ‘Charles Labelye, son of Francis Labelye, by Elizabeth his wife,’ and his birthplace, Vevey, is wrongly placed ‘in the canton of Bern in Switzerland.’

Upon the completion of the bridge in 1751 Labelye suddenly vanished. It is asserted by certain French writers that he retired to Paris, disgusted with the treatment which he had received in England. Not a trace of this dissatisfaction is to be found in his published works, and the greatest harmony seems to have prevailed between the commissioners and their engineer. On 26 Feb. 1751 the commissioners presented him with an honorarium of 2,000l. ‘for his great fidelity and extraordinary labour and attendances, skill and diligence.’ According to Le Sage (Recueil de divers mémoires extrait de la Bibliothèque des Ponts et Chaussées, 2me partie, p. 275, Paris, 1810), Labelye made the acquaintance in Paris of Perronet (the head of the department of Ponts et Chaussées), to whom he bequeathed his papers and a model of Westminster Bridge. The collection at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées contains a model of the bridge and some drawings, but nothing which can with certainty be attributed to Labelye. He appears, however, to have been in communication with the French engineers of that time, since Belidor (Architecture Hydraulique, ii. 198, Paris, 1753) gives a description and drawing of the mode of laying the foundations of the bridge, which are not to be found elsewhere. Le Sage also has a drawing of the machine invented by Labelye for cutting off piles under water, the particulars of which can hardly have been obtained from any one but the inventor.

The date of his death is uncertain, though all the accounts agree that it took place in Paris. The ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ states that it occurred 18 March 1762. According to Le Sage (op. cit.) he died about 1770, and this is to some extent borne out by a letter in the ‘Journal Helvétique,’ September 1770, p. 51, from Ritter, an architect of Berne, who writes as a friend of Labelye to correct an error in Grosley's book ‘Londres.’ Ritter writes throughout as if Labelye was no longer living. But the real date of his death is probably 17 Dec. 1781, which is that given in ‘Le Conservateur Suisse,’ 1817, viii. 298, and also by Albert de Montet in his ‘Dictionnaire Biographique des Genevois et des Vaudois,’ Lausanne, 1877.

[The chief authorities are cited above. A very full description of Westminster Bridge was presented to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1838 by Mr. Francis Whishaw, who was rewarded with the Telford medal. A short abstract only appeared in the Proceedings, 1838 i. 44, but the manuscript is still preserved. This paper is particularly valuable, as the author had access to all the minute books and documents of the bridge commissioners, which are not now to be found, and have probably been destroyed. The British Museum possesses the journal and letter-book of Andrews Jelfe and Samuel Tufnell, the contractors for the bridge (Add. MS. No. 27587), which contain many curious particulars. The name of Thomas Gayfere, already referred to frequently occurs in this book.]

R. B. P.