Family and final years
John Smeaton had at first struggled to earn a living and he didn't find prosperity until quite late in life. He had he set out for London in 1748 with financial support from his father but his father died in 1749, leaving him the family seat of Austhorpe Lodge, which was closed up, and rental income from properties in York. He referred to these as "my original fortune". However, he often experienced long delays in payment of consultancy fees, and later building works at Austhorpe became an ongoing financial burden.
He needed to spend time in London but could no longer afford the Furnival Inn Court accommodation he had taken in 1751. Instead, he conducted business from his friend and kinsman John Holmes' premises in the Strand. In the last decade of his life, he was able to take offices at his old Gray's Inn haunt.
Shortly after starting work on Eddystone Lighthouse
, Smeaton married Ann Jenkinson, youngest daughter of James and Faith Jenkinson of York. Her father was a merchant tailor and Freeman of the city, whose eldest daughter, Sarah, married Smeaton's first cousin Joseph Broadbent. John and Ann were married at St George's church, Hanover Square in London, on 7th June 1756. Their first child, Hannah, was born in December 1757 but died in babyhood.
The year 1759 was an eventful one, personally and professionally. The lighthouse was completed and Smeaton's reputation as an engineer growing. In May his second daughter, Ann, was baptised at St Andrew's in Holborn. In October his mother died, and a permanent light was exhibited for the first time in almost four years on the Eddystone rocks. Later, 14-year-old William Jessop, son of Smeaton's Eddystone assistant Josias, came to Austhorpe as an apprentice. Josias died the following year and William remained with the Smeatons, supported financially by Robert Weston (head of the Eddystone Trustees) until 1767 when his apprenticeship ended.
The household welcomed another daughter, Mary, in 1761. Smeaton's sister-in-law, Mary Jenkinson, came to live at Austhorpe. In January 1765 another daughter, again named Hannah, was baptised at Whitkirk church. Hannah died in 1776, aged just 11. William Jessop continued to live and work on the estate until 1773, when he was 28. Another assistant, Henry Eastburn, the son of Smeaton's sister-in-law Faith, arrived as a pupil in 1768. He was to work with Smeaton for 20 years, settling in Whitkirk after his marriage in 1779.
Between professional commitments, Smeaton managed to find time to fit out a windmill at nearby Sykefield as a home for his daughter Ann and her husband John Brooke after their marriage in August 1780. The remaining daughter, Mary, married Jeremiah Dixon (elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1773) on 6th December 1781. Dixon became mayor of Leeds in 1784 and the couple moved to Fell Foot estate, Staveley, near Windermere.
Two events really upset Smeaton: the collapse of Hexham Bridge in March 1782 and the death of his wife Ann on her 59th birthday, 17th January 1784. Ann had been ill since the previous summer, visiting Bath in the hope of a cure to no avail. Smeaton was heartbroken and withdrew from civil engineering for three years.
Eight years later, the end was drawing near for Smeaton too. On 16th September 1792, Smeaton suffered a stroke while walking in the garden at Austhorpe. He recovered his mental faculties but not his strength, remarking ruefully, "It could not be otherwise; the shadows must lengthen as the sun goes down". He died at home on 28th October, aged 68.
His obituary in Gentleman's Magazine stated, "As a civil engineer, Mr. Smeaton was not equalled by any of the age he lived in: it may, perhaps be added, by none of any previous age". He was buried in the parish church of St Mary's, Whitkirk, on 1st November 1792 and his memorial on the north wall of the chancel depicts his famous lighthouse.
Smeaton's will had one intriguing surprise. After the usual dispositions, including one for John Holmes, there is one to "John Reynolds whom I have acknowledged as my natural son". Reynolds was born in August 1775 but nothing more is known of him.
John Smeaton had lived in volatile times, seeing the whole reign of George II the last British Monarch to appear personally in battle and part of George III's reign, including the regency crisis. He saw the last Jacobite rebellion (1745-46) and conflicts abroad including the Seven Years' War, the American Revolution leading to independence in 1776, and the beginning of the French Revolution.
And he was just a boy when the Industrial Revolution began. He built Eddystone Lighthouse
using manpower alone and he used wagons on iron rails more than 65 years before the first public passenger steam railway in Britain. The diversity and significance of his achievements are still astonishing.
main references BDCE1
painting of Smeaton
courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers