Archibald Robertson

Back in December 2016, I researched a ‘ship carver’ called Archibald Robertson for the Science Museum (here’s the entry). I didn’t write him up in any biographical sense. The other day I had a comment from a chap wanting to know more about Archie. I searched out my notes and, though fragmentary, here’s what I found…

Archie was born in either 1794 or 1795 somewhere in Scotland. There are conflicting places from Greenock to Edinburgh. Although he was a shipwright by profession he was widely known for his wood carving for various shipyards in Greenock. He married Margaret Boyd there in 1819.

The earliest record I have found of his wood carving prowess comes from a non-maritime source. In 1821 he carved a wooden statue of the piper Habbie Simpson for a niche in a church steeple in Kilbarchan. Habbie is the subject of a famous poem. The statue was replaced in the early 20th century by a bronze one.

In 1822 he carved the figurehead and the internal carvings for the James Watt, a paddle steamer built by John Wood & Co of Glasgow in 1821. His work was highly prized by Wood and he continued to contract work to Archie even when he moved to Liverpool, which happened sometime between 1822 and 1824. It was here that he set up business carving ship decoration, figureheads and blocks.

In 1824 he was working out of 13A Cornhill, Liverpool, which is conveniently located near Wapping Docks and the River Mersey just beyond. By 1825 he’d moved his business to 6 St Vincent Street, St James, Liverpool which is quite a distance from the water. I’m not sure what this means.

At some stage Archie carved the figurehead for a ship called Tickler though I can’t find out anything about the ship apart from the fact that it was still extant in 1826.

By 1828, James Brooker of Maryport who went on to become a figurehead carver of some note, started working with Archie as an apprentice

John Scott was a famous Liverpool ship builder and when, in 1829, a ship was built with his name, Robertson carved a bust of the shipbuilder to compliment it. This was also the year that Archie applied for and was granted a patent. It was for the construction of paddles for propelling ships, boats or vessels on water (oblique paddle wheels adjustable to any angle). It was patent number 5749 of 1829 and it was the model for this patent which put me on the trail of Archibald in the first place. I can only assume that his shipbuilding training kicked in and he decided to invent it.

In 1833 he did work for Denny of Dumbarton. It was John Denny who built the first steamship (Margery) to cross the English Channel.

The Vicar of Bray (1841) was built by Whitehaven’s Robert Hardy and Archibald carved the figurehead. The name comes from a satirical character from the time of Henry VIII. The Vicar of Bray was an ecclesiastic who changed his principles with the prevailing wind, in order to remain at his office. Bray was based on an actual Tudor cleric called Simon Aleyn. Sadly I can’t find an image of this figurehead because it’s probably quite funny.

Some time between 1841 and 1851, Archibald’s wife, Margaret died. Over this period he carved figureheads and internal woodwork for various ships including Robert Pulsford (1844) for Brocklebank, Vulcan (1845) for Lairds, Sir Henry Pottinger for Robson and Seringapatam made by Scott and Sons, Greenock. This latter ship was one of a number of ships called Seringapatam built around the same time for the India trade. One notable one was built by Green and Wigram in London.

In 1854 he joined in partnership with Robert Robertson but whether he was a relative or not I have not been able to ascertain though I feel Robert’s parents were pretty awful to give him a first name that echoed his surname. How tempting it would have been to call him Bob Bobson. The partnership was called A & R Robertson.

Archibald died in 1859. In a brief paragraph in the Liverpool Echo it was claimed that Francis Leggatt Chantrey, the famous Regency sculptor, gave up carving a figurehead having seen one of Archie’s, claiming he could do no better.

Blake, G 1937, Down to the Sea, Collins, London
Thomas, PN 1995, British Figurehead and Ship Carvers, Waine Research, Wolverhampton
Liverpool Echo, 29 December 1859
Various websites

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7 Responses to Archibald Robertson

  1. Mum Cook. says:

    Wow that was good but a shame no photos, don’t suppose after all this time they are still around. love mum xxxx

  2. Randall Osczevski says:

    Thank you for the information on Archibald Robertson. I can add that in October of 1828, Capt. John Ross, later Sir John Ross, purchased a two year old side wheeler packet steamer from Liverpool called the ‘Victory’ for his Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage (through what is now the Canadian Arctic). He replaced Victory’s engine with a state of the art steam engine and mounted two new paddle wheels based on Robertson’s soon-to-be-patented design. Things did not go well, even during the first leg of the expedition from Woolwich to Liverpool, as the new engine had not been designed to power the new wheels and several faults appeared early. Robertson’s patent was not granted until July of 1829, so Ross couldn’t tell the engine designers the exact specifications of the wheels he expected it to turn.

    Despite the early troubles, Ross took his ship into the Arctic anyway in 1829. The steam engine was defective, so he ripped it out and left it on an island. I expect that Robertson’s paddle wheels are there too. Heavy ice kept them from sailing back out in 1830 and 1832. With food running low, they decided to abandon Victory and walk 200 miles to where they might be rescued by some passing whaling ship, where they knew was a large cache of food and other supplies. They spent another winter there before flagging down a ship the next summer to take them home to England.

  3. admin says:

    Randall, that is fantastic! Thank you so much for the details. Superb.


  4. Randall Osczevski says:

    I would love have a photo or two of his patent model for a paper I am writing about the Sir John Ross’s ship the Victory.

  5. Randall Osczevski says:

    I am pretty sure that it directly inspired John Ericsson to invent the screw propeller, which changed the world. It is a shame that Robertson’s contribution has been forgotten.

  6. Randall Osczevski says:

    I found an image on the Science Museum web site of a paddle wheel with oblique floats that might be Robertson’s, however, if it is, he has been forgotten even in this, for there is no name associated with it (unsigned). Is that the one you saw recently?

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