Robert Napier (1791-1876) came from a distinguished family of smiths and engineers in the west of Scotland and learned his trade in family enterprises before starting out on his own in 1818. When his cousin, David, left the Camlachie works for Lancefield Quay in 1821, Robert took it over, building his first successful marine engine two years later. In 1827 two ships he had engined claimed first and second prize in a race sponsored by the Northern Yacht Club. By 1830 he was able to equip the Vulcan Foundry in Washington Street beside the River Clyde as a marine engine works. Five years later after his steamer Earl Grey exploded with a great loss of life, his cousin David Napier abandoned his Lancefield works and leased them to Robert, who had just built his first engines for an ocean-going steamer.
In 1840 he began a long relationship with the Cunard company, helping to raise capital and supervising the construction of the first four ships. In the following year he opened his own shipyard across the river in Govan, launching his first ship in 1843. His reputation as an engineer and later as a shipbuilder depended on the reliability of both design and workmanship. He attracted a galaxy of talented young men as his apprentices, many of whom, such as John Elder, went on to establish their own businesses in the city and along the Clyde. This earned him the title of "Father of Clyde shipbuilding". He retired from business in 1860 to live at Shandon, his country home on the Gareloch.
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