Jesse Hartley of Pontefract

by David Jones

Jesse Hartley is a compelling character. His work and his legacy are still present today in Liverpool. Buildings no longer used for the purpose they were created for, but now provide offices, shops, museum and apartments.

Jesse was born on 21 December 1780 to Bernard and Mary Hartley of Pontefract. Bernard was not only a Stone Mason and bridge builder but also the Surveyor of the Bridges of the West Riding.  However, locally, Pontefract’s most famous landmark after the Castle is the Town Hall, which Bernard Hartley designed and built.  The Hartley’s were very much a Pontefract family, although Jesse soon moved further afield to develop his career.

Jesse in his early years created a significant CV for himself, with examples of his bridge building being found in Ireland and other parts of the UK, still existing today. 

So how did a renowned Bridge designer and builder move into dock design? Dock construction had begun in Liverpool at the beginning of the 18th century but as trade increased with the Americas, the Indies and other parts of the world, capacity was being increased.  A vacancy came about for a Deputy Dock Surveyor in 1823, as a result of the Dock Surveyor John Foster being embroiled in financial scandal. Fourteen people applied, many with better qualifications than Hartley. When he was appointed, people questioned his experience as it was limited to bridge design. The Liverpool Mercury stated:

‘Rather than engineering expertise, the Dock Trustees were instead seeking honesty, force of character and managerial skill.’

Within two weeks of his appointment, Foster was removed and Hartley stepped up. He started on an annual salary of £1000. 

So who exactly did Liverpool get? Sir James Picton, a famous Liverpool individual and keen observer of Hartley, described him as:

‘A man of large build and powerful frame, rough in manner, and occasionally rude, using expletives which the Angel of Mercy would not like to record’. 

He was also described as having a ruddy complexion. Others described him as having a strong personality, grit and determination. The Dock department was in chaos; corruption, poor management, poor safety and finances out of control. In five months everything was under control. He was meticulous in his record keeping and everything was accounted for. He ensured nothing was wasted and any poor quality materials cost the supplier and not the Trustees and he negotiated favourable contracts.

Evidence of Jesse Hartley’s work can still be seen around the Dock estate today. For example, he liked to apply castle architecture, although few thought his work attractive. 

Not only did he create a significant dock network that put Liverpool on the commercial map but he was such a visionary that he saw the importance of the railways. He ensured that docks, quays, warehouses and other facilities were all drawn together. His greatest achievement was the Royal Albert Dock. It was designed with warehouses, with hydraulic machinery that would ease the unloading of goods. He included iron which, with the stone and bricks, ensured the building was fireproof. He designed internal doors in such a way that they stopped rats from moving around. He designed a stressed roof with wrought iron plates riveted together to ensure thieves could not break into the Bonded warehouses. Today of course the building is used for shops, offices and apartments. 

Jesse Hartley held the position of Dock Engineer for 36 years. He was a contemporary of Brunel, Telford, Stephenson, Bolton and Watt. He started on an annual salary of £1000 per year. He finished on £3000. His death was recorded in the Liverpool Daily Post 25th August 1860: ‘In Liverpool Hartley was noted for his devotion to his work and for the simplicity of his life and manners.’ I think it is time that Jesse Hartley had a Blue Plaque in our town to recognise one of Pontefract’s most famous sons. 

This article was featured in Issue 6 – July 2019.

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