In 1786 a John Beale patented an ‘umbrella with joints, flat springs, and tops, worm springs and bolts, slip bolts, screws, slip rivets, cross stop and square slips’. I do not know who John Beale was but perhaps he was a forerunner of two later Beales – Joshua Taylor and his son John. With an impressive record of inventions Joshua had moved to Greenwich from the east end of London in the 1830s and opened one the earliest engineering firms on Greenwich Marsh – now known as the Greenwich Peninsula, home of the Millennium Dome. There were many other engineers like Joshua Beale in the early nineteenth century – busily turning their skills to a very wide range of applications. His work in Greenwich has been very much overshadowed by more famous names – Penn, in particular – but his contribution is not something that should be overlooked.
In Wapping Joshua Taylor Beale was described as a cabinet maker and took out a patent for ‘improvements’ to the design of a rotary steam engine – he was to take out several more over the next few years. Soon he had moved to a bigger works in Chapel Lane, Whitechapel with a new partner, George Porter. The next patent was for a means of heating inflammable liquids without any risk of them catching fire. This was a very important process for manufacturers who wanted to work with coal tar – heating over an open flame is a very dangerous thing to do. In the east end of London there were also many sugar refiners and there was a great need for ways to boil sugar safely – this process would be very useful to them too. Beale was already buying waste tar from the local gas works in partnership with a local tobacco merchant, Mr.Beningfield. He began to make special oil lamps which used ‘substances not usually burnt in such vessels’. He described this substance as -mineral naphtha’ – oil derived from coal tar. He also devised new lamps which could burn gas, and they became very successful.
In the early 1830s Beale moved to Greenwich where he rented a riverside site from the Enderby Brothers. This is shown on maps as ‘Beale’s Foundry’ – today very roughly, it would represent the western end of the Alcatel Factory site, and include the area of their boiler house and chimney
In Greenwich Beale lived in Conduit House on Trafalgar Road at the bottom of Vanburgh Hill – the site of the old Granada Cinema, now flats. He may have been in the area for some time previous to this because of a report that in 1816 a ‘Mr Bell’ used coal tar for his garden paths in Blackheath. This comment comes from Francis Maceroni (more of him later) who was a friend of Beale and both of them had an interest in coal tar – and the printer may easily have confused ‘Bell’ for ‘Beale’. Perhaps, somewhere in a Blackheath garden, are the remains of the first tarred footpaths ever laid!
Beale continued with his work on steam engines in Greenwich and in the 1840s began to use them in road vehicles. In this venture he was joined by another Mr Beningfield – John, who was the ‘steward of the Ramsgate steamer’. In the early 1840s at least two cars were made at Beale’s Greenwich works and they were the not the only experimental road transport which trundled round the roads of North Kent in the nineteenth century. From the 1820s onwards some Kentish roads were – well, almost – buzzing with newly invented vehicles. Most of them were steam powered and were developed as the same time as railway locomotives but they were lighter and smaller and, perhaps, more sophisticated.
In 1841 Colonel Francis Maceroni set up the ‘Common Road Steam Conveyance Company’.. This body aimed to commission a steam vehicle to Maceroni’s patents. They asked Joshua Beale to build the vehicle which he did with the held of his brother, Benjamin, who undertook the drawings. At about same time as Maceroni commissed this carriage from Beale another, Greenwich and Deptford based, entrepreneur, Frank Hills, seems to have been doing much the same.. It may be that Beale was manufacturered one or both of the two vehicles which Hills commissioned since one contemporary description is of a visit to a Greenwich factory where ‘two steam carriages were almost complete’ .
Hills, Beale and Maceroni began to undertake demonstration trips around the Kentish countryside.
On a Wednesday in July 1840 a party of seventeen went in Maceroni’s carriage from East Greenwich through Lewisham to Bromley .. Coming back to Greenwich they turned off onto the Dover Road and went up Blackheath Hill – at 12 miles per hour ”in gallant style’. They continued across Blackheath and up Shooters Hill and as they needed water they stopped at The Bull. Inevitably, water was not all they took on there – the report says ‘the men were regaled and eulogised the scientific engineer’. Frank Hills carriage went rather further – Windsor, Brighton, Hastings – although there was a need to stop every eight miles to take on water.
This activity on Kentish roads had stopped by the end of 1841. Maceroni told the ‘Common Road Steam Conveyance Company’ that he would charge £800 each for the carriages made by Beale – but because of the changes necessary to the design he charged Maceroni an extra £300 per vehicle. The money was not paid and Beale impounded the carriages. No more was heard of any of them.
As time went by Beale became more and more involved in making equipment for the early gas industry. He tried to make gas cookers – at a time when such things were quite unheard of. In the 1830s another gas equipment manufacturer, Thomas Barlow, had set up an all-gas house in Colebrooke Row, Islington. Beale clearly took a great deal of interest in this and Barlow accused him of sending spies to look round the kitchen door to examine these cookers and see what was going on. Beale also patented a propeller for boats and a means of preventing ‘encrusting’ in boilers by the addition of human urine and soda.
Most importantly Beale patented the principle of a piece of equipment called an ‘exhauster’ and the idea was later improved by his son John. Exhausters could be used in the gas works to draw the gas through the pipes like a pump. Although the principle had been first described in Tudor times it was Joshua Beale who turned it into a working reality. In a paper to the Society of Engineers in 1864, Mr. A. M. Wilson remarked that ‘Beale’s exhauster was brought out originally as a rotary steam engine, although in this capacity it has never been, very extensively employed’.
One local customer was the South Metropolitan Gas Company based in the Old Kent Road who bought an exhauster from Beale in 1854. This was designed to ‘pass 40,000 cubic feet (of gas) per hour’ and included ‘an 8 h.-p. engine, and a boiler ….. if a second-hand engine can not be obtained to answer the same purpose’.
John Beale redesigned the system and patented it in the 1860s – by which time he had taken over the business from his father. He was determined to make it successful. It has been said that when a fire at the Greenwich works destroyed much of the factory he had a marquee erected on the marshes so that he could continue to demonstrate his exhausters to better advantage.
In the 1920s the South Metropolitan Gas Company’s house magazine ‘Co-partnership Journal’ reported on ‘an old resident of Greenwich, when asked about Mr. Beale’s work, replied “Yes, I knew the man. He invented a machine for blowing people’s gas meters round, and it proved to be such a fine thing that the gas companies have stuck to it ever since.”
Beale’s patents for the exhauster it were taken over by Bryan Donkin and Company and became a major part of their output. In 1903 Donkin left London for Chesterfield where they continued to pioneer new developments in gas industry machinery. John Beale stayed in Greenwich and continued, like his father, to invent a very wide range of devices. He became interested in bicycles. In 1878 he patented the ‘facile’ bicycle. Up until then the machines which are commonly known today as ‘penny farthings’ were called ‘ordinaries’. There had been several attempts to make them safer and Beale’s machine was one of these. It was called ‘The Facile’ and was advertised as ‘suitable for young and athletic and the elderly’ – but they could still tip you up so that you became ‘a cropper’. In essence ‘The Facile’ had pedals pivoted onto the end of low-set levers rather than cranked pedals. It was manufactured and marketed by Ellis and Co. who were based in 47 Farringdon Road in the City of London. As part of the publicity drive they organised the South London Facile Club and in 1880 W. Snook won a 24-hour road race – going from Land’s End to John o’ Groats on a 42-inch front wheel.
An author of 1899 said that ‘Mr Beale of Greenwich’ developed the ‘choeutoscope – a device for producing moving pictures which was one of the forerunners of cinema projection. This invention has since been attributed by historians of the subject to Professor Lionel Beale of Kings College – although it is possible that there was a connection between the two.
John Beale died in 1899. Before his death he had built Heathview in Westcombe Park Road where it is said that you can still see in the flower beds the remains of the test track for his bicycles. The site of the foundry is now within the area of the Alcatel factory and probably covered by their boiler house. The Alcatel site – home of the foundation of the submarine cable industry – may hold many relics of interest to the industrial archaeologist but it is a busy working factory and whatever remains it may have of Joshua Beale and son are likely to be inaccessible in the foreseeable future.
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