THE HILLS FAMILY
For a Kentish parish church St. Luke, Chiddingstone Causeway is very modern. It dates only from 1898 and is a memorial to Frank Clarke Hills built by his family. Many industrialists who made their fortune on the London riverside retired to the Kent countryside; Frank Hills was one of them but his family roots were Kentish. He made a large fortune – some of it came from his chemical works on Greenwich Marsh. This article is an attempt to identify him and some of his Kentish antecedents.
When he died in 1895 Frank Hills’ home was Redleaf, on the hill above Penshurst Place, although only the elegant gateposts and lodge remain of his house. They were designed by the prestigious gardener, J.C.Loudon, and commissioned by Frank’s predecessor at Redleaf, the shipbuilder, William Wells. Wells and Hills families had been in the Penshurst a long time – in 1700 a Richard Hills of Underriver rented a field in Kemsing to a William Wells. The Wells family have been well recorded elsewhere – they were shipbuilders, industrialists and politicians. When Frank Hills came to live at Redleaf in the 1880s he too had become a shipbuilder and his ancestors had been Kentish yeoman from around Sevenoaks.
Piecing together Frank Hills’ life has been a difficult exercise. He was only one part of an family enterprise which involved his numerous brothers and their sons. Their father was a Thomas Hills – a common name. In 1811 Thomas Hills bought the Bromley by Bow Steam Mills on the River Lea. I know that this is Frank’s father because of a letter written in careful large letters on squared paper and addressed to Bromley Steam Mills. Frank must have been about eight when he wrote it in 1815.
Frank’s eldest brother had been born in Lyme Regis, while another brother was to marry a girl from Lyme. Perhaps, their mother came from Lyme – she had been a Miss Clarke and there are still Clarkes in Lyme today. We have seen many images of eighteenth century Lyme on the cinema and television screen telling us about the town’s naval connections. The TV has not shown the stone works by Lyme harbour from where Mrs. Coade had brought her secret receipt for terra cotta to London in 1769. Did Thomas Hills have connections with the navy or with china clay – or something entirely different?
Thomas Hills had a brother, Robert – another very common name. Some evidence points to a Robert Hills who was a merchant based in the City of London. He had some connection with the world of South American metal mining – full of European fortune hunters and sleazy finances. There is even some suggestion that Robert Hills might have been in South America. Was he a young adventurer from Kent who had gone to make his fortune in Mexico? The Hills family had a continuing interest in metal mining. Money from somewhere had been needed to buy the Bromley by Bow Mill.
In the early 1800s Bromley by Bow was a busy industrial area. Three Mills, the tide mill now open to the public on some Sundays, was the biggest alcohol distillery in the country. Just down the Lea, near the junction with the new Limehouse Cut, was Thomas Hills’ mill with a Boulton and Watt steam engine, installed by the previous owner, Mr. Milward. Thomas Hills used the mill for chemical manufacture. An 1827 inventory lists ‘a kiln with reverbatory furnace … coke ovens, drying houses, colour mill and machinery, and laboratory’. In this period the first gas works were opening in east London. They produced not only coal gas for lighting but a lot of unpleasant by products. Thomas began to buy up this waste in large quantities. In 1818 he took out a patent jointly with a Uriah Haddock. Haddock was a chemist from Mile End – was he any relation to Admiral Haddock who had lived there in the previous century? The patent was for the manufacture of sulphuric acid – so revolutionary and so important that it is highlighted in almost every history of the chemical industry. The exact nature of the process was the source of a great deal of speculation at the time. Visitors came to Bromley to see how it was done and eventually there was a court case for infringement. This propensity to become involved in court cases about patents seems to have been inherited by Frank!
Thomas left the Bromley mill in about 1827. No more has been discovered until Frank Hills began to contact the London gas companies from the Deptford Chemical Works in the early 1830s. The Deptford chemical works is another long story. Frank initially rented it from a German chemist called Beneke who had devised ways of using gas works’ waste. This work was continued and extended by Frank. In connection with it he spent an awful lot of time on court cases. Also at Deptford he developed steam powered road transport – that too is another story.
Frank Hills had four brothers. The eldest was Thomas.. As a young man he had patented a boiler grate giving his address as Robert Hills’ City office. As an old man he lived in The Grove on Blackheath with his second wife and family of two daughters and one son. Most of his life he worked closely with Frank, acting as his business manager both at Deptford and East Greenwich. His only known attempt to change was when he applied for the post of Deputy Superintendent at the neighbouring Phoenix gas works – they turned him down because he was ‘too experienced’.
Another of Frank’s brothers was George, about whom I know very little. He was an industrial chemist who worked at Deptford. He and Frank held joint patents on the manufacture of both sulphuric acid and sugar. Does this mean that George was a sugar manufacturer? It is a business not very different to other chemicals and one very typical of east London. In the 1820s some inventors developed equipment for heating inflammable liquids – useful for both tar and sugar.
Yet another brother was Arthur. He lived in Norwood and may have managed a chemical works which the family owned at Nine Elms and, perhaps, another in Wandsworth. Arthur had a chemical works on the Isle of Dogs called, significantly, ‘Anglesey’ Works.’.
Anglesey is a long way from Blackheath and it is amazing that the fourth brother, Henry, managed to commute between the two. Henry lived in the comfort and affluence of Blackheath Paragon while his chemical works was in the strange industrial village of Amlwch on the furthermost tip of Anglesey. He must have lived there much of the time for he had a farm nearby and several of his large family of children were born there. The chemical works were on the headland above Amlwch harbour and bhind the village is Parys Mountain – the great bare mountain where copper is still mined today and where the Hills had a strip mine. Some other Welsh mines were managed for them by D.C.Davies who came from Oswestry – could he have been a relation of Thomas Davies who managed Frank Hills chemical works at East Greenwich. D.C.Davies also knew well the Hills’ copper mines in Spain and the special railway that went to them.
Henry’s son, Charles Henry, spent much of his time in Newcastle – although he too lived in Blackheath and died in Bromley, Kent. In Newcastle he managed the Low Walker copper works. This works is very elusive – why is it that, even though the Newcastle copper industry has been studied in some detail, do we know so little about it?
Frank Hills acquired the East Greenwich tide mill in the early 1840s. What he did there is the subject of another article. East Greenwich was a very important part of the operation. It had good wharfage facilities for a business which depended on water transport. Opposite the works at East Greenwich was Bow Creek where the huge engineering and ship building business of Thames Ironworks turned out battleships for the world’s navies.
What happened to Thames Ironworks from the mid-1850s has always been something of a mystery to researchers. This prestigious ship building yard had been owned by C.J.Mare and was taken over in 1856 by a consortium of unnamed business men headed by the Greenwich MP, Peter Rolt. In 1860 they built the Warrior – perhaps, the famous Thames-built ship of all, and now berthed in Plymouth. I do not know exactly when Frank Hills moved into Thames Ironworks but in 1860 he was on the board and by the 1870s he was Chairman. Thames Ironworks was very big business indeed. Frank Hills had come a very long way from the Deptford Chemical Works – by way of the East Greenwich Tidemill and a lot of gas works’ waste!.
Frank loved being Chairman of Thames Ironworks. There are stories about him excitedly running round each new battleship as it set out on its first journey down the Thames. He was not to know that this was the last moments of Thames shipbuilding and that his son, Arnold, would fight the Government and see the works closed down together with the skills which had made it famous.
Frank died in 1895, closely followed by his two eldest sons. The Deptford Chemical Works remained under the direction of other family members – perhaps sons of Arthur or George. The works at East Greenwich were sold to the gas industry and the old tide mill site became home to a power station. The Anglesey works closed in the 1890s and the Spanish mines went into other ownership.
Frank returned to Kent in his old age and lived at the grand house which William Wells had built – Redleaf – with his ‘zoophytes’ and a new gramophone. It is said that he could recite ‘Paradise Lost’ in its entirety off by heart. He had made a very great deal of money. He was a very remarkable man, one of the great Victorian industrialists, and almost unknown.
This article is based on an extremely wide range of source material including archives of the London Gas Industry (in GLRO) and Thames Ironworks (London Borough of Newham). In particular I would like to thank Patrick Hills for his continued help and support. I would like to draw attention to work on the Spanish mines undertaken as part of a project on the Rio Tinto complex, to the works of D.C.Davies and to the chapter on Henry Hills in Bryan D.Hope A Curious Place (Wrexham 1994). It is intended that material in this article will be the basis of a longer work on the family and their industrial connections.
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