ALEXANDER THEOPHILUS BLAKELEY – AN ADDITION TO THE DEBATE
A recent article in Ordnance Journal on the subject of Alexander Theophilus Blakeley has thrown some light on this largely forgotten ordnance designer. This article, while hoping to add something to the debate on Blakeley, is written from the perspective of a local historian rather than an expert in Ordnance. In the course of research on the history of the Greenwich peninsula – the Millennium Dome site – some additional local information on Blakeley has been found. It is hoped that this will give some pointers for future research on a fascinating subject.
Greenwich does not appear in current articles as a location for Blakeley’s works. The site on which he intended to build a major manufacturing complex, on the tip of the Greenwich peninsula, has been well known to historians of the area for many years. The area was, and still is, known as ‘Ordnance Wharf’, after Blakeley’s works, and in 1998 houses the site offices for the Millennium Exhibition Dome. It will eventually be a major part of the exhibition site. In the years since Blakeley’s demise in the late 1860s it has had a number of uses and in the 1880s became part of the South Metropolitan Gas Company’s East Greenwich Works, which used the site to locate a factory for tar-based chemicals. It was this area that became most famous for pollution when it was announced for the New Millennium Experience. Adjacent to the site and still in occupation in early 1998 are some 1950s houses known as ‘Blakeley cottages’ – they stand on the site of workers housing built for the Ordnance works. Soon, they will be demolished and all reference to Blakeley will disappear from the area.
In the early 1860s when Blakeley moved onto Ordnance Wharf the western riverside of the peninsula was under intensive industrial development. Most of this area was, and is, owned by a local charity, Morden College, founded in the seventeenth century. Trustees of the college were appointed by the East India Company and latterly the Corporation of the City of London. One such City based trustee with a local interest was Thomas Baring, of the banking house of Baring Brothers. The charity was thus run by those at the pinnacle of international finance and it seems likely that they have had an interest in securing long term benefits to the area and a steady return on their investments. It seems likely that some of the industries, which found sites here, were helped by contacts within City financial circles.
Morden College archives first record Blakeley’s interest in the site in November 1863. They note that negotiations with him were underway and later there is a note of an agreement with Blakeley ‘ of Bear Lane in Southwark, manufacturer of Ordnance’ dated 1864. There is also note to say that the original lease has been lost. A plan included with the 1864 agreement gives a rough sketch of the area included in the lease.
In January 1865 Blakeley applied for permission to build a wharf. Around the same time he approached the Greenwich Board of Works describing his plans for laying out the site and asking permission to stop up a footpath which ran through the site. The works itself is shown in a set of photographs owned by the London Borough of Southwark. One of these shows the jetty off Ordnance Wharf and the site has now been clearly identified by historians with who have the expertise to recognise buildings on the north bank of the Thames shown in the photographs. Another picture shows the half-built works together with a group of men, one of whom is probably Blakeley. It would be interesting to know who the others were – one seems to resemble Bessemer.
In 1865 a local paper ran an advertisement for a pub in Blackwall Lane which boasted of its nearness to ‘Messrs. Bessemer steel works, and close to .. the Blakeley Ordnance Co., and several other large works’. We should note Bessemer in this context. The existence of a Bessemer plant in Greenwich has been suspected by Greenwich based historians, but has otherwise gone unremarked. Bessemer’s convoluted autobiography hints at his relationship with Blakeley and describes how he was spurned in his attempts to install his process in Woolwich Arsenal. It was left to his son to add the last chapter, which notes the existence of the Greenwich plant. Blakeley is mentioned elsewhere in Bessemer’s autobiography but not in connection with this Greenwich works. In the archives for the area Bessemer is elusive. A map giving Bessemer’s name on a site is appended to a local road plan. It seems to be that shown as the ‘London Steel and Iron Works’ on Ordnance maps and hence rather to the south of Blakeley’s Ordnance Wharf. Bessemer’s autobiography says that the works closed after only a few years and this does, indeed, seem to be shown in the records. However Bessemer appears again in the Greenwich Rate Books in the early 1880s and although the sequence of unnumbered sites are not always easy to follow it seems that this is Blakeley’s site. This suspicion is confirmed by a Morden College record that Bessemer took over a lease from the college in 1873 – well after he is supposed to have left Greenwich.
What happened to the Blakeley site after the company had collapsed and Blakeley had died in 1868? The lease continued to be in the name of the ‘Blakeley Ordnance Co. and this seems to have persisted into the 1870s. It has been suggested that Vavassuer developed his work. In the photo archive at Southwark there are also pictures of Vavassuer, and, intriguingly, records show that the collection itself was sent to Southwark from somewhere in Newcastle. . Vavassuer himself lived in Blackheath, at 99 Blackheath Park, and called this house ‘Rothbury’ – an obvious echo of William Armstrong’s great house at Cragside. South of the Blakeley site in Blackwall Lane is an eccentric, much minaretted, congregational church – today in use by a theatre project. It is called ‘Rothbury Hall’ and was built and funded by Vavasseur.
Despite a presumed input into the site from either Vavasseur or Bessemer, or both, it does not seem to have been used for gun founding. Part of it was leased to a ship building company, Stockwell and Lewis, who built a dry dock there. Another occupant was a guano company, holding an underlease from the Blakeley Ordnance Co. –granted as late as 1877. . Much of the site area seems simply to have remained untouched. In the early 1880s the South Metropolitan Gas Company began moves to build a very large new gas works on an adjacent site. Following an enquiry into objections to the Company’s private bill, they were required, by the House of Lords, to purchase the area of the Blakeley site. They found the site littered with the half-built remains of ‘great guns’. These were carefully piled up and made into a feature at the gate of Ordnance Wharf where they remained until sold for scrap in the 1970s. The gas company also took over the housing, which Blakeley had intended for his workers but never finished together with ‘coffee room, reading rooms, etc’. These were occupied as site offices by Docwra while the gas works was being built and subsequently let to local workmen.
Adrian Caruana has commented on Blakeley’s partner, John Dent, and said that ‘nobody had really found out anything about Dent’. In 1867 the Times published a number of new items about Blakeley and the fall of the House of Dent. Some of these items speculate that Blakeley’s misfortunes were caused by the Dent’s failure, or that Dent’s fall was due to investment in Blakeley. The Dent family were powerful, prominent City merchants, whose banking interests were in the partnership of Dent, Palmer and McKillop. Thomas Dent had even been considered for the Governership of the Bank of England in the late 1850s. They were well established within the small inner circle of the City of London. .
It is possible to connect these important financiers with Blakeley through a Morden College underlease on the Greenwich site. This refers to Wilkinson Dent of 8 Fitzroy Square. A trawl through the Internet on ‘Wilkinson Dent’. led me to Flass, near Penrith, and a very large, partly unsorted, archive in Kendal Record Office.. There is no apparent personal information about John Dent in this archive although he is sometimes mentioned. He was a member of a younger generation of Dents, nephew to Wilkinson, Thomas, and Lancelot.
I am surprised that the Dent family are not better known. Wilkinson’s brother Lancelot has recently been highlighted in a Chinese feature film ‘Opium War’. This partly tells how Lancelot was threatened with arrest in the early 1840s by Chinese authorities desperate to stop the opium trade. The resulting action by the British was, in the end, to prove the downfall of China. The Kendal archive includes copies of the firm’s monthly bulletin from China – silk (sold through Dewhurst), tea and opium. It has been said that Dent was second only to Jardine Matheison in power and wealth of the China trade.
It seems unlikely that a business of the size and importance of Dents’ China House would have been brought down by a single investment. I am not aware that their failure has been analysed –another part of this saga that would make an interesting study. They may of course, have been caught up in the backwash of the Overend Gurney affair – as were many other business of this period, and, just as relevant the failure of the Agra and Masterman’s Bank in which they were certainly involved. The story put out by the firm at the time was of fraud in the China office. Much of the Kendal archive is taken up with the a vast collection of papers relating to a Chancery Case which must rival anything which Dickens described in Bleak House – weakening and damaging the family through a whole generation.
One letter in the Kendal archive describes to a young family member how the fall of the China House led to the loss of a ‘great deal of money’. Despite this there is no sign in the archive that anything disturbed the comfortable life of lives of the Dent family at Flass and elsewhere. They also reveal the lives of several family members living in Bromley and Lee with clear links to Blackheath and Greenwich. Visits to Manor House, Lee, are mentioned – home of Lord Northbrook, Thomas Baring. A set of diaries at Kendal records sixty years in the life of a resident of Widmore, near Bromley and it may be significant that each day starts with ‘two pipes’.
Although Dent’s China House fell in the mid-1866 it seems unlikely that Blakeley alone could have been the cause of it. John Dent went away because his business was in trouble. Adrian Caruana’s has suggested that there was a political motivation behind what had happened to Blakeley – but this is ruled out if the Dent’s collapse was real. The idea that Blakeley’s downfall had a political dimension should not however be entirely discounted because there may be other elements beyond Armstrong. For instance, Blakeley guns were sold to the Confederate Cause, secretly supported by many British industrialists and bankers, including the Barings. It may be, for instance, that the sinking of the Alabama in 1864 was attributed to the range of her Blakeley gun. There were, of course, likely to have been other factors which are not immediately apparent. It may have been that Blakeley had become enmeshed in a web of conflict within the circles of government and high finance. He would have been seen by them as entirely expendable.
This article has strayed a long way from the sites underneath the Millennium Dome. There seems to be far more to the Blakeley story than appears on the surface. John Day and Adrian Carauna have drawn attention to discrepancies in his relationships with William Armstrong. I would like to point that there is also something undiscovered about Henry Bessemer and the whole structure of Blakeley finances through the Dents. I suspect that further research will lead from heavy ordnance, through drugs and, perhaps to slavery – and where else?
Adrian Caruana ‘Alexander Theophilus Blakeley’, Ord. Soc. Jrnl. 4
For eg: W.V.Bartlett, “The River & the Marsh at East Greenwich”, Trans. Greenwich and Lewisham Antiquarians, Vol.7, No.2, 1964-5, pp.68-84.
Co-partnership Journal, 1904, p.120
Patrick Joyce, Patronage and Poverty in Merchant Society. The History of Morden College, Blackheath. 1695 to the Present. Gresham Books. 1982.
Morden College Minutes, 18th November 1863
Morden College, Deed Collection.
Morden College, Deed Collection, note appended to indenture to Christopher Wegulin.
Morden College, Minute Books, 11th January 1865
Kentish Mercury 28th September 1865
LBS Local History Library, Blakeley photograph collection
Bob Aspinall & Chris Ellmers, Museum in Docklands, Rosemary Taylor, local historian
Info. Adrian Caruana
Kentish Mercury, 28th October 1865. Advert for ‘Star in the East.’
Sir Henry Bessemer, FRS, An Autobiography. With a concluding chapter, London Offices of ‘Engineering’, 1905.
Plan for the New Road, nd.
Greenwich, St.Alfege Rate Books, 1880.
Morden College Minutes 24th July 1873
Morden College Deed Collection
Caruana, op cit
LBS Local History Library
Neil Rhind, Blackheath Village and & Environs 1790-1970. Vols. 1 & 2. Blackheath, 1983, p. 99
Morden College deed collection
House of Lord Enquiry into S.Met. Gas Co. 1881. In LMA, NTGas Collection
Journal of Gas Lighting, March 1884
Picture in Co-partnership Journal, op cit
Info. Kay Murch, English Partnerships
Morden College Minutes 2nd January 1881
Co-partnership Journal, April 1911
.Caruana, op cit.
Times, 9th May 1867
David Kynaston, The City of London. Vol.1. A World on its own. Chatto, 1994. p.201
Info. Malcolm Whiteside (current owner of Flass)
This was shown on one night in 1997 at the Screen on the Green, N1.An account of Lancelot’s arrest can be fouind in Brian Inglis, The Opium War, Coronet, 1975
Dent Archive, Kendal Record Office, Box 12
Inglis, op cit
Morden College Deed Collection
Times, 10th May 1887
Dent archive, Kendal Record Office, Box 12
Caruna op cit
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