DRUGS, GUNS AND HIGH FINANCE
This is a story of big money, big guns, drugs, slavery and treachery. It is being highlighted here because of its relationship to one of the sites which will be covered by the Millennium Dome but much of it happened elsewhere – sometimes elsewhere in Kent.
In the late 1850s a Mr. William Dent bought Bickley Park, near Bromley, from the estate of William Wells. He was an ex-director of the East India Company and suitably rich. He didn’t stay long at Bickley Park but retained an interest in the area along with his Chairmanship of the Mid-Kent Railway Company. His brother, Thomas, also lived in the area having built a large house in the Bromley area. Other family members lived in Lee and Bromley and moved in the innermost circles of international high finance in the City of London.. Like other rich men they looked for investment opportunities in the industries which grew up along the river Thames in Greenwich and elsewhere. Their nephew, John Dent, was to be the backer for one of the most interesting companies to move onto the Greenwich peninsula – albeit one which was very short-lived.
Alexander Theophilus Blakely was a Royal Artillery Officer, born in Ireland, and educated at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. From the start he seems to have been interested in the manufacture of heavy guns. He developed a number of proposals for improvements and, after he had retired from the army, patented some of them and began to try and interest the authorities, both in Britain and abroad, about his ideas.
There has been a great of interest in Blakely recently in ordnance history circles – including an exhibition at Fort Nelson near Portsmouth. There have also been a number of articles written about Blakely which discuss his ideas about gunnery and his attempts to get them accepted. It has been suggested that he discovered the principles ‘on which guns are made ….. his patents covered virtually all the major improvements in ordnance in the fifty years after his death and his influence is still apparent’. It has been said that his ideas were misappropriated by William Armstrong – who was not a major arms manufacturer but held an important government appointment concerned with arms procurement. Armstrong made a fortune and became a national figure while Blakely died bankrupt in Peru.
Spurned by the British Government Blakely began to make his guns himself and to try and sell them where he could. At first the guns were made by a variety of companies but in the early 1860s Blakely set up his own factory, initially in Southwark. At some point he met John Dent who was to back financially. They set up a partnership called the Blakely Ordnance Company. The international arms trade has never been a particularly nice business and in this case the source of the finance was not derived from, perhaps, the most ethical sources. There is no reason to believe that the Dent family were anything but the most respectable people. Opium was of course legal in the last century although the massive trade which grew up whereby it was sold to the Chinese in return for silk and tea was increasingly being seen as discreditable. In the 1840s the Chinese had begun moves to stop the trade and at one point had threatened to arrest on the leading British opium traders, Lancelot Dent. The ensuing warfare, as British gunboats pounded Chinese ports in order to enforce the opium trade, is now seen as one of the least edifying episodes in British history. John Dent seems to have been largely in charge of the family Chinese interests and some of these reports have survived which detail silk, tea and opium prices on a monthly basis.
Blakely meanwhile was selling guns all around the world – except in Britain. The great fortress of Kronstadt in Russia was armed by Blakely. One of his guns stands on the ramparts at Charleston and fired the first shot of the American Civil War. Off Cherbourg a Blakely gun has recently been retrieved from the wreck of the Alabama – a warship secretly built in Liverpool on behalf of the Confederate states. What, however, has any of this got to do with Greenwich?
Blakely intended to build a major manufacturing complex, on the tip of the Greenwich peninsula. The area was, and still is, known as ‘Ordnance Wharf’ 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 1880s the area became part of the South Metropolitan Gas Company’s East Greenwich Works, which used it for a factory for tar-based chemicals. Adjacent and still in occupation in early 1998 are some 1950s houses known as ‘Blakely cottages’ – they stand on the site of workers housing built for the Ordnance works. Once they are demolished all reference to Blakely will disappear from the area.
Morden College were the ground landlords for the site and their archives first record negotiations with Blakely for a site in November 1863 and a lease was signed in 1864. In January 1865 Blakely applied to the College for permission to build a wharf and at the same time he approached the Greenwich Board of Works for approval to close a footpath which ran through the site.
The works itself is shown in a set of photographs deposited in Southwark Local History Library. One of these shows the new jetty built off Ordnance Wharf while another shows the half-built works together with a group of men, one of whom is probably Blakely. One of the other men seems to resemble the steel magnate, Henry Bessemer. Bessemer’s relationship is very mysterious and his role at East Greenwich will be the subject of another article.
By 1865 Blakely was in trouble. His collapse was involved with problems in China which led to the downfall of Dent’s financial empire there. It is far from clear exactly what happened – perhaps someone somewhere has studied the Dent family and the end of the China trade but I am not aware of this. Reports in the press of the day – still reeling from the major banking collapse of Overend Gurney – give little in the way of clues. They variously blame frauds in China or Blakely himself. The China House of Dent was the second business in the trade and it seems difficult to believe that investment in Blakely could have brought about their downfall. After this financial ruin Blakely went abroad and died in Peru in 1868. There has been some idea that he was perhaps inconvenient and that he was simply disposed of. Who knows? His family certainly fought on for many years to get his name and his discoveries recognised and today there are a number of historians who are keen to defend want he did and to speculate on the truth of his demise.
What happened to the Blakely site after the company had collapsed? The lease continued to be in the name of the ‘Blakely Ordnance Co. and this persisted into the 1870s. It has been suggested that Josiah Vavassuer, whose works he had shared in Southwark, developed his work. 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, now in the stewardship of the National Trust.. South of the Blakely site in Blackwall Lane is an eccentric, much minaretted, congregational church – today in use by an arts project. It is called ‘Rothbury Hall’ and was built and funded by Vavasseur.
Over the next fifteen years part of Blakely’s Greenwich site was leased to a ship builder and some to a guano company. Much of it area seems simply to have remained untouched. In the early 1880s an enquiry was held into the South Metropolitan Gas Company’s plans for the then very large new gas works on an adjacent site. The company was subsequently required, by the House of Lords, to purchase the area of the Blakely site. They found it 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 Blakely had intended for his workers but which had never been 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 people.
There seems to be far more to the Blakely story than appears on the surface – this article has only touched on some of the points. International finance, big guns and drugs always were a recipe for something extraordinary.
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