Bessemer and Greenwich
Thank you for the write up of Denis Smith’s lecture on Henry Bessemer – I’m afraid I was unable to make it to hear him because of other commitments. However, my spies were out in force to report back on what he said, and, therefore, I was more than a bit miffed to hear that he had failed to mention, in a lecture to GLIAS of all people, Bessemer’s London steel works, on the Greenwich peninsula. I wrote my research on this up in proper detail for the Newcomen Society’s Bulletin in April 2000, with a rather more popular version in Bygone Kent Vol. 20 No.1.
As with so much else concerning Bessemer the Greenwich steel works was a bit of a saga which remains difficult to untangle. He clearly had had some sort of row with the authorities at the Royal Arsenal and so decided to set up his own steel making plant a couple of miles up river – and handy to reach from his home at Denmark Hill. I more than suspect that he was involved with the gun manufacturer, Theophilus Blakely, also out of favour with both the Royal Arsenal and William Armstrong. Bessemer and Blakeley together probably intended to set up a rival concern.
Bessemer’s Greenwich works was on a riverside site known today as Victoria Deep Water Wharf – and it was subsequently occupied by the Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum Works. There is another tale attached to that, and one that perhaps we should take some notice of. The lino works belonged to Frederick Walton. Walton, like Bessemer, was a professional inventor, and, like Bessemer, wrote a convoluted, tricky autobiography – they may well have known each other, and they certainly had a lot in common. Walton said how proud he was to site his works somewhere ‘famous as the spot where Bessemer proved his widely known steel process’. Walton was also to claim that over the door of the Greenwich linoleum factory was Bessemer’s so called ‘first flash’ – the first piece of steel made by Bessemer and as late as the 1940s is was claimed that ‘The gateway to this old factory is still protected from damage by traffic by buttresses forged from Bessemer’s first steel. ’
Eventually the linoleum factory, by then owned by Michael Nairn of Kirkaldy, was pulled down and Nairns gave the Science Museum the ‘first flash’ and a small Bessemer converter from Greenwich. I don’t know what has happened to this – informal conversations with Science Museum staff have indicated that they don’t believe the story, and don’t see what the connection of Bessemer is with Greenwich. I think it is about time we all found out!