MARY MILLS = FROM NEWC0MEN SOCIETY BULLETIN
In examining the various industries of the Greenwich peninsula one of the most persistent questions has been what Henry Bessemer was doing there. His son’s account of it do not exactly accord with some of the archival evidence. The works was surrounded by others with which Bessemer may have had some common interests. We should also note Frederick Walton’s statement that the site was ‘where Bessemer proved his widely known steel process’.
Strangely Bessemer himself made no reference to the works in his autobiography – and this omission may be significant. It is Bessemer Jnr. who draws attention to Greenwich in the concluding chapter he wrote to his father’s book. He says that it was a small works that Bessemer intended to be for the use of his sons – and the public records do indeed sometimes refer to ‘Bessemer Bros.’ as the owners. “It had”, says Bessemer Jnr., ” two 2 1/2 ton converters and all the plant necessary. Including one 2 1/2 -ton steam hammer and another. The buildings were carefully designed, with the intention that the establishment should be in all respects be a model one”. It was he says never opened because of the down turn in Thames shipbuilding. He went on to describe how ‘after considerable delay…. it was let to Steel and Ordnance Company who did not achieve much success. then we let it to Messrs. Appleby Brothers.. the whole of the steel making plant was disposed of .. after some delay .. we converted the long lease into a freehold .. and let to a company for the manufacture of linoleum’.
Bessemer Jnr’s. account of the works accords well in many respects with the archival records. However, as research has progressed a number of things have emerged which may, or may not, have a relevance to what Bessemer was doing, or intended to do, at Greenwich.
Bessemer’s Greenwich works was on the site now known as Victoria Wharf and dated from around 1865 – well after his steel making process had been developed elsewhere. Victoria Wharf is one of the few properties on this stretch of Greenwich riverside, which is not in institutional charitable hands. In 1998 it has recently been sold and access has not been granted to the site’s records. All that is available are the archives of neighbouring sites owned by Morden College, a Blackheath based charity, or public sources.
The earliest reference discovered to the works is an application to the Thames Conservators in June 1865 from ‘Bessemer Brothers’ for permission to erect a landing platform. There is a also a note in the Greenwich Commission of Sewers rate books of 1865 with the additional information that the owners of the land are Clark and Terry from whom Bessemer held his lease. In the local paper a pub in Blackwall Lane was advertised as expecting increased trade from workers at the Bessemer plant.
Some other industries in Greenwich at this period could have had a relationship with Bessemer. He shared Victoria Wharf with an artificial stone works owned by Frederick and Ernest Ransome, of the Ipswich family. In 1872 Ernest Ransome went to America where he founded the Ransome Concrete Co.; it has been suggested that Bessemer was involved with their successors, another stone works. It has also been suggested, verbally, that Bessemer had an interest in telegraph cables – Glass Elliott operated on two adjacent sites. Next door, to the south, were Maudslay Son and Field – who built the first prototype of Bessemer’s anti-sea sickness boat. To the north was John Bethel’s chemical works. Bessemer himself mentions ‘Bethel’s patent coke’ in connection with steel making and no doubt there were coke ovens at Bethel’s Greenwich works.
Further to the north was something more with a more definite connection to Bessemer. A.T.Blakely has recently been the subject of an article in Ordnance Journal by Adrian Caruana and of an exhibition at Fort Nelson. He is seen as a forgotten and disregarded innovator of heavy ordnance. Bessemer refers to him in his autobiography and it seems likely that they worked together. In a copy of the Engineer their advertisements seem to share the same page. Blakeley probably planned a major armaments complex at Greenwich but a number of factors, outlined by Adrian Caruana, led to his failure in the late 1860s. A photograph has recently come to light of the Blakeley works under construction. It shows a group of men of whom one is probably Blakeley. Is Bessemer one of the others?
Both Bessemer and Blakeley had fallen out with the Department of Ordnance, Woolwich Arsenal and, most crucially, William Armstrong. It might have seemed logical to them to plan a steel and ordnance manufacturing base at Greenwich. They would have intended to sell in the foreign markets in which both were well known. It might be conjectured that some of these foreign customers had become politically unacceptable by the time Bessemer came to write his autobiography, hence his silence on the subject.
Bessemer Jnr says the site and equipment was taken over by ‘Steel and Ordnance’ and this poses some problems. The Bessemer works dates from about 1865 yet on the 1869 Ordnance Survey map it is marked as ‘London Steel and Iron Works’. In fact only one map reference has ever been found to Bessemer’s name and this might imply that the works was not known by his name from the start. What is quite clear from archive sources is that the authorities thought that Bessemer remained on site until the 1870s. London Steel and Ordnance are never mentioned. In 1872 there was a complaint from Morden College that the ‘Bessemer Steel Co.’ had encroached on some of their land and discussions later began with Bessemer, or his sons, for a lease on ‘a small field in the marshes adjoining this property for 21 years’ and went on to say that Bessemer was offering more than the market value – hardly the action of someone who does not want a site. As late as 1891 Morden College’s surveyor was still dealing with ‘Bessemer Brothers’ in relation to this piece of land. By Bessemer Jnr’s, own account the site was leased to Appleby ‘after a few years’ but nevertheless it is the Bessemer family with whom the landowners continue to deal.
It has not so far proved possible to find out anything about ‘Steel and Ordnance’. A name which comes to mind is that of Josiah Vavasseur. He had a gun factory, the London Ordnance Works, in Bear Lane, Southwark, which he shared with Blakeley for a while and it seems possible that he took over some of Blakeley’s Greenwich interests. He lived in Blackheath and a few hundred yards south of Victoria Wharf is Rothbury Hall, an eccentrically pretty Congregational Church which Vavasseur gave to the people of East Greenwich. It cannot entirely be a coincidence that ‘Rothbury’ is the village in which William Armstrong’s house, Cragside, is sited. Vavasseur also called his Blackheath home, ‘Rothbury’. There is a collection of pictures in the possession of London Borough of Southwark which shows both Blakeley and Vavasseur guns in an unknown setting – some of the ones captioned ‘Vavasseur’ clearly have ‘Blakeley’ on them. Did Vavasseur really make these heavy guns at landlocked Southwark site? It is unlikely that he used Blakeley’s Greenwich site, since it was let to a shipbuilder? Why did he show such an interest in Blackwall Lane that he built a church there? What was his relationship with Armstrong – there is a portrait of him in the Tyne and Wear Elswick collection? These are all questions which it seems reasonable to ask. The next question, of course, is what was Vavasseur’s relationship with Bessemer?
There is no speculation at all about the occupation of the site by Appleby Bros. They built marine engines there and a wide range of other equipment.
These notes began with a quotation from Frederick Walton and perhaps he might have known something about the Bessemer works at Greenwich. Walton had a lot in common with Bessemer. They both designed complicated, effective machinery, took out numerous patents for all sorts of devices, both wrote biographies which manage to obscure as many of their activities as they illuminate. Walton had set up the world’s first linoleum factory at Staines, fallen out with them, and then came to Greenwich where he set up the world’s first inlaid linoleum factory on Victoria Wharf before 1893. Bessemer too was involved in linoleum – he had taken out patents himself. His close associate, John Hayward, is probably the same man who had a lino works at Newington Causeway? So, did Walton know something about Bessemer’s activities at Greenwich?
So what was Bessemer doing at East Greenwich? It seems to have been something he wanted to keep quiet about. Apart from his relationship with Blakeley it might well have been useful for him to have a site in London where he could experiment and work out of the way of the prying eyes of manufacturers based in the north of England. The Arsenal was close by at Woolwich but they had already treated him contempt. However a works on their doorsteps might well be useful and around London were other independent arms manufacturers. There were other potential customers – railways, the vast shipyards. Greenwich would have been an easy place to bring foreign customers to and he could demonstrate his results to a wider clientele than Sheffield could dream of.
Bessemer moved his home to Denmark Hill in south London in 1860. East Greenwich was not too far away and at that time there were plans for a rail link between the two.
I would be very grateful if anyone who has researched Bessemer or Ransome, or Bethel or any of the others, to add anything to these speculations. It is of course entirely possible that the works were built as an expensive toy for his sons, and that it failed. There are sufficient discrepancies in the evidence to raise other questions.