EAST LODGE (MARSH LANE, GREENWICH, article written) about 1904
From a family newsletter published by the daughters of Mr.
Davies, Manager at Hills Chemical Works and resident at East Lodge.
“We may build more splendid habitations,
Fill our rooms with paintings and with sculptures,
But we cannot buy with gold the old associations.”
Whatever changes the year may bring, there are some places which always live in the memory, and round which loving thoughts and recollections home, holding them fast. ‘East Lodge’ is and ever will be one of these. Memories which gather round that dear old place have as it were woven themselves right into the lives of all of us. Some of our earliest recollections are connected with it. Who among us will ever forget the merry parties there – chiefly composed of cousins, but not entirely – especially at Christmas time or the New Year, the games of Blind Man’s Bluff or Fox and Geese played in the Hall or empty rooms. Those in the hall were the greatest fun. The picture is always fresh, the big square hall with its massive front door, the great bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling, the staircase leading to the upper hall, and other rooms, up which most of us would often quietly creep leaving the blind man with about two careering round him, until he discovered what had happened and commanded us all to come down. How mixed we got sometimes, – I remember one nigh~, blind man being a newly married wife, she soon succeeded in catching a tall lean man and joyfully exclaimed ‘Oh I have got my dear old hubby’ – a shout of laughter greeted this speech, which soon told her she was wrong. Somehow the same games played elsewhere never have the same charm as they had at East Lodge.
There too there were the merry games round the fire, criticisms, ‘rhyme-making, title-acting, schoolmaster, My father’s rooster’ etc., till the room rang with fun and laughter. The bonnie fires at East Lodge were things to be remembered, and on those huge grates there was plenty of room for them. How cheery it was to come off a journey, at the end of the walk down the lane, in from the fog and cold to the bright welcome which always awaited us. The lovely fire and the tea ‘all ready. Honey was always a feature of those teas, and how we did enjoy it. No honey ever tastes like that used to.
Then the garden! Oh that garden, what a place it holds in our hearts. The lovely lawn with its big flower beds on either side that stretched from the front of the house to the river banks. The merry games of ball that we have had there, the quiet talks as we paced up and down it, watching the vessels, all come crowding into the mind as we think of that lawn. The shrubbery with its jolly swing which delighted us so as children, and the little hillock at the further end from which one could See all up and down the river; the little hillock of which George Macdonald said that it was ‘an ideal place to write a story’.
The summer house too, the ‘home’ in so many games of hides and seek. The kitchen garden too, with its fruit trees is a well-remembered spot for us. Also the dear old kitchen itself, with its arched window, and large round table. How the sunshine streamed in at that window as we sat at breakfast, and what merry supper parties gathered round that old table.
I think my earliest recollection of East Lodge were at the time of Uncle and Aunt’s Silver Wedding. If ever the house was full it was then, but what a good time we had, – I speak from the side of the little ones, but from what I remember, I fancy the big folks had quite as good a time.
The Sundays there will always live in the memory. The family gathering at morning service, the quiet afternoons, resting or reading round the fire, and the happy evenings as we all gathered round the piano to sing our favourite hymns. Some who often sang in that circle are now in that larger world, praising God around the throne. Sometimes we chanced to be at East Lodge on a New Year’s Eve. As midnight drew near we would leave our places by the fireside and go and stand in the big bay windows and opening them would listen to the bells which were to ring in the New Year. Not only the bells far and near would herald its birth, but all the steamers would give their greetings to the New Year with their hooters. And as we quietly listened to it all, and wondered what the fresh untrodden way held in store for us, we too would wish each other and all our friends far and near, ‘A Happy New Year’.
(the original accompanied by illustrations of house, garden and river by A.A.D )
A.A.D was the eldest, of the three daughters of Mr and Mrs Tom Davies of East Lodge – Anne Askew Davies, born 6.10.1858. We believe J.W.D to be Janet Whitridge Davies of Reigate, a first cousin of the three girls, whose father was Mr Clement Davies, a draper in Croydon. the next older sister, according to my records, lived from 1869-1969; she had become Mrs Edith Penfold of Purley, and has many descendants. I have neither date of birth for Janet, nor any record of a marriage for her, but her birth was probably within two years of Cousin Edith’s, which would put her in her early thirties when writing this tribute to the old house. The fathers Tom and Clement were both then dead I think, and the house demolished, (to make way for electricity works?)
This excerpt is taken from the manuscript magazine ‘The Four Wheeler’, edited by Mildred Davies of East Lodge, and Eastcombe Avenue, Charlton, and was circulated purely within the family. The title of the magazine refers to the four wheels of cousins who started it after a holiday together in Anglesey, but there were in fact six ‘wheels ‘that is families of cousins descended from John Davies, draper, of Oswestry Shropshire, and his wife, born Anne Askew Whitridge. It was, of necessity, that the unmarried daughters who contributed most, and the three ‘Charlton Cousins’ were prime amongst these.
The article ends with a pen and ink drawing inscribed ‘The Way In’ by AAD, and is followed by the accompanying quotation (unascribed)
‘Here once my step was awakened, Here beckoned the opening door, And welcome thrilled from the threshold ‘to the foot it had known before.’
Notes by Maj Wagstaffe, to whom thanks.
Social Conditions on Greenwich Marsh 1837-1901 By BARBARA J. LUDLOW
THE AREA known geographically as “Greenwich Marsh” formed in the early nineteenth century the extreme north-eastern part of the parish of St. Alfege, Greenwich. The low-lying ground, encompassed by a great northward bend of the Thames and varying from sea-level to twenty-five feet, is composed of alluvium and is separated by a strip of sand and chalk (“The Thanet Beds”) from the higher ground immediately to the south (“The Blackheath Pebble Beds”) which at that date comprised the estates of Westcombe and Woodlands. When Victoria came to the throne neither these estates nor Greenwich Marsh had been much affected by the spread of London’s suburbs. The Lower Woolwich Road separated the two areas and it was from this highway that the four principal lanes led: Conduit Lane and Combe Farm Lane went south to form the boundaries of Westcombe Park and Woodlands; Marsh Lane and Horn Lane went north towards the river.
At the meeting point of Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road there was a group of cottages and small houses built around the Ship and Billet Inn. This hamlet continued eastward along Lower Woolwich Road as far as Wick Cottage, almost opposite where Annandale School now stands, and apart from Westcombe Cottages on the south side of the main road just to the west of the present Halstow Road, there were no other houses along this road until Coombe Farm, which lay on the level ground below Woodlands.
A short distance down Marsh Lane was the Rope Walk, part of Enderby’s Rope Works and eastward. Marsh Lane continued into Ceylon Place which led to the river bank at the New Pier. Greenwich Marsh had not been drained sufficiently for extensive market gardening and much land was used as pasture and Conduit Lane is now Vanbrugh Hill, Marsh Lane is Blackwall Lane and Coombe Farm Lane is Westcombe Hill. Horn Lane retains its original name.
In 1837 the market gardens were centred at the drier south end of Marsh Lane and in the fields bordering Lower Woolwich Road; this belt of cultivation corresponded with the strip of sand and chalk running through the district. In 1843 the approximate amount of land used for market gardening was fifty- six acres and that of marsh meadow and pasture was about five- hundred and twenty-five acres, and it seems, by comparing the Tithe Map of 1843 with Morris’s map of 1834, that there had been practically no change in the use of land between these years. In the years after 1843 Greenwich Marsh and Westcombe Park gradually changed and fields and country estates were replaced by factories and housing estates. The subject of this paper is the changes on the Marsh, the movement and settlement of population and the growth of those amenities essential to a community if it is to thrive—employment and housing.
EARLY VICTORIAN CONDITIONS
Eighteen Forty-one. The extent of Greenwich Marsh was approximately 630 acres and the number of persons living in the area in 1841 was 514. There were 107 houses on and around the edge of the Marsh and of these 69, in which lived 350 men, women and children, were at the junction of Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road or along the road between that point and Wick Cottage.
To the north-east by the river bank a terrace of 17 cottages had been erected in Ceylon Place in 1801. Some are still in use today; they have two rooms on the ground floor and two on the upper floor and they appear to have been well constructed. At the southern or main-road end of Marsh Lane were five houses, and a short distance down the lane was a group of twelve cottages which had been built for the rope workers.
The only other houses on the Marsh were four at Enderby’s Wharf on the river bank to the west of the lane, one of which was the home of Charles Enderby himself. Roughly three-quarters of the inhabitants of the Marsh were of Kentish origin and a large percentage of this group had been born in Greenwich, Deptford or Woolwich. The birth-places of the non-Kentish people included various Home Counties and there were also twelve Irish and one Scotsman. It is interesting that in 1843 the few Irish lived, without exception, in Lower Woolwich Road or in Marsh Lane and after 1851 this corner of the Marsh was to grow into a fairly large Irish colony. George Adamson, the one Scotsman, was a rope-maker who lived in one of the cottages attached to the Enderby works. It thus appears that in 1841 Greenwich Marsh was populated in the main by people from the surrounding neighbourhood and that movement from great distances had not yet affected the area. The land still held predominance over the factory at this time and more men were employed in agriculture than in any other occupation. There were four market gardeners cultivating small to medium-sized holdings, the largest of which was owned by William Miles who had four labourers “living in,” as was not uncommon with this type of small-holding during the nineteenth century. Of the thirty-five men employed on the land two were cowmen and thirty-three were agricultural labourers. As market gardening had not yet become extensive on the Marsh it is possible that some of the garden labourers worked in the surrounding districts.
At Ceylon Place, the small road which led directly from the New Pier on the east of the Marsh lived a group of people who depended on the Thames for a livelihood. In 1841 this riverside community of seventeen houses and one inn, “The Pilot,” included among its inhabitants two fishermen, five watermen, two lightermen, a river pilot and a seaman. There were in addition nine watermen living in various other places on Greenwich Marsh.
It is probable that even as early as 1841 the fishermen could no longer work off-shore at Greenwich but had to go down river in order to avoid pollution caused by sewers, estimated in the middle of the century as numbering 369 between Putney and Blackwall, all of which emptied their filth into the Thames.
Other occupations found on the Marsh in 1841 were typical of many communities and included a chair maker, a tailor, a baker, a butcher and a general chandler. Not so usual, however, was the one salesman—a person associated more with the twentieth than with the mid-nineteenth century.
Only a very few of the women were other than housewives and those who earned money followed the usual types of occupation available to working-class women at that time: in Lower Woolwich Road, where all the working women lived, were two laundresses, a charwoman and a stay-maker.
It is significant that in 1841 factory workers, although few in number, already lived on Greenwich Marsh and it appears that they did not travel out of the area to work but found employment in the few factories near their homes. The industrial workers numbered twenty-five, of whom nine were rope-makers living in cottages attached to the Enderby works. This firm also employed canvas weavers, three of whom lived in Lower Woolwich Road; these men worked mechanically-operated looms which were used in the manufacture of sail-cloth. Of the other factory workers nine were engineers—a term applied rather loosely in the nineteenth century—three were chemical factory labourers (Francis Hills had a chemical works by Bugsby’s Hole), and one a foundry worker. The coke, lime and coal works of Coles Child at River Bank on the west side of the Marsh employed six men from Lower Woolwich Road, three as lime burners, and three as coke burners—one of the former and all of the latter being of Irish extraction.
Greenwich Marsh in 1841 was very much a working-class community where most of the men were doing unskilled work, some on the land, some on the river and a few in the factories. The artisans and craftsmen had not yet arrived and the Marsh had never been a suburb from which the middle-class had moved as the workers came. The communities on the Marsh had none of the roots of an old village; it was a place to which families moved as work and houses became available.
Eighteen Fifty-one. After 1841 agriculture and industry began to expand and by 1851 the population of Greenwich Marsh had increased to approximately 820. The number of houses had risen to some 178 and growth had concentrated at the corner of Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road where by 1847 a new road, Hatcliffe Street North had been created. This street, under construction as early as 1843, was built on land owned by the Hatcliffe Charity where previously there had been only cottages and gardens for several poor people.
Two new housing sites had been established on the Marsh by 1851 near to recently built factories. The larger was a group of cottages, ten in number, erected in the lane leading to a cement works at Portland Wharf on the west side. The land on which they were built being owned by Morden College, its name was given to both the lane and the cottages. Close to Bethell’s chemical factory, which was further north near to Blackwall Point, two small houses known as Bethell’s Cottages had been built and these and Morden Cottages were the first homes to be constructed on Greenwich Marsh close to the factories.
This unfortunate practice of mixing housing and industry was one of the causes of the bad living conditions which were to prevail, in the area in later years. The Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes was founded in1844 with Prince Albert as its President and its architect. Henry Roberts drew up designs for housing industrial and rural workers. It is probable that many of the dwellings built on the Marsh just before, and certainly after, 1851 were influenced by his plans for his recommendations were the basis of nearly all the later developments in housing during the nineteenth century.
Of the new-comers to the area most had been drawn from Kent while a smaller number had come in from Middlesex, Essex and Surrey. Probably advertisements concerning employment on the Marsh did not appear till after 1851 when industrial growth gathered momentum; this would explain why few people came into the district from the more distant counties. Although many Irish immigrants had settled in Deptford and Greenwich by 1851 very few of them had moved to Greenwich with the result of a small Irish population there.
Market gardeners on the Marsh did not employ many agricultural labourers until just before 1851 when Coombe Farm was developed as a large garden. At that time the factories in the area were still few and the local people needed the garden work. It is possible that it was not until later that many of the local agricultural worker left the land to go into the new factories in order to earn more money and that the Irishmen, who were used to working on the land and willing to take the lower paid occupations, were to find employment in the market gardens. Because of the increased cultivation the number of people who lived and worked on the Marsh had gone by 1851. Such developments enabled many displaced farm workers from the Home Counties to live and work in surroundings which were not too unlike their old homes.
By the middle of the nineteenth century it had become more difficult for watermen to earn a living on London’s river. Not only did the steamship take away their customers but it also made boating on the Thames hazardous. There were certainly fewer water- men living on the Marsh in 1851 than there had been ten years previously but, although men not connected with the rive/had come to live in Ceylon Place, it still had its nucleus of fishermen and other river folk.
Among the Marsh population the industrial worker was still not a dominant factor but there had been a slight increase in the number of factory workers; the engineers had been joined by two boilermakers, a pipe maker and a millwright. The number of skilled men to be found in industry during the first half of the nineteenth century was relatively small, however, and the largest single group of industrial workers on the Marsh in 1851 was still the factory labourers.
The environment of the new population was not very different from that of their former homes. Unlike many who had moved into the Metropolis or into the industrial towns of northern England, these country-bred people could still live and work in natural surroundings? However, between 1851 and 1861 another sixty-nine houses were erected on the Marsh, practically all of them around the factories on either side of Marsh Lane and Blackwall Lane. The number of houses in Marsh Lane itself increased to thirty-seven with another eighteen in Lower Marsh Lane. Bethell’s had built six more cottages and four new streets had been laid out—York Place, Providence Place, Sidmouth Place and East Place and between them they contained thirty-four new dwellings.
THE NEW POPULATION
Eighteen Sixty-one. The Marsh population had by 1861 reached approximately 1,020 and although this was still a comparatively small number for the size of the district, the composition and occupations of the community were quite different from those of twenty years earlier. Easier travelling conditions, as well as the expansion of industry and housing, had brought people to the Marsh from counties far away from London and in 1861 the number of new families from the west and north of England almost equalled the number that had arrived from the areas round London.
The English migrants, however, accounted for only one half of the increase in the population for by 1861 one-hundred and eighty-seven persons of Irish origin were living on Greenwich Marsh. They were not spread over the whole area but lived almost without exception in Marsh Lane, Hatcliffe Street and Lower Woolwich Road, forming an Irish colony at the south-west corner. Many of these people had not come straight from Ireland to Greenwich for a large number of their children had been born in England. Many had been born in Greenwich and the proportion between seven and nine years of age indicated that these Irish families were not altogether strangers to the area.
As with other Irish immigrants the men who came to the Marsh formed a pool of unskilled labour and in 1861 most of them were absorbed on the market gardens or in the factories, the majority in the former occupation to which they were accustomed. By the nature of their work there were times when unemployment was inevitable and no doubt many were very poor. It was said that in 1863 there were a large number of Irish catholic inmates each week in the Union workhouse in Lower Woolwich Road, though these would not have come from the Marsh alone as the workhouse served Woolwich, Deptford and Greenwich.
In 1861 the Marsh itself had not lost its rural aspect but the occupations of a large number of men who lived there were connected with industry and building rather than with agriculture. The number of agricultural workers did increase very slightly between 1851 and 1861 but the upsurge in factory and building workers and in general labourers left the garden labourers in the minority. The decline of the Thames boatman was carried into the 1860’s and by 1861 only two watermen remained among the population on Greenwich Marsh. The fishermen had not disappeared completely—one still lived by the river at Ceylon Place and another in Hatcliffe Street. While the watermen and boat-builders of earlier centuries had practically gone, the river workers of the industrial era had arrived: boilermakers and dock-labourers began to make their appearance. The number of engineers had increased and individual tradesmen such as a lathe operator, a gas fitter, a hammer-man and a well-sinker had settled on the Marsh. There were more factory labourers still than skilled men. The increase in building construction is reflected in the number of bricklayers, painters and plumbers who were living in groups around the factory sites. These men, numbering about thirty, were probably employed on the construction of factories and of houses for the factory workers. However, general labourers were the largest single group of workers: possibly many of them had left market gardening for the higher paid jobs of trench-digging and excavating.
A number of shops had opened by 1861 and, apart from one butchers, they fell into the categories of grocer or greengrocer. No separate bakery seems to have existed but one of the grocers also sold bread. Perhaps many of the women still baked their own! A grocer and tea-dealer lived in Sidmouth Place but, due to its relatively high price, the amount of tea sold to the lower- paid workers was probably small. Beer, table ale and porter appeared in most household budgets around the middle of the century and the four inns and two beer-houses on the Marsh helped to provide the population with their traditional drink.
The years between 1851 and 1861 brought changes to the marsh community. In 1851 the inhabitants had for neighbours people who lived much in the same way as themselves but by 1861 immigrants from Ireland had introduced a standard of living often lower than that of the Englishman. The other important change was that older crafts were being replaced by occupations demanding technical ability.
In the 1851 census the buildings in Lower Woolwich Road were not shown with individual names but in 1861 various groups were called Hatcliffe Buildings, Talbot Buildings, another Providence Place—which must have proved confusing at times—Bassett’s Place and Brewster’s Buildings. A Hatcliffe Street East was also under construction in 1861 with only one house occupied at that time. The average number of people living in one unit of housing in 1841-1851 was between four and five and, even if the majority of dwellings had only two bedrooms, overcrowding does not seem to have been a problem during those years. Also, housing development seems to have kept pace with the new settlers as in 1851 no temporary housing for squatters is recorded on Greenwich Marsh. However, in 1861 Hatcliffe Street, Marsh Lane and Lower Woolwich Road, streets in which nearly all the Irish immigrants had settled, had an average of between six and eight persons in a house and lodgers were much more common than in earlier years. Perhaps accommodation was more difficult to acquire as one man and wife lived in a van by the river and two agricultural labourers. One from Hertfordshire and one from Middlesex, were to be found in a hut near Bethell’s chemical factory. As the main drainage system was not laid until 1863 the sanitary provisions on the Marsh must have been very inadequate in 1861.
Eighteen Seventy-five. Between 1861 and 1875 the Marsh population increased to about 1,875, the main settlement area during these years being on land near Blackwall Point. A compact housing estate was built in 1866 by the Blakeley Ordnance Company at the north end of Blackwall Lane. The company provided four-storey buildings for their workers, cottages for the foremen and houses for several managers. By 1875 an area south of Blakeley Buildings had been developed, not however by the Ordnance Company, and Wheaton Street, Ordnance Road and various “terraces” and “places” in Blackwall Lane had come into being. As time passed more Irish people arrived in Marsh Lane and in 1875 families called Murphy, Mahoney, Sheen, Hassett, Breen, Donovan, Sullivan, Riley, Gooney, Hurley, Hennessey, McGuire, McCarthy, Ryle, Moriarty and Gollogly lived practically next door to each other.
Eighteen Eighty—Eighteen Ninety-eight. The population seems to have remained roughly the same from 1875 until after 1880 when a new housing estate was built immediately north of Lower Woolwich Road. Hitherto this area had not been built upon but gradually streets leading out of the main road were constructed and between 1879 and 1898 houses for many thousands of people were erected. In 1880 the first houses were completed in Armitage Road, Collerston Road, Denford Street, Glenister Road and Selcroft Road—all new streets on the Hatcliffe estate. With these four streets added to the original group by 1898 this southern part of Greenwich Marsh became thickly populated. Many of the people who came to live there were from the older and over- crowded districts of Deptford, Greenwich and Woolwich. By 1880 there were five public houses in the northern area of Greenwich Marsh: the Sea Witch Inn on the river bank to the west and The Mechanic’s Arms, The Star in the East, the Ordnance Arms and The Kenilworth Castle, all in Blackwall Lane. Market gardening was by now on the decline, much of the cultivated land having been taken for building, and the number of men employed on the land had decreased. Most of the men worked in the factories on the Marsh and in surrounding districts, or as general labourers. By 1891 when nearly all the nineteenth-century house building on the Marsh had been completed the population numbered approximately 7,300. Between 1890 and 1892 Teddington, Margaret, Spencer and Cromwell Terraces in Blackwall Lane, with the Ordnance Arms and the Kenilworth Castle public houses had to be demolished to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. In 1890 Marsh Lane was renamed Blackwall Lane and in 1897 the original Blackwall Lane became Tunnel Avenue and Dreadnought Street. By 1892 four more streets—Grenfell Street, Boord Street (named after Thomas Boord, M.P. for Greenwich from 1875 to 1880), Idenden Terrace and Sigismund Street had been constructed in this northern area of the Marsh. The pattern established by 1841 of working-class people settling in the district continued all through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth and by 1901 the population was about 8,600. After the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel in 1897 poor people displaced from Poplar came to live on Greenwich Marsh with the result that rents rose as accommodation became very difficult to find. By the end of the century the rent of a six-roomed house was about ten shillings and sixpence a week; lodgers paid between three shillings and five shillings and sixpence for one room. The railway between Greenwich and Charlton, completed in 1878, acted as a dividing line between the wealthy and middle-class families of Westcombe Park and the working-class families to the north. Many of the servants who worked in the houses of the former were drawn from the Marsh people. The day started early in the factories with the men arriving at about 6 a.m. Later, wives or children would often carry the mid-day meal in “dinner bundles” to the gates. By the end of the century there was comparatively little left on Greenwich Marsh to remind the people that it had once been a large expanse of meadow and pasture land. Much of the river-front had been taken up by factories and various unpleasant smells filled the air. However, some open space did remain and a market garden owned jointly by the Mason brothers was still in existence between the southern end of Tunnel Avenue and the Thames. The people of the Marsh could still walk in the countryside at Charlton and Kidbrooke but they were an industrial community living in overcrowded streets.
“HOUSES FOR THE PEOPLE”
The Artisans and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875 gave the Metropolitan Board of Works power to force owners of insanitary property to improve their houses; at the same time the Act ensured that all future buildings had at least an adequate water supply and sanitation. From 1875 until it ceased to exist the Greenwich Division of the Board of Works issued many notices to the owners of houses on Greenwich Marsh “to provide a fit and proper water supply and water pipes, cisterns and apparatus to water closets.” Orders for the cleansing, lime washing and purifying of houses were also frequent and one householder in Glenister Road in 1889 was served with a notice to “abate the nuisance of keeping a horse on the premises.” Houses which proved to be beyond repair and those which were in the way of redevelopment schemes were demolished. Many of the houses built on Greenwich Marsh, especially those in the Lower Woolwich Road area, were of poor construction and unattractive design; these rows of terrace houses with no front gardens to relieve the monotony of bricks and mortar, were also liable to be flooded if there were a heavy rain- storm. Overcrowding certainly existed on the Marsh in the latter years of the nineteenth century, larger families being one of the causes. However, C. Hartt, Medical Officer of Health in Greenwich from 1883 to 1900, expressed the opinion that much of the lack of housing was caused by the large numbers of artisans and labourers who had come into Greenwich through Blackwall Tunnel after its opening in 1897 but C. Booth in his “Life and Labour of the London Poor” was more inclined to blame the bad conditions on the unsatisfactory character of the houses and the evils of a low marshy situation which he supposed it would be the work of years to redeem.
The above paper, which formed the basis of a lecture given by Mrs. Ludlow to members of the Society in November 1965, derives from a study which she carried out of the Census reports for East Greenwich for 1841, 1851 and 1861, the East Greenwich rate books for 1837 to 1900 and the Board of Works Greenwich Committee minute books 1857 to 1900. Other sources which the author wishes to acknowledge are the Schedule of Tithes of the Parish of Greenwich 1843, W. Morris’s Map of the Parish of Greenwich 1834 and Bags haw’s Directory of Kent 1837. The paper forms a natural sequel to that by W. V. Bartlett on the industrial development of Greenwich Marsh published in “Transactions” 1966.
‘He was one of the world’s great benefactors who have been rejected…. who have given us priceless possessions and have died in poverty’.
Arthur Mee, who wrote these words in his ‘1000 Heroes’, came from Kent. He should have known better than to comment on the death there of one of the most important steam engine designers as if it had been ignominious. . Richard Trevithick, sometimes called the Cornish giant, had been responsible for a series of engineering innovations in the early nineteenth century. Following a financially disastrous venture in South America he had returned to England and gone to work for John Hall in Dartford. He died there in 1833 at the Bull Hotel. Today a plaque in the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel claims to mark the spot concerned – a remarkably prosperous setting for one said to die ‘in poverty’. . Trevithick is buried in St, Edmunds’ churchyard, up on East Hill, where a plaque indicates the location of his grave. His biographers have tended to stress this as a sad and unworthy end although Trevithick was undertaking important work for Hall who was more than prepared to invest in new ideas. Luckily for Kent these biographers but have failed to connect it with another turning point in both Trevithick’s life, and the history of the steam engine.
Trevithick came from Cornwall and worked in the world of tin mining, an industry which was of great importance as customers for early steam engines. Many of these engines were supplied by James Watt who held an important patent which held back competitors for many years. He was later to prove, as Mee said, a ‘bitter and jealous competitor’ to Trevithick and other rivals. The use of high pressure steam had been considered by Watt who thought it too dangerous and too difficult to use but Trevithick began to develop an engine of this sort. . It was small but had a great deal of power and could develop steam at ten times the pressure of the atmosphere. Trevithick and his partners gradually began to sell these engines. He is famous for his trials of a locomotive propelled by steam which he demonstrated in Cambourne, Cornwall, in 1801 and later brought to London. However what was needed were engines to power industry and by 1800 steam engines were already becoming very important in London. More and more firms were taking up the challenge; John Farey, a contemporary of Trevithick writing in 1827, estimated that 112 steam engines had been at work in London in 1805. The majority of these were built by James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton but other suppliers were already making inroads – and these included Richard Trevithick and his partners.
In 1802 Trevithick set up in an office in Southampton Street, near the Strand. Sales were handled by Andrew Vivian one of the family involved in metal mining in the West Country and, latterly, in Wales Trevithick and Vivian did not manufacture engines themselves but commissioned parts from a number of makers under a licensing system..They were mainly concerned with promotion and with large scale projects. Trevithick had devised a ‘locomotive’ vehicle that he and Vivian demonstrated in the London streets and he began to get contracts for work on a number of projects, some of which were on the Thames and some in Kent. For example, in 1803 he used steam power to break up a rocky shoal in the Thames which had been obstructing shipping at Blackwall. He installed a fourteen horse power engine at Deptford Dockyard and tests on his engines were undertaken by ‘gentlemen from Woolwich’ – that is from the Royal Dockyard..
In 1803 a George Russell ordered an 8 horse power high pressure engine from Andrew Vivian. Russell was the promoter of a large tide mill on the Greenwich peninsula and the engine was to be used during construction work and for other purposes. The engine cost Russell £75.12s..
Russell’s engine was used for pumping out water during the construction of the tide mill which had been described in a previous article. It was on the East Greenwich marshes on the river side at the end of the lane, known then as Marsh Lane and today as Riverway. Building work went on during 1803 in the charge of the foreman, a Mr. Dryden. The steam engine began to give some concern. The fire was directly in contact with the cast iron of the boiler and on Sunday 4th September it overheated. The boiler became red hot and some joints burnt out. Despite this the engine was kept working and was the responsibility of an apprentice- whose name is not known.
On the following Thursday, the 8th September, this boy was called away from minding the engine and asked to catch eels which had congregated under the foundations of the building. It is not clear why he went – perhaps they were a nuisance and he had been told to go and clear them by the foreman. However it was dinnertime and eels can be very tasty spit roasted, or even steamed. Workmen have always found ways of adapting equipment to cookery (my father used to describe using the steam hose to cook shrimps caught in Northfleet off Harmsworth’s jetty) . For whatever reason the boy went off and left the steam lever – which vented the waste stream – fastened down. He had in fact wedged a piece of timber between the top of the safety value and then bent it down so that it could not rise to let the steam escape.
A labourer was asked to mind the engine while the boy was gone and noticed that it had begun to run too fast. He was alarmed by this and shut it down but he did not remove the wedge that was jamming the safety valve. The result was inevitable and fatal. The boiler burst ‘with an explosion as sudden and as dreadful as a powder mill’. One piece of the boiler, an inch thick and weighing 5 cwt was thrown 125 yards in the air and ‘landing on the ground made a hole eighteen inches deep’. Bricks were thrown in a ‘circle of two hundred, no two of them stayed together’. Three men were killed instantly, and three more were injured.
In my attempts to research this incident I have never managed to trace the inquest records on the three who died. I do not know their names or anything about them. Of the three who were injured, one went deaf but was soon to able to return to work. One, the boy, also fully recovered. The third, Thomas Nailor, had been showered with boiling water and was badly scalded. A wherry was called and he was taken to St.Thomas Hospital. St. Thomas was then still on its old site in the Borough – on the site now occupied by the southern part of London Bridge Station. It was near the river and easy to reach by wherry. Thus Nailor went to one of the best hospitals in the country as quickly and efficiently as he could he could be got there. The incident illustrates something about the response to ‘casualties’ – something rarely mentioned in works about nineteenth century medicine. Despite the work of Mr. Bingham, the surgeon, Nailor died three days later. It may be of interest that he, and those who gave evidence at his inquest, did not live in Greenwich but across the river in Poplar..
The newspapers were quick to report the accident – although there is the suspicion that the story was given to them by those who did not wish Trevithick well. In particular, he thought, James Watt and his partner, Matthew Boulton, were against him. He said that ‘Boulton and Watt are about to do me every injury in their power for they have done the best to report the explosion both in the newspapers and in private letters very different to what it really was’. When The Times ran the story a week after the incident it was with the rider that Mr. Watt’s engines would not explode in this way.. However reports in the press, so far as they can be traced, do not really differ very much from Trevithick’s account of the accident based on his inspection of the site a week or so later.
Trevithick quickly made some changes to the design of his engine boilers. It had been said in the press that the accident should be a ‘warning to engineers to construct their safety valves so that common workmen cannot stop them at their pleasure’. In future Trevithick’s boilers had more than one safety vent and were constructed differently. It was, however, an accident that was well remembered and is recounted in almost every account of Trevithick and the steam engine. Few of these accounts are very clear as to where it happened – giving locations anywhere between Woolwich and Deptford! What none of them have realised is the importance of the tide mill that was under construction at the time and that this accident was only one of several which took place on that site in the next hundred years.
How far the incident hurt Trevithick and the progress of his high pressure engine is very difficult to tell. It has been said ‘history vindicated Trevithick for it was his high pressure engines that the steam locomotive possible’. New developments often give problems and many such tragedies have taken place. Trevithick is known and honoured for his work. The real victims were the nameless men who died at East Greenwich.
This article is based on archive material in the City of London Record Office and elsewhere and on material in Francis Trevithick’s biography of his father.
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.
When Frank Hills died in May 1893 his death was not widely reported beyond notes of two or three lines in local papers. It was not until 29th July that The Times carried a report of his will, copied from Illustrated London News. Frank Hills had left a personal fortune of £1,942,836, 11s. 11d. Rubenstein has listed only 40 men who left over £2m in the period 1809 and 1914, Frank Hills clearly was very close to achieving a place in this list. Frank Hills’ personal fortune was actually slightly less than this. Three years after his death it was discovered that the East Greenwich property (valued at £1,583) was subject to a trust According to Rubenstein in the period of Frank’s death, 1880-99, 69 British millionaires died; three only of these were chemical manufacturers. He is not known to have inherited wealth on this scale, but a will for his father, Thomas Hills, has not been traced. His elder brother who died, in comfortable circumstances, left only £3,657; another brother left £ 20,909. Wealth accumulation on this scale would thus speak of some remarkable enterprise.
This article is an attempt to identify the means by which Frank Hills acquired his fortune. Rubenstein has described him as and this has proved true. Despite rumours of a diary among his descendants, Frank Hills left few remains. There are no records of his chemical works, even most of Thames Ironworks’ minute books have disappeared, although some editions of the company house magazine exist. This article has been researched from material in gas company archives and public records. His fortune seems to have come from an almost ‘parasitic’ relationship with the early gas industry from which he was able to take ‘waste’ products and turn them to his advantage. To this was added a ruthless determination to use the patent system and go to law. His interests included mining, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Alongside him were a network of relations although how much they worked with each other is not clear. Frank Hills’ father, Thomas, was an industrial chemist based, by 1813, at the Bromley-by-Bow Steam Mills. He also used gas industry wastes and manipulated patents. His past is not clear,
The family is said to have come from Kent, but Thomas’ elder children were born in Lyme Regis. There is the suspicion of an elder brother, Robert, who might have been a city broker with experience in the Mexican copper mines (R.Hills Ray of Light (1827). An attack on John Taylor. The writer’s address is ‘St.Michael’s Alley, Cornhill’. Although this is an area of accommodation addresses, it should be noted that it is the address on Thomas Hills, Jns’ 1833 patent and that which Frank used as his City office up to the 1880s.) Bromley Steam Mills was a corn mill to which a steam engine had been added by the previous owner. (Boulton and Watt Archive, Portfolio 378.4) There Thomas Hills developed and patented, jointly with one Uriah Haddock, (Uriah Haddock is also elusive. The patent was registered from an address at City Terrace, City Road. It is probably co-incidental that a Dr. Robert Hills lived there in the 1850s. It is close to John and Philip Taylor’s Winsor Iron Works,.
The manufacture of sulphuric acid using pyrites in the chamber process. Patent No.4263. is mentioned by most historians of the chemical industry in terms of a milestone in sulphuric acid manufacture, (see J.C.Gamble “Remarks on the Hills and Haddock Patent” Repertory Patent Inventions , April 1826, Vol.X, pp. 236-241., It is perhaps co-incidental that Philip Taylor, who then lived in Bromley by Bow, (P.M. Taylor, Memorials of the Taylor family ,(1866). may have developed, but not patented, a similar process before 1819. ( Roger Burt, John Taylor , Moorland Publications, Buxton, 1977, p.21)
What Thomas Hills manufactured from the waste materials of the early gas industry which he purchased is not known. The earliest London gas works date from 1812, and by 1820 a number of works operated in the area. Disposal of by products proved difficult despite early promises that a range of chemicals could be manufactured from them. One such by product was ammoniacal liquor, left after raw gas was passed through washing water which most gas companies sold to suitable tenderers. Thomas Hills bought liquor in considerable quantities between 1824 and 1827 when he seems to have left Bromley by Bow. His subsequent activities have not been traced.
In the mid-1830s several of the London gas companies began to minute approaches from Frank Hills who variously offered to sell acids, buy tar or ammoniacal liquor and to manufacture ammonia salts on their behalf. The range of these offers perhaps indicates that he saw the gas industry as a fruitful source of exploitation. It may be that gas companies, immersed in the problems of manufacture and distribution, were happy to leave chemical investigation to others. Frank Hills rented the Deptford Chemical Works from Frederick Beneke, whose family previously ran it and who had purchased ammoniacal liquor in the 1820s. Johann Beneke had come from Hamburg in 1815 to found a verdigris factory in Deptford where, like Thomas Hills, he experimented with the manufacture of sulphuric acid using pyrites. In 1824 he had returned to the Continent, where he had introduced these new processes.
The Benekes are probably the family with whom Felix Mendelssohn stayed, and into which his daughter married. Mendelssohn’s links with the German chemical industry, through his son, are well known. How far Frank Hills took over the business can be only be speculated. Beneke lived in Denmark Hill, it appears likely that Frank Hills too lived nearby.
In 1836 the London and Greenwich Railway was built and included a gas works alongside the line, adjacent to the Deptford Chemical Works. Frank Hills later said that it was there that he experimented on gas industry wastes. He had some claims over the railway gasworks having lent money so that it could become independent when the railway company ceased to use it. By the early 1840s Frank Hills’ expanded his business to include a short lived chemical works at Battersea. His marriage settlement in the early 1840s involved the purchase of a large tide mill on the East Greenwich peninsula, and it was there much of his chemical manufactures were concentrated.
From the 1820s onward the manufacture of chemicals from gas industry wastes was increasingly being taken over by independent industrial chemists who, like Frank Hills, came to arrangements with the gas companies. A legal action of the early 1840s between Frank Hills and a flamboyant Scots gas engineer/industrial chemist, Angus Croll illustrates some of the methods. Croll held patents on the manufacture of ammonia salts and he agreed to purchase the acids used in their manufacture from Frank Hills, solely. Croll would then sell the salts back to Hills. Licences were to be issued to any other parties who wanted to make the salts and they would also be required to buy acids from Hills at increased prices. The agreement seems quickly to have been modified leaving both parties feeling that the other had reneged on it. Injunctions were issued, dismissed by the court, and appeals were made. It was a pattern which was to become only too familiar.
Frank Hills did not confine his business interests to the chemical industry. In the early 1840s he became known for the development of steam road vehicles. his work on steam vehicles Frank Hills should not be confused with John Hill. The best known promoter of these was Stratford based Walter Hancock and in 1839 Frank Hills travelled on a Hancock vehicle to Cambridge ‘taking a lesson on steam carriage construction during the journey’. He later patented gearing for steam vehicles and it may be that these were the patents exploited by Joshua Beale and the General Steam Carriage Co. at East Greenwich. Fletcher, , suggests that the gearing which was patented was not an original idea. Frank Hills relationships with both Beale and Col. Francis Maceroni are discussed by Fletcher and in issues of Mechanics Magazine , This seems to have been unsuccessful, despite some well publicised journeys by Frank Hills. Beale went on to specialise in the manufacture of gas industry equipment. Frank Hills’ son, Arnold, was to take up road vehicle manufacture sixty years later.
Frank Hills pressed ahead with the gas industry and its chemical by products. He, together with other industrial chemists, was involved in the problems of gas purification. Raw coal gas straight from the retort was not fit to use for lighting purposes and needed to be cleaned. Early lime-based purification methods left a noxious residue and the industry was faced with how to clean gas without incurring legal action for pollution resulting from waste disposal. Industrial chemists began to search for a means of cleaning the gas which would also leave a residue which could profitably exploited. Throughout the 1840s and early 1850s a number of manufacturing chemists approached the gas companies various purifying schemes. They offered deals with the companies and took legal action against each other. In an example taken at random, Angus Croll, having asked the patent office to decide that Frank Hills was infringing his patent, was quick to explain to the Phoenix Gas Company directors that that was the reason the Imperial Gas Company was no longer using Hills’ process and offered to indemnify them should Hills take legal action. A few days later Frank Hills told them the same story in reverse and offering to indemnify the Board against legal action by Croll.
The visits, the threats and the offers went on for more than twenty years. One particular process, using metallic oxides, seems to have been developed in France by an English doctor, Richard Laming. It involved the ‘revivification’ of the purifying mixture with air, and this part of the process was to become crucial during successive legal challenges. Once ‘exhausted’ the mixture contained valuable substances which could be reclaimed. An aggressive campaign to sell this process to the gas industry was pushed forward by Laming, Angus Croll and Frank Hills. The legal battle over patent rights to the process lasted almost twenty . Any attempt to interpret reports of successive cases is to enter a bewildering morass of claims and injunctions, of complicated chemical arguments involving almost unheard of substances, and finely argued points of patent law and legal procedures. If a decision went against Frank Hills, he appealed. In 1848 Laming seems to have entered into a partnership with Frank Hills to exploit the process which was offered to a number of London gas companies. Laming went to Paris in 1849. Laming had lived in France for some time before this. the partnership having broken up. It was the validity of this French patent, and whether or not ‘revivification’ was included in it, and others, that was to be the subject of successive legal actions. The Gas Light and Coke Co. tested the new process later that year and various interested parties came to view. One of them, a chemist called Lewis Thompson warned Frederick Evans, the gas engineer in charge of the tests, not to tell Frank Hills about the process because `he will put it in his patent’. Hills took out a patent in November 1849, preparing certain substances for purifying the same’. while Evans and Laming took out a joint patent in April 1850. This story was repeated many times in the gas press and at various legal proceedings.
Claim and counter claim continued after 1849 as the gas companies began to use the process. Frank Hills insisted that his patent gave him the rights to the process and that gas companies must have a licence from him to use it. If not, he would sue. A sequence from the South Metropolitan Gas Company Minutes demonstrates his way of working. In February 1852 Frank Hills asked South Met. for £400 a year to use his method of purification; on discussion he raised the price to £425. Laming offered it at £ 400 and the Directors chose this offer. Three weeks later Hills complained that his patent was being infringed and said that South Met. must have a guarantee of no claims from him and in June they received a letter from his solicitor: `Shield and Co., about an inclination to take action for infringement of his patent’. In July they agreed to pay Hills’ price.
The financial arrangements for the use of this process were complicated and subject to much haggling. In addition to the licence fee gas companies had to pay for the purifying mixture per ton of coal carbonised. The chemists removed the exhausted purifying mixture to be processed in their chemical works. It has been said 2,180 tons of spent oxide were used in one year at a works at Barking Creek in order to make sulphuric acid.. The works referred to was Lawes which opened in 1857, the comment thus refers to amounts used after that date. It was estimated that in 1861 10,000 tons of sulphur were contained in London gas and that before the spent oxide was processed it was washed to remove ammonia compounds, another source of profit for the chemists.
As the 1850s progressed, litigation increased between the chemists and the gas companies and each other. In 1858 for instance, in Frank Hills against the London Gas Company, a battery of lawyers heard a series of complicated statements on patent law and chemistry “arguments which were almost certainly beyond the understanding of the jury, and, one suspects, of counsel and judge as well”. Deliberate obfuscation of the details probably suited all parties very well. On one occasion, in a case which involved an agreement between Hills and Laming and claims for `liquidated damages’ the judge commented that the matters were `monstrously absurd.’ Frank Hills finally established his rights to the patent `which the majority of lawyers and chemists think he was most justly entitled to’. The gas companies began to co-operate, circulating information: `a letter was read from the directors of other companies with information at some degree of variance with statements made by Mr. Hills before this Court’. reported the Gas Light and Coke Company. As the time drew nearer for the 1849 patent to expire, Frank Hills announced that he was going to apply for an extension and began to include in his contracts a condition that the gas companies would not oppose his application for this. He also took ammoniacal liquor from them but imposed conditions relative to the freezing over of the canal. Underlining in the minute book clearly indicate the Chartered Directors’ attitude to this. After more litigation, an appeal from a consortium of gas companies went to the Privy Council. Thomas Livesey reported to the South Metropolitan Gas Company Board: `.. he [Frank Hills] had received £107,377 0s. 9d. for sales and royalties. His expenses rated £16,942 only, but his other expenses included £ 6,450 for his own salary after paying the same sum to his brother, Thomas, and some large sums to some other brothers As a comparison it should be noted that Thomas Livesey, a well respected and well paid manager, received a salary as South Metropolitan’s engineer and company secretary of £1,000 a year. Frank Hills was refused his extension.
Frank Hills’ elder brother, Thomas, worked closely with him as business manager throughout most his career. In 1846 he applied for the post of Deputy Superintendent at the Phoenix Gas Works, describing himself as ‘a good practical chemist and accustomed to the control of workmen’. Phoenix, currently embroiled in legal action with Frank, replied that he was ‘too experienced’. A second brother George held a number of joint patents with Frank, but otherwise has not been traced. A third brother, Arthur, may have been the lessee of a sulphuric acid and colour works at Millwall immediately across the river from East Greenwich. This Millwall works was also known as ‘Angelsea and may thus provide a clue to interrelationships within the Hills family.
Anglesea was an important place for the fifth brother, Henry. It is far from clear how far his activities were independent of Frank’s although the indications are that they worked together. Henry was to end his days described as a ‘chemist of Deptford’. A contemporary noted that part of the purification process involved the by products of copper smelting. This copper could have came from Henry who lived and worked in Amlwch, Anglesea, throughout the 1840s and 1850s and where his career as an industrial chemist was paralleled Frank’s. In 1840 he established a chemical works at Amlwch, a well established centre of copper mining and associated chemical industries. Henry manufactured chemical manure and sulphuric acid on his own behalf, and later calcined copper ores for the Mona Mine Company. In the 1870s Henry is still listed as an Angelsea manure manufacturer although he was living comfortably at Blackheath Paragon in south east London. His son, Charles Henry Hills, is also listed as of the ‘Anglesea Copper Company’ but on the Tyne with a copper smelting works at Low Walker, on Tyneside, and a home address in Tynemouth. It is this Newcastle connection which has proved most ‘elusive’. connected to Frank and Henry. It is quite possible that more family members were involved, there are a number of other Hills in both areas who appear to be connections although they cannot be definitely proved. If copper residues were shipped to London it would make sense for them to go from the Tyne, what then is the connection with Angelsea? Why were Hills’ works, on both Tyne and Thames, called ‘Angelsea’? Frank Hills’ had other mining interests. He owned the Berwyn phosphate mine at Llangynog in Wales. At Morfa Ddu on Angelsea he extracted bluestone which required `special careful chemical operations’ and yielded ‘copper, lead, zinc and silver as well as a small amount of sulphur, iron, antimony and manganese’. Davies’ also managed the Berwyn mine and his relationship with Frank Hills may be more complex than it appears. A Thomas Davies, with whom D.C.Davies, had much in common was manager at East Greenwich.
There were also extensive mining interests in Spain where he owned the Ponderosa Copper Mine in Huelva, Spain, from 1876, in 1889 he acquired the Buitron Mines and in 1891 bought all the Buitron and Huelva Company’s assets, including a railway line. These Spanish mines were run and directed by a James Bull and there were some ‘inconsistencies’ in they were run. By 1903 the complex was owned by United Alkali. The modern Hills family have been told that Frank Hills used waste slag from Bessemer’s steel works in his chemical processes. Bessemer lived close to Frank Hills in Denmark Hill and visited Thames Ironworks. Although in the 1860s Bessemer opened a small steel works in Greenwich, near the Hills’ works, Frank is not mentioned in Bessemer’s autobiography. Slag produced as scum in the Bessemer convertor could have been used in the oxide process; like so much else with Frank Hills, it is difficult to know the truth.
The profits of the chemical business appear to have been invested in heavy engineering. In 1871 Thames Ironworks was `the greatest shipyard of all’. t had been established following the bankruptcy of C.J.Mare in 1856 and had been launched with a capital of £100,000 in shares, all sold on the first day of issue to ‘local engineering companies’. Frank Hills joined the board sometime before 1864 and first appears in the list of board members for a new share issue, at a time when he was the peak of activity with the gas companies. He acquired a controlling interest in the company in 1871 and was Chairman of the Board until his death. Thames Ironworks is best known for the Warrior – when built the largest warship in the world she is (1994) berthed as a ‘historic ship’ at Portsmouth. but this was only one of many important, and often glamorous, ships built at the yard. The ironworks also produced the structural ironwork for many important civil engineering: Hammersmith Bridge, Menai Bridge, the roofs of Alexandra Palace and Fenchurch Street Station are only a few of the high profile projects in which they were involved. In 1898, after Frank’s death, the company took over John Penn and Sons, engine builders of Greenwich, and went on to expand that business. It was this expansion which led to the manufacture of road vehicles at Greenwich and Vauxhall. The company appears to have embodied revolutionary methods of workplace management and, under Arnold, was to embrace Labour Co-partnership.. Arnold Hills was to become involved in the Labour Co-partnership movement of the early 1900s. His role in this has not been examined.
Frank Hills involvement with Thames Ironworks paralleled the period of their greatest success: `by the early 1870s they were pre-eminent. Perhaps their golden age was in the 1890s when they specialised in quality work. The impetus from this period of excellence carried them, alone, over into the next century’ Accounts of Frank, in old age, describe him excitedly exploring ironclads on their first voyage down London river to the estuary. Frank Hills died in May 1892; St. Lukes, Chiddingstone Causeway is dedicated to his memory, his two eldest sons died shortly after. The chemical business was sold. The East Greenwich chemical works was sold after Frank Hills death. Together with the cottages and the ‘Pilot’ for sale were two steam engines by Joyce of Greenwich, an archimedean screw and a grinding mill The Spanish mines were in the possession of United Alkali by 1903
Information in the possession of Patrick Hills implies that Hills made a purple dye, the process for which was sold to Brunner Mond. No information on this has been found. It may be connected to the alum mauve’ mentioned in an undated press cutting.
Thames Ironworks was in the hands of his third son, Arnold. Successive volumes of Thames Ironworks Gazette chronicle Arnold’s favourite causes – vegetarianism, total abstinence, West Ham football club and labour co-partnership. In the next century his bravery in the face of ridicule and defeat can be seen as he addressed massed rallies in Trafalgar Square while paralysed from the neck down and supported in a specially made invalid basket. He argued the case for warship contracts to be continue to be placed with London shipyards but on 21st December 1912 a notice was pinned to Thames Ironworks’ main gate – ‘Our extremity is God’s opportunity and I do not doubt there is still in store for us a Happy New Year’. Thames Ironworks closed two years before the First World War which would have ensured their future and perhaps the survival of large scale shipbuilding on the Thames.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the difference between Frank and Arnold than family stories of how, after Frank’s death, Arnold poured a cellarfull of prize claret down the drain. Arnold, talented, honest, brave and idealistic, ultimately failed. ‘Elusive’ Frank had made the money. It is very likely that much more of the enterprises of Frank Hills and his brothers remains to be discovered. Frank found a niche in the exploitation of gas industry wastes and was prepared to use the patent system to ruthlessly exploit what he could. His success rested on resourcefulness, tenacity, luck and relentless energy.
One result of this research has been to thrown the London chemical industry into sharp relief. It is an industry which has been neglected by historians, although much chemical research in the last century took place in London. It should be noted that in the story of gas purification all three of the main contenders lived and worked in east London. London shipbuilding was once well known but even the size and glamorous image of Thames Ironworks is rapidly being forgotten and Warrior is described as ‘at home’ in Portsmouth. The gas industry is also important. Too often its role is described merely in the terms of a provider of light. Gas manufacture was part of the chemical industry; it was a provider of chemical raw materials and expertise to other industries. In all some ways the early gas industry can be described as one of agents of industrial change in the early part of the last century.
Gas company directors, in minuting their dealings with Frank Hills, sometimes allow what seems very much like exasperation to creep into the records. ‘Mr.Hills’letters are so ambiguous the Court cannot tell what he is offering’.‚ Frank seems to have been very difficult to pin down, and he has been equally difficult to research. It is understandable that, in a world full of rivals, secrecy was advisable on chemical processes, patents should refer only obliquely to what they were really about, and huge warships not be talked about. How was it, however, that someone so successful should be so ignored at his death? Even the gas industry, from which he had taken so much money, never gave him an obituary. Perhaps secrecy had grown to be a habit with him, perhaps he was hated. He was devoted to his family, he always looks cheerful in his portraits, and, until the day of his death, he could recite the whole of Paradise Lost from memory.
Since this articlel was written various other activities of Frank’s have emerged – including ownership of much of the Cheshire salt industry.
Trevithick Letter l/10/1803 in quoted in F.Trevithick Life.
Written from Penydorra near Cardiff to Mr. Giddy
“In consequence of the engine bursting at Greenwich I have been on the spot to inspect its effects. I found it had burst in every direction. The bottom side whole of its seating had ?? at the level of the chimney. The boiler was cast iron about l” thick, the same ?? were equally l 1/2″, it was a round boiler 6′ diameter, the cylinder was 8″ diameter, working double. The bucket was l8″ diameter. 21′ column, working single from which you can judge the pressure required to work this engine. The pressure it appears that the engine burst must have been very great, for there was one piece of boiler about 1″ thick and about 5 cwt there between the l25 yards and from the hole it cut in the ground where it fell it must have been nearly perpendicular and from a very great heat in the hole it cut in the ground on its fall was from l2 to l8″ deep. Some of the bricks were thrown 200 yards, and no two bricks were left ?? to each other either in the stack or around the boiler. It appears that the boy that had care of the engine was gone to catch eels under the foundations of the boarding and had left the care of the it to one of the labourers, this man saw the engine working much faster than usual stopped it without taking off the spanner which fastened open the steam lever and a short time after being idle it burst, killed three of the ?? and another died soon after of his injuries. The boy returned that instant and was then going to take the trig from the valve. He was hurt but is now recovering. He had left the engine about an hour.
Boulton and Watt have sent a letter to the gentlemen of this place who is about to erect some of these engines – the engine had ?? 14m with a bushel of coal – was only a 8″ cylinder and working was the engine cock and in too light a load for its duties. Also of a bad construction was the fly wheel so loaded to one side so as to ?? the boiler double engine and ???