Chapter 11. Hard Steel and Big Guns

Something seems to have been going on in the 1860s – industries on the Greenwich Peninsula took off with astonishing speed. Suddenly some big names started to arrive. There was initially an emphasis on shipbuilding but then steel works and big guns moved in. In so far as Henry Bessemer and A.T.Blakeley are concerned it seems likely that there was a sub text, which has never been, and may never be, explained. With these industries, as with some others of the same era, the stakes were high and the backers came from the world of international banking. The decline in this rise to the industrial main stage was probably caused by the Overend Gurney banking crash of 1866.

Blakely and Bessemer advertisements side by side from Engineering

Some very important companies moved to the west bank of the Peninsula during this time. Some of them seem to have been unduly secretive. It is clear that there was some liaison between at least two of them.


Perhaps the most famous industrialist to have taken a site at Greenwich was the steel magnate, Henry Bessemer. Steel production, together with Bessemer and his ‘converter’ , are usually associated with the north of England, and Sheffield in particular. It may come as a surprise to learn that Bessemer himself lived in South London and built a steel works at Greenwich. It has proved very difficult to find out anything very much about this works and there is some conflict of evidence about what really went on there – so much so as to raise a question – what was Bessemer really doing at East Greenwich?

(Henry Bessemer.  I have covered this story in more detail in: A Mystery Steel Works, Bygone Kent. V.20. No.1. pp.37-43, and ‘Henry Bessemer in Greenwich’ in Newcomen Society Bulletin, No.172, December 1998. I have tried to contact numerous ‘experts’ on Bessemer, some of whom have answered, those that did have been dismissive and disbelieving of this Greenwich works. It does not appear in any biographical or academic discussion of his work.  This seems short sighted since almost all of Bessemer’s research was done in London and he clearly had plans of some sort for Greenwich and/or the Arsenal – whether or not they were realised.  Sir Henry, Bessemer, FRS, An Autobiography. With a concluding chapter, London Offices of ‘Engineering’, 1905. This is a work which needs considerable unpicking to make any sense out of!  For information on Bessemer’s home in Denmark Hill see Patricia M.Jenkyns, The Story of Sir Henry Bessemer, Herne Hill Society, 1984)

Henry Bessemer came from a French background and was an ingenious inventor who held numerous patents on all sorts of devices and processes from which he made a lot of money. One of the earliest was ‘bronze powder’, which he made in a factory near St. Pancras. He described some of the lengths he went to in order to keep the process secret and, similarly, his, unfinished, autobiography is often very difficult to disentangle. Historians have suggested that his steel making process arose from his interest in making guns, something that, of course, would draw him to Woolwich and the Arsenal. Bessemer had been in France working with the French military authorities when he came to the conclusion that a new sort of metal was needed. In due course he developed a process and opened a works in Sheffield in the late 1850s. To cut a very long story very short indeed – he became involved with Col. Eardley Willmot at the Royal Arsenal and plans were made to build a plant for the manufacture of Bessemer’s steel there. It soon became clear that this support was not shared by the Minister of War and Bessemer’s steel was rejected for use in the Arsenal. Bessemer was very bitter ‘it was quite clear that neither I, nor my steel, was wanted at Woolwich, and I made up my mind to leave the place severely alone in future.’

The position at Woolwich was further complicated by the appointment in 1859 of William Armstrong; the Newcastle based arms manufacturer, to the position of Director of Rifled Ordnance at Woolwich.

Bessemer’s son added a final, posthumous, chapter to Bessemer’s autobiography. In this chapter is the only mention of the steel works that was built at Greenwich in the mid-1860s. The works was on the site now known as Victoria Wharf – one of the few sites on the Greenwich riverside which is not owned by Morden College. In June 1865 ‘Bessemer Brothers’ asked for permission from the Thames Conservators to build a jetty.  (Museum of Docklands archive)  Later that year an advertisement in the Kentish Mercury (Kentish Mercury  28th October 1865)  mentions the closeness of the Bessemer works and its thirsty steelworkers to the Star in the East pub. The works was very small and it was intended that it should be run by Bessemer’s sons. Bessemer Jnr says, “It had two 2½ ton converters and all the plant necessary. Including one 2½-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”. He went on to explain that it was, never opened because of the “down turn in Thames shipbuilding”. (The only site information we have about the Bessemer works is contained on a map of water resources in Greenwich Heritage Centre .  My attention has recently been drawn to a site description in Kentish Mercury  24th August 1878)


The eventual fate of the Greenwich steel works is not clear. Bessemer Jnr. said that both works and plant were let to the London Steel and Ordnance Co. – but whoever was behind that body is not known.

‘Henry Bessemer’ continues to be listed in the official records. In 1872 there was a complaint from Morden College that the ‘Bessemer Steel Co.’ had encroached on their land. Mysteriously, in 1874, ‘Bessemer’s liquidators’ appear in the ratebooks. At the same time discussions had begun for Bessemer to lease ‘a small field in the marshes’ from Morden College for 21 years and they were delighted to learn that he was offering more than the market value for it – not the action of someone who does not want a site. As late as 1891 Morden College’s surveyor was still dealing with ‘Bessemer Brothers’. (Morden College Deed Collection and Trustees Minutes, Trinity College Minutes (Mercers Co. archive), Greenwich Rate Books, Thames Conservators Minutes)

From about 1878 all or part of the works was let to Appleby Brothers and almost twenty years later, the site was let to a linoleum manufacturer, who later bought the freehold. The really interesting thing is what the linoleum manufacturer had to say about the site. His name was Frederick Walton and perhaps he knew Henry Bessemer – another of Bessemer’s interests was linoleum. He certainly had a lot in common with him. Walton said how pleased he was to get the site because it was ‘where Bessemer proved his widely known steel process’. Did Walton know something about the site that Bessemer wanted kept quiet? It is probably idle to speculate on what Bessemer was doing at Greenwich. Why did he omit to say anything about it himself? (Frederick Walton, Infancy and Development of Linoleum Floorcloth, 1925, MS. There is something here with great importance to the Bessemer works at Greenwich which I disregarded when the book was written.  Walton claimed that the first piece of steel ever made by Bessemer was displayed in the entrance to the linoleum works in Greenwich – he gave no explanation as to how this was acquired.  I have discovered that this was deposited in the Science Museum by Michael Nairn and Co. when the building was demolished in the 1940s. The Science Museum has disposed of equipment from Bessemer’s Greenwich works which was also deposited but it still has this ‘first flash’. The Science Museum staff appear to know nothing about its origins and believe that the stories surrounding it are not true.  I have tried to draw their attention, and that of researchers on Bessemer to the Greenwich works and the implications behind it, with no success.)

Bessemer had moved to South London – to a very, very grand mansion indeed on Denmark Hill – in the early 1860s and a direct train service from Denmark Hill to Greenwich was planned. Perhaps he also thought that a steel works near his home would be useful. It would be tucked away from the prying eyes of his licensees at works in the north of England.


There is something else, however, which concerns Bessemer’s relationship with Greenwich and the manufacture of heavy ordnance. When Bessemer was first considering gun manufacture he had sought out the holder of a particularly important patent. This was Alexander Theophilus Blakeley, who had been described as ‘the most significant British gun designer yet’. (Adrian Caruana Alexander Theophilus Blakeley, Ordnance Society Journal, Vol. 4, 1992)

(A.T.Blakeley.  An article by me has appeared in Journal of the Ordnance Society, Vol 11, 1999 ‘Alexander Theophilus Blakeley in Greenwich’. Major research on Blakeley has been done by Nicholas Hall of the Fort Nelson Museum of the Royal Armouries.  I would like to thank him for his help and support and also, in particular, the late John Day, without whose support and introductions I would have got nowhere in the, to me, alien  exclusive world of military research!  I would also like to thank the late Adrian Caruna who was prepared to put up with my ignorance and talk me through a great deal about the implications of Blakeley’s work. Much of the identification of the site rests on a photograph album in Southwark Local History Archive (with thanks to the Librarian, Len Reilly, who realised that the pictures might be of Greenwich and referred them to me).  The site identification rested on a the background to a picture of Blakeley’s jetty  and I have to thank Chris Ellmers and Bob Aspinall of Museum of Docklands, and Rosemary Taylor for looking at this background and fixing it at Blackwall.   I also have to thank Adrian Caruana for identifying one of the men pictured as Blakeley and having a guess that another of them was Bessemer)

BlAKELEY building works blackwall point
Blakeley facftory under construction. Thanks to London Borough of Southwark

Blakeley however, like Bessemer, had been rejected by the military establishment and Woolwich Arsenal. No doubt both of them had good cause to feel aggrieved. In Britain most people with an interest in technology and warfare will have heard of William Armstrong and visited his beautiful Northumberland home, Cragside, near Rothbury. In 1859, William Armstrong was appointed as ‘Superintendent of the Royal Gun Foundry for Rifled Ordnance’ combining this with his work as owner of a large ordnance manufacturing concern at the Elswick Works in Newcastle. Only arms enthusiasts will have heard of Blakeley.

In 1855 Blakeley, who was Irish and an officer in the Royal Artillery, had patented a new way of making guns. Bessemer was impressed with him and later said that ‘he must stand as the originator and father of modern built-up artillery’.  (Adrian Caruana Alexander Theophilus Blakeley, Ordnance Society Journal, Vol. 4, 1992).  Bessemer henceforth began to supply Blakeley with steel.


BLakeley jetty
Blakely jetty. Thanks London Borough of Southwark

Blakeley is well known in America where some of his guns are exhibited. For example, in Grant Park, Galena, Illinois a cannon stands on display as ‘ the Galena Blakeley’ and projectiles fired from it are shown at the US Military Academy. This gun, they will tell you, fired the opening salvo of the American Civil War at Fort Sumter in 1861 – it was ‘the piece that really worried the beleaguered garrison. It was the sound of the future’.(Warren Ripley. Artilery and Ammunition of the Civil War) . It was a Blakeley gun which fired from the FSS Alabama – and this gun has recently been raised from the sunken ship and examined by the French Navy. In many American military museums Blakeley guns are exhibited and their role in the Civil War stressed.

Much of the background information on Blakeley in the US is taken from the very numerous web sites of American Civil War enthusiasts.  The Alabama episode is justly famous – there are also very many web sites about it!  A film was made about the raising of the gun from the Alabama at Cherbourg which is occasionally shown on cable TV – I have been unable to discover its proper title or to get a copy!

Recently a Blakeley gun has been found in England, at Coalhouse Fort – downriver of Tilbury – and it is now displayed at Fort Nelson, Royal Armouries Museum, at Portsmouth, where an exhibition has been mounted about Blakeley’s achievements. (Information from Nicholas Hall). These guns, however, were all made in Liverpool because Blakeley did not have his own manufacturing base and guns were made for him at a variety of foundries. In 1863 he gave evidence to an Enquiry that 400 of his guns had already gone abroad. It appears that the British Government was not prepared to adopt Blakeley’s system. His guns were required to meet what were said to be unrealistic standards in testing. There has been some comment of the role of William Armstrong in this. Armstrong was in the position of being both in charge of procuring and testing ordnance for the Government while being an arms manufacturer himself – something which would be seen today as a distinct conflict of interests. In 1859 Armstrong gave his patents to the nation and was knighted for his efforts. There has been more than a suggestion made that these patents incorporated elements of Blakeley’s designs.

Blakeley was in touch with Morden College in 1863 and in 1864 signed an agreement with them. Although there is no indication in the Morden College records that any of the Trustees had taken an interest in Blakeley it might be noted that Thomas Baring, a trustee in the 1860s, had supported the Confederates – to whom Blakeley supplied guns – through Baring’s Bank.

In 1865 Morden College gave Blakeley permission to build a Wharf on the site of what was later Ordnance Wharf. He discussed his proposals with the Metropolitan Board of Works – who sent their architect, Mr. Vuilliamy, down to inspect the site and Blakeley later applied to Quarter Sessions in order to put an official closure on a footpath alongside it. (this saga of the footpath did not just affect Blakeley and Mr. Vuilliamy gave regular reports on its progress – which are reported at length in Kentish Mercury throughout the period).

However, Blakeley, and his still unfinished works, were in financial trouble and the Phoenix Gas Company noted that he was unable to pay for the gas supply they had laid on to the new works. (Phoenix Gas Co. Mins. in LMA)


Contemporary newspaper reports say that Blakeley was financed by a John Dent who sold his holdings in the company in 1865 and then went to China.

Adrian Caruana had referred me to newspaper reports of the unknown John Dent. The Morden College archive told me that the leaseholders was in fact Wilkinson Dent. Through trawling the web I came across a site about a house near Kendal, Flass, which had been the Dent home. I have to thank Malcolm Whiteside, the owner of Flass for a great deal of help and support.  It was with some surprise that I then learnt that Malcolm is a friend of Peter Kent who did some of the illustrations for the book and that Peter has spent holidays at Flass. Contact with Malcolm Whiteside led me to the Dent archive at Kendal Library, and subsequently some contact with the Dent family.  In Kendal are boxes and boxes of material a great deal of which refers to domestic activities in South London.  I was able to discover eventually that John Dent lived in Blackheath, and have to thank Neil Rhind for further information about him.  This was subsequently written up as: Drugs, Guns and High Finance. Bygone Kent. V.19.No.7 391-397.)

The deeds of the Blakeley site show that his backer was a Wilkinson Dent. Wilkinson Dent was the brother of Lancelot Dent – the man held ransom by the Chinese at the start of the first Opium War in 1841. Dent Brothers were opium traders – second only in size to Jardine Matheson, the bankers. For many years the Dent family were involved in the Chancery case on which Dickens may have based that in Bleak House. The collapse of the China House of Dent also led to the collapse of Blakeley – although he struggled to stay in business.

In September 1866 Blakeley wrote to Morden College giving his address as 11 Pall Mall East – just off Trafalgar Square, and a prosperous sounding location yet at the same time a petition of bankruptcy was being filed against him and a winding up order was announced in July. Meanwhile most of his Greenwich factory remained unused and unfinished. He died two years later in Peru.

It does not stretch the imagination too much to think that Henry Bessemer built his steel works to supply Blakeley with steel for guns and that the idea was to build an arms manufacturing complex at Greenwich

It is more than likely that by the time Bessemer died he no longer wanted to make public his keenness to sell big guns to foreign powers. Blakeley’s downfall was due to a crisis of international finance – ultimately through Overend Gurney.

gateway showing scrap blakeley guns
The gateway to the South Metropolitan’s Ordnance Tar Works

A codicil to this story is that Blakeley’s half made guns remained on site for many years. South Metropolitan. Gas Co. used them as a feature on one of their gates and they were eventually sold for scrap in the 1970s – every one of them would now be a valuable collectors item.

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