Chapter 8 An Engineering Interlude

Engineering was a dominant trade in ‘Kentish London’ with several important companies in the Deptford and Creekside area. Penn’s works is particularly well known, but they were not the only ones. Very few engineering works were located on the Marsh – rather they clustered round the older industrial area on Deptford Creek. The exceptions were established businesses looking for a ‘greenfield’ site. Of these, the earliest and most interesting was Joshua Beale.


Joshua Taylor Beale was a Wapping cabinetmaker who had prospered with a design for a rotary steam engine. His next invention was a safe method of heating inflammable liquids – important to local manufacturers of both sugar and tar. He developed a lamp, which used some of the new fuels made from gas industry by-products, which were becoming available. In the early 1830s Beale needed to expand when he moved into a purpose built factory on Greenwich Marsh as a tenant of the Enderbys.

(Joshua Beale – I have covered Beale in more detail in John Beale and Joshua Beale, Inventors from Greenwich Marsh, Bygone Kent, 18/6, June 1997, pp 329-333 The Greenwich Heritage Centre has a file of family history information on Beale. Beale seems to have used part of what is today the Alcatel site – which may have been then owned by the Enderby family.  Documents at LMA NTG 1427-1429  (the North Thames Gas Archive) include a letter from Charles Enderby endorsing Beale’s oil lamp and applying for a licence on 29th February 1836 but giving Beale’s address as Church Street, Whitechapel)


One of Beale’s projects in Greenwich was a steam driven road vehicle. He worked with a Colonel Maceroni who was a Sicilian born but brought up in Manchester. It was said that – ‘he retained a love of quick motion’ hence his interest in steam road vehicles. (Mechanics Magazine July 1840).

One of Maceroni’s other interests was in the use of coal tar for road surfaces. He said that the first-ever tarred garden path was laid in Blackheath in the garden of a Mr. Bell’ – is ‘Bell’ perhaps a misprint for ‘Beale’ and is this how the two got to know each other? (Mechanics Magazine 17th March 1838, I have to thank Neil Rhind who supplied me with a list of Mr. Bells living in Blackheath at the right date – and which gave me a lot of garden walls to peer over. However Beale, in that period, lived in Conduit House at the top of Blackwall Lane – the site of the Plaza, the old Granada Cinema – which is definitely in East Greenwich and not Blackheath).

In 1841 Maceroni set up the ‘Common Road Steam Conveyance Company’ to make steam cars. He asked Joshua Beale and his brother Benjamin to make them for him since his own factory in Paddington was besieged by bailiffs. (Much of this story is told in a report in the Kentish Mercury on 14th March 1846. There is a considerable literature on steam road vehicles and in particular I would like to mention William Fletcher, History & Development of Steam Locomotion on Common Roads, London, 1891)

To get publicity for their cars Beale and Maceroni began to go on trips round the district. In July 1840 Maceroni took a party of seventeen from Greenwich to Lewisham and then to Bromley. On the way back they turned onto the Dover Road and went up Blackheath Hill – at 12 miles per hour ‘in gallant style’. They continued up Shooters Hill and stopped at The Bull to fill the boiler. Inevitably, water was not all they took on, and – ‘the men were regaled and eulogised the scientific engineer’. (this saga – and some others – is related in successive copies of Mechanics Magazine through 1840, mostly in the shape of letters from the various interested parties).

Maceroni had agreed to pay Beale £800 for each carriage but because Benjamin Beale had changed the design in order to make it work he was charged an extra £300. This money was not forthcoming and so Beale impounded the carriages. No more was heard of them and this pioneering attempt to make steam driven vehicles, which would run on ordinary roads, came to an end.

frank hills car
One of Frank Hills’ steam cars. From Mechanics Magazine.

Beale and Macaroni were not alone. At around the same time Frank Hills was also building steam cars in Greenwich. He had a chemical works in Deptford and by the mid-1840s had moved onto the East Greenwich Tide Mill site – his work there as an industrial chemist is described below. In the 1840s he was rivalling Beale with trips up Shooters Hill and beyond, with two different prototype steam driven vehicles. (Like everything else with Frank Hills there is a story here which is not very easy to grasp and which is full of unspecified accusations on other people’s patents. It does not seem that steam road vehicles and their technology sit very well with the various chemical inventions which Frank laid claim to – the behaviour though is only too familiar)


Many other things were made at Beale’s riverside works in Greenwich – a propeller and a way of preventing ‘encrusting’ in boilers by using urine and soda. Beale was also involved in the design of equipment for the early gas industry. He tried to make gas cookers – at a time when such an idea was revolutionary – but accusations of spying from other manufacturers put an end to his work.

beale exhauster 2
Beale’s exhauster

Beale’s most successful idea was for the ‘exhauster’ – a pump in reverse used to draw gas from retorts in gas works. (this is a useful and important piece of
equipment, although sadly unglamorous. Since the patent was taken over by the
Donkin company information about it tends to come from their sources. See A brief account of Bryan Donkin FRS and of the company he founded 150 years ago. Donkin Co., 1953). His exhauster patents were sold to Bryan Donkin, whose engineering works were in Bermondsey. They moved to Chesterfield where they developed Beale’s ideas.

Joshua Beale lived very near his works. His home, called ‘Conduit House was on the corner of Vanbrugh Hill and Trafalgar Road – where the Granada Cinema was later built. His son John moved nearer Blackheath and built ‘Heathview’ in Westcombe Park Road in 1883. John continued his father’s work.


‘Penny farthing’ bicycles were originally known as ‘ordinaries’. John Beale invented a version of the ‘ordinary’ which he called ‘The Facile’ advertised as ‘suitable for the young and athletic and the elderly’ – although, unless the rider was careful he or she could ‘come a cropper’. At Heathview there is a large circular flowerbed which is supposed to be where John Beale’s bicycle test track ran. The testing was done by his teenage sons who toured Kent with one of the many cycling clubs for young men of the period. (Info in Greenwich Heritage Centre ‘Beale’ file. I would also like to thank the Harlow Bicycle Museum for talking me through ‘The Facile’ and making a number of helpful suggestions)

Sadly many of John Beale’s inventions were not made in Greenwich but by specialist manufacturers under licence. The Greenwich works was closed to become part of the Telcon cable works. (It is basically the site of the works social club where a chimney still stands. It was part of the parcel of land sold by Alcatel to a developer and has since stood empty) Beale’s factory had been of a type common in London – that of the resourceful general engineer constantly designing and making new devices and who could turn his hand to almost anything.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: