COPPERAS IN DEPTFORD AND GREENWICH – THE FINAL YEARS
Elizabeth Pearson was the daughter of Charles Pearson, who owned copperas works up and down the Thames and Medway estuaries. In the early nineteenth century, she kept a diary. The first part of the diary runs from 1796 to 1804 when Elizabeth was in her early twenties, but, following a gap of sixteen years she took it up again in 1820. Elizabeth's time was divided between three homes – the family haberdashery business in the City of London, the 'Castle' at Tankerton near the copperas works, and 'Ravensbourne House' in Greenwich. Since this narrative is about the copperas industry in Greenwich and Deptford then what Elizabeth had to say about her life in Greenwich is very relevant. At the same time the copperas industry itself was beginning to change and the 1820s was a period in which Charles Pearson himself, and his son, began to try new outlets and ideas.
By 1820 travel between Greenwich and the Kent coast had suddenly become interesting and easy. No more of the 'nine hours in a post chaise' which the family had endured previously. One of Elizabeth's earliest diary entries in the 1820s is with the news that 'brother has come from Ramsgate.. in the Favourite Steam yacht' and a month or so later Elizabeth herself 'returned home by the London Engineer Steam Yacht .. had a delightful voyage.. brother returned home by the Majestic Steam Yacht'.
Steam boat services on the river had revolutionised life for many travellers, but the Pearsons with their regular journeys between Tankerton and Greenwich must have been particularly grateful. The time keeping and speed with which these vessels accomplished a hitherto uncertain voyage was revolutionary - a traveller of 1825 noted in the Maidstone Journal that 'Captain Rule of the Eclipse Steam Packet … told many of his passengers within two minutes of the time he should arrive at his destination..'
'Favourite' was originally owned in 1817 Gravesend Steam Packet Company to operate between London, Gravesend and Sheerness. She had been built in Blackfriars by Lafort and Sons, was 160 tons with engines by Boulton and Watt. In 1820 she was taken over by the Margate Steam Packet Company in 1820 and run until 1828.
'London Engineer' was, if anything, more famous. She was built by Daniel Brent of Rotherhithe and said to 'mark the first major departure from the basic design'. She was 120 ft long with a wooden hull and a draught of 5ft. Her engines were by Maudslay Son and Field and she had paddle wheels built to a special and novel arrangement. Elizabeth would have sat in her comfortable saloon with its upholstered settees rather than the aft cabin with wooden benches.
I know nothing about 'Majestic' but the family also travelled by 'Eclipse' steam packet, one of the earliest such boats run by the Margate Steam Packet Co. from 1816.
Steam was changing the lives of everybody – and the steam packets were not only for well off people like the Pearsons. Perhaps the last word on the atmosphere around them is best described by Robert Surtees on the occasion Mr. Jorrocks left Margate in a hoy without his trousers. Passengers at Margate jostle for the rival charms of 'Royal Adelaide, fast and splendid' and 'splendid and superb Magnet'… everyone furiously betting on which will reach the Tower first 'for the Monday steamboat race is as great an event as the Derby'. Once out at sea 'both firemen … boil up a tremendous gallop'….until 'Royal Adelaide manages to shoot ahead for a few minutes amid the cheers and exclamations of her crew' but 'the stiller waters of the Thames favours the Magnet and she shoots ahead….' Was this really the atmosphere for a polite middle aged lady like Elizabeth Pearson?
In Greenwich Elizabeth had developed a local friendship with the Millington family, visiting frequently and involving herself in a number of tragedies which befell them. The Millingtons lived in a vast and opulent Jacobean house which stood on the Greenwich riverside on the roughly the present site of the Greenwich Power Station. This house had been built by a Gregory Clement in the seventeenth century and later bought by Ambrose Crowley. Crowley had a large ironworks at Winlaton on the Tyne and in 1703 set up a warehouse on the Greenwich riverside – where, since the area became known as Anchor Iron Wharf, it is assumed anchors were on the main branches of his trade along with 'hatchets, iron chains, chaffing dishes, hammers, hoes', and so on and including a line in shackles for the slave trade.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the Crowley family were no longer active in the business and in 1782 an Isiah Millington, had become a partner. Millington and his family lived at Crowley House in Greenwich and became friends of the Pearsons. Mrs. Walsh, a descendent of the Pearsons and owner of the diary, has said in her paper on the family that Charles Pearson may originally have become interested in copperas through a relationship with Isiah Millington at City Company dinners at the George and Vulture in Fleet Street. Be that as it may the Millington family and their industrial interests in Greenwich might be the subject of a future article, since it is their relationships with the Pearson's which is of interest here.
Mrs. Walsh also suggested that the iron necessary for copperas manufacture might have come from the Millington Iron Works – and this is perfectly possible since any scrap iron would have been suitable. I do not think that the Millingtons had an ironworks in Greenwich adjacent to the copperas works on Creekside. The indications are that they continued with the warehousing business at Anchor Iron Wharf while also branching out into other business activities in the area.
Elizabeth Pearson often recorded visits to the Millington family – sometimes with her sister Amelia, and with other friends, like the Mr. & Mrs. Morris she mentions in November 1820. In May 1821 she noted the sudden, and apparently scandalous death, of John Millington 'in lodgings at Sydenham … he returned from America … leaving his wife, his child is dead … his death can be considered a benefit to his family'. What scandal is hidden there I do not know – since I have been unable to unearth anything about John Millington, except that he is not the scientist of the same name, who also went to America in this period.
In November of the same year Elizabeth recorded the death of old Mrs. Millington at Crowley house 'in her 89th year and confined to her room two years and five months'. Mrs. Millington had been a close friend of Elizabeth's own mother and she remembered her dearly as she saw ' our dear mother's kind old friend in her coffin'. Mrs. Millington's son, Crowley Millington, had been away at the time of his mother's death but on his return Crowley House once more became a lively riverside home – and Elizabeth records how her sister Amelia went there regularly for music lessons.
Since her mother's death Elizabeth had acquired more domestic responsibilities. She records a visit to Woolwich in search of a servant, and again to discuss arrangements for her new employee. Still her evenings and many days were spent in domestic work 'cutting out new shirts' but with some opportunities for more intellectual pastimes 'writing extracts from Bishop Hershey's sermons on the Sabbath'.
When she was in her early twenties Elizabeth had recorded the birth and subsequent noisy behaviour of young Tom Tilson – a child of one of her fathers' associates. Tom was now grown and setting out on what was to become a successful legal career. In 1820 Elizabeth went to see him 'sworn in' and later visited the Tilson family's new house at Brixton Hill.
Much of Elizabeth's life in Greenwich, and indeed in Tankerton, had little to do with the copperas works, which provided the income for her standard of living. In September 1820 she records a visit to the Tankerton works and again in 1821 'we all walked to the Deptford Works' but most of she records some of father and brothers' business activities and they slowly reveal a move away from the manufacture of copperas alone and towards other industries.
In 1822 she recorded that 'an accident at the gas works' had kept her brother in town. This accident appears to be unrecorded and unknown but it is in indication of the interest in the gas industry which Charles Pearson Jnr was beginning to take. There are a number of records about this interest from the gas industry itself – but it is not always easy to distinguish between 'Charles Pearson' father or son in what is recorded, and there is also some confusion with another and different Charles Pearson who was the City of London solicitor and who also had an interest in the early gas industry.
Charles Pearson is recorded as one of the earliest movers of the South London Gas Company, based in Bankside in the early 1820s, he was fact elected as their first auditor. Thomas Tilson was also a member of their first board. The company had been started by a Mr. Munro and Elizabeth Pearson records that 'brother dines at Mr.Munro's in Nelson Square' in 1822. As I have recorded in other articles about the Greenwich Gas Industry the South London Gas Company soon became the Phoenix Gas Company and began to build a works in Greenwich on the banks of the Ravensbourne – somewhat to the north of the copperas works.
Soon the Greenwich vestry was also embroiled in a legal battle between rival companies. In the records are thanks given to 'Mr.Pearson for his conduct in defence of Mr.Hammond' and 'Mr.Pearson' appears to represent the Greenwich vestry in negotiations with the gas company. This might be a totally different Mr. Pearson – it seems unlikely that Charles Pearson Jnr or Snr would negotiate for the vestry in this way – however it might be noted that a still younger Charles Pearson was to embark on a legal career and eventually became a solicitor in Gravesend. This was Charles Hill Pearson who, at fifteen in 1824 would have been too young to be the person referred to. Once the Greenwich Works was built then the gas mains were taken through the copperas works site.
By the early 1830s, the copperas industry was beginning to falter, overtaken by new ways of making both sulphuric acid and dyes. Pearson was to try and diversify into a wider field in the chemical industry. In 1833 he approached the central London based Gas Light and Coke Company with an offer on 'sal ammoniac and Prussian Blue' and later asked the prices of the gas industry waste 'ammoniacal liquor' from the north London based Imperial Gas Company. He was sufficiently price conscious to complain about the price and the quality and was told sharply to 'try at the other works'.
As late as 1835 it was revealed that the staircase of his Greenwich house had been treated with Mr.Kyan's very poisonous sublimate solution as an attempt to demonstrate a new method of wood preservation. He was also clearly involved with some newcomers to Deptford –Messrs. Beneke who had come from Germany to try new ways of chemical manufacture. Pearson was to help pay their bills with some of the London Gas Companies during 1833.
'Old' Charles Pearson died in 1828 leaving £27,000 to his children – his final days seem to have been spent in Greenwich in a new house in Maze Hill. We know no more of what happened to Elizabeth but she would have become a wealthy woman under her fathers' will. Young Charles set about spending the money he had been left – among other things he invested in the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway and the 'Pearson Arms' can still be found on the Whitstable seafront. He was to die in 1870 at his daughters' home in Bloomsbury.
The Greenwich works seems to have stopped production in the 1830s but it is quite clear that chemical works continued to flourish on Deptford Creek through a number of successors – like Beneke – with whom Charles Pearson had been involved. At around the same time a vitriol works is recorded elsewhere in Greenwich, on the Peninsula, now owned by Lewis Price and Co. it could once have been Moore's copperas works almost adjacent to a number of enterprises belonging to the Millingtons.
By the 1840s the Greenwich works on Deptford Creek was in the hands of the 'Union Joint Stock Banking Company of Coventry' – they sound very like liquidators to me!
I would like to thank Mrs. Walsh, who originally introduced me to Elizabeth Pearson's Diary, and also Geoffrey Pike who has been kind enough to send me some photocopied extracts. Other material from archive material in the LMA and some published works including 'Royal River Highway' by Frank Dix and, of course, R.S.Surtees 'Jorrock's Jaunts and Jollities'. I do not know the current whereabouts of any of the diary except for extracts I have in notes - enquiries at Whitstable Museum have got nowhere, and I have lost touch with Mrs. Walsh
And thanks to the inimitable Julian Watson who saw me all through these articles in 17 years ago!! and was the first person to like and share the first posting of these four articles earlier this evening.
All of them have been re-edited but the main substance appeared in Bygone Kent Vol 22.