Steel production, together with Henry Bessemer and the Bessemer converter are usually associated with the north of England, and Sheffield in particular. It comes as a surprise to learn that Bessemer himself lived for many years in South London and that he built a steel works at Greenwich. Of course, Kent has a steel works today in Sheerness and, naturally, the arms industry at Woolwich Arsenal and elsewhere used steel in huge quantities. It is still however, remarkable that so little is known about Bessemer's Greenwich works which lay close to where the Millennium Dome is being built today. It has proved very difficult to find anything very much out about this works and there is some conflict about what really went on there.
Henry Bessemer came from a French background and an ingenious inventor who took out 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 in the St. Pancras area. He described some of the lengths he went to in order to keep the process secret and his, unfinished, autobiography sometimes seems much the same – it is often very difficult to disentangle from the narrative exactly what he said and did at any one time. Recently historians have suggested that his steel making process arose out of his interest in making guns, something that, of course, would draw him to Woolwich and the Arsenal.
Bessemer had been in France working, at the suggestion of Louis Napoleon, 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 a works was opened in Sheffield in the late 1850s. To cut a very long story very short indeed he eventually became involved with Col. Eardley Wilmot at the Royal Arsenal and plans began to be made to build a plant for the manufacture of Bessemer's steel in Woolwich. It soon became clear that Col. Willmot's support for Bessemer was not shared by the Minister of War and the plans were abandoned. At around the same time Bessemer 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. In a previous article I described how Alexander Theophilus Blakeley, who built an abortive gun foundry on the Greenwich peninsula, had lost out to Armstrong and gone out of business. Bessemer had discovered Blakeley and his patented process for making guns at around the same time as he began to develop his steel making process. No doubt both of them had good cause to feel aggrieved at the appointment of Armstrong and their failure to sell arms to the British government.
Bessemer's biography is not a particular easy book to read. By the time he wrote it he was an old man, Blakeley was long dead and many of the differences with other people had been patched up or forgotten. He died before the biography was completed and a final chapter was added by his son. In a short paragraph, Henry Bessemer Jnr, mentions that a steel works was built at Greenwich in the mid-1860s. Very little is known about this works and my attempts to find out the views on it of historians with a knowledge of Bessemer it has found got very little in the way of a response.
There is no doubt that Bessemer had a works of some sort at Greenwich. It was on the site now known as Victoria Wharf (lately the Victoria Deep Water Wharf) and dated from around 1865. Victoria Wharf. is one of the few sites on the Greenwich riverside which is in not owned by Morden College. This means that detailed archives are not available nor has it proved possible to contact the site's new owners. The first reference in the public archives is an application to the Thames Conservators in June 1865 from 'Bessemer Brothers' for permission to build a jetty. He is also listed in the Greenwich Commission of Sewers rate books of 1865 which also note that the owners of the land are Clark and Terry from whom Bessemer held a lease - he later bought the freehold. In 1865 an advertisement in the Kentish Mercury mentions the closeness of the Bessemer works and its thirsty steel workers to the Star in the East pub – the pub's successor is now Ranburn's alongside the Blackwall Tunnel entrance.
Bessemer Jnr. says very little about this Greenwich works but he says it was very small and that his father intended it for his sons. "It had", says Bessemer Jnr., "two 2½ ton converters and all the plant necessary. Including one 2½-ton steam hammer and another the size of which is not given. The buildings were carefully designed, with the intention that the establishment should be in all respects be a model one". It was, he says never opened because of the down turn in Thames shipbuilding.
The Blakeley gun foundry at Ordnance Wharf was built at about the same time as the Bessemer Works and, since they knew each other and both had lost to Armstrong, maybe the two works had some connection with each other. Perhaps, when he came to write his biography, and some scores had been settled, Bessemer found it expedient not to mention this.
Some of the proprietors of neighbouring industries seem to have had connections with Bessemer. There were the cable works of Glass Elliott – and Bessemer had showed an interest in telegraph cables. Next door, to the south, was Horseshoe Breach which had recently been upgraded by the 'wooden nutmeg', Nathan Thompson, in his bid to build and sell 5,000 identical boats each year. Following his demise it had been taken over by Maudslay Son and Field. It was there that Bessemer's prototype anti-sea sickness boat was to be built. On Victoria Wharf itself was an artificial stone works owned by Frederick and Ernest Ransome, from the Ipswich family, who Bessemer knew. To the north was John Bethel's specialist tar distillery - Bessemer himself mentions 'Bethel's patent coke' in connection with steel making and I do not doubt that there were coke ovens at Bethel's Greenwich works.
What happened to the works? Bessemer Jnr. says that it was never used but that they kept the lease and later bought the freehold. Both works and plant were let to London Steel and Ordnance – 'London Steel and Iron Works' are shown on site on the Ordnance Survey dated 1869. What is quite clear from the archives is that the authorities thought that Bessemer had remained on site; London Steel and Ordnance are not mentioned. In 1872 there was a complaint from Morden College that the 'Bessemer Steel Co.' had encroached on their land and discussions later began for the company to lease 'a small field in the marshes adjoining this property for 21 years' and went on to say that Bessemer were offering more than the market value – hardly the action of company which does not want a site. As late as 1891 Morden College's surveyor was still dealing with Bessemer Brothers.
I would be very interested to know if anyone has found another reference to London Steel and Ordinance – a body about which I have been unable to discover anything at all about.
Bessemer Jnr. said that Steel and Ordnance 'did not achieve much success' and that the works was then let to Messrs. Appleby Bros. The tenancy can be confirmed from the Morden College records from about 1878. When they left, almost twenty years later, the site was let to a linoleum manufacturer, who later bought the freehold from the Bessemers.
Perhaps the most important thing is what the linoleum manufacturer had to say about the site. His name was Frederick Walton and it is perhaps possible that he knew Henry Bessemer – another of Bessemer's interests was linoleum. 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?
Bessemer himself, or his sons, had the site from about 1865 and they or, London Steel and Iron, or Steel and Ordnance' had it until it was let to Appleby thirteen years later. Probably initially the works was built to supply Blakeley with steel with perhaps the sub-text of upsetting the authorities at Woolwich. Bessemer himself had moved to South London – to a very very grand mansion in Denmark Hill – in the early 1860s. At that time a direct train service from Denmark Hill to Greenwich was being 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 and those at his works in the north of England.
We may probably never know what Bessemer actually did at Greenwich but it is thought that had Blakeley been more lucky in his backers, and had stayed in business, that he and Henry Bessemer might have turned Greenwich into a great steel town – Sheffield on Thames.