Letters received in late 1998 and reprinted in the GIHS newsletter
From John West
I noted an item asking about Perkins’ steam gun in an earlier issue. Jacob Perkins (1766- 1849) engineer, inventor and advocate of high-pressure steam techniques, designed in 1827-8 a steam gun for the French Government. He asked John Penn & Sons, millwrights and engineers of Greenwich to make the gun for him. John Penn I (1770- 1843) and head of the firm agreed to undertake the projects and entrusted the work to his son John Penn II (1805-1878) who still in his twenties was showing all the signs of becoming a brilliant engineer like his father.
The steam gun had a wrought iron rifled barrel of 3 inches calibre and during trials at the lime kilns Greenwich proved to be as efficient as Perkins had hoped. Trials were also carried out on waste ground in Westminster where it was inspected by many military men and eventually the Duke of Wellington. During the trials the 3 inch bullets were shot off at high speed and penetrated and an iron plate 100 yards off. On learning that the boiler for the gun weighed five tons the Duke saw immediately how impractical it was the transport it across country or field. Penn is said to have commented to Perkins ‘it’s all up with us now!’ Perkins reaction is not recorded however Penn did take the gun to Paris and stayed about three months but the fall of the French Government in 1830 ended all interest in the project.
Eventually the gun was returned to this country and exhibited at the Adelaide Gallery that opened in London in 1830, for the purpose of promoting science and technology. The gun was finally sold a scrap. The failure of the steam gun did Penn no harm as he later became one of the finest and most successful marine engineers of his day
From Howard Bloch
Further to the query in an earlier issue about the Silvertown explosion. A number of accounts have been written about the Silvertown explosion which occurred at Brunner Mond Works at Crescent Wharf, West Silvertown at about 6:50 PM on 19th of January 1917
The incident caused widespread damage, killing 73 people and injured several hundred. At the time rumours spread about its cause . Cyril Demarne recalls some of these:
The works chemist a German named Dr Angel had sabotaged a consignment of TNT.
It was the new type of bomb which would win the war for Germany
A German spy had planted a bomb on the rail tracks loaded with explosives
And many more
A Court of Enquiry was held in 1917 which was unable to determine the cause of the fire which resulted in the subsequent explosion
References: Wendy Neal. With disastrous consequences. London Disasters 1830- 1917 Hislaric Press pps 183- 201, Frank Sainsbury The Silvertown Explosion. Newham History Society. Occasional; papers No. 2 November 1988 pps 25 – 44, Winston G, Ramsey The East End then and Now. After the Battle. 197 p.90
Like an earthquake. About 7 o’clock a fire started at the factory in the East of London, near the river which was employed as refining explosives. A few minutes after an explosion occurred which was attended by considerable loss of life
His Majesty the King has made enquiries as to the extent of the damage and loss of life and has expressed his solicitude for the victims and their families
In Sacred Memory of Victims of the Great Explosion in the East End of London on Friday evening January 1917. May their souls rest in peace. With sincere sympathy to the friends and relatives.
Pathetic incidents. Heart rending scenes were witnessed at Poplar Hospital where casualties arrived shortly after the disaster. Women, and men too, were moved to tears as they watched the bodies, some limbless and some almost lifeless lifted from the ambulance and carried by the Red Cross into the building. Most of the poor victims were unconscious and many had passed beyond human aid by the time the hospital gates were reached
From Iris Bryce.
I was interested in reading about the gasworks as my grandfather worked there just before World War I. I remember him spending a lot of time in bed as he had had an accident at the Gas Works before I was born. My Gran always took me with her when she went to the Gas Works to collect a small pension for Grandfather. I should imagine it was something quite rare in those days and wonder just what kind of accident he had. I certainly remember walking past the gas holder and going up the outside iron staircase of a brick building to the office where Gran was given a small brown envelope every Friday morning
Burndept’s factory in Blackheath - there are several mentions of this along with the Burnham family, who owned the company, in a book called ‘Setmakers – A History of the Radio and Television Industry’. There are also photographs of the factory ,their products and the family. The book was published as a special edition and available I believe only to the trade. Publishers The British Radio and Electronic Equipment Manufacturers Association. 1991. This may be of interest to someone
I was born in Greenwich and worked at Siemens Factory in 1940 and two years later worked at the Telecom factory in Greenwich. My mother worked from 1928 until the 1940s at British Ropes in Charlton and my father was a barge-builder at Corys Yard in Charlton for 35 years. Mysister worked at the Kork-n-Seal factory in Charlton in the 1930s before going to Siemons, where my brother also worked. I have written about some of this in my book ‘Remember Greenwich’ and I have lectured at Plumstead Library and also for the London Historical Society.
During 1942 -3 I worked at the Telegraph Construction Company or ‘the Telcon’ as it was known. I was in the Buying Department and my boss Mr. Leighton was always invited to lunch on board the cable ships when they tied up outside the office on his return it was it was obvious they were very liquid lunches. I lived in Woodland Walk so I went home for lunch.
I would have loved to see inside the staff canteen which was a lovely old house standing almost on the Rivers edge. To my uneducated 16-year-old eye it looked hundreds of years old. I was told in the basement there were still chains in the wall which had been used to shackle convicts. Shutters or doors in the walls facing the river were left up or open. When the tide came in the cellar was great flooded and the prisoners drowned. Do you know if the house still stands?
From Malcolm Tucker
G.W.Dresser. I’ve been doing some research on gasholders in the library of the Institution of Gas Engineers and I chanced upon the name ‘Major Dresser’ in the index of the Proceedings of the British Association of Gas Managers – a predecessor of the Institution of Gas Engineers’. He seems to come over from America for the annual conference and contributed to the discussions on two papers on ‘Illuminating Power Measurement’ and ‘Gas for Heating’. He was elected an Honorary Member – i.e. Captain G Warren Dresser., Editor of the American Gaslight Journal. Perhaps 'Major' was a courtesy title for a 'Captain'. His address was given as 42 Pine Street, New York
Editor: It is understood that Malcolm is undertaking a historical assessment of gas holders in London. It is also understood from comments made by The Weasel in The Independent that the New Millennium Experience Company have now put aside plans to screen the big gas holder at the East Greenwich from the view of tourists. Has some recent press interest in it persuaded them otherwise?
From Harold Slight. The article about Woolwich Arsenal by John Day: a distant relative of mine went to the Arsenal both pre and post war. he says that references to apprentices and an engineering degree are incorrect The writer should have said HNC or C&G finals, yes - never heard of a graduate apprentice joining the workforce. Certainly not prewar when a university education was virtually restrict to the upper classes
John Day replies – Howard Slight’s relative obviously was not at Woolwich when Sir Sydney Bacon, Malcolm Starkey, Alfred Bennett and Robert Walker were apprentices - all have degrees in engineering i.e. BSC (Eng) as I have. And all are still alive and a later bit of this piece tells a bit about one. Would he like to bet about the degrees? I still have proof from University of London dated 1939. What evidence has he got? Hearsay evidence is not accepted in law