The Gosport Iron Foundry and Henry Cort by Philip Eley
"There is little trade or manufacture carried on in Gosport but such as is connected with the Navy" says the Parliamentary Gazetteer of 1862 and this had been the case ever since the Civil War when Portsmouth Harbour assumed its importance as home to the Navy's premier dockyard. Industries such as brewing, ropemaking and shipbuilding all contributed to Gosport's economy, but only in iron manufacture did Gosport play a significant part in national industrial history.
Gosport was the home for fifteen years of iron founder Henry Cort (right) whose inventiveness helped Britain win the Napoleonic Wars and laid the foundation for the both the railway and telecommunications industries. His Gosport Iron Foundry survived for many years after his involvement, but its importance is largely forgotten. This is its story. Gosport and the Navy.
The main reason for the growth of Gosport in the seventeenth century was the rapid expansion of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth Common, particularly after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. At that time many of the necessities required for building, maintaining and victualling the fleet were obtained under contract from local specialists.
One such specialist was Edward Silvester, an anchorsmith who lived and worked in Gosport from around 1656. From 1664 until his death in 1672 he was under contract to the Crown to make an iron mooring chain 260, later reduced to 175, fathoms long (a fathom is six feet). Each link was three feet long and weighed over 168 lbs. The location of his workshops is unknown but it would likely have been close to the harbour so that raw materials and finished products could be easily shipped to the dockyard.
Not for another fifty years after Silvester's demise is there evidence of any further major iron contracts in Gosport but, from 1722, the Attwick (or Atweek) family were under contract to supply considerable amounts of nails and other ironmongery to the Navy.
John Attwick was a respected inhabitant of Gosport having lived there since at least 1710 when he was chosen as aletaster. Three times he was appointed bailiff to the Manor of Gosport, entrusting him with the collection of the Lord's rents. His houses, at 62 to 65 Middle (or High) Street originally had gardens stretching to The Green and these gardens provided the site for a warehouse, smith's shop and, much later, the Gosport Iron Foundry.
In 1718 John was in trouble for leaving timber lying on 'the Lord's waste' as The Green was then known, but by 1736, as the ironmongery contracts continued, he had acquired the status of an esquire. For a few years before his death in 1745 he held the contracts jointly with his wife Mary. She continued alone until joined by her son William when he came of age in 1751.
John's only surviving son and heir was still a minor when he inherited the business and property in Middle Street and on The Green (right). Later he too served as town bailiff four times between 1755 and 1770 and was one of the original Gosport Paving Trustees appointed in 1763.
By 1760 the contract was in William's own name and he was supplying, amongst other iron goods, nails, hinges, locks, hooks, chisels, axes, hammers, files, ladles, shovels, tongs and forks to the dockyard. In 1768-9 he supplied £7,000 worth of iron goods weighing around 200 tons. Most of the goods would have been manufactured elsewhere in the country - the Attwicks were wholesale ironmongers not manufacturers.
Henry Cort gets involved
In 1772 William was joined in the Navy contract by Thomas Morgan; two years later Morgan was on his own. He was provided with financial backing by Henry Cort whose second marriage, in 1768, was to William Attwick's niece Elizabeth Heysham. They were living in London where Henry was a navy agent who acted on behalf of naval officers and sailors to recover prize money and back pay from the Navy Board, and took a percentage commission for his efforts.
By 1777 Henry, Elizabeth and their five children had moved to Gosport and had settled at 62 Middle Street. Henry also took over the ironworks at Fontley near Titchfield, renting Child's wharf on the North side of The Green in Gosport and another wharf at the head of Fareham Creek to ease the trans- shipment of both raw and finished materials. The Navy contract must have looked most promising as the war of American Independence had just broken out.
At this time there was no foundry in Gosport but some ironworking was going on. In 1779 Cort's habit of dumping great quantities of coal ashes on The Green from his nearby smith's shop landed him in trouble with both the paving trustees and the manorial court. He did not repeat the offence.
Enter Adam Jellicoe
For the next few years under Cort's management the business improved, whilst Elizabeth produced children at regular intervals baptising them at Holy Trinity chapel. However, Cort needed to make more money to recover the amounts lent to Morgan, and the opportunity arose in 1779 when the Navy Victualling Department needed an alternative supplier of iron hoops for their barrels who would undercut the prices of a London cartel.
In order to fulfil the contract he invested a huge sum in building a rolling mill at Fontley. This outlay, plus the fact that the cartel contrived to force up the price of Swedish iron, caused him to lose nearly £10,000 and in 1781 he turned for financial help to Adam Jellicoe, Deputy Paymaster of the Navy Pay Office, an associate from his days as a navy agent. The deal was for Jellicoe's son Samuel to be taken into partnership with Cort while Adam to receive half of the profits plus 5 per cent interest on the £20,000 he had lent Cort.
Apart from supplying new hoops, the contract obliged Cort to convert old hoops into new at the rate of two tons old to one ton new. An unexpectedly high number of old hoops was received in the years 1781 to 1783 and, to avoid incurring even greater losses, Cort began experimenting with grooved rollers instead of hammering to make high quality new hoops of double the value. In 1783 Cort patented this process which promised a possible eight-fold increase in the capacity of an average charcoal forge.
Having been financially harmed by the rise in cost during the war of Swedish iron, Cort turned his attention to making wrought iron from scrap cast iron. In June 1784 he patented a process in which iron made molten in a reverberatory or air furnace using ordinary coal was stirred or "puddled" to remove impurities. The resultant iron was, Cort declared, as good as the best Swedish product, at a fraction of the cost.
The Naval authorities, wishing to test Cort's claims, between 1783 and 1786 conducted comparative tests at their dockyards against Swedish iron made into anchors, mooring chains, hooks and ship's bolts. They were finally convinced and placed contracts for 150 tons in both 1787 and 1788, and 200 tons in 1789. Other ironmasters took an interest in the process from whom Cort was to receive 5 shillings a ton royalty on the patented process.
It looked as if all his investment was finally about to be rewarded when disaster struck. Adam Jellicoe died on 30th August 1789, some accounts say he committed suicide. Certainly he had been asked on the previous day to explain his private investment of public funds (from the Navy Pay Office) amounting to £27,000 lent to Cort.
Unfortunately for Cort, Jellicoe had pledged the two patents as security. These were seized by the Crown and subsequently valued at only £100. Amazingly Cort was held responsible for Adam's debt and was declared bankrupt. He had twelve children; a thirteenth was baptised at in February 1790 by which his name had disappeared from Gosport records. He died in London in 1800, a penniless undischarged bankrupt.
The government made no attempts to collect royalties on the patents, but the processes revolutionised iron production in Britain, paving the way for the cheap railway lines and the wire used in electric telegraphs which spurred on the industrial revolution.
Samuel Jellicoe continues
Perhaps most galling to Cort was that Samuel Jellicoe inherited the whole of the business in Gosport and Fontley. Samuel subsequently became a Gosport paving trustee and married local girl Mary Ann Curry and founded the dynasty which eventually produced Admiral (later Earl) Jellicoe.
The works at Fontley remained in Samuel's hands during the Napoleonic Wars by which time, when Gosport's economy was booming, it is likely that the Gosport Iron Foundry had been built. It was situated between his warehouse and anchorsmith's shop facing The Green.
In 1823 Samuel's confidential clerk and assistant for twenty years, Samuel Rogers, and son William Jellicoe took over the running of the Gosport Foundry. This partnership lasted until 1831 when Rogers became the sole proprietor. He advertised the business as iron founders, anchorsmiths and smiths in general, producing iron, nails, anchors, cast iron goods, plough hooks, etc.
Initially Rogers rented Jellicoe's premises on The Green - the warehouse, iron foundry, anchorsmiths shops and also a wharf and warehouse on the north side on the waterfront but in 1838, after Jellicoe's death, he bought it all for £1,000. He continued working at the Gosport Foundry until 1844 when his son James took over, but in June 1850 it was up for sale. A year later the stock was sold and in 1852 attempts were made to lease the foundry complete with an air furnace. By 1855 it was the manufactory for Cunningham's patent self-reefing topsail.
The last hundred years
When Ann Rogers died in 1861 the property was auctioned at the India Arms. The foundry and warehouse were bought by Henry Duncan Preston Cunningham, R.N. of Bury House, the inventor of the self-reefing topsail and various successful military contraptions, a worthy successor to Henry Cort. He was also a magistrate, and was buried at St Mary's Church, Rowner in 1875.
The former anchorsmith's shop on the corner of Peachey's Lane was bought by yacht builder William Camper, who had been renting it as a mast- house. It remained as such for almost a hundred years.
By 1880 all of the property was back in the hands of one man - William Campers partner Benjamin Nicholson. In 1867 he had acquired the wharf and warehouse on the waterside which he used initially as a mould loft then, after rebuilding in the early 1870s, as a joiner's shop. In 1879 he acquired the Gosport Foundry and the adjoining warehouse.
It remained in the hands of Camper and Nicholson until the mid-1960s when wholesale redevelopment of the town area took place. The former foundry and warehouses were demolished when the adjoining High Street premises were rebuilt. The Green became a small car park on a service road called Loading Area 3 (now Minnitt Road) having lost some of its area to the new Mumby Road. Thus 200 years of history was swept away.
Given the importance of Henry Cort's contribution to the iron industry it is surprising that he does not have a high profile in Gosport. Above the entrance to the Gosport Museum in Walpole Road a mural shows Cort's process, there is a mosaic on the Millennium Promenade, while a blue plaque in Mumby Road, puzzlingly some way from the site of the foundry (the rear of Peacock's clothes shop), notes his work, but that's it. One has to go to Fareham to find more conspicuous commemoration.
There is a Cunningham Drive in Gosport (but not that Cunningham), whilst Jellicoe Avenue is named after Earl Jellicoe. Perhaps the time will come when the town names a road after Henry Cort to commemorate the crucial part that he and Gosport played in Britain's industrial development.
Thanks are due to Margaret Roberts, Eric Alexander and Jeremy Greenwood for their useful comments, and Peter King for the NMM and PRO references.
References and bibliography
National Maritime Museum (NMM): Portsmouth warrant books POR/A/7, 20 July 1722; POR/A/13, 17 December 1743
Public Record Office (PRO): ADM49/120 p148; ADM49/121 pp10-12; ADM112/168-9
Henry Cort, The Great Finer, R A Mott & P Singer (ed), 1983
The Western Defences of Portsmouth Harbour 1400-1880, G H Williams, 1979
Henry Cort, Alverstoke Parish Magazine, June 1864
Title deeds in Hampshire Record Office (HRO) 38M48/83 and 104M97
Gosport Paving Trustees minute book, HRO 123M96/DT1
Trade directories, 1783, 1830, 1847, 1855
Hampshire Telegraph 11.8.1823, 3.10.1831, 28.12.1844, 13.7.1851, 21.6.1852, 4.5.1861
Manor of Gosport Court books, HRO 11M59/E2/159538 and 11M59/BP5
St Mary's, Alverstoke and Holy Trinity, Gosport, baptismal registers