To celebrate the year of the bicentennial of the birth of Henry Bessemer the Herne Hill Society – the area of Southwark, London where Sir Henry lived when he moved to London – has reissued an updated version of a booklet by Patricia Jenkyns first published in 1984.
The 52 page A3 size publication, with additional illustrations, contains 46 photographs and drawings and paints a picture of Bessemer’s life and achievements starting with his early childhood with his parents in the village of Charlton, Hertfordshire, England where he spent time in his father’s foundry, entering the business at the age of 15. At 17, he moved with his parents to Clerkenwell in London where his father re-established his foundry business.
Henry’s first display of inventiveness was to make casts of natural objects such as flowers in white metal which he electroplated with copper. The book describes how at the age of 20 he invented an embossing process to prevent the fraudulent use of stamps on official documents, which was adopted by the government Stamp Office, who refused to pay for the invention which had not been patented. After that, Bessemer patented 117 inventions – with the exception of his greatest money spinner – the production of ‘gold’ paint from ground brass foil. Other inventions described are for the pressing of sugar cane, a process to cast sheet glass between rollers and the development of a more accurate projectile fired from cannon. It was this latter which led to his research into producing steel, more suitable for manufacturing cannon than the cast iron then used.
Of his 117 patents, 65 relate to iron and steel production.This is reflected in the fact that eight pages of the book are devoted to his development of pneumatic steelmaking and the problems associated with that.
Nine pages of the book are devoted to his estate in London, in Denmark Hill, where he moved to in 1863 from Baxter House – his previous London location and where he had his workshop. He eventually extended the Denmark Hill estate to 40 acres (16 hectares) and improved the existing house, renaming it ‘Bessemer House’, adding a pavilion and observatory, a model farm and landscaping the grounds. Sadly, none of these improvements survive, having been demolished in 1947 to make way for housing, the only evidence now remaining being a single oak tree in the grounds of Bessemer Grange Primary School.
The only criticism of the book is in the final paragraph which states that only one works in England was still operating a Bessemer converter in 1920, and that the process finished on the Continent in the 1950s. In fact, in England, the last Bessemer blow took place in July 1974 at Workington, Cumbria, and on the Continent, the basic (Thomas) Bessemer survived in west Germany until 1977 and to 1981 in East Germany as well as in South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and India.
‘The Story of Henry Bessemer’ by Patricia M Jenkyns 2nd Ed 2013 Published by The Herne Hill Society ISBN 978 1 873520 95 6
Price £5-00 plus post & packaging £1-50 (UK), £3-50 (Europe); £4-50 (RoW)