Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,704 pages of information and 235,205 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 11

From Graces Guide
Bridgewater foundry. by Alexander Nasmyth.
Old foundry ladle.
Safety foundry ladle.


My business went on prosperously. I had plenty of orders, and did my best to execute them satisfactorily. Shortly after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway there was a largely increased demand for machine-making tools. The success of that line led to the construction of other lines, concentrating in Manchester; and every branch of manufacture shared in the prosperity of the time.

There was a great demand for skilled, and even for unskilled labour. The demand was greater than the supply. Employers were subjected to exorbitant demands for increased rates of wages. The workmen struck, and their wages were raised. But the results were not always satisfactory. Except in the cases of the old skilled hands, the work was executed more carelessly than before. The workmen attended less regularly and sometimes, when they ought to have been at work on Monday mornings, they did not appear until Wednesday. Their higher wages had been of no use to them, but the reverse. Their time had been spent for the most part in two days' extra drinking.

The irregularity and carelessness of the workmen naturally proved very annoying to the employers. But it gave an increased stimulus to the demand for self-acting machine tools, by which the untrustworthy efforts of hand labour might be avoided. The machines never got drunk; their hands never shook from excess; they were never absent from work they did not strike for wages; they were unfailing in their accuracy and regularity, while producing the most delicate or ponderous portions of mechanical structures. It so happened that the demand for machine tools, consequent upon the increasing difficulties with the workmen, took place at the time that I began business in Manchester, and I had my fair share of the increased demand. Most of my own machine tools were self-acting - planing machines, slide lathes, drilling, boring, slotting machines, and so on. When set up in my workshop they distinguished themselves by their respective merits and efficiency. They were, in fact, their own best advertisements. The consequence was that orders for similar machines poured in upon me, and the floor of my flat became completely loaded with the work in hand. The tenant below me, it will be remembered, was a glass-cutter. He observed, with alarm, the bits of plaster from the roof coming down among his cut glasses and decanters. He thought that the rafters overhead were giving way, and that the whole of my machinery and engines would come tumbling down upon him some day and involve him in ruin. He probably exaggerated the danger; still there was some cause for fear.

The massive castings on my floor were moved about from one part to another, when the floor quivered and trembled under the pressure. The glass-cutter complained to the landlord and the landlord expostulated with me. I did all that I could to equalise the pressure, and prevent vibration as much as possible. But at length, in spite of all my care, an accident occurred which compelled me to take measures to remove my machinery to other premises. As this removal was followed by consequences of much importance to myself, I must endeavour to state the circumstances under which it occurred.

My kind friend, John Kennedy, continued to take the greatest interest in my welfare. He called in upon me occasionally; he admired the quality of my work, and the beauty of my self-acting machinery. More than that, he recommended me to his friends. It was through his influence that I obtained an order for a high-pressure steam-engine of twenty horse-power to drive the machinery connected with a distillery at Londonderry, in Ireland. I was afraid at first that I could not undertake the job. The size of the engine was somewhat above the height of my flat, and it would probably occupy too much space in my already overcrowded workshop. At the same time I was most anxious not to let such an order pass me. I wished to please my friend Mr. Kennedy and besides, the execution of the engine might lead to further business.

At length, after consideration, I undertook to execute the order. Instead of constructing the engine perpendicularly, I constructed it lying upon its side. There was a little extra difficulty, but I managed to complete it in the best style. It had next to be taken to pieces for the purpose of being conveyed to Londonderry. It was then that the accident happened. My men had the misfortune to allow the end of the engine beam to crash through the floor! There was a terrible scattering of lath and plaster and dust. The glass-cutter was in a dreadful state. He rushed forthwith to the landlord, and called upon him to come at once and judge for himself!

Mr. Wren did come, and did judge for himself. He looked in at the glass shop, and saw the damage that had been done amongst the tumblers and decanters. There was the hole in the roof, through which the end of the engine beam had come and scattered the lath and plaster. The landlord then came to me. The whole flat was filled with machinery, including the steam-engine on its side, now being taken to pieces for the purpose of shipment to Ireland. Mr. Wren, in the kindest manner, begged me to remove from the premises as soon as I could, otherwise the whole building might be brought to the ground with the weight of my machinery. "Besides," he argued, "you must have more convenient premises for your rapidly extending business." It was quite true. I must leave the place and establish myself elsewhere.

The reader may remember that while on my journey on foot from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830, I had rested myself for a little on the parapet of the bridge overlooking the canal near Patricroft, and gazed longingly upon a plot of land situated along the canal side. On the afternoon of the day on which the engine beam crashed through the glass-cutter's roof, I went out again to look at that favourite piece of land. There it was, unoccupied, just as I had seen it some years before. I went to it and took note of its dimensions. It consisted of about six acres. It was covered with turf, and as flat and neat as a bowling-green. It was bounded on one side by the Bridgewater Canal, edged by a neat stone margin 1,050 feet long, on another side by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, while on a third side it was bounded by a good road, accessible from all sides. The plot was splendidly situated. I wondered that it had not been secured before. It was evidently waiting for me!

I did not allow the grass to grow beneath my feet. That very night I ascertained that the proprietor of this most beautiful plot was Squire Trafford, one of the largest landed proprietors in the district. Next morning I proceeded to Trafford Hall for the purpose of interviewing the Squire. He received me most cordially. After I had stated my object in calling upon him, he said he would be exceedingly pleased to have me as one of his tenants. He gave me a letter of introduction to his agent, Mr. Thomas Lee, of Princes Street, Manchester, with whom I was to arrange as to the terms. I was offered a lease of the six-acre plot for 999 years, at an annual rental of 1.75d. per square yard.

This proposal was most favourable, as I obtained the advantage of a fee-simple purchase without having to sink capital in the land. All that I had to provide for was the annual rent. My next step in this important affair was to submit the proposal to the judgment of my excellent friend Edward Lloyd, the banker. He advised me to close the matter as soon as possible, for he considered the terms most favourable. He personally took me to his solicitors, Dennison, Humphreys, and Cunliffe, and introduced me to them. Mr. Humphreys took the matter in hand. We went together to Mr. Lee, and within a few days the lease was signed, and I was put into possession of the land upon which the Bridgewater Foundry was afterwards erected. [1] I may mention briefly the advantages of the site. The Bridgewater Canal, which lay along one side of the foundry, communicated with every water-way and port in England, whilst the railway alongside enabled a communication to be kept up by rail with every part of the country. The Worsley coal-boats came alongside the wharf, and a cheap and abundant supply of fuel was thus insured. The rail-way station was near at hand, and afforded every opportunity for travelling to and from the works, while I was at the same time placed within twenty minutes of Manchester.

Another important point has to be mentioned. A fine bed of brick-clay lay below the surface of the ground, which supplied the material for bricks. Thus the entire works may be truly said to have "risen out of the ground;" for the whole of the buildings rested upon the land from which the clay below was dug and burned into bricks. Then, below the clay lay a bed of New Red Sandstone rock, which yielded a solid foundation for any superstructure, however lofty or ponderous.

As soon as the preliminary arrangements for the lease of the six-acre plot had been made, I proceeded to make working drawings of a temporary timber workshop; as I was anxious to unload the floor of my flat in Dale Street, and to get as much of my machinery as possible speedily removed to Patricroft. For the purpose of providing the temporary accommodation, I went to Liverpool and purchased a number of logs of New Brunswick pine. The logs were cut up into planks, battens, and roof-timbers, and were delivered in a few days at the canal wharf in front of my plot. The building of the workshops rapidly proceeded. By the aid of some handy active carpenters, superintended by my energetic foreman, Archy Torry, several convenient well-lighted workshops were soon ready for the reception of my machinery. I had a four horse-power engine, which I had made at Edinburgh, ready to be placed in position, together with the boiler. This was the first power I employed in starting my new works.

I must return for a moment to the twenty horse-power engine, which had been the proximate cause of my removal from Dale Street. It was taken to pieces, packed, and sent of to Londonderry. When I was informed that it was erected and ready for work I proceeded to Ireland to see it begin its operations.

I may briefly say that the engine gave every satisfaction, and I believe that it continues working to this day. I had the pleasure of bringing back with me an order for a condensing engine of forty horse-power, required by Mr. John Munn for giving motion to his new flax mill, then under construction. I mention this order because the engine was the first important piece of work executed at the Bridgewater Foundry.

This was my first visit to Ireland. Being so near the Giant's Causeway, I took the opportunity, on my way homewards, of visiting that object of high geologic interest, together with the magnificent basaltic promontory of Fairhead. I spent a day in clambering up the terrible-looking crags. In a stratum of red hematite clay, underneath a solid basaltic crag of some sixty feet or more in thickness, I found the charred branches of trees — the remains of some forest that had, at some inconceivably remote period, been destroyed by a vast out-belching flow of molten lava from a deep-seated volcanic store underneath.

I returned to Patricroft, and found the wooden workshops nearly finished. The machine tools were, for the most part, fixed and ready for use. In August 1836 the Bridgewater Foundry was in complete and efficient action. The engine ordered at Londonderry was at once put in hand, and the concern was fairly started in its long career of prosperity. The wooden workshops had been erected upon the grass. But the sward soon disappeared. The hum of the driving belts, the whirl of the machinery, the sound of the hammer upon the anvil, gave the place an air of busy activity. As work increased, workmen increased. The workshops were enlarged. Wood gave place to brick. Cottages for the accommodation of the work-people sprang up in the neighbourhood and what had once been a quiet grassy field became the centre of a busy population.

It was a source of vast enjoyment to me, while engaged in the anxious business connected with the establishment of the foundry, to be surrounded with so many objects of rural beauty. The site of the works being on the west side of Manchester, we had the benefit of breathing pure air during the greater part of the year. The scenery round about was very attractive. Exercise was a source of health to the mind as well as the body. As it was necessary that I should reside as near as possible to the works, I had plenty of opportunities for enjoying the rural scenery of the neighbourhood. I had the good fortune to become the tenant of a small cottage in the ancient village of Barton, in Cheshire, at the very moderate rental of £15 a year. The cottage was situated on the banks of the river Irwell, and was only about six minutes' walk from the works at Patricroft. It suited my moderate domestic arrangements admirably.

The village was surrounded by apple orchards and gardens, and situated in the midst of tranquil rural scenery. It was a great treat to me, after a long and busy day at the foundry, especially in summer time, to take my leisure walks through the green lanes, and past the many picturesque old farmhouses and cottages which at that time presented subjects of the most tempting kind for the pencil. Such quiet summer evening strolls afforded me the opportunity for tranquil thought. Each day's transactions furnished abundant subjects for consideration. It was a happy period in my life. I was hopeful for the future, and everything had so far prospered with me.

When I had got comfortably settled in my cozy little cottage, my dear sister Margaret came from Edinburgh to take charge of my domestic arrangements. By her bright and cheerful disposition she made the cottage a very happy home. Although I had neither the means nor the disposition to see much company, I frequently had visits from some of my kind friends in Manchester. I valued them all the more for my sister's sake, inasmuch as she had come from a bright household in Edinburgh, full of cheerfulness, part of which she transferred to my cottage.

At the same time, it becomes me to say a word or two about the great kindness which I received from my friends and well-wishers at Manchester and the neighbourhood. Amongst these were the three brothers Grant, Benjamin Hick of Bolton, Edward Lloyd the banker, John Kennedy, and William Fairbairn. I had not much leisure during the week days, but occasionally on Sunday afternoons my sister and myself enjoyed their cordial hospitality. In this way I was brought into friendly intercourse with the most intelligent and cultivated persons in Lancashire. The remembrance of the delightful evenings I spent in their society will ever continue one of the cherished recollections of my early days in Manchester.

I may mention that one of the principal advantages of the site of my works was its connection with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, as well as with the Bridgewater Canal. There was a stone-edged roadway along the latter, where the canal barges might receive and deliver traffic in the most convenient manner. As the wharfage boundary was the property of the trustees of the Bridgewater Canal, it was necessary to agree with them as to the rates to be charged for the requisite accommodation. Their agent deferred naming the rent until I had finally settled with Squire Trafford as to the lease of his land, and then, after he supposed he had got us into a cleft stick, he proposed so extravagant a rate, that we refused to use the wharf upon his terms.

It happened, fortunately for us, that this agent had involved himself in a Chancery suit with the trustees, which eventually led to his retirement. The property then merged into the hands of Lord Francis Egerton, heir to the Bridgewater Estates. The canal was placed under the management of that excellent gentleman, James Loch, M.P. Lord Francis Egerton, on his next visit to Worsley Hall, called upon me at the foundry. He expressed his great pleasure at having us as his near neighbours, and as likely to prove such excellent customers of the canal trustees. Because of this latter circumstance, he offered us the use of the wharf free of rent. This was quite in accordance with his generous disposition in all matters. But as we desired the agreement to be put in a regular business-like form, we arranged with Mr. Loch to pay 5s. per annum as a formal acknowledgment, and an agreement to this effect was accordingly drawn up and signed by both parties.

Lord Francis Egerton was soon after created Earl of Ellesmere. He became one of the most constant visitors at the foundry, in which he always took a lively interest. He delighted to go through the workshops, and enjoy the sight of the active machinery and the work in progress. When he had any specially intelligent visitors at Worsley Hall, which was frequently the case, he was sure to bring them down to the foundry in his beautiful private barge, and lead them through the various departments of the establishment. One of his favourite sights was the pouring out of the molten iron into the moulds for the larger class of castings; when some twelve or sixteen tons, by the aid of my screw safety ladle, were decanted with as much neatness and exactness as the pouring out of a glass of wine from a decanter. When this work was performed towards dark, Lord Ellesmere's poetic fancy and artistic eye enabled him to enjoy the sight exceedingly. [2]

I must here say a few words as to my Screw Safety Ladle. I had observed the great danger occasioned to workmen by the method of emptying the molten iron into the casting moulds. The white-hot fluid was run from the melting furnace into a large ladle with one or two cross handles and levers, worked by a dozen or fifteen men. The ladle contained many tons of molten iron, and was transferred by a crane to the moulds. To do this required the greatest caution and steadiness. If a stumble took place, and the ladle was in the slightest degree upset, there was a splash of hot metal on the floor, which, in the recoil, flew against the men's clothes, set them on fire, or occasioned frightful scalds and burns.

To prevent these accidents I invented my Safety Foundry Ladle. I applied a screw wheel, keyed to the trunnion of the ladle, which was acted on by an endless screw attached to the sling of the ladle; and by this means one man could move the largest ladle on its axis, and pour out its molten contents with the most perfect ease and safety. Not only was all risk of accident thus removed, but the perfection of the casting was secured by the steady continuous flow of the white-hot metal into the mould. The nervous anxiety and confusion that usually attended the pouring of the metal required for the larger class of castings was thus entirely obviated.

At the same time I introduced another improvement in connection with these foundry ladles which, although of minor importance, has in no small degree contributed to the perfection of large castings. This consisted in hanging "the skimmer" to the edge of the ladle, so as to keep back the scoria that invariably floats on the surface of the melted metal. This was formerly done by hand, and many accidents were the consequence. But now the clear flow of pure metal into the moulds was secured, while the scoria was mechanically held back. All that the attendant has to do is to regulate the inclination of the Skimmer so as to keep its lower edge sufficiently under the surface of the outflowing metal. The preceding illustrations will enable the reader to understand these simple but important technical improvements.

These inventions were made in 1838. I might have patented them, but preferred to make them over to the public. I sent drawings and descriptions of the Safety Foundry Ladle to all the principal founders both at home and abroad and I was soon after much gratified by their cordial expression of its practical value. The ladle is now universally adopted. The Society of Arts of Scotland, to whom I sent drawings and descriptions, did me the honour to present me with their large silver medal in acknowledgment of the invention.

In order to carry on my business with effectiveness it was necessary that I should have some special personal assistance. I could carry on the whole "mechanical" department as regards organisation, designing, and construction but there was the "financial" business to be attended to, — the counting-house, the correspondence, and the arrangement of money affairs. I wanted some help with respect to these outer matters.

When I proceeded to take my plot of land at Patricroft some of my friends thought it a very bold stroke, especially for a young man who had been only about three years in business. Nevertheless, there were others who watched my progress with special interest, and were willing to join in my adventure — though adventure it was not. They were ready to take a financial interest in my affairs. They did me the compliment of thinking me a good investment, by offering to place their capital in my concern as sleeping partners.

But I was already beyond the "sleeping partner" state of affairs. Whoever joined me must work as energetically as I did, and must give the faculties of his mind to the prosperity of the concern. I communicated the offers I had received to my highly judicious friend Edward Lloyd. He was always willing to advise me, though I took care never to encroach upon his kindness. He concurred with my views, and advised me to fight shy of sleeping partners. I therefore continued to look out for a working partner. In the end I was fortunate. My friend, Mr. Thomas Jeavons, of Liverpool, having been informed of my desire, made inquiries, and found the man likely to suit me. He furnished him with a letter of introduction to me, which he presented one day at the works.

The young man became my worthy partner, Holbrook Gaskell. He had served his time with Yates and Cox, iron merchants, of Liverpool. Having obtained considerable experience in the commercial details of that business, and being possessed of a moderate amount of capital, he was desirous of joining me, and embarking his fortune with mine. He was to take charge of the counting-house department, and conduct such portion of the correspondence as did not require any special technical knowledge of mechanical engineering. The latter must necessarily remain in my hands, because I found that the "off-hand" sketches which I introduced in my letters as explanatory of mechanical designs and suggestions were much more intelligible than any amount of written words.

I was much pleased with the frank and friendly manner of Mr. Gaskell, and I believe that the feeling between us was mutual. With the usual straightforwardness that prevails in Lancashire, the articles of partnership were at once drawn up and signed, and the firm of Nasmyth and Gaskell began. We continued working together with hearty zeal for a period of sixteen successive years; and I believe Mr. Gaskell had no reason to regret his connection with the Bridgewater Foundry.

The reason of Mr. Gaskell leaving the concern was the state of his health. After his long partnership with me, he was attacked by a serious illness, when his medical adviser earnestly recommended him to retire from all business affairs. This was the cause of his reluctant retirement. In course of time the alarming symptoms departed, and he recovered his former health. He then embarked in an extensive soda manufactory, in conjunction with one of our pupils, whose taste for chemistry was more attractive to him than engine making. A prosperous business was established, and at the time I write these lines Mr. Gaskell continues a hale and healthy man, the possessor of a large fortune, accumulated by the skilful manner in which he has conducted his extensive affairs.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. I called the place the Bridgewater Foundry as an appropriate and humble tribute to the memory of the first great canal maker in Britain — the noble Duke of Bridgewater.
  2. I had the happiness to receive the kindest and most hospitable attention from Lord Ellesmere and his family. His death, which occurred in 1857; at the early age of fifty-seven, deprived me of one of my warmest friends. The Countess of Ellesmere continued the friendship until her death, which occurred several years later. The same kindly feelings still exist in the children of the lamented pair, all of whom evince the admirable qualities which so peculiarly distinguished their parents, and made them universally beloved by all classes, rich and poor.