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British Industrial History

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James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 20

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Hammerfield, Penshurst

CHAPTER XX. RETIREMENT FROM BUSINESS.

I had been for some time contemplating the possibility of retiring altogether from business. I had got enough of the world's goods, and was willing to make way for younger men. But I found it difficult to break loose from old associations. Like the retired tallow-chandler, I might wish to go back "on melting days." I had some correspondence with my old friend David Roberts, Royal Academician, on the subject. He wrote to me on the 2d June 1853, and said:—

"I rejoice to learn, from the healthy tone that breathes throughout your epistle, that you are as happy as every one who knows you wishes you to be, and as prosperous as you deserve. Knowing, also, as I do, your feeling for art and all that tends to raise and dignify man, I most sincerely congratulate you on the prospect of your being able to retire, in the full vigour of manhood, to follow out that sublime pursuit, in comparison with which the painter's art is but a faint glimmering. 'The Landscape of other worlds' you alone have sketched for us, and enlightened us on that with which the ancient world but gazed upon and worshipped in the symbol of Astarte, Isis, and Diana. We are matter-of-fact now, and have outlived childhood. What say you of a photograph of those wonderful drawings? It may come to that." [1]

But I had something else yet to do in my special vocation. In 1854 I took out a patent for puddling iron by means of steam. Many of my readers may not know that cast iron is converted into malleable iron by the process called puddling. The iron, while in a molten state, is violently stirred and agitated by a stiff iron rod, having its end bent like a hoe or flattened hook, by which every portion of the molten metal is exposed to the oxygen of the air, and the supercharge of carbon which the cast iron contains is thus "burnt out." When this is effectually done the iron becomes malleable and weldable.

This state of the iron is indicated by a general loss of fluidity, accompanied by a tendency to gather together in globular masses. The puddler, by his dexterous use of the end of the rabbling bar, puts the masses together, and, in fact, welds the new-born particles of malleable iron into puddle balls of about three-quarters of a hundredweight each. These are successively removed from the pool of the puddling furnace, and subjected to the energetic blows of the steam hammer, which drives out all the scoriae lurking within the spongy puddle balls, and thus welds them into compact masses of malleable iron. When reheated to a welding heat, they are rolled out into flat bars or round rods, in a variety of sizes, so as to be suitable for the consumer.

The manual and physical labour of the puddler is tedious, fatiguing, and unhealthy. The process of puddling occupies about an hour's violent labour, and only robust young men can stand the fatigue and violent heat. I had frequent opportunities of observing the labour and unhealthiness of the process, as well as the great loss of time required to bring it to a conclusion. It occurred to me that much of this could be avoided by employing some other means for getting rid of the superfluous carbon, and bringing the molten cast iron into a malleable condition.

The method that occurred to me was the substitution of a small steam pipe in the place of the puddler's rabbling bar. By having the end of this steam pipe bent downwards, so as to reach the bottom of the pool, and then to discharge a current of steam beneath the surface of the molten cast iron, I thought that I should by this simple means supply a most effective carbon-oxidating agent, at the same time that I produced a powerful agitating action within the pool. Thus the steam would be decomposed and supply oxygen to the carbon of the cast iron, while the mechanical action of the rush of steam upwards would cause so violent a commotion throughout the pool of melted iron as to exceed the utmost efforts of the labour of the puddler. All the gases would pass up the chimney of the puddling furnace, and the puddler would not be subject to their influence. Such was the method specified in my patent of 1854. [2]

My friend, Thomas Lever Rushton, proprietor of the Bolton Ironworks, was so much impressed with the soundness of the principle, as well as with the great simplicity of carrying the invention into practical effect, that he urged me to secure the patent, and he soon after gave me the opportunity of trying the process at his works. The results were most encouraging. There was a great saving of labour and time compared with the old puddling process; and the malleable iron produced was found to be of the highest order as regarded strength, toughness, and purity. My process was soon after adopted by several iron manufacturers with equally favourable results. Such, however, was the energy of the steam, that unless the workmen were most careful to regulate its force and the duration of its action, the waste of iron by undue oxidation was such as in a great measure to neutralise its commercial gain as regarded the superior value of the malleable iron thus produced.

Before I had time or opportunity to remove this commercial difficulty, Mr. Bessemer had secured his patent of the 17th of October, 1855. By this patent he employed a blast of air to do the same work as I had proposed to accomplish by means of a blast of steam, forced up beneath the surface of the molten cast iron. He added some other improvements, with that happy fertility of invention which has always characterised him. The results were so magnificently successful as to totally eclipse my process, and to cast it comparatively into the shade. At the same time I may say that I was in a measure the pioneer of his invention, that I initiated a new system, and led up to one of the most important improvements in the manufacture of iron and steel that has ever been given to the world.

Mr. Bessemer brought the subject of his invention before the meeting of the British Association at Cheltenham in the autumn of 1856. There he read his paper "On the Manufacture of Iron into Steel without Fuel." I was present on the occasion, and listened to his statement with mingled feelings of regret and enthusiasm — of regret, because I had been so clearly superseded and excelled in my performances and of enthusiasm — because I could not but admire and honour the genius who had given so great an invention to the mechanical world. I immediately took the opportunity of giving my assent to the principles which he had propounded. My words were not reported at the time, nor was Mr. Bessemer's paper printed by the Association, perhaps because it was thought of so little importance. [3] But on applying to Mr., now Sir Henry Bessemer, he was so kind as to give me the following as his recollection of the words which I used on the occasion.

"I shall ever feel grateful," says Sir Henry, "for the noble way in which you spoke at the meeting at Cheltenham of my invention. If I remember rightly, you held up a piece of my malleable iron, saying words to this effect: 'Here is a true British nugget! Here is a new process that promises to put an end to all puddling and I may mention that at this moment there are puddling furnaces in successful operation where my patent hollow steam Rabbler is at work, producing iron of superior quality by the introduction of jets of steam in the puddling process. I do not, however, lay any claim to this invention of Mr. Bessemer; but I may fairly be entitled to say that I have advanced along the road on which he has travelled so many miles, and has effected such unexpected results that I do not hesitate to say that I may go home from this meeting and tear up my patent, for my process of puddling is assuredly superseded.'"

After giving an account of the true origin of his process, in which he met with failures as well as successes, and at last recognised the decarburation of pig iron by atmospheric air, Sir Henry proceeds to say:—

"I prepared to try another experiment, in a crucible having no hole in the bottom, but which was provided with an iron pipe put through a hole in the cover, and passing down nearly to the bottom of the crucible. The small lumps and grains of iron were packed around it, so as nearly to fill the crucible. A blast of air was to be forced down the pipe so as to rise up among the pieces of granular iron and partially decarburise them. The pipe could then be withdrawn, and the fire urged until the metal with its coat of oxyde was fused, and cast steel thereby produced.

"While the blowing apparatus for this experiment was being fitted up, I was taken with one of those short but painful illnesses to which I was subject at that time. I was confined to my bed, and it was then that my mind, dwelling for hours together on the experiment about to be made, suggested that instead of trying to decarburise the granulated metal by forcing the air down the vertical pipe among the pieces of iron, the air would act much more energetically and more rapidly if I first melted the iron in the crucible, and forced the air down the pipe below the surface of the fluid metal, and thus burn out the carbon and silicum which it contained.

"This appeared so feasible, and in every way so great an improvement, that the experiment on the granular pieces was at once abandoned, and, as soon as I was well enough, I proceeded to try the experiment of forcing the air under the fluid metal. The result was marvellous. Complete decarburation was effected in half an hour. The heat produced was immense, but, unfortunately more than half the metal was blown out of the pot. This led to the use of pots with large hollow perforated covers, which effectually prevented the loss of metal. These experiments continued from January to October 1855. I have by me on the mantelpiece at this moment, a small piece of rolled bar iron which was rolled at Woolwich arsenal, and exhibited a year later at Cheltenham.

"I then applied for a patent, but before preparing my provisional specification (dated October 17, 1855), I searched for other patents to ascertain whether anything of the sort had been done before. I then found your patent for puddling with the steam rabble, and also Martin's patent for the use of steam in gutters while molten iron was being conveyed from the blast furnace to a finery, there to be refined in the ordinary way prior to puddling.

"I then tried steam in my cast steel process, alone, and also mixed with air. I found that it cooled the metal very much, and of itself could not be used, as it always produced solidification. I was nevertheless advised to claim the use of steam as well as air in my particular process (lest it might be used against me), at the same time disclaiming its employment for any purpose except in the production of fluid malleable iron or steel. And I have no doubt it is to this fact that I referred when speaking to you on the occasion you mention. I have deemed it best that the exact truth — so far as a short history can give it — should be given at once to you, who are so true and candid. Had it not been for you and Martin, I should probably never have proposed the use of steam in my process, but the use of air came by degrees, jug in the way I have described."

It was thoroughly consistent with Mr. Bessemer's kindly feelings towards me, that, after our meeting at Cheltenham, he made me an offer of one-third share of the value of his patent. This would have been another fortune to me. But I had already made money enough. I was just then taking down my sign-board and leaving business. I did not need to plunge into any such tempting enterprise, and I therefore thankfully declined the offer.

Many long years of pleasant toil and exertion had done their work. A full momentum of prosperity had been given to my engineering business at Patricroft. My share in the financial results accumulated with accelerated rapidity, to all amount far beyond my most sanguine hopes. But finding, from long continued and incessant mental efforts, that my nervous system was beginning to become shaken, especially in regard to an affection of the eyes, which in some respects damaged my sight, I thought the time had arrived for me to retire from commercial life.

Some of my friends advised me to "slack off," and not to retire entirely from Bridgewater Foundry. But to do so was not in my nature. I could not be indifferent to any concern in which I was engaged. I must give my mind and heart to it as before. I could not give half to leisure, and half to business. I therefore concluded that a final decision was necessary. Fortunately I possessed an abundant and various stock of hobbies. I held all these in reserve to fall back upon. They would furnish me with an almost inexhaustible source of healthy employment. They might give me occupation for mind and body as long as I lived. I bethought me of the lines of Burns:

"Wi' steady aim some Fortune chase;
Keen hope does ev'ry t,inew brace;
Thro' fair, thro' foul, they urge the race,
And seize the prey:
Then cannie, in some cozie place,
They close the day." [4]

It was no doubt a great sorrow for me and my dear wife to leave the Home in which we had been so happy and prosperous for so many years. It was a cozy little cottage at Patricroft. We had named it "Fireside." It was small, but suitable for our requirements. We never needed to enlarge it, for we had no children to accommodate. It was within five minutes' walk of the Foundry, and I was scarcely ever out of reach of the Fireside, where we were both so happy. It had been sanctified by our united love for thirteen years. It was surrounded by a nice garden, planted with trees and shrubs. Though close to the Bridgewater Canal, and a busy manufacturing population was not far oft the cottage was perfectly quiet. It was in this garden, when I was arranging the telescope at night, that I had been detected by the passing boatman as "The Patricroft Ghost."

When we were about to leave Patricroft, the Countess of Ellesmere, who, as well as the Earl, had always been our attached friends, wrote to my wife as follows:—

"I can well understand Mr. Nasmyth's satisfaction at the emancipation he looks forward to in December next. But I hope you do not expect us to share it! for what is so much natural pleasure to you is a sad loss and privation to us. I really don't know how we shall get on at Worsley without you. You have nevertheless my most sincere and hearty good wishes that the change may be as grateful to you both as anything in this world can be."

Yet we had to tear ourselves away from this abode of peace and happiness. I had given notice to my partner [5] that it was my intention to retire from business at the end of 1856. The necessary arrangements were accordingly made for carrying on the business after my retirement. All was pleasantly and satisfactorily settled several months before I finally left; and the character and prosperity of the Bridgewater Foundry have been continued to the present day.

But where was I to turn to for a settled home? Many years before I had seen a charming picture by my brother Patrick of "A Cottage in Kent." It took such a hold of my memory and imagination that I never ceased to entertain the longing and ambition to possess such a cottage as a cozy place of refuge for the rest of my life. Accordingly, about six months before my final retirement, I accompanied my wife in a visit to the south. In the first place we made a careful selection from the advertisements in the Times of "desirable residences" in Kent. One in particular appeared very tempting. We set out to view it. It seemed to embody all the conditions that we had pictured in our imagination as necessary to fulfil the idea of our "Cottage in Kent." It had been the property of F. R. Lee, the Royal Academician. With a few alterations and additions it would entirely answer our purpose. So we bought the property.

I may mention that when I retired from business, and took out of it the fortune that I had accumulated during my twenty-two years of assiduous attention and labour, I invested the bulk of it in Three per cent Consols. The rate of interest was not high, but it was nevertheless secure. High interest, as every one knows, means riskful security. I desired to have no anxiety about the source of my income, such as might hinder my enjoying the rest of my days in the active leisure which I desired. I had for some time before my retirement been investing in consols, which my dear wife termed "the true antibilious stock," and I have ever since had good reason to be satisfied with that safe and tranquillising investment. All who value the health-conserving influence of the absence of financial worry will agree with me that this antibilious stock is about the best.

The "Cottage in Kent" was beautiful, especially in its rural surroundings. The view from it was charming, and embodied all the attractive elements of happy-looking English scenery. The noble old forest trees of Penshurst Park were close alongside, and the grand old historic mansion of Penshurst Place was within a quarter of a mile's distance from our house. There were many other beautiful parks and country residences in our neighbourhood; the railway station, which was within thirty-five minutes' pleasant walk, enabling us to be within reach of London, with its innumerable attractions, in little more than an hour and a quarter. Six acres of garden-ground at first surrounded our cottage, but these were afterwards expanded to sixteen and the whole was made beautiful by the planting of trees and shrubs over the grounds. In all this my wife and myself took the greatest delight.

From my hereditary regard for hammers — two broken hammer-shafts being the crest of our family for hundreds of years I named the place "Hammerfield" and so it remains to this day. The improvements and additions to the house and the grounds were considerable. A green-house was built, 120 feet long by 32 feet wide. Roomy apartments were added to the house. The trees and shrubs planted about the grounds were carefully selected. The conifera class were my special favourites. I arranged them so that their natural variety of tints should form the most pleasing contrasts. In this respect I introduced the beech-tree with the happiest effect. It is bright green in spring, and in the autumn it retains its beautiful ruddy- tinted leaves until the end of winter, when they are again replaced by the new growth.

The warm tint of the beech contrasts beautifully with the bright green of the conifera, especially of the Lawsoniania and the Douglassi - the latter being one of the finest accessions to our list of conifers. It is graceful in form, and perfectly hardy. I also interspersed with these several birch-trees, whose slender and graceful habit of growth forms so fine a contrast to the dense foliage of the conifers. To thus paint, as it were, with trees, is a high source of pleasure in gardening. Among my various enjoyments this has been about the greatest.

During the time that the alterations and enlargements were in progress we rented a house for six months at Sydenham, close to the beautiful grounds of the Crystal Palace. This was a most happy episode in our lives, for, besides the great attractions of the place, both inside and out, there were the admirable orchestral daily concerts, at which we were constant attendants. We had the pleasure of listening to the noble compositions of the great masters of music, the perfectly trained band being led by Herr Manns, who throws so much of his fine natural taste and enthusiastic spirit into the productions as to give them every possible charm.

From a very early period of my life I have derived the highest enjoyment from listening to music, especially to melody, which is to me the most pleasing form of composition. When I have the opportunity of listening to such kind of music, it yields me enjoyment that transcends all others. It suggests ideas, and brings vividly before the mind's eye scenes that move the imagination. This is, to me, the highest order of excellence in musical composition.

I used long ago, and still continue, to whistle a bit, especially when engaged in some pleasant occupation. I can draw from my mental repository a vast number of airs and certain bits of compositions that I had once heard. I possess that important qualification for a musician— "a good ear;" and I always worked most successfully at a mechanical drawing when I was engaged in whistling some favourite air. The dual occupation of the brain had always the best results in the quick development of the constructive faculty. And even in circumstances where whistling is not allowed I can think airs, and enjoy them almost as much as when they are distinctly audible. This power of the brain, I am fain to believe, indicates the natural existence of the true musical faculty. But I had been so busy during the course of my life that I had never any opportunity of learning the practical use of any musical instrument. And here I must leave this interesting subject.

So soon as I was in due possession of my house, I had speedily transported thither all my art treasures — my telescopes, my home stock of tools, the instruments of my own construction, made from the very beginning of my career as a mechanic, and associated with the most interesting and active parts of my life. I lovingly treasured them, and gave them an honoured place in the workshop which I added to my residence. There they are now, and I often spend a busy and delightful hour in handling my tools. It is curious how the mere sight of such objects brings back to the memory bygone incidents and recollections. Friends long dead seem to start up while looking at them. You almost feel as if you could converse with the departed. I do not know of anything so touchingly powerful in vividly bringing back the treasured incidents and memories of one's life as the sight of such humble objects. Every one has, no doubt, a treasured store of such material records of a well-remembered portion of his past life. These strike, as it were, the keynote to thoughts that bring back in vivid form the most cherished remembrances of our lives.

On many occasions I have seen at sale rooms long treasured hoards of such objects thrown together in a heap as mere rubbish. And yet these had been to some the sources of many pleasant thoughts and recollections. But the last final break-up has come, and the personal belongings of some departed kind heart are scattered far and wide. These touching relics of a long life, which had almost become part of himself, are "knocked down" to the highest bidder. It is indeed a sad sight to witness the uncared-for dispersion of such objects - objects that had been lovingly stored up as the most valued of personal treasures. I could have wished that, as was the practice in remote antiquity, such touching relics were buried with the dead, as their most fitting repository. Then they might have left some record, instead of being desecrated by the harpies who wait at sales for such "job lots."

Behold us, then, settled down at Hammerfield for life. We had plenty to do. My workshop was fully equipped. My hobbies were there, and I could work them to my heart's content. The walls of our various rooms were soon hung with pictures, and other works of art, suggestive of many pleasant associations of former days. Our library bookcase was crowded with old friends, in the shape of books that had been read and re-read many times, until they had almost become part of ourselves. Old Lancashire friends made their way to us when "up in town," and expressed themselves delighted with our pleasant house and its beautiful surroundings.

The continuous planting of the shrubs and trees gave us great pleasure. Those already planted had grown luxuriantly, fed by the fertile soil and the pure air. Indeed, in course of time they required the judicious use of the axe in order to allow the fittest to survive and grow at their own free will. Trees contrive to manage their own affairs without the necessity of much labour or interference. The "survival of the fittest" prevails here as elsewhere. It is always a pleasure to watch them. There are many ordinary old-fashioned roadside flowering plants which I esteem for their vigorous beauty, and I enjoy seeing them assume the careless grace of Nature.

The greenhouse is also a source of pleasure, especially to my dear wife. It is full of flowers of all kinds, of which she is devotedly fond. They supply her with subjects for her brush or her needle. She both paints them and works them by her needle in beautiful forms and groups. This is one of her many favourite hobbies. All this is suitable to our fireside employments, and makes the days and the evenings pass pleasantly away.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. It did indeed "come to that," for I shortly after learned the art of photography, chiefly for this special purpose.
  2. Specification of James Nasmyth — Employment of steam in the process of puddling iron. May 4, 1854; No. 1001.
  3. On the morning of the day on which the paper was to be read, Mr. Bessemer was sitting at breakfast at his hotel, when an ironmaster (to whom we was unknown) said, laughing, to a friend within his hearing, "Do you know that there is somebody come down from London to read us a paper on making steel from cast iron without fuel? Did you ever hear of such nonsense?" The title of the paper was perhaps a misnomer, but the correctness of the principles on which the pig iron was converted into malleable iron, as explained by the inventor, was generally recognised, and there seemed every reason to anticipate that the process would before long come into general use.
  4. "Letter to James Smith," 18th verse.
  5. The "Partner" here referred to, was my excellent friend Henry Garnett, Esq., of Wyre Side, near Lancaster. He had been my sleeping partner or "Co." for nearly twenty years, and the most perfect harmony always existed between us.