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Saturday 25 February 2012


I wrote recently about the character-forming influence over my 3x great uncle Thomas Richard Guppy, a civil engineer, by his mother the inventor Sarah Beach Guppy. I was being a little disingenuous in not giving Thomas’s father some credit too.

Samuel Guppy married Sarah in the port of Bristol in 1795, and Thomas was born there two years later. Sarah’s first patent, for a better system for building the pilings for suspension bridges, was granted in 1811 – the same year this penny token was issued by the Patent Sheathing Nail Manufactory of Bristol.

Penny token of the Patent Sheathing Nail Manufactory, Bristol

The manufactory was owned by Samuel Guppy. In 1796 Samuel invented and patented a labour-saving machine for “cutting, heading and finishing nails” to which he added several patented improvements in 1804. His great innovation was the invention of a barbed copper nail for fixing copper sheathing to the wooden hulls of ships. Although a mere nail may not seem much of a contribution to marine engineering now, it was at the time such an important development that the British Government bought the patent for it from Guppy for the vast sum of £40,000 – about £3,000,000 at 2012 prices.

Wooden ships suffered greatly from wear and tear. The hulls were vulnerable to shipworm and seaweed infestations which affected both the structure and the handling of the vessels. Traditionally hulls were coated with oil, brimstone or tar to resist these perils. Early attempts at sheathing the hulls with lead or replaceable wooden skins met with partial success. From the mid-18th century the Royal Navy began experimenting with sheets of copper.

Halfpenny token of the Patent Sheathing Nail Manufactory, Bristol

Copper was effective, and the corrosive electrolytic reaction of the copper bolts used to attach it with the iron bolts of the hull’s internal construction was addressed by using alloys. By 1780 Britain was at war with America, France, Spain and Holland; the supremacy of the nation’s navy was essential, and the order was given to sheath the entire fleet. By the end of the war in 1783 the hulls of 393 vessels had been clad. Over the following three years, as problems with corrosion recurred, the decision was taken to re-bolt every single hull with copper bolts. The cost of all this was high – copper sheathing was up to six times more expensive than wood. But with the nation’s fleet and supremacy at sea at stake, it becomes obvious that the government thought the price of Mr Guppy’s patent pure copper sheathing nails a price worth paying.

Merchant ship owners began to adopt the practice, although it was generally an expensive option applied only to the best ships by owners wealthy and farsighted enough to maintain their fleets. Copper-sheathed vessels attracted lower insurance premiums from Lloyds and a new expression entered the language for an investment with a safe, dependable return – such ventures were described as copper-bottomed.

Farthing token of the Patent Sheathing Nail Manufactory, Bristol

Samuel’s company traded at 34 Queen Square Bristol, Grove Avenue Bristol, and 22 Dowgate Hill London, both addresses where the farthing, halfpenny and penny tokens he issued could be redeemed for coin of the realm. I’m not sure why Samuel needed to mint them. The rapid expansion of the economy caused by the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century caused a severe currency shortage, which some industrialists overcame by paying their employees in their own currency tokens; but the building of a new Royal Mint in London was complete by 1809, two years before the issue of these coins.

After Samuel’s death, his wife Sarah’s last patent, in 1841, continued the family’s contribution to the science of wooden ship-building, with a device for the better caulking of wooden hulls. But by then, events in Bristol had already been set in motion which would render the wooden ship obsolete. In 1837 a family friend, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, launched his wooden-hulled SS Great Western, built at Bristol with financial and engineering backing from Samuel and Sarah’s eldest son Thomas. The success of that ship led directly to the construction of the iron-hulled SS Great Eastern in 1858, at that time far and away the largest vessel ever built. In their own ways, Samuel, Sarah and Thomas Guppy could all take some credit!

Since posting this, I've been told by a friend that when George Keats, the brother of the poet, emigrated to America in 1818, the ship he sailed on was advertised as being "copper bottom'd and copper-fasten'd." That's Guppy's doing!

Saturday 18 February 2012


I recently co-wrote a history of inventions (Everything You Need To Know About Inventions, out in April 2012!) and I can say with some authority that female inventors are few and far between. Step forward, Sarah Guppy.

Sarah Guppy (1770-1852)

Sarah Guppy, nee Beach, was the mother of my 3x great uncle Thomas Richard Guppy. He turned out pretty well, an extremely successful civil engineer and entrepreneur; and when you read about Sarah you can see where he got it from. 

Sarah was married to Bristol merchant Samuel Guppy. She lodged her first patent in 1811 at the age of 41 and her last, when she was 74 years old, in 1844.

The first patent was an astonishing debut for a female inventor. Sarah was effectively an 18th century woman, presumably raised amidst the prevailing attitudes towards gender of her day. Yet her first invention was not some aid to sewing or housework but a new approach to the construction of pilings for the safer erection of suspension bridges.

Thomas Telford (1757-1834)
suspension bridge builder

No less a giant of civil engineering than her contemporary Thomas Telford got wind of her innovation. He wrote asking her if he might use her ideas, and she agreed, waiving any licensing fees. Eight years later Telford began work on the Conwy and Menai suspension bridges. The latter was at the time the longest such bridge in the world; its span of 580 feet was only made possible by Telford’s genius and Guppy’s piling.

In 1864 the Menai bridge lost its crown to the Clifton suspension bridge which spanned 700 feet of the River Avon at Bristol. It was designed by a friend of Sarah’s son Thomas – none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, with whom she also discussed her ideas.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859)
suspension bridge builder

Her last patent was for a device to improve the process of caulking ships. In between she came up with a system for taking exercise while still in bed; a design for a candleholder which burned the candles more efficiently and therefore longer; and, my favourite, a sort of multi-tasking breakfast machine. This was a tea urn which cooked eggs in the steam it produced, and contained a steam-heated plate on which to keep your toast warm.

Unlike many male inventors, Sarah Guppy didn’t seek widespread public recognition; it was, she felt, “unpleasant to speak of oneself – it may seem boastful, particularly in a woman.” But she was a central figure in Bristol society, a successful and well-rewarded businesswoman.

In 1837, aged 67 and by then a rich widow, she raised a few eyebrows by marrying 39-year old Richard Eyre-Coote. Richard, it has to be said, was not a good husband to her; he not only neglected her but gambled her fortune away on horse-racing. When he collapsed and died in the street in 1853, only a year after Sarah’s death, there was only £200 left.

Sarah Guppy remained largely unknown by the wider public for over 150 years. But in 2006 a blue plaque was erected outside 7 Richmond Hill, her former home in Bristol. Sarah had purchased the land opposite for the benefit of local residents, and it remains a green space in Clifton to this day.

Kim Hicks as Sarah Guppy in the Show Of Strength production
An Audience with Sarah Guppy, 2006, showing off her caulking
(photograph by Kevin Clifford)

The same year, as part of the celebrations marking the bicentenary of Brunel’s birth, the Bristol theatre company Show of Strength staged a one-woman play, An Audience With Sarah Guppy (written by Sheila Hannon), which marked her important contribution to the success of that man and reminded us of her own brilliant engineering mind. Sarah Guppy is a rare and welcome female star in the inventors’ firmament.

Saturday 11 February 2012


I was set off this week on a piece of detective work by the successive hand-written notes on the back of a framed drawing of an unidentified house. Various mysteries arose from my complete ignorance of my great great grandmother Caroline Collins Jennings’ family, but what became clear was that I am in some way related to Thomas Collins, whose house the building turned out to have been.

The house, now Woodhouse College in Finchley, is described online as the former home of “the well-known plasterer Thomas Collins,” so I’ve been digging to discover just how well-known he was. Quite well known, as it turns out. He wasn’t just some popular local tradesman who had a way with lath and lime; Thomas Collins was ornamental plasterer of choice for the great 18th century Scottish architect Sir William Chambers.

The Pagoda at Kew and The Pineapple at Dunmore, both 1761

Chambers built houses, mansions and follies for the highest in the land, and very often Collins decorated them. He spent some time in China, the inspiration for several fanciful buildings in London’s Kew Gardens. Kew may have inspired John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, to commission Chambers to design the eccentric Dunmore Pineapple near Falkirk in Scotland (now a Landmark Trust property which you can rent for holidays – I’ve slept there!).

Relatively nearby, and now engulfed by Edinburgh, stands Duddingston House, built in the 1760s for James Hamilton, 8th Earl of Abercorn and a surviving example of Chambers’ work with Collins. The building’s great glory is its central hall, whose Collins ceiling plasterwork has recently been restored by the owners.

Duddingston House –
hall ceiling by Thomas Collins

But most of Chambers’ work, and most of Collins’ too, was executed in London. In the 1760s Chambers undertook a massive extension of Buckingham Palace, adding two wings, three libraries and a riding house. I don’t know if he used Collins or not at the Royal residence, and none of his work there survives now. Many other buildings do survive, including his masterpiece – and fellow genealogists will understand the pleasure it gives me to be connected to this one – Somerset House.

Somerset House was home for many years to the Registrar General, on whom we researchers of ancestry rely so heavily. It has housed many great departments of state since construction of William Chambers’ design began in 1776, including the Admiralty and the one we all love to hate, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – the taxman.

The Strand Vestibule, Somerset House
by Sir William Chambers and Thomas Collins

Of the many parts of this sprawling building (which Chambers’ did not live to see completed), the Strand Block contained the entrance vestibule described by Chambers as “a general passage to every part of the whole design,” and rooms for various Learned Societies, intended for “the reception of useful learning and polite arts.” These were the parts of his design where he considered “specimens of elegance should at least be attempted;” and they are the parts where he employed Thomas Collins’ craftsmanship to its fullest extent.

A room in the Strand Block of Somerset House –
plasterwork by Thomas Collins, ceiling paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Collins also worked on his own behalf, sometimes in partnership with John White, another associate of Chambers. A number of houses in London’s prestigious Harley Street are their work. Collins was a skilled man, and his success allowed him (I think) to undertake the conversion of a row of three houses in Finchley into one dwelling, Woodhouse – the building of which I have inherited the faded pencil drawing which set me off on this trail of architectural investigation. I'm so proud of where it has led me.

Saturday 4 February 2012


My father-in-law talks about leaving things on the Too Difficult pile, and goodness knows that’s often a very tall pile when it comes to family tree puzzles. One of the items in my Too Difficult pending tray has been for a long time this faint pencil drawing of (presumably) a former family home. It came to me amongst the many family papers which I inherited from my uncle John, and although there are some hand-written notes on the back, they refer to people I had never come across. So they only deepen the conundrum.

Woodhouse, Finchley
(computer-enhanced from a faded pencil sketch)

There’s no indication of the artist. On the back is written the name of the place – Woodhouse, Finchley – and the note “owned 1st by Uncle Thomas Collins & left by him to Aunt Lambert” and, I think in a second hand, “my Castle grandmother’s sister.” Then a third faint hand, probably of my Aunt Pamela, John’s wife, has written on a sticker, “EMS grandmother was Caroline Jennings who m. William Henry Castle, their son was EMS father William Henry.” At the bottom on the back, someone – probably John – has added, “1965. Removed from frame to be photographed for Col Busby.”

The rear view of Woodhouse, Finchley

I have another picture with multiple notes on the back, the identity of whose hands I do know. (I wrote apiece about that picture here a couple of years ago.) On that picture, one writer adds a footnote to a description, “This was written out for me by my mother” and signed “May Salter.” Sure enough, May’s writing of the word “mother” and the hand that wrote “my Castle grandmother” on the Woodhouse sketch are identical.

So Aunt Lambert is sister to Caroline Castle nee Jennings, grandmother of Eleanor May Salter nee Castle (who is MY grandmother!). Aunt Lambert is a 3x great aunt I never knew I had. Was Lambert her married surname, or her Christian name? And who was Thomas Collins to her? May’s grandmother’s full name was Caroline Collins Jennings (1816-1876), so perhaps her mother was a Collins.

Woodhouse College in 2011
with the remodeled façade of 1888

The Wikipedia entry for the Woodhouse area of Finchley describes its origins with three houses called the Woodhouses sometime before 1655. In the mid 18th century there was a single house of this name and it was home, says Wiki, to the well-known plastererThomas Collins! It was reconstructed in 1888 (when the bay window just discernable in my pencil drawing was replaced with a grand classic façade with a pillar'd entrance). In 1925 it became Woodhouse Grammar School, now Woodhouse College. In 2012 it is hosting tennis camps for the young in the run-up to the London Olympics.

Well-known 18th century plasterer Thomas Collins was the subject of a biography published in 1965 by John Henry Busby, “Thomas Collins of Woodhouse, Finchley and Berners Street, St. Marylebone.” That solves the mystery of the 1965 footnote, and there’s further confirmation in the existence of the Thomas Collins Papers, an archive of correspondence at the Centre for South Asian Studies donated by Col TH Busby, my uncle John and my aunt his cousin Deborah Scott nee Castle!

Thomas Collins’ blue plaque
outside the Woodhouse College office

Collins (1735-1830) was barely contemporary with 19th century Caroline Jennings (1816-1876). I can find no trace of her sister Aunt Lambert, or any of Caroline’s family except her father William Jennings. When Thomas died at the grand age of 95, Caroline was only 14 and presumably Lambert was of a similar age; why leave her the big house at Finchley? As always, there are as many questions as answers in the Too Difficult pile; but at least, by figuring things out this far, I have replaced some of the questions with others!

STOP PRESS! Thanks to the generous intervention of the Birmingham & Midlands Society for Genealogy and Heraldry (via Twitter) I now know who Aunt Lambert was - Caroline's sister Martgaret Collins Jennings (1802-1877) married William Lambert. He must have made an impression. Caroline and Margaret's oldest sister Susannah Rees nee Jennings had a son she called Lambert Rees.
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