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A Brief History of Blackstone & Co. Ltd. - Part One.


Henry Smith On the twenty-first of June 1837, Victoria, the eighteen years old daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent was proclaimed Queen. The same year a machinist not much older than the new Queen opened his workshop for the first time. With little ceremony, although there was doubtless a glass or two raised in the nearby Golden Fleece, Henry Smith [picture, left] laid the foundations for what was to become an internationally respected engineering works and Stamford’s largest employer; Blackstone and Co. Ltd.

It is generally accepted that Henry Smith (1815-1859), a young machinist from Kettering came to Stamford in 1837 and set up in his own account in the Sheepmarket. Henry was one of three, possibly four brothers: Nathaniel (1814-1897), William (1819-1895), Robert (1821-?) and perhaps Charles (1822-?). They were sons of a William Smith who was born in Kettering, Northamptonshire, in about 1781.

Both William jnr. and Robert married Stamford girls; in Stamford. William jnr. was apprenticed in Stamford. At the age of twenty-one, having just completed his apprenticeship to a whitesmith, he married Mary Ann Keystone. At twenty-two Robert married Catherine Gregory, probably just after the end of his apprenticeship. Henry would also have completed an apprenticeship at twenty-one or twenty-two and be able to set up on his own in 1837.

The Smith family, as befits their name, were all connected with engineering. Nathaniel and Robert joined Henry in the Sheepmarket works. The full extent of their involvement is not fully clear. Robert is notable for founding the works band, of which more later. Nathaniel, like other family members, was very active in the temperance movement. He later, as we will see, took over an iron foundry at Thrapston in Northamptonshire and founded his own engineering dynasty. Almost nothing is known about the fourth brother, Charles, (if indeed, he was related) only that he was described in the 1851 Census as a machine maker.

Whether William had any connection with the Stamford business is unknown. He seems to have left Stamford soon after his marriage to set up an engineering works in his home town of Kettering. By 1849 his works, in Sheep Street, had become known as the Royal Iron Works. Here William, later joined by his son James produced an extensive catalogue of agricultural machinery. Many were prize-winners. Among them was a 12-row steerable horse hoe, which won an award at the Royal Agricultural Society’s show in 1865. William retired in 1885.

Soon after the works were in the control of a Mr Watson. Kettering Borough Council later acquired the site and in 1904 demolished the old works. A free public library, museum and art gallery were then built on the site.

 PATENT HORSE RAKE On the success of this machine was based the future prosperity of Smith’s young business. However, not all ‘in the neighbourhood’ were agreed with its ‘decided superiority’. Another Stamford engineer and ironmonger far from agreeing was, in fact, most aggrieved. Joseph Cooke Grant who had a factory on the bank of the river Welland felt that Smith’s machine infringed the design of his patented horse rake. Although no records now survive, it is clear from an advertisement in the local newspaper that Grant sued both Smith as maker and the Wright brothers as agents over the alleged infringement. Judgement was given against Grant with Smith and the Wrights receiving costs.

Henry Smith and Co. first comes to public attention with an advertisement for a newly-patented horse rake
in the Lincolnshire Rutland and Stamford Mercury on 29th July 1842.

The success of Smith’s horse rake encouraged an expansion in the business. By now Robert had completed his apprenticeship and joined Henry, and probably Nathaniel, in the firm. Soon a wheeled hand rake and a chaff cutter were patented. Drills for corn and manure (fertiliser), a horse hoe and a moulding plough were added to the firm’s catalogue. The range had grown enough for Smith to need both more men and larger premises.

In 1844 Henry Smith joined in partnership with Thomas Woodhouse Ashby (1806-1870). A native of Stamford, Ashby was the youngest son of a local leather currier and saddler. He was fourteen when his father, William, died in 1820. It seems likely that he had recently begun his apprenticeship, as it was not until 1826 that he was able to enter into his late father’s Sheepmarket premises as a currier and leather worker in his own right.

Ashby’s other interests included that of common carrier having taken over the business of Sarah Ashby (their relationship is unclear), by 1835. From warehouse in Wharf Road he ran wagons to London and East Anglia. Why Smith chose Ashby as a partner is not recorded. He had no expertise in the manufacture of agricultural implements so it must have been for the financial injection Ashby could make.

With his new partner and the promise of more investment Smith acquired the former builder’s yard of Thomas Pilkington at the west end of St Peter’s street. This area of land had lain derelict since a disastrous fire in March 1838 when the yard and several buildings on its eastern edge were destroyed. To provide cash for the purpose Ashby sold his interest in the carriers to Messrs Wade and Co. in 1845. In October 1845 Smith and Co., as the firm was now styled, opened the ‘Rutland Terrace Iron Works, Stamford. New Iron and Brass Foundry and Agricultural Machinery Manufactory’.

This rather grand title reflects that it is, or was, next door to an elegant terrace of eighteenth-century houses in Tinwell Road. One can imagine the outcry if such an enterprise was proposed in modern Stamford.

In 1851 Smith and Co. sent three of their patented machines to the Great Exhibition of Works of All Nations; a haymaker, a horse rake and a chaff cutter. The three were to be awarded a bronze Prize Medal. Perhaps not as prestigious as the Great Medal won by Hornsby and Son of Grantham, but it put Smith and Co. in the same company along with Clayton and Shuttleworth of Lincoln and Tuxford and Son of Boston. Eminent engineering firms all. The medal was the first of many that the firm and its successors were to win at shows and exhibitions throughout Britain and Europe.

The Great Exhibition was a hugely successful marketing tool for all those firms invited to display their products. Just to be able to advertise the fact of having a display at the Crystal Palace was an added cachet to their standing. For a firm to be able to boast that they had won a prize at the Exhibition was to almost guarantee a growth in sales.

And so it appears from Smith and Co.’s advertisements through out 1851. In May the local newspaper reported that Smith and Co. “have received many foreign orders”. Again, in August, “an abundance of foreign orders” including one of sugar cutters to “the Netherlands Sugar Refinery of Amsterdam”. A consequence of this was to take over, temporarily, the workshop of the late George Jones in Blackfriars Street so as to fulfil these additional orders. Smith and Co. was only in occupation for short while. By October 1852 they had relinquished the premises back to Jones’ son in law, Thomas Charles Arrowsmith.

In May of this year Smith and Co. took the title Smith and Ashby. In January 1853 Nathaniel Smith moved from Stamford to Thrapston in Northamptonshire. Why? Was there a difference of opinion in the way the company was being run, or perhaps he felt that the Stamford business was on a sound enough footing he could move on. Maybe he was ambitious enough to want to run his own business? Whatever the reasons he took up the offer of agricultural implement maker W. L. Fisher of Oundle to become manager of his Nene Side Iron Works in Thrapston. A few years later, when Fisher died in 1856, Nathaniel purchased the works and set up his own company. Robert stayed in Stamford as managing foreman.

Eighteen-fifty-three also saw the first mention of a catalogue in Smith and Ashby’s advertisements. Although no catalogue seems to have survived from this date the product range had become quite extensive. Apart from the chaff cutters and haymakers, which almost from their introduction had been regular prize-winners at the various agricultural shows around the country (a point the firm never failed to mention), there were several types of mills for grinding bones, grain and linseed. Also a large range of cast iron items including gates, fencing, hurdles, plates, cisterns, mangers, racks and troughs SMITH and ASHBY’S RUTLAND-TERRACE IRONWORKS, STAMFORD For the first time “the manufacture and repairing of Stationary and Portable steam engines” is mentioned. And the horse rake, which ensured the success of the business, had now, according to the advertisement, sold 972 units and was still priced at £6.10s.The St Peter’s Street premises had gradually been expanded since they were first opened in 1845. Ten years later, in March 1855 new offices and a large showroom, said to be one hundred feet long, was opened. To mark the occasion the firm put on a grand musical soiree for the employees, their families and friends. It was, reported the local newspaper, an ‘event calculated to promote the best possible feeling between employers and the employed when the proprietors displayed the greatest liberality’. The entire workforce with their wives and sweethearts, 170 people in all, sat down to tea. The inevitable morale boosting, and moralising, speeches followed. The first, by Henry Smith, “showed what excellent feeling existed on the part of the numerous workmen and their employers”.

Smith and Ashby advertisement for a wide range of agricultural implements.

The next to speak was the Rev. B. O. Bendall, an Independent minister. The Smiths it will be recalled were Non-conformists. Bendall “argued that the interest of the master and man were identical and that one could not succeed without the other.” His advice to the male portion of the audience, respecting the money too frequently squandered in public houses, was no doubt appreciated by the female members. To reinforce the view that Smith and Ashby were caring and thoughtful employers, it was announced that forthwith all hand in their employ were to enjoy a half day holiday every Saturday. The Reverend hoped they would employ the time thus allowed in innocent and healthy pastime. The evening finished with a vocal and instrumental concert in which the firm’s newly formed band played.

There was at this time a movement throughout the country to encourage the education and moral welfare of the working classes. One way of achieving this, it was thought, was to cultivate an improved musical taste. With this aim ‘working men’s concerts’ were organised in many towns. Robert Smith was a talented musician. He encouraged an interest in music among a number of his workmen and organised them into a brass band. They first performed at the showroom’s opening concert and by December 1855 they were thought proficient enough to give their first public concert. The firm provided the instruments and uniforms, at a total cost of £200, but the band members had to undertake to purchase them from their weekly wages. It was serious commitment for men who probably not well paid. Throughout the following years the Foundry Band, as it came to be called, became a popular ingredient of the Stamford social scene. Regular concerts were given and the band took part in the celebrations to mark the end of the Crimea War.

In 1858 Smith and Ashby leased Bonney’s Paddock, an area of land between the works and North Street, from the Stamford Borough Council for £12 per year. The fourteen year lease had among the clauses controlling the firm’s activities one insisting they install “a smoke consuming apparatus to any steam engine or furnace’. Another that they were to ‘prevent smoke, dirt, blacks and soot from arising or issuing from their works so as to be as little a nuisance as possible in carrying out their trade”.

Judging by the firm’s advertisements appearing at this time the extra land was much needed. These advertisements, such as the one shown above of 6th March 1857, read like a roll of long forgotten agricultural implement makers. There is no mention here of the steam engines the firm was claiming to ‘manufacture and repair’ only four years earlier. Yet, in the next year 1858, Smith and Ashby had a portable steam engine on display at the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland’s annual show.

Henry Smith died suddenly on 14th October 1859. He was only 44 years old. Sadly he left his widow, Jane, with two very young children. In his will Henry directed that any monies derived from his business should be put in trust to provide an annual sum for his widow and for the education of his children. To provide an additional income for herself and her children Jane turned her home at Rutland Cottage in Tinwell Road into a boarding house where, until a few years before her death in 1894, she took in lodgers.

Henry also stated that Jane and his brother Robert could either continue the partnership with Thomas Ashby or terminate it. The latter course was taken and it was agreed that Ashby should purchase all Henry’s models and patents. With the Smith/Ashby partnership over Robert Smith left the firm. In January 1860 he moved from Stamford to Thrapston where he joined his brother Nathaniel to form Smith Brothers. It is possible he took some of his former employees with him. The 1861 Census of Thrapston shows that three of the twenty men working for the Smiths at that time originated from Stamford.

Robert retired from commercial life in 1866. None of his sons appear to have gone into the business. However, five of Nathaniel’s sons did enter the firm. The sixth son, Henry, set up a successful agricultural machinery distribution company in Basingstoke. In 1866 Nathaniel was joined by a shadowy figure by the name of Grace. Nothing seems to be known of this man, but it has been suggested that he was of the same family as the famous cricketer W.G.Grace. The firm then took the title Smith and Grace. This concern existed as the Smith and Grace Screw Boss Pulley Company until closure in 1995.

On the first anniversary of Henry Smith’s death his executors, his widow, his brother Robert and a Joseph Smith, proposed to Stamford Borough Council that they should, at their (the executors) expense, erect a public drinking fountain. It had been Henry’s intention to provide such a fountain for communal use and had already purchased one at the Warwick of the R.A.S.E earlier in 1859.

The selection of a suitable site was referred to the Borough General Purposes Committee who, after much deliberation chose “a position near the south wall of All Saint’s churchyard ─ at the edge of the pavement.’ The fountain ‘in the form of an ornamental pillar, with a basin under the tap, and a trough at the base for dogs”, was to be supplied by a cistern. There was also much discussion about the rent the Marquis of Exeter wanted for the use of the water. He owned the water supply and made it quite clear that he did not want the towns’ urchins wasting water without some sort of compensation. The fountain was eventually brought into use at the beginning of November 1860 when it was said “its utility will probably not be fully appreciated until the return of summer.” Quite!

Meanwhile, Thomas Ashby, now trading as Ashby and Co. late Smith and Ashby, was continuing to expand the business. According to the 1861 Census the firm now employed 156 hands. Prizes for the quality of their work were still being won. Gold medals for the chaff cutter and haymaker at the Great Paris Show, two silvers for chaff cutters and a bronze for a horse works at Antwerp, another silver for the haymaker at Sligo.

For the first time the company produced a printed catalogue of the range of products. One dated 1st September 1860 and inscribed “No. 2” has survived; “Agricultural Machinery and Implements manufactured and Patented by T. W. Ashby & Co., late Smith & Ashby.” In it are described the haymakers, chaff cutters and rakes, also threshing machines and mills.

Also included are the firm’s portable steam engines. They ranged in power from 2½ hp price £70.; 3hp price £80.; 4hp price £110., and 4½hp price £120. All were practically identical to each other. The 2½ hp could be had without wheels as a stationary engine. They were small engines, capable of passing through “an ordinary four-feet door way” Judging by the illustration the boiler height was no more than a man’s shoulder, say five feet. The only useful measurement given is the 4¾-inch diameter of the cylinder on the 2½ hp engine. No records survive of how many of these engines were made. One similar, apparently converted to a traction engine, was exhibited at the 1871 Smithfield show. The engineering press was unimpressed. Engineering ridiculed the engine saying ─ “[any] engineer desirous to know how long a piece of over hanging shafting with a pinion at the end can be used for driving the wheel of a traction engine are recommended to examine this exhibit. When they see the distance which in this case exists between the driving pinion and the nearest bearing they will probably be surprised and delighted”. The Engineer thought the engine “remarkable for little else than the boldness of design bordering on the foolhardy ─ the pinion being at least 14 in. distant from any bearing whatsoever.” Not much of an endorsement.

Thomas Ashby had been in the business since 1844 and is described in the 1861 Census as a leather merchant, iron and brass founder and agricultural engineer. However, he was probably mainly concerned with the financial side of the firm. Henry Smith’s death in 1859 and the leaving of Robert Smith shortly after had left him without an experienced practical engineer. To remedy this he took into partnership in October 1864 George Jeffery “whose extensive experience and practical knowledge eminently qualify him for the position ─ in general superintendence of the manufacturing department”.

George Edward Jeffery (1837-?) was born at Yalding near Maidstone in Kent. The circumstances of his becoming a partner are not certain. He may have been in Stamford for some time and it is possible that he was already working for Ashby. He married Ashby’s daughter Mary in 1865.

In 1866 Robert Luke (1839-1909), the firm’s bookkeeper also became a partner. He was a son of Stamford’s Inland Revenue Supervisor. There now followed a series of title changes. Ashby died in 1870. In 1876 Jeffery and Luke dissolved their remaining partnership. Luke moved to Manchester to found Luke and Spencer Ltd., emery wheel manufacturers. So, in just over ten years the firm’s title changed three times: Ashby, Jeffery and Co. (1864-1866), Ashby Jeffery and Luke and Co. (1866-1876), G. E Jeffery and Co.

Jeffery operated on his own only from January 1876 until June 1877. He then entered into partnership with Edward Christopher Blackstone (1850-1916), a young engineering draughtsman from London. Once again the firm’s title had to change, to Jeffery and Blackstone and Co.

Edward Blackstone was the son of Joseph Blackstone, a Camden Town doctor who had move from Beverley in Yorkshire to set up his practice. He, Edward, was educated at Kings College and served an apprenticeship with the hydraulic engineers J. and H. Gwynne of Hammersmith.

George Jeffery retired in 1882 to live in Ryhall, a small village about two miles east of Stamford. The reason for his retirement at the early age of forty-five is not known. It may possibly have been a result of a serious fire at the St Peter’s Street works in January that year. Despite the retirement of George Jeffery, the firm retained its title of Jeffery and Blackstone and Co. for another six years.

By 1886 the St Peter’s Street works were increasingly becoming inadequate for the business. Also the company’s lease on the site was due to expire the next year. It was therefore decided that a site for a completely new factory should be found. Ten acres of land owned by the Marquis of Exeter adjacent to the great Eastern railway’s Stamford to Essendine branch line on the eastern edge of the town was chosen. Six acres were purchased and a further four acres were leased from the Marquis. A very significant deal, as this was the first land outside the Borough on which the Marquis has allowed any form of development.

Building work began at the end of August 1886, with the first factory buildings being completed by the following spring. Blackstone himself undertook the design of the factory and the layout of the machinery. This was a task he was well qualified to do having been for a time resident engineer with Charles Nelson and Co., cement manufacturers near Rugby, where he was involved in the design and erection of buildings and machinery. The transfer of plant and machinery from St Peter’s Street to the new site on Ryhall Road took about a year.

The range and variety of machinery produced is well illustrated by the new catalogue issued by the company in 1887. Listed are corn mills, saw benches, haymakers, horse rakes, harrows, and land rollers, chaff cutters, cakes breakers, vegetable pulpers and horse gears. All are priced in a range of sizes and many are pictured.

Pride of place is held by the portable steam engines. There are single-cylinder portables from 4 nhp to 12 nhp; the basic engine costing from £130. to £230. The double- cylinder type from 10 nhp to 20 nhp cost up to £245. Also shown is a range of vertical engines. Those with a single-cylinder from 1 nhp up to 12 nhp cost from £45. to £210. The double- cylinder verticals cost from £210. to £270. for the 10 nhp to 14 nhp. While these engines differ little from those made by other manufacturers they show that lessons were learned after the scorn shown to the company’s earlier designs.

In addition to the standard range of engines there is one of unique design; the ‘Viator’. This was a portable vertical single-cylinder engine with the boiler mounted between a pair of tall wheels. It was light enough to be hauled by a single horse. When travelling the boiler was tipped forward putting some weight on the horse shafts. A leg acting as a third part of a tripod, the wheels being the other two thirds, took when in use the greater part of its weight.

The Viator made its debut at the R.A.S.E. engine trials held on Gosforth Moor near Newcastle in 1887. Thirteen engines from seven manufacturers took part in the first such trials organised by the Society since 1872. The competition ranged from the 8hp portable from Alnwick Foundry and Engineering Co. to J. and H. McLaren’s 20 hp portable and Edwin Foden’s 18 hp traction engines.

Jeffery and Blackstone’s entry was described by the judges as “ ─ a small vertical engine and boiler, mounted on high, light (wrought) iron wheels, and is intended for working small thrashing machines, corn mills, The vertical cylinder is fixed at the back of the boiler, and the crankshaft above, near the top. The whole is carried on a well-designed wrought iron frame bolted to the boiler. The machine is very rigid, and the bearings are large. There is a good governor of the ordinary type. The boiler has vertical tubes. The finish of the whole machine is good, and during the run of the brake, it worked very steadily and well. By the addition of a second cut-off slide and lagging the boiler, the economy might be greatly augmented. Of its class it is a praiseworthy little machine.”

The judges report concluded that the trial of strength lay between the firms of Davey Paxman of Colchester, J. & H. McLaren of Leeds and E. Foden of Sandbach, and that “the engines of the Alnwick Co. and Messrs Jeffery and Blackstone were quite outclassed.” Rather unfair one might think to compare a 3 hp engine directly with others three and four times its size. And most unfair to classify the Jeffery and Blackstone engine along with the Alnwick Foundry engine in the light of the judges comments on the latter. The Alnwick firm, they said, was a firm that “has everything to learn concerning the construction of a portable engine”, having submitted one following a design superseded twenty years earlier.

Fortunately one of the Viator engines, a 4nhp type E, has survived in Australia where it occasionally works “well and steadily.”

Sadly, no production figures of the company’s steam engines have survived so it not known how many were made. The only mention of steam engines in surviving company records is a minute dated 31st January 1890 relating to engines and boilers having been sent to York and Co., Buenos Aires. In the same minute is a report that a 6 hp engine “sent to Cape Town as a sample” ─ has been sold to the proprietors of the Cape Times newspaper ─ . The samples sent to Port Elizabeth have also been satisfactorily placed.”

In 1894 Kelada Antoun started an agricultural machinery business in Cairo that became known as Antoun and Sons, Midland Engineering Company. This concern was a regular importer of Blackstone steam engines and in later years of oil and diesel engines. The association between Blackstone and Antoun was to last more than fifty years.

As no records of steam engine building now remain it is impossible to be sure when it came to an end. A photograph in the Stamford Museum’s Blackstone Collection shows a vertical steam engine coupled to a corn mill, elevator and winnowing machine. This is one of a pair, the other showing the same machinery coupled to an oil engine. Both specially posed photographs are dated 7th June 1900. Whether this was the last steam engine built by the firm is not known, but the photograph suggests that Blackstone’s had the capability to build one should they receive an order. By this time though a new form of power was being developed.

All pictures & text © 2003 Michael Key


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