This book contains eight profiles of 19th. century chemical
industrialists orginally published in the Chemical Trade Journal. The
preface and the article on William Gossage was given in issues 60 and
61, and issue 62 looked at Josias Christopher Gamble, issues 63 and 64
at James Muspratt, and issues 65 and 66 at Andreas Kurtz. Subsequent issues
of Chemistry in Action! will contain the other articles. Hopefully this
series will introduce you to some of the unsung and largely forgotten
pioneers of the chemical industry in the U.K. and worldwide, told in the
words of one of their contemporaries. In this issue the first part of
Henry Deacon's life is published and will be continued in issue 68. The
influence of Michael Faraday on Deacon is particularly interesting.
Born in London, 30th July, 1822 - A Northamptonshire
family - Sent to a Quaker's school - Mechanical tastes - Apprenticed at
fourteen to Galloway Sons, London - Michael Faraday, a friend of the Deacon
family - Tyndall's estimate of Faraday and his method - Deacon a disciple
of Faraday - Liverpool and Manchester railway opened, September 15, 1830
- James Nasmyth started his works at Patricroft, 1836 - Holbrook Gaskell
joins Nasmyth - Deacon comes to Nasmyth's Patricroft works - The steam
hammer - Nasmyth's sketch, dated November 24, 1839 - Schneider's visit
to Patricroft - Schneider carries out Nasmyth's idea - Faraday's letter
to Nasmyth - Henry Deacon goes to Pilkington's glassworks about 1848 -
Researches into manufacture of alkali - John Hutchinson with Kurtz - Deacon
leaves St. Helens, and accepts a post with Hutchinson at Widnes - Deacon
leaves Hutchinson, and with William Pilkington starts a chemical works
at Widnes. Partnership terminated, 1855 - Holbrook Gaskell joined Deacon.
Gossage's process of manufacturing caustic soda, 1853 - The founders of
Widnes - Deacon discerned the importance of the ammonia soda process -
His patent July 8, 1854, but Gaskell refused to supply capital, and process
A philosophical mind applied to the arts and manufactures,
to commerce and to public affairs; such was Henry Deacon. He was born
in London on the 30th July, 1822.
An old and intimate friend of the family writes:- "About 1680, a
William Deacon was born at Crawford, Northamptonshire; he is said to have
invented some weaving machinery, which was broken up by the populace,
as they said it took the bread out of poor men's mouths. His son William
lived at Kettering, Northamptonshire. I believe he made cloth. He and
his wife lived 56 years together, having 12 children, five of the sons
grew up, and all came to London; they were quick, versatile, and inventive.
They all made money, though some of them lost it again; one of them established
"Deacon's Coffee House," another made hot-air pipes and heating
and ventilating apparatus, another wrote a book on conical wheels. The
youngest, Daniel, apprenticed to a watchmaker, became one of the largest
carriers, before railways. The mother (Hannah Bentford) was always very
much thought of by her sons, and there is an interesting letter of hers
extant which gives a curious insight into the life of four generations
since. Henry Deacon, of Appleton, was grandson of two of these brothers,
one being his father's father, and the other his mother's father. His
father and mother were therefore cousins.
Henry, when quite young, was much with his mother's father, Daniel Deacon,
with whom he was a great favourite, at Tottenham, and went to a Quaker's
The whole system of education in those days widely differed from that
in vogue today. Schools in the subjects of instruction, in the methods
of imparting knowledge, in the discipline, in the buildings and appliances,
in the very aims and ends of all school-life, were totally unlike anything
which has fallen to the lot of the present generation.
The mass of the people were densely ignorant, the key of knowledge was
not to be entrusted to the custody of the common folk, they would admit
themselves to paths in which Providence never intended them to walk. Book-learning
would unfit the working classes for hand labour, and so popular education
not only was not promoted, but it was absolutely condemned as a project
of unpractical men, schemers and radicals. As soon as the children of
the lower classes were strong enough to work, aye, and often long before,
they were sent to the factory, the forge, the mine, to labour out long,
weary days, and to grow up acquainted only with what they could learn
in following their daily toil. This ignorance of the poorer classes had
its effect on those above them; a prolonged school life was looked upon
as the heritage and the prerogative of the rich, it was presumptuous for
the tradesman or the farmer to give his boys and girls a good "schooling,"
and so it was the common thing for children to be taken early from school.
This was the lot of Henry Deacon.
The boy had shown a taste and talent for mechanical subjects, and had
given such indications of character that his parents were enabled to discern
his vocation, and apprenticed him to the well-known engineering firm Messrs.
Galloway and Sons, of London. At 14 years of age he stood at the foot
of the ladder, which was to conduct him to the position of an accomplished
It was whilst spending his days at the bench in the Galloway's shop, that
he attracted the notice of the master who gave tone and colour to his
whole future career. At the Royal Institution "the greatest experimental
philosopher the world has ever seen," was engaged in his vast and
profound researches. Michael Faraday was an intimate friend of the Deacon
family; he noticed the bright boy and drew him to his side, gave him access
to his laboratory, and encouraged him to apply himself, as far as his
time permitted, to chemical and physical science, becoming his tutor,
directing and superintending his studies and experiments.
During the boyhood, which he spent in London, Henry
Deacon lived in the sunshine of the splendid genius of Faraday.
During the boyhood, which he spent in London, Henry
Deacon lived in the sunshine of the splendid genius of Faraday. The influence
of this contact is manifest in the mental development of the pupil as
well as in the character and peculiar features of his life-work. Faraday
was no mere experimenter. Professor Tyndall says of him:- "Faraday
has been called a purely inductive philosopher. A great deal of nonsense
is, I fear, uttered in this land of England about induction and deduction.
Some profess to befriend the one, some the other, while the real vocation
of the investigator like Faraday, consists in the incessant marriage of
both." Again, "his principal researches are all connected by
an undercurrent of speculation. Theoretic ideas were the very sap of his
intellect - the source from which all his strength as an experimenter
was derived. And so it must always be; the great experimenter must ever
be the habitual theorist, whether or not he gives to his theories formal
enunciation." "Faraday was more than a philosopher, he was a
prophet, and often wrought by an inspiration to be understood by sympathy
On the 19th January, 1844, Faraday gave a lecture at the Royal Institution,
entitled: "A speculation touching electric conduction and the nature
of matter," and "this lecture," says Professor Tyndall,
"reveals the manner in which Faraday himself habitually deals with
his hypotheses. He incessantly employed them to gain experimental ends,
but he incessantly took them down, as an architect removes the scaffolding
when the edifice is complete." Faraday himself, on the same topic
says, "I cannot but doubt that he who as a mere philosopher has the
most power of penetrating the secrets of nature, and guessing by hypotheses
at her mode of working, will also be most careful of his own safe progress
and that of others, to distinguish the knowledge which consists of assumption,
by which I mean theory and hypothesis, from that which is the knowledge
of facts and laws." The method of Faraday in the pursuit of truth
was the method of Deacon. The philosopher who made "theoretic divination
the stepping stone to his experimental results" was the father of
men on whom the lineaments of his intellectual life were deeply impressed.
But the influence of Faraday was not simply seen in the methods of research
and discovery which he pursued, he was an intense lover of order, "which
ran like a luminous beam through all the transactions of his life."
The most entangled and complicated matters fell into harmony in his hands.
His mode of keeping accounts excited the admiration of the managing board
of the Royal Institution. His science was similarly ordered.
In his Experimental Researches he numbered every paragraph, and welded
their various parts together by incessant reference. His private notes
of Experimental Researches, which are happily preserved, are similarly
numbered; their last paragraph bears the figure 16,041. What an inestimable
privilege it was for the boy, Henry Deacon, at the most impressionable
period of his life, to have enjoyed the intimacy and to have had the instruction
of such a master.
Misfortune overtook the firm to which Deacon was apprenticed; the business
collapsed, and the works were closed. With the opening of the Liverpool
and Manchester Railway, on the 15th September, 1830, a new era dawned
on the engineering trades, especially in Lancashire.
In 1836 James Nasmyth had started his new engineering works on the banks
of the Bridgewater Canal, at Patricroft. For five years he had been at
work in Manchester, in a building in Dale Street, Piccadilly, where his
business had very rapidly grown from the smallest of beginnings. The premises
had been an old cotton mill; a glass cutter tenanted the floor beneath
Nasmyth's fitting shop, and one day the floor gave way under the weight
of a piece of machinery that was being constructed, and the landlord and
tenants agreed that the building was not suitable for the work. The Bridgewater
Foundry was the result. Nasmyth, although quite a young man, had already
won a name by his skill, and for the excellence of his workmanship. He
was especially sought after for the self-acting tools, which he made.
The increasing business demanded a division of labour, and a partner was
selected, a young man who had served his time with Messrs. Yates and Cox,
iron merchants, Liverpool, Mr. Holbrook Gaskell. He introduced some capital
into the concern, and his business capacity and training fitted him to
take charge of the counting-house.
When Gaskell and Sons failed, the apprenticeship indentures
of young Henry Deacon were transferred to Messrs. Nasmyth and Gaskell.
He left London and settled at Patricroft. It was about the time that Nasmyth
made the first drawing of his celebrated steam hammer that Deacon entered
his employ. That drawing was a testimony to the ability of the designer.
It was to forge an intermediate paddle shaft for that leviathan, as she
was then regarded, the "Great Britain," that the steam hammer
was devised. The work needed was laid before James Nasmyth, he took out
his "Scheme Book" and therein he sketched his steam hammer.
The date of that sketch is November 24th, 1839.
M. Schneider, accompanied by his mechanical manager of the Cruzot works
in France, happened to call at Patricroft and in the absence of Nasmyth,
Holbrook Gaskell permitted them to examine the "Scheme Book."
Nasmyth's design was not taken up in England, no one wanted it, and no
hammer was made, but when on a visit to France, he called at Cruzot, and
there saw that M. Schneider's engineer, who was with him at Patricroft,
had carried out most successfully Nasmyth's sketch.
It is said that Deacon made the first model of the steam hammer for the
patent, and was locked up in a room for a week, having his food passed
in through a hole in the door.
Nasmyth was no unworthy successor to Faraday, to be entrusted with the
training of the lad who was to leave his name and mark in one of the cardinal
manufactures of Lancashire; and the youth who had sat at the feet of Faraday
would know right well how to appreciate the character of Nasmyth, and
to make the most of the opportunities which were afforded him at Patricroft.
There is a letter from Faraday to Nasmyth dated 29th May, 1847, which
is of some interest, showing how these two men, who were Deacon's teachers,
regarded each other. He says, "If ever I come your way I hope
to see your face; and the hope is pleasant, though the reality may never
arrive. You must tell me of the glorious success of your pile driver,
it must be indeed a great pleasure to witness the result. Is it not Shakespeare
who says 'The pleasure we delight in physics pain'? In all your fatigue
and labour you must have this pleasure in abundance, and a most delightful
and healthy enjoyment it is. I shall rejoice to see some day a blow of
the driver and a tap of the hammer. You speak of some experiments on tempering
in which we can help you. I hope when you come to town you will let us
have the pleasure of doing so. Our apparatus, such as it is, shall be
entirely at your service. I made, a long time ago, a few such experiments
on steel wire, but could eliminate no distinct or peculiar results. You
will know how to look at such things, and at your hand I shall expect
much. Here we are just lecturing away, and I am too tired to attempt anything,
much less do anything just now; But the goodwill of such men as you is
a great stimulus, and will, I trust even with me, produce something else
praiseworthy." - Ever, my dear Nasmyth, yours most truly,
Training and experience which Henry Deacon had had,
enabled him to obtain an appointment as a manager in the glass works of
Messrs. Pilkington Bros., St. Helens. He went to St. Helens about the
year 1848, when he was about 26 years of age.
Deacon would especially have had to plan and superintend machinery for
smoothing and polishing "German Plate." In those days the manufacturing
of glass was a very "pottering" affair compared with what it
now is. Small furnaces, little pots, imperfect combustion, inferior machinery,
badly arranged grates, dark, low, stuffy, dingy dismal sheds, and few,
if any appliances for economising labour. This was the state of affairs
forty years ago, when Henry deacon was employed in the glass works.
In glass making, and in St. Helens, he made no very decided mark by any
lasting or original invention; he was then a young man and had much to
learn, especially in a business to which he had not been brought up; but
wherever he went his personality made itself felt. His quick intellect,
his philosophical and speculative habit of mind, his sharp, incisive manner,
his thorough careful training, and a certain restless enterprise of character,
these would be infallible indications that he would sink into no rut of
sheer common place.
Messrs. Pilkington permitted their manager to utilize their laboratory
for research and experiment, and Deacon had the foresight to discover
the dawning greatness and importance of the alkali trade, and that to
him it held out the promise of far greater possibilities than the glass
trade. It could be entered on with less capital and on smaller lines;
it was a new, and at that time an almost unbounded field.
At about the time that Deacon was with Messrs. Pilkington, there was a
man in the employ of Mr. Kurtz, who also was wide awake to what was coming,
John Hutchinson. He recognised the splendid position of Widnes as a seat
for the manufacture of chemicals. Giving up his situation at St. Helens
he went to Widnes, and there in an exceedingly small way commenced business
on his own account. When he needed a manager for the works that he had
founded he selected Henry Deacon.
In those days, at least, he would be a man to recognise ability, and it
is a tribute to the capacity of Deacon that he was selected by Hutchinson
to manage his works.
But Deacon was not the man long to wear the yoke of service; he had in
him those qualities that cannot be restrained; a consciousness of power,
an active, energetic spirit, no lack of ambition, and a certain restlessness
under restraint that made it more congenial to him to rule than to be
ruled. John Hutchinson, too, was hardly the man who could control or even
co-operate with one of Deacon's character and culture, and so they parted,
and Deacon was joined in partnership by his former employer at St. Helens,
the younger of the brothers Pilkington, William, of Eccleston Hall, and
they started the chemical works at Widnes. The site was everything that
could be desired - a railway on one side and the canal on the other. When
the land was first acquired, it was never contemplated to what extent
that insignificant venture would attain: to-day, large as the area covered
by the works is, it is inconveniently restricted, and the plant has to
be arranged so as best to economize the space.
Mr. William Pilkington withdrew from Widnes, and Mr. Deacon in the year
1855 was joined by his old employer, Mr. Gaskell, who dissolved partnership
with Mr. Nasmyth after they had been connected for sixteen years. The
reason of Mr. Gaskell's retirement from the firm of Nasmyth and Gaskell
was a dangerous illness, which his medical man feared would compel him
to retire altogether from active life, happily he recovered from this
serious breakdown, and such was the opinion he had formed of Henry Deacon
when he was in the shops at Patricroft, that he was now prepared to become
his partner, and to place his capital in the concern, to carry on the
manufacture of alkali, as Deacon & Co., subsequently Gaskell, Deacon
Widnes was at this time a centre of attraction in
the chemical world
Widnes was at this time a centre of attraction in the
chemical world, not merely on account of the growing prosperity of the
place, but the inventions of William Gossage were drawing the attention
of all manufacturing chemists to the complete revolution, which his discoveries
would bring about in several industries. In 1853, Gossage was the first
to invent the process for producing caustic soda as an article of commerce,
on a large scale. The great importance of this invention was at once discerned;
caustic soda would be an article for which there would undoubtedly arise
a large foreign demand; there would be an export of caustic and a consequent
decrease in the import of tallow, for those nations that had hitherto
imported their tallow would be our purchasers of caustic soda and make
their own soap. Gossage's caustic soda also affected to an enormous extent
the paper trade. It was just at the time when Gossage was bringing out
his great and valuable inventions, that Gaskell, Deacon and Co. commenced
their business. They caught the tide of fortune at the flood.
Muspratt, Gossage, and Deacon, and probably it would be unfair to exclude
Hutchinson, were the men who laid deep and strong the foundations of the
renown and prosperity of Widnes. They had something to work for, there
was the vision of a golden age before their eyes; impelled by genius and
energy, and drawn forward by the prospect of a limitless field for enterprise,
they realised the greatness of their opportunity, and for many years Widnes
became the scene of ceaseless activity, of fertile invention, and of wonderful
and rapid development. The works grew, new processes were introduced,
new apparatus sprung up; chemists were busily engaged at researches in
the laboratories, engineers were scheming plans for economising labour
and adapting plant, the dock and canal became inadequate to the increasing
requirements of the district, houses and streets spread themselves over
the open spaces around the works, and in a very few years Widnes was transformed
from a pretty, sunny riverside hamlet, with quiet sleepy ways, into a
settlement of thousands of labouring men, mostly Irish, with dingy unfinished
streets of hastily constructed houses, with works that were belching forth
volumes of most deleterious gases and clouds of black smoke from chimneys
of inadequate height, with trees that stood leafless in June, and hedgerows
that were shrivelled in May, the air reeked with gases offensive to the
sight and smell, and large heaps of stinking refuse began to accumulate.
Widnes was transformed from a pretty, sunny riverside
hamlet, with quiet sleepy ways, into a settlement of thousands of labouring
men, mostly Irish
But the minds of men were full of projects, and the air was full of stir,
and amongst these busy minds there was none more keenly interested in
everything that was going forward than Henry Deacon. He did not underrate
the importance of having capable and highly-trained men in his laboratory;
to him a chemist was not merely a man "who could wash out bottles";
and he was able to understand and appreciate their labours and worth.
In laying out works and erecting plant there was no one in Widnes that
had received such a training as he had. His experience at Patricroft and
St. Helens had fitted him to manage men, and in all that pertained to
business, he was discerning, courageous, and accurate.
Like his friend and neighbour, William Gossage, he frequently availed
himself of the Patent Laws. As we have already stated, it was in 1853
that Deacon, in conjunction with Mr. William Pilkington, took land at
Widnes and erected Works to make carbonate of soda. They attacked the
Dyar and Hemming ammonia soda process.
Harrison Grey Dyar and John Hemming of London, patented their process
on the 30th June, 1838. Delauney, acting as their agent in France, took
it out in that country on the 27th May, 1839, and on the 18th May, 1840,
patented improvements of the same process, and in a small works in Whitechapel
they tried to carry it out as a commercial undertaking. As such, however,
it was not a success, the loss of ammonia was their stumbling block. The
chemical reactions were complete, but they failed in the adaption of their
plant. Muspratt followed in the footsteps of Dyar and Hemming, and under
the superintendence of the skilled chemist, James Young, he put up a works
at Newton, on the banks of the Canal, between St. Helens and Warrington,
but after an expenditure of about £8,000, and two years' experience,
it was abandoned in favour of the Le Blanc process. Chemists were not
disheartened by these failures; Kunheim, Seybel, Bowker, Gossage, Turck,
Schloesing, and Deacon, discerned the great value of the invention, and
persistently worked at it.
The year 1854 saw a revival of the endeavours to displace the Le Blanc
process. On the 21st. February in that year William Gossage led the way
with his patent for producing the carbonate and sesquicarbonate of soda
and potash, and the bicarbonate or sesquicarbonate of ammonia in aqueous
solution. He was followed by Turck on the 26th. May, by Schlosing on the
21st. June, and by Henry Deacon on the 8th July. Deacon's plant resembled
the arrangement as described by Schloesing and Rolland, only that Deacon
took a step far in advance by using carbonic acid under pressure. But
the experiment of 1854 was not more successful than that which preceded
Mr. Pilkington soon discovered that protracted experiments and deferred
profits was the prospect before them; this did not suit him, and so he
severed his connection with Henry Deacon, leaving him alone to do as best
he could with his ideas and his hopes - but difficulties, disappointments,
and desertion did not daunt him. Mr. Holbrook Gaskell came to his aid,
and found capital to continue the work, but the expenditure needed was
more than he had anticipated, and the obstacles to be overcome seemed
interminable, so that he too lost patience, and declared he would be no
party to any further prosecution of this process. Deacon pleaded earnestly
that another thousand pounds might be spent, he was confident that amount
would avail, but Mr. Gaskell was obdurate; unless Deacon would abandon
his ammonia process, and follow the example of his neighbours with the
Le Blanc, he too would forsake him.
Deacon was compelled to yield, although fully assured that perfect success
would have resulted from a little more perseverance; and so the plant
on which some thousands of pounds had been spent, and on which he had
bestowed such thought and pains, had to be abandoned and demolished; and
sulphuric acid chambers, with saltcake pots and condensers, black-ash
furnaces, lixiviating tanks, and vat waste had to be endured whilst the
beautiful and most profitable ammonia process was a treasure to be hidden
for ten years longer, reserved for Solvay and for Brunner Mond. Many a
time of late years must Mr. Gaskell have wished that he had trusted to
the knowledge and foresight of his partner, and yielded to his importunity.
To be continued in issue 68.