The Archvist’s friend and other Wiltshire Inventors

on Thursday, 24 January 2013. Posted in Wiltshire People

I am often guided by those twin pillars of research: serendipity and curiosity. It was these two trusty old friends that led me Henry Charles “inky” Stephens (1841 – 1918). While tidying my desk as part of my New Year resolution I was left with just a few paper clips and two rulers on the work surface, which reminded me of a patent I had spotted in our indexes for “the parallel ruler” (yes, sadly someone had invented this before me).  The patent seems to enable …er…two parallel lines to be drawn, more seriously it was used by navigators to draw parallel lines on charts and originally invented by Fabrizio Mordente in 1584 and others sought to improve it. But there was more, with the documents were further patents for inkstands and an adjustable pencil, plus specifications for various ink manufacture and the chemistry behind them. Of course, what I had started to look at was part of an archive relating to the Cholderton estate, once owned by the family and an individual whose single small invention arguably helped change the course of writing.

"It was actually “Inky’s” father, Dr Henry Stephens of Redbourne, Hertfordshire, who in 1832  invented the  famous 'Blue-Black Writing Fluid', or Stephens writing ink as it became known,  a "carbonaceous black writing fluid, which will accomplish the so long-desired and apparently hopeless task of rendering the manuscript as durable and as indelible as the printed record". It is the forerunner of the waterproof inks we use today and literally at a stroke became the Archivist’s friend, ensuring better survival of some of our precious written heritage (though for obvious reasons we don’t recommend its use by our researchers, please stick with pencils!). The government made it the mandatory ink for legal documents and ships' log books, and saved businesses and organisations time and money, where much time previously had been spent mixing inks and cleaning nibs. His son, Henry Charles, took the process forward, ultimately building a factory and research laboratory in Finchley, creating new processes and manufacturing ink and wood stains on a large scale. “Inky” was also an MP for Hornsey (1887-1900), a chemist and a philanthropist, with an interest in subjects such as public health and agriculture. He purchased the Cholderton estate in the late nineteenth century and its archive shows the range of interests he had, which included setting up the first and only private water company in England, the Cholderton and District Water Company in 1904. On his death his house in Finchley was left for the use of the public and is now a museum.

But about other Wiltshire inventors?” I hear you say. A perfect companion for “inky” Stephens would surely have been Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897), born in Trowbridge and inventor of stenographic sound-hand or, as we know it, Pitman shorthand. But our greatest Victorian inventor surely was William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) who’s inventions and innovations in photography, including the first negative process, are world famous. He was also interested in other sciences and his work included patents for “gilding and silvering” metals and “obtaining motive power, and improvements in atmospheric engines.”


Life changing in more ways than one was the invention of an artillery shell to contain lead or iron shot, in 1784 by Major General Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) of Bradford on Avon, which was adopted by the British Army in 1803, the lead or iron balls becoming known as “shrapnel.” A hollow cast iron sphere was filled with a mixture of balls and gunpowder and a fuse, which caused the shell to break open and release its contents on the target. It was praised by the Duke of Wellington for its effectiveness at the Battle of Waterloo. Shrapnel was awarded £1200 a year for life by the government in 1814 in recognition for his contribution.

A glance through some Wiltshire patents listed in volume 1 of Wiltshire Notes and Queries (1893-95), suggests that the county’s agricultural and cloth manufacture heritage led to many innovations and inquiries into mechanical engineering. George Hadden (1788-1856) came from a family of engineers, his father being associated with Matthew Boulton and James Watt. In 1814 Hadden came to Trowbridge to install machinery for the Clark Woollen Mill and then established a company to repair and maintain local woollen mill machinery. But the items that warrant his mention in this blog is his work on warm air heating systems, including one designed for George IV at Windsor in 1826.

John Fowler (1826-1864) of Melksham, on the other hand, preferred the outdoors and was especially concerned with the large amount of land that remained uncultivated due to poor drainage. An engineer by training he decided the solution lay in a mole. Not the furry kind, of course, but a mechanical plough that dug drainage ditches into which drainage pipes could be laid. It replaced a horse drawn plough with a horse-powered engine and then in 1852 he invented a steam driven plough. It was an application that was used around the world, bringing uncultivated land into production.

Our archives also contain wonderful plans of a patent issued in 1789 of a machine for drilling and sowing land with corn, invented by Moses Boorn of Downton. Wiltshire’s engineering heritage was continued into the twentieth century by individuals such as Dr Alexander Eric Moulton CBE, who founded Moulton Developments Limited and designed innovative suspension systems for cars, including the mini, and bicycles, for which I am personally grateful! I am also grateful to James Dyson who has made housework easier and more effective through his vacuum cleaner products, researched and produced in his factory in Malmesbury. Hat’s off also to Gilo Cardozo of Mere who has built the world’s first legal flying car.

Someone who was probably ahead of his time and we should all thank is Henry Moule (1801-1880), another son of Melksham, who invented the Earth-closet. Moule, by now a Dorset vicar, worried, as you do, about the effect of the water closet which, he claimed, polluted the rivers and felt the nutrients contained in human waste should be returned to the soil. Like his contemporaries, he was also concerned about Cholera epidemics and wanted to improve the sanitation for his parishioners. The result was a commode, with a bucket below the seat and a hopper which dispensed dry earth or ash on top of the human waste in the bucket to reduce the smell and help decay. The bucket was then emptied and according to Moule, produced “a luxuriant growth of vegetables in my garden.” History tells us that Thomas Crapper and other innovators had the upper hand with their flushing systems, but perhaps it is Moule who was the father of the systems many eco-friendly houses are now employing. Charles Adye, County Surveyor for Wiltshire in 1903 was advising many schools to install the closet - apparently a distinct improvement on current provision!

Other wonderful Wiltshire inspired inventions and innovations include William Nicholls (c1815-1870) of Rowden Hill and his substance for colouring cheese called Annatto, at a time in the mid nineteenth century when Chippenham had a “Great Cheese Market”, perhaps the best in the South West; while Frank Sawyer (1906-1980) of Bulford and a keen conservationist  dedicated many years developing a humane rabbit trap, replacing the detested Gin trap in 1947, earning himself a £300 reward from the RSPCA and later £1000 from the government.

Other Wiltshire-based patents I have come across include a seemingly disgusting concoction called ‘cordial cephalick snuff, which the inventor claims is “greatly conducive to the health”; an outdoor portable kitchen; a system for ripening fruit in hollow walls; and a machine for pulping turnips; while Owen’s Directory for 1878 lists Benjamin Warner of Devizes, cabinet maker, inventor and patentee of the Patent Safety Scuttle & Pino Linum Portable Summer House.

And my favourite? Well I think we can discount Eilmer of Malmesbury, the 11th Century monk who though producing the earliest recorded human flight in Europe (approximately 200 metres), did end up breaking his legs on landing and thus setting human flight back several hundred years. So my vote goes is a more recent invention by Trowbridge teenage Malcolm Pickard in 1965, the wonderfully named “snogometer”. Or perhaps the water cycle created by William Ratcliffe of Swindon?

Terry Bracher

Archives & Local Studies Manager


Accredited Archive Service