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Sir Joseph Whitworth - Great Briton!

Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2007

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Sir Joseph Whitworth – Great Briton

`A man's worth is measured by the marks of his passing'

If the man he most revered, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is right, and “a man’s worth is measured by the marks of his passing”, then Sir Joseph Whitworth’s case for inclusion in any list of Great Britons is beyond dispute, as his biographer Terry Kilburn writes:

`Sir Joseph Whitworth is perhaps a forgotten man, an unsung hero of the Industrial Revolution. He is far less well known than Sir Richard Arkwright or James Watt, yet his contribution to the industrial development of this country was just as significant – if not more so – as the innovations of these and others. Best known for the development of the Whitworth screw thread and Whitworth Rifle, he was the first to introduce larger and more economical units of mass production in his machine-tool and armaments factories, and it was Whitworth who in 1880 persuaded the Board of Trade to adopt standard measures. His true plane surfaces still form the basis of modern industrial and mechanical engineering. Whitworth was a giant of the Industrial Revolution bridging the gap between the early industrial pioneers and our own technical age.’

The `marks of his passing’ can be seen not only in modern engineering methods or in his many mechanical inventions, but also in the legacies he left behind for the future educational and social benefit of the people he lived amongst, especially in Manchester and Darley Dale.

A Potted Biography

Joseph Whitworth was born on December 21st 1803 just over the Derbyshire border in Stockport, Cheshire, the son of Methodist lay-preacher and schoolmaster, Charles Whitworth. His mother died in 1814 aged 34 and the 11 year-old Joseph was fostered out as his father moved to Bradford to train as a minister at the Congregational Training College. Little is known of Joseph’s early years but around 1817 he became apprenticed to his maternal uncle, Charles Hulse at his Amber Mill at Shirland, Derbyshire. In 1821 he joined the Manchester machine-making firm of Creighton & Co. to train as a mechanic, and in 1825 he married Frances Ankers at Ilkeston.

The newlyweds soon moved to London where Joseph took up a position with Henry Maudslay at his famous Lambeth Marsh works. Whitworth, like Maudslay, was a perfectionist, and working alongside the master at Lambeth he encountered and developed the concepts of true plane surfaces and vastly increased standards of accuracy and precision which were to become the hallmarks of his fame.

The mechanisation of industrial production and the rapid expansion of the railways during the 1830’s led to a great increase in demand for machine-tools and Joseph Whitworth returned to Manchester in 1832, setting up his business in Port Street. A sign above the door read, `Joseph Whitworth – Toolmaker from London’. He soon developed a fine reputation for excellent workmanship and in 1834 moved to a factory in Chorlton Street from where he applied for his first patent for a screw-cutting machine. His burgeoning machine toolmaking business proved so successful that by 1846 he had purchased The Firs estate at Fallowfield and had become accepted into Manchester’s Liberal circle of society high-flyers. The standardised Whitworth thread proved immensely successful and Joseph Whitworth’s international reputation as `the world’s best mechanician’ was confirmed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where his machine tools and his famous `millionth’ micrometer were amongst the most widely praised exhibits and won more awards than any other exhibitor.

Royal Commission Appointment

In 1853 Whitworth was appointed to serve on a Royal Commission which visited the New York Industrial Exhibition. In America he visited, amongst others, Colt’s armaments factory and was impressed by American production methods, which upon his return he introduced to his burgeoning Manchester factories. Following the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, Whitworth was employed by the Army Ordnance Board to make machine parts for the newly accepted standard-issue Enfield rifle. He developed a hexagonal bore rifle of his own – and although it was not adopted by the British Army, the Whitworth rifle proved more powerful and accurate than the Enfield and attracted large orders from the French government! In 1834 his workforce had numbered fifteen but by 1854 when Joseph Whitworth & Co became a limited company the workforce had risen to 368, and in 1856 he was elected President of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Whitworth also turned his attention to developing field-artillery and by 1862 had developed a cannon of unrivalled power capable of discharging a 250lb shell a distance of six miles – but in 1865 the Ordnance Board rejected his guns because they deviated too much from traditional designs and Whitworth contented himself during the bitter dispute that followed by supplying his cannons and guns to France, New Zealand, and other foreign governments. His armaments were used by both sides in the American Civil War (1861-65) and examples are today displayed at the Gettysburg War Memorial in the United States of America.

In 1863 he was created an honorary LL.D. by Trinity College, Dublin, and in 1868 he was both conferred an honorary D.C.L. by Oxford University and awarded the Legion d’Honour by Napolean 3rd of France. That same year he wrote to Prime Minister Disraeli offering to found thirty `Whitworth scholarships’ with an annual value of £100 each, and in recognition of this generosity he was created a baronet on November 1st 1869 - thus becoming Sir Joseph Whitworth.

Sir Joseph’s first wife Frances died aged 69 in 1870, and within six months the 68 year-old had re-married. Mary Louise Orell, a 43 year-old widow who was later to become known as Lady Bountiful to the folk of Darley Dale, became the second Lady Whitworth and in 1871 the couple moved into their newly refurbished and enlarged home at Stancliffe Hall, which Sir Joseph had purchased for £33, 850 in 1856.

Sir Joseph, who had been a personal confidante of Prince Albert, enjoyed audiences with Queen Victoria, had been presented at court, and with a Royal Medal by the King of Spain, and had met a number of prime ministers and heads of state, nevertheless did not endear himself to the good people of Darley Dale! He had bitter feuds with the Rector and many local landowners over the unscrupulous methods employed in his desire to build his autonomous empire at Stancliffe. But Darley Dale was to benefit greatly from the philanthropy of Sir Joseph and especially Lady Whitworth.

He endowed the village with the hospital, institute and park which still bear his name and built new roads and houses in the village for his considerable workforce. He also built West Lodge at Stancliffe, thus providing the parish with it’s most distinctive piece of architecture. The stone from his Stancliffe Quarries was used in many local buildings including the Painted Staircase at Chatsworth House, and in the construction of numerous Victorian city halls, as well as providing the paving stones for Trafalgar Square and the plinth for the Victoria and Albert Monument.

For the final years of his life Sir Joseph divided his time between Stancliffe, his factories at Openshaw, Manchester, and spent his winters on the French Riviera. He died aged 84 in Monaco on January 22nd 1887 and Lady Whitworth survived him by nine years until her own death at the St. Pancras Hotel, London, on May 26th 1896.

The body of Great Briton, Sir Joseph Whitworth now lies beside that of his wife in the graveyard of St.Helen’s Parish Church, Darley Dale.

*Thanks are expressed to Terence Kilburn B.Soc.Sc., M.A., A.R. Hist.S. for permission to quote extensively from his biography, `Joseph Whitworth – Toolmaker’ published by Scarthin Books of Cromford, 2nd edition 2002.

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