Henry Cort was undoubtedly the hero of his day when he discovered how to manufacture strong, workable, cost-effective British iron. There were many attemts made during the previous two or three hundred years but the puddling process he developed served his purpose ideally.
Little is known of Cort's early years, records suggest that he was born around 1740/1 and raised in Lancashire. By the age of 21, he was already in partnersip with William Batty already an agent dealing in naval affairs. Most ship's business of the time was carried out by independent agents who took a percentage commission for their work. This could include acting on behalf of naval officers and sailors to recover prize money and back pay from the Navy Board, managing cargoes, acquiring materials for the dockyard, etc. By the end of 1763, Cort had already met Portsmouth pay clerk, Adam Jellicoe who was his contact for receiving money due to clients. When Batty retired, Cort took over the agency then in Gould Square, Crutched Friars, near the Tower of London.
Cort was already a gentleman of substance, in 1764 he married Elizabeth Brown in the parish of St Giles in the Fields, Middlesex; at the ceremony both gave their ages as 22 years. In 1765 he purchased a farm in Colliers End for £825 from Henry Trott of Standon. Little more is known of Elizabeth Cort.
England's superiority at sea depended upon well built ships, many came from Solent dockyards. Strong mast hoops, anchors, pulleys, chains, nails and even barrel hoops were needed but English wrought iron was not reliable enough for their manufacture, so it had to be imported from Sweden and Russia. William Attwick & Company of Gosport was a supplier to Portsmouth Dockyard since 1722, by 1751 the business was in the hands of the founder's youngest son, another William. There being no form of mechanical power available (such as a water wheel), only the smaller items would be manufactured in house, the rest would be bought from third parties.
The life of Henry Cort moved up yet another gear when his agency became involved in the supply of iron to the Navy. By chance or design the loop is closing, in 1768 Cort married Elizabeth Haysham, William Attwick's niece, and a year later the first of their thirteen children was born. Cort's agency was then supplying the Navy with products from the 'family' forge.
In 1772 Attwick took on a partner called Thomas Morgan he was left to manage the ironmongery until the end of 1774. During that period for some unrecorded reason he borrowed large sums from Cort. The Corts acceeded to the business and moved into 62 Middle Street in Gosport whilst Attwick was building a house in London's Portman Square. With Morgan now serving in the Navy, Cort gave up his agency and operated the ironworks himself. Business was steady for the next five years, probably based upon the established pattern.
Meanwhile Cort started to enhance the Funtley iron works to make a wider range of items. In 1779 he described it as an undershot mill with a wheel 12.5 foot in diameter and 3 foot wide with a 6 foot fall. The hammer weighed 9 hundred weight and made 100 drops per minute per minute from a height of 20 inches. Although the profits were reasonable, they had not been sufficient to liquidate the investments and in 1780, a large sum still remained due to Cort, but there was more business on the horizon.
Cort took out the first of his curiously worded patents for his new iron manufacturing process.
'a peculiar method of preparing, welding and working various sorts of iron amid reducing the same into uses by machinery, a furnace and other apparatus adapted amid applied to the same purposes'.
One year later a second patent was protected (note the word steel appears)
'a new model shingling, welding and manufacturing iron and steel into bars, plates. rods, etc., and otherwise of purer quality in large quantities by a more effective application of fires and machinery with a greater yield than any method before attained or put into practice'
The new methods these patents protected were to have a great impact upon the centuries-old English iron industry.
For many years ship's stores were packed in traditional wooden barrels held together by iron hoops were used to pack ships stores. In 1780 Commander Kirk of the Victualling Office inquired of Cort whether could make iron hoops. Cort replied that he had made them with forge hammers, but had no mill. He said however that the River Meon at Fontley would provide water enough, where a mill might be erected. The Commander strongly expressed his wishes that Mr. Cort should establish a manufactory of iron hoops for Government to break the cartel in vicinity of London keeping prices artificially high. Cort stated that, he was willing to erect a mill, provided he was given "proper" encouragement. After some official correspondence, Mr. Cort entered into a contract at the expense of his competitors starting on 1st October 1780, to supply new hoops for the service of the whole of the Navy.
During the war, these were to be delivered to Portsmouth Dockyard at £21 per ton, subject to the Discount of 5 per cent, leaving the net price at £19 19. 0d.; and, he contracted, besides to deliver one ton of new for two tons of old iron hoops, equivalent to £10 per ton for the old iron, which had frequently been sold for less than £8 and seldom more than £9 per ton. The current price of Iron, of the quality adapted for hoops, was at that time £15 per ton Mr. Cort, accordingly, erected a Mill, at a very considerable expense, with every prospect of an adequate remuneration;
Soon after the commencement of the works under this contract, Cort, requiring an increase of capital, entered into a negotiation with Adam Jellicoe. The latter had been, for many years, whilst Pay Clerk at Portsmouth, Cort's contact for receiving money there due to Officers for whom he represented and there had been other pecuniary transactions between them. Cort became indebted to Adam Jellicoe for several thousand pounds, which had been advanced to fund Cort's operations at 5% interest. The deal in 1781 also included taking into partnership Jellicoe's son, Samuel. We assume that Cort believed that the funding came from an authorised source, although this was to prove a fatal mistake later.
In the the years 1781 - 1783, extraordinarily large quantities of old Iron hoops were received, greatly exceeding the proportion of new hoops supplied so that they had not an opportunity of working them up, in any ordinary way, without incurring a great loss.
Typically Henry Cort entered upon a variety of experiments, with a view to the profitable conversion of their large stock of old hoops. At length he discovered & perfected the process, for which he obtained his first patent. Yet more experiments led him to make yet more important discoveries for which his other patents were subsequently granted, and succeeded in bringing to perfection the whole of his inventions.
The stock of old iron hoops proved to he a blessing in disguise and gave the urge to remake them into hoops of good quality. The secret was in the rolling process, using the grooved rolls he had devised for making mast-hoop section from Swedish bar. As his first patent (No. 1351 of 1783) shows, he broke and straightened the old hoops, faggoted them, reheated, forged and rolled to the required section; this process removed the rust as a slag and the gentler process of rolling instead of hammering gave a grain structure which conferred a toughness to the product. Once the quality of the product had been established, a comparatively simple process like this, which doubled the value of the raw material, did not need an expert to appreciate its significance.
Cort's next problem was that the beaten cartel contrived to force up the price of Swedish iron , causing him to lose nearly £10,000. Never say die Cort decides to refine his own wrought iron from scrap cast iron in a new type of furnace.
Cort sent it a sample bar of the high-quality iron produced by the new methods on 7th July 1784 and the Board responded favourably:
Between 1783 and 1786, the Naval authorities, wishing to further test Cort's claims, conducted extensive comparative tests at their dockyards against Swedish iron made into anchors, mooring chains, hooks and ship's bolts. They were finally convinced and placed contracts for 150 tons in both 1787 and 1788, and 200 tons in 1789.
In 1787, the Board decided to use Cort's iron in the Navy and the naval dockyards. Up until then almost all the iron for naval use had been supplied by one major contractor, Anders Lindgren, who imported quantities of the iron known colloquially as Ormgound. from its source at Oregrund in the province of Uppsala, Sweden. Now the Cort and Jellicoe enterprise was acknowledged as the pioneer in what may be termed the new iron industry. Other ironmasters took an interest in the process from whom Cort asked 10 shillings per ton royalty for the use of the patented process. Cort could take credit for the rapidly diminishing imports of both Russian amid Swedish iron.
Now it was time to capitalise on his patents so Cort spent much of his time visiting other ironmasters teaching this neccessary skills to work the process. One of the Britain's largest suppiers of wrought iron was the Cyfarthfa works near Merth Tydfil in Wales that rolled out vast quantities of railway track. Yorkshireman Richard Crawshay took over these works and adopted Henry Cort's methods. There were problems initially, primarily with the Welsh ironmasters failing to grasp the fundamentals. In a series of exchanges both Jellicoes helped to solve the problems. Crawshay's letters to Cort indicate that goodwill prevailed, indeed he advised Cort to give more time to his wife and not to talk business all the time (although they did have 13 children). William Reynolds 'laid out many thousands of pounds' constructing very large works and then having seen Cort's demonstration, changed to adopt the puddling system at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. An agreement was made to pay royalties of 10/= per ton but Cort never saw a penny. Although advised to do so, Cort did not pusue the matter. Some say Cort may have oversold the benefits (although the Mott/Singer book offers many positive quotes from relevant letters of the time) for some of the users of his patented method were not happy with their results and did not pay their royalties.
It appears from contemporary writings that these were in general a breed of men as hard as their product.
They were slow to appreciate Cort's considerable expertise and the revolutionary effect his
scientific and enquiring mind was to have both on their industry and their profits.
A letter written in 1784 by James Watt of steam-engine fame was to prove prophetic:
Mr. Cort has as you observe been most illiberally treated by the trade: they are ignorant brutes yet they will contrive by some dirty evasion to use his process or such parts as they like, without acknowledging him in it. The ignorant brutes, however, were not slow to pocket the profits which - were enhanced when the royalty they paid of ten shillings per ton was halved.
Jellicoe, who by then was close to death)was asked to explain his private investment of public funds (from the Navy Pay Office) amounting to £27,000 lent to Cort. Investigations into jellicoe's financial position revealed that he owed his employers, the Navy Board nearly £40,000. But when they failed to recover the debt, they seized the Cort & (Samuel) Jellicoe business, leaving Henry Cort penniless.
Unfortunately for Cort, Jellicoe had also pledged the patents as security. These were seized by the Crown and subsequently valued at only £100 and made no attempts to collect royalties.
Cort spent his last years in poverty and not until 1794 did he receive a state pension of £200 a year after an appeal to William Pitt. The petition accompanying the appeal refers proudly to him as "the father of the British iron trade'. At this time England had embarked on its long series of wars with France and Cort's innovations contributed towards the eventual outcome of the conflict between the two nations. Cort died in 1800, still in a state of genteel poverty, having struggled to support a wife and twelve children on his state pension. The desperate financial straits of Cort's widow and children were brought to the attention of the country's wealthy ironmasters, but a collection taken among them in 1811 realised only £871.
So what do we know of Henry Cort? He was ambitious by nature, for at the age of 21 was already quite prosperous. He bought a farm in Collier's End, married and settled down with his new wife Elizabeth. He was intelligent, self-assured and determined to add to his skills that of iron master and pursue his projects to their logical conclusion. He is reported as becoming quite agitated when his iron making methods failed in the hands of others, often through being poorly implemented. A few figures will put Cort's contribution in perspective. In 1740 the year of his birth, the English iron industry produced little more than 17,000 tons of iron a year. In 1789; five years after his patents, it reached 68.000 tons and in 1806, the total figure surpassed 250.000 tons.
At rural Funtley, where space was no problem, the forge and mill were operational as late as 1852, but on a drastically reduced scale. One observer remarked in that year: "two old men, each probably over 80 years of age were the solitary workmen...the following year the two ancient craftsmen either ceased their labours or went over to the majority and Funtley was no longer known as a foundry".
In the early part of the 19th century Cort's puddling furnace was the primary method for the manufacture of useable iron. The puddling process was used at the Swindon works to make rails for Isambard Brunel's Great Western Railway. Many of Brunel's other projects relied upon strong iron, so during his life (1806-1859)he may have used the process before.
Realistically, of course, Cort's forges at Funtley and Gosport could not have developed further because the burgeoning iron industry needed to move on to areas of Britain where coal and iron stone was in abundance. It was the ironmasters of the coal- rich Midlands who capitalised on Cort's inventions. The next revelations in the mid 19th century with the introduction of Henry Bessemer's Converter (that also had problems with siliceous deposits) and the blast furnace, which used gas for its fuel.
Note: The curse of inconsistent iron continued and made itself known again in 1879 with the Tay Bridge Disaster. One of the factors that sent 97 people to their deaths and left its designer Thomas Bouch a broken man was poor iron girders cast on the banks of the Tay. To be on the safe side, the Forth Bridge was over engineered and constructed entirely of steel.