Iron Men

Having completed an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck over a decade ago, David Waller, author of the new book Iron Men, takes a look at the life and work of Henry Maudslay, linchpin of the industrial age

There were two very good reasons for launching my book Iron Men — about Victorian engineers — at Birkbeck recently.

The first wasiron-men-cover that when Birkbeck was founded in 1823, it was known as the Mechanics’ Institute, and the men who attended the evening classes in those days were the Iron Men in the title of my book. I’m sorry to say these early mechanics were all men: no Iron Women at all at this stage of the Industrial Revolution.

They were the engineers who designed and built the machinery that defined the age — powerful steam engines, railways and locomotive engines, ironclad ships, machines that made other machines (machine tools) and the complex equipment used in the textiles industry. These and other inventions helped turn the UK into the “workshop of the world,” the undoubted leader of the industrial world by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Iron Men focuses on Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), who came from a humble background as the son of a storekeeper at the Woolwich Arsenal. He shot to prominence after he worked with Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to design and build the machines used in the revolutionary Portsmouth block factory. This was the world’s first assembly line, producing more than 100,000 pulley blocks a year for the Royal Navy: a site that pointed the way to the mechanised future and became a tourist attraction.

Maudslay also built the tunnelling shield used in the construction of the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping. Completed in 1843, this was another industrial wonder of the age, attracting 100,000 foot passengers on the day it first opened and 2m over the first nine months. Queen Victoria herself visited it by barge, and narrowly avoided a fatal collision with a steamboat. Unfortunately the tunnel proved a commercial white elephant, and in the way of many modern infrastructure projects, lost lots of money for its investors before being sold off to a railway company.

With the profits from Portsmouth, Maudslay opened a factory in Lambeth, just south of Westminster Bridge near the Thames. In time, this became one of the biggest engineering concerns in the UK, employing 500 people by the middle of the century. The company became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of marine engines used to power steamships. Maudslay engines drove Brunel’s Great Western, the first scheduled passenger ship to cross the Atlantic, which had its maiden voyage in 1837.

Henry Maudslay himself was self-taught and did not attend the Mechanics’ Institute, but undoubtedly many of the men he employed did. His factory attracted the brightest and best mechanics of the age, just like Google and Apple attract the best software engineers today. Among those who trained there were Joseph Whitworth, James Nasmyth and Richard Robert, all three of whom left London for Manchester where they became the top engineers of the Victorian age.

They and their peers were hungry for knowledge, and had their own Mechanics Magazine, which complemented the evening classes with articles on maths, trigonometry, chemisty and physics as well as practical engineering.

Given Birkbeck’s roots, it felt especially appropriate to launch the book in the Keynes Library. The other reason why Birkbeck was was the perfect location is that, like the students of the 1820s, I too am a graduate of the former Mechanics’ Institute, having completed the MA in Victorian Studies more than a decade ago. That was a formative experience, fortunately with no physics, chemistry or trigonometry, awakening a passionate interest in the social history of the nineteenth century.

Iron Men is the third book I have written about the Victorians since my time at Birkbeck, the others also delving into obscure or forgotten aspects of the Victorian past. The first was The Magnificent Mrs Tennant, the life of the Victorian Grande Dame Gertrude Tennant, and the second The Perfect Man, an account of Eugen Sandow, the fin de siècle body-builder famed for having the best body in the world.

So Birkbeck can be blamed for inspiring an interest that has absorbed most of my free time for more than ten years.

I have had to combine the writing with a full-time job, but this has proved no bad thing. For example, it helped me get a job in a finance company. In the job interview, I spoke with my prospective boss for one hour about Gustave Flaubert, the great French novelist who was Mrs Tennant’s paramour. I got the job.

Thereafter, whenever there was a sticky moment, I reminded my boss that I got the job because of my knowledge of Flaubert, not my understanding of the investment management business where I worked.

This is not quite the experience of the pre-Victorian mechanics, but still proved the practical value of a Birkbeck education!


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