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Builder of Newcomen Steam Engines
The Hornblowers of Cornwall played a vital part in the history of the industrial revolution in the British Isles and in America. Relative newcomers to Cornwall, the Hornblower family contributed to the progress of science through its members' creativity and hard work as mining engineers and inventors; and in addition in the fields of medicine, religion, journalism, and creative writing. A famous law case, Hornblower and Maberley v. Boulton and Watt, is still frequently cited in books and articles on the subject of copyright and intellectual property.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Joseph Hornblower traveled to Cornwall as early as 1718 to assist Thomas Newcomen, the inventor of the atmospheric steam engine, in erecting the first such engines in the southwest of England. Joseph gave his children names beginning with the letter “J” (except the youngest, Isaac). In turn his eldest son Jonathan gave all of his thirteen children Biblical names beginning with the letter “J.” This was unfortunate from the viewpoint of their descendants and countless writers and researchers who have been unable to untangle the family lines, confusing one Jonathan, Joseph, or Josiah with another. The wrong Hornblower is consistently reported to have been the loser in the famous lawsuit with James Watt mentioned above, and a certain Josiah Hornblower is sent to the American colonies long before he was born.
For hundreds of years Hornblowers lived near Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England, in an area west of the city of Birmingham. Relatives and associates of the Hornblower family can be found in the histories of nearby communities including Broseley, Dudley, Netherton, and Bromsgrove. The area is close to the coalfields of Shropshire, where Thomas Newcomen, [1663-1729] an ironmonger and dealer in iron tools from Dartmouth, Devonshire, sold his wares to the miners. Newcomen, a devout Baptist, served as a lay preacher in his local church. Through a circle of close-knit friends and fellow believers he made the acquaintance of a young teenager named Joseph Hornblower around 1710. Whether Joseph’s family was already Baptist is not known, but from that time forward the Hornblowers were closely associated with the English Baptist Church.
The Baptist movement in England began in the late sixteenth century. Following the turmoil at the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church under Henry VIII in 1535, the government and church remained united under the royal sovereign and tolerated little dissent in religious matters. English citizens who held other views, whether Catholic, Quaker, or Puritan, found it safer to meet in private; even so they were at risk for arrest and imprisonment. Others preferred to flee the British Isles to Holland, or in the case of Catholics, to France. Despite ongoing persecution, a small group of English refugees returned from exile in Holland to establish the first Baptist Church on English soil in Spitalfields, London, in 1612. In the midst of political and religious strife the Baptist Church continued to attract new adherents.
In 1689 Parliament passed the Act of Toleration, thereby granting a measure of freedom of worship to certain Protestants: the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists (but not Catholics). These sects, known as Nonconformists or Old Dissenters, were required to take oaths of allegiance and register their meeting locations. They could not participate in politics or attend the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. Occasionally the Baptists were mistakenly referred to as Anabaptists, a different denomination that originated on the continent and had no connection with the English Baptists. (This error persists in many of the histories that can be found on the Internet.)
Researchers have traced the Hornblower pedigree back to Edmund Hornblower, who may have been born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire in the early 1600s and to his wife, Mary Carpenter. Family tradition is that they descended from the bugler to the king, Walter de la Grene, who so captivated the king’s attention that he became the royal “horn blower.” As far as the early descendants of Edmund and Mary, we only know a few of their names and some approximate dates. By the late 1600s some of their descendants had settled in Staffordshire.
Joseph Hornblower  and his wife (whose name we do not know) had at least one child, a son they named Joseph, born around 1696. (Great-grandson Cyrus Redding [1785-1879] gives 1698 for the birth of Joseph and states that he was a native of Bromsgrove or the vicinity.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>) The younger Joseph’s birthplace has been reported as Broseley, Shropshire, or Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Fortunately the records of the Cinder Bank Baptist Chapel (also called the Messiah Chapel) of Netherton, Worcester, England, have survived and they show Joseph Hornblower baptized 24 August 1712, when he was sixteen years of age.
One of the ways the Baptists differed from other churches was in the rejection of infant baptism. They believed that baptism must be by immersion, and that the candidate for baptism must possess the maturity to understand and profess their faith—a “believer’s baptism.” Parents could not make a profession of faith on behalf of their children. Of the three main Baptist sects, the Hornblowers belonged to the most numerous, the Particular Baptists, who were moderate Calvinists.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Adherents called their churches “chapels” or “meeting houses.”
Netherton (also spelled Nederton) lay in a “small island” of Worcestershire surrounded by Staffordshire. The Cinder Bank Chapel was the oldest known Baptist church in the “Black country,” the coal-mining region of the West Midlands located in the area north and west of Birmingham, England. Believed to have been founded by the Dutch and continental refugees in the early 17th century, the Netherton group kept close ties with other chapels in the area as the movement spread, including Dudley and Bromsgrove. The members had suffered much persecution.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Thomas Newcomen’s business took him through this coal-rich Black Country. Coal had been mined in the region for years, but by the early 1700s it had become increasingly sought after as a source of fuel. To meet the demand miners had to burrow deeper into the earth where they encountered water seeping into the underground tunnels and shafts, thereby impeding the work of finding and bringing out the coal. The miners removed water by pulling buckets to the surface, first by their own muscle power and later, by horsepower—a slow and inefficient method. Another Devonshire man, Thomas Savery, invented an early form of the steam engine called a “fire engine,” and had been granted a patent for it. Newcomen had been working on his own idea to use steam to drive an engine to pump water to the surface. Savery agreed to take Newcomen as a partner, allowing him to continue experimenting on making a workable pump utilizing a steam engine. Together with his assistant, John Calley (or Cawley) Newcomen invented the first steam engine capable of pumping water from the mines, the atmospheric steam engine.
Some time around 1683 Humphrey Potter, a mercer and Overseer of the Poor<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>, joined the Baptist group that had established a church in Bromsgrove. In 1700 he registered his home as a Baptist meeting place and built the first Baptist meeting house, which he granted to the trustees of the church after his death. The first trustee was Thomas Newcomen.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Newcomen was visiting the Potter home in Bromsgrove when he met the young Joseph Hornblower. (Perhaps the Potter and Hornblower families were related—as mentioned above, nothing is known of Joseph’s maternal side.) Eventually Humphrey’s two brothers, John and Abraham Potter, worked with engines and built Newcomen steam engines as far away as Scotland. Other members of this Baptist circle also worked for Newcomen, who had obtained a contract to build an engine at Dudley Castle in Staffordshire. Possibly Joseph began working for him there as early as 1712.
An often-repeated story is that in attempting to make his engine work for a Mr. Back of Wolverhampton, Newcomen discovered how to make the engine work by accident, through the ingenuity of Humphrey Potter, a boy employed to mind the engine. If so, the boy Humphrey was most likely a nephew of Humphrey Potter of Bromsgrove.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
This first generation of steam engine builders did not call themselves “engineers.” There was no community of civil engineers (as opposed to military engineers) before 1760, and the Society of Civil Engineers was organized in 1771. Mine owners needed skilled workers to build and operate Newcomen’s machines. The skills needed could not be learned in the universities because engineering was not yet taught in any institution. Men like Joseph Hornblower and his sons learned the necessary skills through practical experience. Once they gained the expertise they became known as engineers.
Modern historians of the industrial revolution now give credit to Thomas Newcomen for his accomplishment, an achievement often overshadowed by the attention given to James Watt, who was not even born until 1739. On Newcomen’s accomplishment, L. T. C. Rolt has written: “With little capital, no machine tools and no text books to help him, Newcomen, captaining a team of craftsmen on the site, succeeded in building a machine so masterly in design that, in its broad essentials, it endured for nearly 200 years.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
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In 1716 Joseph Hornblower married Rebecca Heywood (or Haywood). According to the records of the Netherton Messiah Baptist Chapel, she was baptized 27 July 1713. Some family records show Joseph married to Rebecca Potter. (Perhaps Rebecca was a Potter relative, or Rebecca Potter was Joseph’s second wife.) Like her husband, Rebecca was also of Staffordshire, and she and Joseph were married in Netherton. In 1717 Rebecca gave birth to her first child, a son the couple named Jonathan. Joseph may have made his first trip to Cornwall soon after the child’s birth.
A Hornblower family tradition has it that Joseph (now a young man barely into his twenties) worked in Cornwall under the direct supervision of Thomas Newcomen. Newcomen stated in a Chancery case that he was away form home in Cornwall for the whole of 1718. Author L. T. C. Rolt tells us that if Newcomen had been involved in engine building, it would probably have been the Wheal Fortune engine—the last that Newcomen is known to have been involved with directly.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Wheal Fortune was at Ludgvan, near Penzance, a remarkable mine from which the principal shareholders derived a small fortune. (“Wheal” or “Huel” is the ancient Cornish word for mine.)
The history of mining in Cornwall can be traced to in ancient times. For more than a thousand years before Roman Empire, the inhabitants of the southwest British Isles traded tin and copper with traders from the Mediterranean region. The Cornish peninsula is geologically distinctive from the rest of England in that the granite mountain of the southwestern peninsula was thrown up from the seabed. Centuries of wind and rain have worn the granite hills and cliffs so that they have assumed strange contours. These shapes gave rise to legends of supernatural forces. Piles of rock or dry streambeds concealed rich deposits of precious ores near the surface, most notably tin and copper, both needed to manufacture Bronze Age tools. These ores, along with other metals, are distributed along the granite backbone of Cornwall from Land’s End to the Tamar River, the border between Devon and Cornwall.
By the 1500s much of the easily accessible ores near the surface had been recovered. Miners had to expend more energy in hard physical labor to extract the ores from beneath the rocky surface. Seeping water, along with occasional cave-ins, made mining difficult and dangerous. The miners learned to dig trenches and tunnels called adits into the side of cliffs to drain away the water. As the mines went deeper into the ground, miners used buckets and pulleys to bring water to the surface. They also began using gunpowder that had to be imported into Cornwall. A monopoly on one of the ingredients, saltpeter, meant that it was expensive, as well as dangerous to use. The first gunpowder factory in Cornwall didn’t open until 1808.
A miner seeking new mineral deposits was required to obtain permission from the landowner (often the Crown) to work in a certain defined area. As the miners worked deeper, they joined with others in partnerships. A group of adventurers (as stockholders were called) came together to work on a defined project for a limited time. Using horse and water power, mines that otherwise might have been abandoned continued to be worked at deeper levels, still limited by the inefficient, labor-intensive methods of removing water that accumulated in the mine shafts.
The miners of Cornwall, proud of their Celtic heritage and history rich in legendary tales, were an independent group. Despite efforts of the English government to eradicate Cornish, a Celtic language similar to Breton and Welsh, the inhabitants continued to speak it until the mid-1700s. Newcomers often believed the Cornish to be stubborn and resistant to change, while the local people looked at outsiders with mistrust. Despite the animosity, Joseph Hornblower and his sons seemed to have worked well with the Cornish people.
Some evidence exists for the building of an atmospheric steam engine in Cornwall as early as 1710-11 at Balcoath, near Wendron.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Historians of the industrial revolution believe it is more likely that Newcomen built his first engine at Wheal Vor, Breage, located three miles from Helston, in 1710-14. Historians regard installation of the engine at Wheal Vor as the beginning of the industrial revolution in Cornwall.
Travel to the southwest of England in the early eighteenth century was arduous. The few existing roads were poor, often impassible in bad weather, rutted and hard as rock in the summer. As Joseph set out, he faced a journey that might take weeks to reach his destination. He may have traveled part of the way on horseback, or perhaps his budget included carriage transportation—especially if he was traveling with Thomas Newcomen. He might have gone overland through marshy swamps in Somerset as far as Bristol, a major iron foundry area in the eighteenth century, where he would have boarded a sailing vessel to a port along the Cornish coast nearest the site of the mine. The heavy equipment and parts would also have been brought by sea. Years later, when James Watt built his first engine in Cornwall, he had the parts shipped to the port at Hayle, near Angarrack, approximately 20 miles from Truro.
The Newcomen atmospheric engines were expensive to manufacture and to build, so they were beyond the grasp of all but those willing to invest significant outlays of capital to obtain the machines. Cornwall was lacking in coal—it had to be imported at great cost from Wales by sea. Once unloaded at a port on the coast of Cornwall, the coal was transported inland by pack mule trains—a slow and inefficient process. Furthermore, the Newcomen engine was inefficient in use of coal, requiring large amounts. (When coal was unavailable peat was used as a fuel.) The government imposed a duty on coal brought by sea, increasing the cost even further, until 1741 when mining interests succeeded in persuading Parliament to abolish it. A drop in the price of fuel increased the demand for new engines in Cornwall.
While evidence for his participation at Wheal Fortune is lacking, Joseph definitely enters the pages of history in 1725 when he traveled to Cornwall to build a Newcomen engine at Wheal Rose near Truro. Assuming his estimated birth date is correct, he would have been in his thirtieth year. By this time the invention of the atmospheric steam engine had begun to change the Cornish mining industry, greatly increasing its productivity at a time when the spreading industrial revolution demanded the metals it produced.
Joseph erected two more Newcomen engines: Wheal Busy, Chacewater, Cornwall, 1725-27, and Polgooth, near Helston, 1725-27. The primary output of the Polgooth mine was tin, along with a certain amount of copper. The output must have been high in 1727 when the “celebrated engineer Joseph Hornblower” erected the atmospheric engine designed by Newcomen. In 1790 the Reverend W. G. Maton described it as one of the richest and largest mines in the county, if not the world.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
In the twelve years following the birth of son Jonathan in 1717, three more children were born: Joanna, Joseph, (birthdates approximate) and Josiah, the youngest, born in 1729. Joseph taught his young sons engineering as they grew up. They may have had some formal schooling outside the home, perhaps in local Baptist school. The children were bright, inventive, and possessed of great intellectual curiosity. Like Newcomen, Joseph was a religious man but he was also interested in the scientific knowledge. He attended lectures and conducted experiments using an electrical machine to relieve pain by applying galvanic current to any part of the human body.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Baptist preachers visited Cornwall as early as 1650, but few believers could be found there in the early 1700s, reportedly at Looe and Penryn. We don’t know whether Joseph brought Baptist men who worked and worshiped with him or if he met with the local members. Certainly Joseph’s absences from home must have been lengthy. We assume Rebecca raised her sons with the help of family and Baptist friends. Sadly, most of her story is lost. She died 17 June 1730 when Josiah was just 15 months old, and Jonathan, the oldest, only thirteen. Her birth date is unknown, but she was probably around thirty years of age.
Newcomen himself died of a fever in London 5 April 1729 at age 66. A modest man, throughout his life he continued to identify himself simply as “Thomas Newcomen, Ironmonger of Dartmouth.” He was buried in the nonconformist burial ground at Bunhill Fields, City Road, Finsbury. No trace of his grave remains.
Joseph remarried, probably around 1736, but even less is known of his second wife than of Rebecca. She and Joseph had at least four children—Joshua, James, Jabez, and Isaac—probably all of them born in Staffordshire, where Joseph apparently kept his home base until he finished his work in Cornwall. Cyrus Redding wrote that after installing the engine at Polgooth, Joseph “returned no more to the county, his son Jonathan taking his place.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
I wish you every comfort in your third son. I think his name is well chosen, &c. * * * * * [Jonathan’s third son, Jesse, was born July 3, 1749.]
Cyrus believed that Joseph’s business at Bristol related to coal mine engines at Radstock, but he said this was surmise.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Fire Engineer at a Copper Mine in New Jersey in America
Joseph’s seal was “a representation of the queer, high pitched roof engine house of his day with one arm of the walking beam projecting from one end.” (A representation of this seal would be a great find.)
There are many online sources for the history of mining as well as individual mines in Cornwall.
Cornish Mining World Heritage is a good place to start:
Readers should be aware that the Hornblower naming patterns caused later writers much confusion. Errors in identity persist into scholarly works written in the 20th century, the most recent in a book published in 2007. Much of what is written about them comes from the point of view of Matthew Boulton and James Watt (who at least knew the family members and knew which was which, even while defaming them.) This family history, like the others, is a work in progress, but is intended to correct and document the true Hornblower family history.
For an excellent short history of Cornwall: Philip Payton, Cornwall: A History, Cornwall Editions Limited, Fowey, (2004).
H. Miles Brown, The Church in Cornwall, Cornish Classics No 6, (2005).
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> 8 T.R. 95; (King’s Bench 1799); 1 Carpmael’s Reports. P. C. 156. This case will be discussed in connection with Jabez Carter Hornblower, one of Joseph Hornblower’s grandchildren.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Cyrus Redding, Yesterday and To-day, Vol. I, T. Cautley Newby, London, (1863.) Readers will find Redding’s grasp of family history hazy as well as incomplete, yet valuable for what he does tell us. Redding began his career as a journalist at age twenty-one, and became the author of many books. He was 78 when his memoir was published. This memoir and other works can be found on Google Books. Joseph Hornblower was his great-grandfather, Jonathan and Ann Carter Hornblower were his grandparents. His mother was Joanna Hornblower, the eldest of the Hornblower daughters, and his father Robert Redding, a Baptist minister.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> The other two groups were the General Baptists, who adhered to Arminian theology, and the Strict and Particular Baptists, who were strict Calvinists. (Particular is one group, Strict and Particular is the name of a different group.)
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> The Messiah or Cinder Bank Chapel survived until the early 1980s. A footnote to history: the anchors and chains for the doomed Titanic were manufactured in the area near Netherton.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> An Overseer of the Poor was an appointed official who administered poor relief such as money, food and clothing. The position was created by the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> L.T.C. Rolt & J.S. Allen, The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen, Landmark Publishing, Ashbourne, Derbyshire (1993), p 49.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> According to A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, in the article on Newcomen page 477, Newcomen began experimenting around 1710. “ . . . in March following, thro’ the acquaintance of Mr. Potter of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, they bargain’ed to draw water for Mr. Back of Wolverhampton where . . . after many attempts, and not understanding the reason or mathematics, by accident found what they were looking for. The injection of water inside the cylinder instead of outside, according to Savery’s practice, was discovered accidentally and the engine was rendered self-acting by the ingenuity of Humphrey Potter, a boy employed to mind the engine. (The accuracy of this account has been questioned and no one has found the identity of “Mr. Back.”)
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> Rolt & Allen, 85.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Quoted in K. D. Russ and R. F. Morton, “Digging Back in Time—An Adit Clearance Project at Polgooth, Cornwall,” Mining History: The Bulletin of the Peak Mining District Historical Society, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter 1996.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> T. R. Harris, “The Hornblower Family: Pioneer Steam Engineers,” Trevithick Society Journal, 4 (1976).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Redding, 131-2. Cyrus Redding published extracts from a letter Joseph wrote to his son Jonathan, who was then established in Cornwall.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> William Nelson, Josiah Hornblower and the First Steam Engine in America, Newark, New Jersey, (1883), p. 54. Josiah  founded the Hornblower family in America. A sketch of his life is coming soon.
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