One of the best known places of refreshment in the centre of Dublin displays Bewleys Oriental Cafes Ltd. over the door. This indicates roots stretching back to the period when the London based East India Company lost its trading monopoly and independent United Kingdom businesses began to take the opportunity to import goods directly from India and beyond. The first ship to bring tea directly from China to Ireland was the Hellas, from which 2000 chests were unloaded in Cork in 1835. The Bewley family, a dynamic force in Irish commerce of the time, was behind this enterprise, which lead to the eponymous company being set up a few years later. The patriarch of the entrepreneurial clan was Samuel Bewley who, like Jose d’Almeida, had plenty of offspring to drive prosperity forward. The fifth boy was named Henry. Encouraged by his father and with a background in a family which had become prosperous through trade, it is not surprising Henry became a successful businessman and after helping establish the Gutta Percha Company sought to spread the word about the new material in Dublin and beyond.

As soon as products from his company became available Henry Bewley supported their introduction to Ireland, the gutta percha stall being set out in February 1846 when the Saunders News-Letter, a well established Irish daily, published a report of a monthly meeting of the Dublin Natural History Society. There a Dr. Aldrige outlined the virtues of gutta percha and gave details of its chemical properties obtained from his own experiments, which had been quite extensive. However, a few months were to pass before the same enthusiast revealed to a meeting of the Royal Dublin Society of how this important substance could be used in making many of the most ordinary implements of civilised life. And, according to a report in the Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, there were so many. Gutta percha, according to Dr. Aldridge, was superior to wood in many respects being neither liable to rot nor attack by insects and could be molded to look like the most elaborate of carvings. In support of this assertion, evidently using samples provided by Bewley, a plank made of wood shavings and gutta percha was produced along with some imitations of wood carvings that well corroborated the previous statements. The substance was waterproof, a matter of interest to, amongst others, shipbuilders and floor layers, and, because it was easily cemented, there was no need for the use of nails or glue when making an attachment. Or stitching either, a benefit of particular note for those who worked in leather. Gutta percha had considerable strength when used to make cord and one length was displayed that, although only an eighth of an inch in diameter, was holding a hundredweight in suspension. Dr. Aldridge assured his audience, no doubt to one or two raised eyebrows, that it could bear double that weight. Then flat sheets of gutta percha, which must have been squeezed into shape between rollers at Wharf Road, were displayed. Plain or fancy, coloured or uncoloured, all were suitable for covering books or even a portmanteau. Examples of threads and tubes soon followed with an explanation of how each was manufactured and an outline given of the superiority of gutta percha clothing over that produced using traditional methods. In conclusion, Dr. Aldridge said gutta percha was superior to other known substances for many purposes and although refraining from throwing any of the exhibits on the floor to show they were unbreakable he warned it was difficult to know if enough raw material could be obtained to meet the inevitable rise in demand.

At the end of this exposition Dr, Aldridge stood aside so another speaker, introduced as a Surgeon named Antisell, could give the second talk of the evening. Unfortunately, if this expert in artesian wells was hoping for the kind of press coverage given to gutta percha he would have been sorely disappointed. Although Surgeon Antisell’s presentation was a lucid and able disquisition there was not a fraction of a column inch left in the Freeman’s Journal to report it. Over the tea and coffee (no doubt supplied by Bewleys) served at the end of the gathering of the learned society, much more conversation would almost certainly have been about gum than groundwater.

If anyone in London read a copy of the report of Dr. Aldridge’s talk and became anxious about a dearth of gutta percha supplies they could have found what might be available through the pages of the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser which advertised broker’s auctions. As there was more than one sale a day covering a wide variety of goods, prospective bidders had to organise their schedules very carefully. For example, on one day in October 1846, there were 18 advertised auctions all taking place within a mile radius of the Tower of London. Anyone seeking to bid for the gutta percha on offer would have found 4 tons listed at a Tower Street auction room along with consignments of India rubber, jute, cowries, tortoiseshell and guano. Other auctions offered a wide variety of commodities too, often in obscure quantities, blown on the trade winds and carried on currents to London. These included sea-elephant oil (100 tuns), Lathwood (70 Fathoms Baltic) and cattle bones (100 tons). It is unclear who bought the gutta percha but by this time demand was spreading as various industries found a use for it in imaginative ways. For example, a short carriage ride away from the bidding bustle lay the premises of Thomas De La Rue. De la Rue, who had once specialised in the production of straw hats, was now a leader in developing elegant stationery, including tinted note paper, envelopes and enamelled calling cards. Always moving with the times, he had adopted the process of electrotyping to produce copper printing plates soon after its invention. This required the use of molds, previously made of wax but now, as was fitting in such a fashionable business, created using gutta percha.

Mr De la Rue’s use of gutta percha was right up to the minute but investigations were continuing into what other commercially exploitable properties gutta percha possessed and from this curiosity came a boon to, amongst others, the deaf, sleeping doctors and lovers.

It did not take long to establish that gutta percha possessed excellent sound transmission qualities. When Bartlett visited the Wharf Road factory he noted Mr Statham was connected to different parts of the building through flexible speaking tubes but even in its solid state the material could prove a help to those losing their hearing. When this was first brought to the attention of the public no doubt many who were missing words spoken by family or friends waited anxiously to see if the new product could help overcome their disability. Their hope may have grown when it was reported a ticking clock had been heard at a distance of 150 yards through a gutta percha tube.

One of the most famous sufferers of loss of hearing at the time was the Duke of Wellington. This proved so significant it led to a nickname being given to a short lived government in the 1850s, which became known as the ‘Who? Who? ministry’ because of the way the old campaigner called out when the names of little known cabinet ministers were read in the House of Lords. During the early C19th there had been some progress in developing hearing aids and the ones produced using gutta percha seem to have been of the same type as those already in use, relying on the material rather than an innovative design to improve audibility. Unfortunately, whatever it was made from, the ear trumpet, or horn, was something which often caused a user to feel uncomfortable in a social setting although one contemporary writer on social affairs, Harriet Martineau, who had lost her hearing in adolescence, overcame her embarrassment and was often seen with one, even when debating important social issues of the time. Martineau was born into a fairly wealthy Norfolk family and, well educated, developed a skill in writing, which allowed her to maintain herself even when her family fell on hard financial times. Her Letters to the Deaf published in 1834 must have given comfort to many who were suffering from the same disability as herself. Green’s publication indicates gutta percha ear trumpets had, by 1851, certainly been produced in styles that ranged from Miss Martineau’s favourite pattern to the little cornet that clings unaided to the ear.

Whether Harriet Martineau actually benefited from a gutta percha hearing instrument is unclear but a mention in Green’s book probably did no harm to sales. However, it was flexible gutta percha speaking tubes that really brought in the pounds, shillings and pence and these were tried in various places. Although the name 'Telekouphanon' never caught on, a device going under this name was praised by a Doctor Aston who lived at Walton, near Preston in Lancashire. Reluctant to leave his warm bed in a northern winter (levelling up of the climate with the south of England has yet to be achieved), the doctor sought some way of responding to an urgent knocking on the front door in the middle of the night. Gutta percha came to the rescue. A telekouphanon tube had been installed running from the door to his pillow and this seems to have served Doctor Aston’s purposes perfectly as he reported he was able with the greatest facility to hold communication with the messenger in the street, without rising to open the window, and incurring exposure to the night air! So this particular tube was renamed the ‘Medical Man’s Midnight Friend’. When the forward thinking doctor finally saw his patient perhaps he used a stethoscope similar to the one recommended by Doctor Benson, a Dublin practitioner. Doctor Benson adopted a gutta percha stethoscope with very positive results, preferring it to instruments made of traditional  material due to its lightness and durability. He was happy as it did not feel so cold to his ear and patients preferred the other end too as not only was it warmer to their chest, it felt softer than wood when pressed against the skin.

Churchgoers benefited from the products of Wenlock basin too. It is possible that Dr Aston’s positive experience with his telekouphanon caught the attention of a member of the local clergy and this lead to the installation in a Lancashire church of what we might call ‘The Clergyman’s Sabbath Friend’. A mouthpiece was fitted into a pulpit connected to a deaf parishioner’s pew via a tube running under the floor. An ivory terminal was fitted at the receiving end and when the pastor began to speak the parishioner would be guaranteed to hear every word – or at least that was the reported experience of a lady from Preston who, for the first time in 20 years, heard a whole sermon after the installation of this ecclesiastical adaptation.

Perhaps alternative names to telekouphanon were generated when tubes were installed elsewhere, although there must have been limitations as to how useful they could be in some conditions. Surely, the voice of a captain, even though linked by a tube to a lookout on the masthead of a sailing ship, would have been difficult to hear during a passage through the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties or Shrieking Sixties? Nonetheless, the Admiralty conducted experiments to see if this form of communication was viable during the sound of gunfire and subsequently ordered two ships of the line be fitted out so experiments could continue. On land speaking tubes were tried in mines and noise generated in a factory was no bar to installation there either. One innovation might well still have a market today. The Railway Conversation Tube was specifically designed for use in the din of a carriage, which was probably considerable in the 1840s. As the illustration to the right shows, the device was perfect for use where passengers sat facing each other by a window. Evidently, by adopting this product, two passengers could keep up a lively chat and be mutually audible, though speaking in whispers. Crucially, privacy was also maintained and the subjects of remarks remained all the while profound secrets to the rest of the passengers! Unfortunately, the possibility of using the Railway Conversation Tube are becoming increasingly limited on London’s rail based transit system. As in the rest of the world, there is a movement towards using carriages where passengers sit facing each other across a central isle. However, if you happen to be waiting on a London Metropolitan Line station as S8 rolling stock pulls in keep your eyes open, you might see a Railway Conversation Tube being furtively packed away!

Back to Chapter 6    On to Chapter 8

Return to introduction

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 7  A Midnight Friend

Commanders and clippers

Ear horn of the pattern used by Harriet Martineau


The Medical Man’s Midnight Friend

Aid to the hard of hearing parishioner.

A Railway Conversation Tube