Charles Hancock had eleven siblings and two, Thomas and Walter, were to become famous in their own lifetime. Of the three, Thomas, born in 1786  was the oldest whilst Walter and Charles arrived in 1799 and 1800 respectively. Their father, James, had developed a successful business to which Thomas was apprenticed, the skills he learned under an exacting master standing him in good stead in later life. It might have been anticipated that the patriarch, particularly after 40 years in the trade and with a family history in Marlborough going back to the 1650s would want to pass the business on to his children but in 1818 he sold up and retired. His offspring scattered, three to make names for themselves which, perhaps, they would not have been able to do had they remained in rural Wiltshire.

By 1815 Thomas and Walter were settled in London, Thomas making a living as a coachbuilder from a base in Stratford, across the River Lea, whilst Walter had become an apprentice, learning the skills of clockmaker. It was Thomas who, after becoming interested in rubber, first set out on the path that was to be his life's work.

The English term rubber, meaning an eraser, had originally been coined by Joseph Priestley, the notable C18th scientist, when told a fragment could be used to rub out pencil marks. It was certainly easier to pronounce than the word first heard by the conquistadors when they discovered the new material in what was to become Mexico. Caoutchouc, which might be loosely translated as 'weeping wood', was used by the Aztecs for many domestic items, including the soles of sandals and in waterproofing clothes. Rubber was often referred to, in English, as India rubber because the empire Cortez conquered was considered to be in the Indies.

By the early C19th rubber in Europe was being used as a solution rather than a solid as it had proved impossible to manufacture blocks of a commercially viable size and the latex weeping from the rubber trees did not travel well. When Thomas Hancock saw opportunity in a business providing some kind of waterproof clothing for the cab and stagecoach trade, he began experimenting with rings cut from rubber bottles imported from Brazil. These were used to make elastic cuffs for coats, the object being to stop rain running up the sleeves to which they were fitted. The cuffs worked well and no doubt many travellers were grateful but a by-product of the process was a mound of waste rubber. It was at this point that, after much painstaking work and observation, Thomas made a breakthrough, devising a machine that would create a single useable mass from all the small waste scraps. He kept the process secret for many years, helped by calling his invention the ‘pickle’, but as he continued to build his business he did not cease to experiment, developing a form of artificial leather that soon found a market.

A competitor in the field of fabric waterproofing was Charles Macintosh. In the ‘devil take the hindmost’ atmosphere of early C19th industrial development, this could have spelt years of feuding, but the two entrepreneurs found they could work well together, eventually becoming partners and concentrating production in Manchester. This town was where Mackintosh had built his substantial factory, although Thomas continued to maintain a residence, named Marlborough Cottage, in Stoke Newington.  

Walter Hancock also found success in his first quarter of a century in London but in a very different field. His skills lay in designing and producing machines, although, unlike Thomas, he did not have matching business acumen. Nonetheless, also working from Stratford and financially supported by his elder brother, he developed road going steam vehicles, including omnibuses. The innovative mode of transport did not always meet with public acclaim, for if a carriage ran out of steam and was marooned on the road the driver might, according to Walter, be assailed with hootings, yellings, hissings and sometimes with the grossest abuse. However, he persevered and, as attitudes changed, eventually began running regular omnibus services on several routes. A terminus was established at Paddington and there seems to have been a good demand for seats on a service running into London. So, whilst boats arriving along the Grand Junction waited to access the Regents Canal and continue their slow, twelve-lock journey down to Limehouse, anyone hurrying to the commercial centre of the capital could board the Enterprise, one of Hancock’s ultra-modern steamers, and speed off at about ten miles an hour in the direction of the Tower of London. Despite this popularity and for a variety of reasons, which included, as Walter lamented, a want of suitable premises and stations for the store of coke and supply of water, the era of the steam road carriage soon drew to a conclusion. Consequently, at the start of the 1840s Walter decided to close his business but, unfortunately, his debts meant he could not do that with the grace of his father’s retirement. In 1844 he was declared bankrupt.

Charles Hancock came to London later than either Thomas or Walter and, at first, his talents allowed him to forge a career as a painter although, for a long time, he seems to have seen himself as a potentially successful businessman. At one stage he tried to market ‘Hancock’s scentless water colours’, which were offered in India rubber bottles. These, because they were impervious to air, allowed artists to avoid having to continually mix their paints. Such bottles were an important stepping stone for Thomas but they did not lead very far for Charles. Nothing daunted, the next thing Charles tried was developing a method by which lithographic drawings could be rendered in relief. He applied for a patent but then found he could not defend it due to lack of cash. Although continuing to search for a way to make money through patent licences, it was not until the early 1840s that real opportunity, so he thought, came knocking. This was in the form of a small sample of a solid gum from Singapore.

When gutta percha appeared in London it was natural that Thomas Hancock and Charles Mackintosh would become curious about a material with which rubber had some similarity and that, perhaps, could offer an additional method of waterproofing. Both rubber and gutta percha, classed as resins, were chemically the same but did not have an identical molecular shape. This divergence gave them their different qualities and determined their usefulness in different applications so it was possible gutta percha might offer an alternative in situations where rubber could not be used.

After Mackintosh obtained a gutta percha sample he passed it to Thomas who in turn offered it to Charles. Even analysing such a very small amount convinced the painter of the potential the gift had to make better seals for bottle stoppers, products in which he already had a commercial interest. Convinced it would be worth time and effort to develop a gutta percha based stopper, Charles registered a patent for a new composition or substance which may be used in preference to cork in the manufacture of bungs and other stoppers in May 1844. Clearly, in his experiments he had developed a way in which gutta percha could form the basis of a seal superior to anything else on the market.

1845 was to be an important year in the development of the gutta percha industry, which had already begun production of a number of useful items. In February the Gutta Percha Company was founded. A base, no more than a large shed really, was established in Stratford High Street, where Thomas and Walter's enterprises had once thrived. The area was certainly well placed to receive goods shipped to London as both tidal and non-tidal traffic ran between the area and the Thames and Meggs’s Dock, a purpose built facility, had been constructed just south of the high street a year after the Regents Canal was opened. By the middle of the 1840s Stratford was also being served by the Eastern Counties Railway, which linked Shoreditch with Colchester and a new line was being constructed to the Thames at North Woolwich. Areas adjacent to the lower Lea had always been hubs of economic activity, which included corn milling and brewing and, in the latter part of the C18th, the manufacture of fine porcelain. It is understandable why the long-gone factory which produced this china had been called New Canton but in the 1840s most Londoners probably associated Canton with opium, bombardment and the Nemesis rather than pottery.

Soon after the company had been formed negotiations took place between Charles Hancock and Henry Bewley, one of the firm’s directors. Bewley was a wealthy man and generated a substantial income from a wholesale chemical manufacturing partnership in Dublin, which led him to be involved in the production of soda water. Clearly, Hancock’s patented stoppers would help keep much more fizz in a bottle so it is no surprise Bewley persuaded the artist to allow his patented stoppers to be produced under an exclusive licence. This was the beginning of an enterprise from which Hancock, in particular, had great expectations. Bewley had expectations too but he was a far more experienced businessman than Hancock and was able to ensure, through skilful drafting, he would keep the upper hand in their working relationship.

It was during these negotiations Charles revealed a certain bitterness to Thomas. This was shown in an effort he made to register a wide ranging patent that would block his elder brother's access to the use of gutta percha without paying a licence fee.

Although it is not clear why Charles took this attitude, it seems clear the three brothers had very different characters. In one sense Thomas became a certain type of industrialist not uncommon in his time. It seems he was normally rather dour and humourless and belonged to the Eschol Chapel, a non-conformist sect that held Calvinist views. This religious based community had a strong internal discipline, for example after inventing the ‘pickle’ Thomas recruited members of the chapel to work at his factory and keep his secret, which all did for many years. As his business developed and particularly after he went into partnership with Macintosh, Thomas became more involved with Northern industrialists, who, on the whole, believed in laissez faire capitalism, which was more or less devoid of sentimentality. As characters they were satirised by Dickens as Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times and although Coketown was not Manchester it was close to it. Thomas certainly had a keen sense of familial duty shown in the way he looked after his nephews and nieces following the death of another Hancock sibling, but his generosity became more limited towards Walter and Charles, perhaps with good reason. Charles may have felt his elder brother should have intervened to help Walter avoid bankruptcy, which had taken place just a year previously, as it was obvious he could afford it. However, having supported the steam vehicle project to the tune of £15000, perhaps Thomas thought enough is enough.

Whatever the reasons for the attempt to put a block between gutta percha and Thomas, Bewley must have been a little concerned about Charles's attitude. The character of the bottle stopper patent holder was clearly a matter of concern. Perhaps his actions needed to be monitored rather closely in future.  

Back to Chapter 1     On to Chapter 3

Return to Introduction

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 2 - Three Hancock brothers

Commanders and clippers

The Macintosh trade mark, but can you see the link to Hancock?

The Enterprise, one of Walter Hancock’s steam carriages

A gentleman’s carriage painted by Charles Hancock

Reminder of New Canton on the Lea, just south of Bow Bridge

Stratford across the River Lea