As the gutta percha industry developed two other London based rubber manufacturers took an interest in using the new material. The partnership of Christopher Nickels and Charles Keene already held caoutchouc patents and manufactured various rubber products at their base in Lambeth. Nickels had previously helped install a rubber factory in France on behalf of Thomas Hancock but this link did not stop Charles entering into an agreement with him before the end of 1845.   

The developing association between Charles Hancock and Henry Bewley never became as firm as that between Nickels and Keene but, given their common interest in making money from gutta percha, all four reached an arrangement to pool the cash generated from the resin patents each owned. Future patents registered as a result of any new inventions were also covered with trustees being appointed to whom all patents would be assigned. These trustees were charged with ensuring profits were divided equitably but at this point Charles Hancock surrendered his claim on the joint account for three years on condition he was paid an emolument of £800 per annum by the Gutta Percha Company. Later in the year Bewley himself was granted a another patent, which included tubes made from gutta percha.

The optimism of Hancock and Bewley and the other resin enthusiasts in pushing the new industry forward was buoyed by an improving economy, partly driven by the Bank of England reducing interest rates, the promise of a good summer harvest and free publicity generated by the forward thinking Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, usually referred to as the Society of Arts. This organisation, the full name of which well sums up its activities, was an important influence in the British industrial development, all the more so after Prince Albert, who was well regarded in the City of London, became the society’s president. A fund, recently launched for the erection of a marble statue of the prince at the Royal Exchange, soon garnered support, many small agencies involved in international trade making a contribution. Montgomerie had sent his samples to the Society of Arts and it was clear they made a very positive impression because the reading of a paper about the potential of gutta percha was planned for March. This would be followed two months later by the presentation of an award.

After the secretary of the Society of Arts rose to read the paper at the March meeting he supplemented his words by presenting examples of gutta percha products, such as pipes and casts, and demonstrated how easy it was to return the material to its plastic form using hot water. The Tradescants would have approved. The afternoon event certainly impressed one member of the audience, Christopher Nickels, who seems to have been inspired to look more closely at how the supply of gutta percha could be improved. Although rubber was fairly easy to get, gutta percha was less so and a good and reliable source was obviously needed in order to drive success in exploiting the business possibilities.

Some importation was clearly taking place, shown by what we might call the ‘Great St Katharine and Liverpool Docks Gutta Percha Barrel Mystery’ In April a barrel containing 45 gutta percha blocks weighing, in total, about two hundredweight was discovered at St Katharine Dock. Two hundredweight was what we might call an experimental quantity but the barrel had evidently remained unclaimed for a few months and no-one appeared to know to whom it belonged. Such a failure to claim imported goods was unusual, if not unknown. For example, in June of the previous year the East India and West India Dock Company had notified the public that if five puncheons and four hogsheads of orange juice, which had evidently been left on the dockside for years, were not cleared they would be sold to defray costs. As far as the gutta percha blocks were concerned the mystery deepened when another barrel was discovered on Liverpool docks. It was puzzling, but if the barrels of gutta percha were also sold to defray costs a better price may have been obtained for them than for the puncheons and hogsheads of old orange juice.

Subsequent to the Society of Arts meeting, Nickels used his contacts to try find an importation agent with links to Singapore. He found one, for there were a number of agencies acting in the field, but the response to a request to organise the purchase and transport of a small number of blocks was somewhat discouraging. These new things asserted Mr Norton, the acting partner of Rawson, Norton and Co., which had already made a contribution to the statue of Prince Albert, give a great deal of trouble and seldom come to anything. We might wonder if the firm was in some way involved with the abandoned barrels in London and Liverpool! Nonetheless, Mr Norton agreed to play his part and sent a message to Ker, Rawson and Co., a Singapore trading house, authorising the order, which would actually be placed by a prominent partnership of London indigo brokers, Wilkinson and Jewsbury. Meanwhile, despite the scepticism shown in some quarters, enthusiasm for gutta percha was gathering pace.

Back to Chapter 2     On to Chapter 4

Return to Introduction

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 3   Gutta percha abandoned

Commanders and clippers

Hogsheads at Tobacco Dock, Wapping.