LIFE OF HENRY CORT
Cort's birth is supposed to have been in Lancaster in 1740.
Nothing is known of his early life, though some accounts say his father was a builder.
The Navy Office at this time is near the Tower of London, on the corner of Crutched Friars and Seething Lane.† Henry soon takes up residence in Crutched Friars.
It is easy enough to follow his career.† He must have had some useful financial backing, for he has taken over the firm by 1764 and runs it for ten years.
During this period he marries twice.† Little is known about his first wife, but the marriage doesn't last long.
More significantly, she springs from the Attwick family: granddaughter of John Attwick, who has built up a big business in Gosport supplying ironmongery and other items to the Navy in Portsmouth.
John is dead by the time Cort arrives on the scene, and the business is being run by his son William, Elizabeth's uncle.
In 1772 William Attwick is hoping to retire.
Cort suggests another of his clients, Thomas Morgan, as a suitable person to take over the firm.
Morgan first becomes William's partner, then sole owner.
When the American rebellion breaks out, Morgan re-enlists in the Navy.
Cort moves to Gosport to take over the business.
Morgan owes him money, but the whole enterprise is buttressed by a complex web of loans in which one of the main lenders is a Navy Office clerk, Adam Jellicoe.
Early in 1781 the financial arrangements are simplified: Jellicoe becomes the main creditor, Cort the main debtor
Mr Cort agreed the 8 January 1781 to sell Mr A Jellicoe: One half of the Iron Mill; One half of Gosport works demised by Mr Attwick; One half of Child's Wharf laid out with improvement; One half of his Contracts at a price to be settled by two indifferent persons; One half of his Stock in trade at a valuation.† And in consideration of Mr A Jellicoe settling Mr Cort's affairs and paying his Debts to allow Mr Saml Jellicoe half the Profits of his Contracts and Trade.
††† From Watson-Dundas memorandum, 1790
Jellicoe continues to finance the enterprise.† It looked a promising investment.
Anchors and chains are forged at Gosport, but most of the ironmongery is purchased elsewhere in the country: probably in the West Midlands, although the Cramond works in Scotland is the main supplier of nails for a period.
Cort, however, is experimenting with new techniques in iron manufacture.† The Navy at this time prefers to use imported iron.
When France enters the war in 1778, supplies from overseas become more difficult to obtain and prices rise steeply.
The Navy is particularly concerned about the price of hoops, used to seal the casks and barrels that hold ships' provisions.
Cort enters into an arrangement to supply the Navy with iron hoops.
He takes over an old iron mill at Fontley on the River Meon, some 12km from Gosport, and installs new equipment at some considerable cost.
In 1783 and 1784 there are patents awarded for the processes he has developed: two patents in England and Wales, one in Scotland.
The most important process later becomes known as puddling.† Its purpose is to remove excess carbon that the iron has absorbed during smelting, to make it workable by a blacksmith.† The iron emerges from the puddling furnace as a spongy solid, which is next squashed using a "shingling" hammer.
The final stage is to pass lumps of this solid between rollers, so that it emerges as long bars.
By fitting collars and grooves to his rollers, he can control the size and shape of a bar's cross-section: this part of the process is later adapted for rolling steel.
Before Cort introduced this stage of the process, bars were shaped using heavy hammers, like the water-driven tilthammer said to be at Fonrtley Iron Mill when Cort took it over.
The Navy spends a few years checking the efficacy of Cort's product.
But he is confident enough to start travelling round the country (Wales and Scotland included) to demonstrate his process to other ironmasters.† He expects them to adopt it and pay him royalties.
Although they seem to be impressed at first, only one company, at Rotherhithe, gets involved at this stage.† There is a snag in the process when freshly-smelted iron is used, caused by impurities which accumulate in the puddling furnace over time.
Cort never appreciates this, because he always works with recycled iron, which does not contain these impurities.
In 1787, however, a new enterprise in South Wales, under Richard Crawshay, takes an interest in Cort's process.
Crawshay adopts it in a big way, installing twelve puddling furnaces where Cort used just one.
Crawshay still runs into the impurity problem, and by the summer of 1789 the agreement with Cort and Jellicoe has broken down.
But Cort has another problem.† Some of the money Adam Jellicoe has lent him is Navy money, earmarked for paying seamen's wages.
The point is never reached when money for wages isn't available: nevertheless Jellicoe's bosses at the Navy Office get nervous when they find out what he has done.† He assures them he will soon get the money back.
This hasn't happened at the time of Jellicoe's death in August 1789.
The Navy determines to recover the missing money from Cort, and persuades the judiciary that he owes £27,500 to the Crown.
They seize his property and assets, leaving him unable to meet the demands of other creditors.† He therefore applies for bankruptcy, granted in October 1789.
He has a wife and twelve children ranging in age from 4 to 25.
He lives for another six years, during which one of his children dies and another is confined to a mental hospital in Calcutta for over a year.
It is in this atmosphere that The Times publishes the 1856 accolade.†† Accounts like this have coloured subsequent appraisals of Cort, but much has been disproved by evidence recently unearthed at the National Archives and elsewhere.