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1795 - Sir Samuel Bentham (1757 - 1831)

General Sir Samuel Bentham (1757-1831)

Knight of the Order of Saint George.

In all probability no one has left their mark on Portsmouth Dockyard as firmly stamped as Samuel Bentham. He was a most remarkable man with a creative fertility for the improvement of machines and the industrial process which he would imprint upon the home dockyards and in particularly Portsmouth.

He was the brother of Jeremy Bentham the Lawyer and Philosopher and came from a fairly well to do family. Born on 11thJanuary 1757, his mother died shortly afterwards. His father remarried in 1766, the widow of the Reverend John Abbot. His stepbrother was Charles Abbot later known as Lord Colchester. He left Westminster School at the age of 14 to become an apprentice to Mr. Gray the Master Shipwright at Woolwich Dockyard, also serving in Chatham Dockyard. His inventive talent showed itself during his apprenticeship in several small improvements in ships fitting, which won the favourable considerations of the Navy Board. When out of his time in 1778 Captain Macbride, then captain of the Bienfaisant invited him to join him on a summer cruise with the Channel fleet, during which time he witnessed the Battle of Ushant on 27th July.

Frustration in the lack of advancement, mainly caused through the system of seniority, prompted him to embark on a tour of Russia and other states in 1780 to study the methods of shipbuilding and naval economy of foreign powers. Armed with strong recommendations from Sir James Harris, he arrived in St Petersburg in May 1780. He travelled from Archangel to the Crimea, and Eastwards through Siberia to the frontiers of China, examining mines and the methods of working metal.

On his return to St. Petersburgh in October 1782 he presented his report to the Empress. He later accepted an offer from Prince Potemkin to send him to Cherson with the rank of Lt. Colonel. He later settled in Kritchev where the prince had a large property. On a small tributary of the river Dnieper he established a shipbuilding yard, He wrote to his father on 18th July 1784, “I am at liberty to build any kind of ships, vessels or boats whether for war, trade or pleasure; and so little am I confined in the mode of construction, that one day in arguing with the prince about some alterations in a frigate he proposed building, to make a present to the empress, he told me by way of ending the discussion that there might be twenty masts and one gun if I pleased”. In September of that year his rank was made substantive and was appointed to command a battalion of men of which he partially transformed into sailors, shipwrights and mechanics. With so few officers under his command he introduced a plan of “Central observation” where all workshops radiated out from his office. The Panopticon, which had occupied his brother Jeremy for many years, was a modification of this central observation plan. In 1787 Bentham was ordered to Cherson to equip a flotilla intended for use against the Turks. The sole command and administration fell to Bentham where his inventiveness flourished. In equipping the flotilla and strengthening the hulls of these small craft he was able to develop a system of fitting heavy calibre guns without recoil, enabling him to fit long 36 pounder cannon, 48 pounder howitzers and 13 inch mortars. They were to provide small ships with a formidable armament.

On the 7th June 1788 action was joined with the Turks and again some ten days later where theTurks were utterly defeated. Much can be said of the battle and Benthams part in it; suffice to say it is thought to be the first time shell and carcasses were used in naval warfare. Ten ships of the line were set on fire and blown up, it was said at the time that out of eleven crews numbering 11,000 only 3000 were saved. Bentham was rewarded with the Military Cross of Saint George, the Rank of Brigadier-General and the Sword of Honour. At his own request Bentham was given a command in Siberia, where he applied himself by opening up the navigation of rivers, exploration and promoting trade with China. Interestingly he designed and built his coach which he lived and worked in and could convert to a boat for river crossings or to a sleigh for use on the frozen tundra.

In 1791 he took leave and returned to England with the intention of a speedy return to Russia. However his return was continually delayed, at first by the death of his father and also assisting his brother in fitting up a Panopticon for the reception of 1000 prisoners and with business connections regarding various patents. During this period he also visited many of the great manufactories in England to study different methods of manufacture and the machinery used. His Brother Jeremy was engaged by the government to undertake the introduction of Industrial Prisons with the view to make convict labour profitable. A number of machines were invented for the working of stone, metal, cork and wood. Many of the machines were set up in Jeremy Bentham’s premises at Queen-square Place, in York Street, Westminster.. Among the machines set up were for planning, Rebating, mortising, sawing both rough and fine cuts of wood both straight and curved. The machines were inspected by a great variety of people; and in the year of 1794 members of the Commons, including Lord Viscount Melville, visited the establishment on a number of occasions. In 1795 Bentham was invited by the Board of Admiralty to visit all the Royal Dockyards for the purpose of suggesting the case in which his machines, worked by a steam engine, might be introduced. His views on the introduction of machinery and other improvements were highly appreciated by the Board of Admiralty who induced Bentham to relinquish the honours and advantages that awaited him in Russia and devote himself to the service of his native country and the Royal Navy.

It should be stated that by this time Bentham had gained a considerable reputation in Russia, not only for his inventive talent, but for his ability to organise labour in the working processes to the most profitable end. There is little doubt that the Board of Admiralty, which was well acquainted with his reputation in Russia, wished to harbour these talents for the improvement of efficiency within the Royal Dockyards and the reduction of corruption. The proposed introduction of steam into the Royal Dockyards raised many fears and objections, not only from within the dockyards where fire was thought to be the chief hazard, but also from the Navy Board. In the following year of 1796 Bentham was appointed Inspector General of Navy Works; a new post created by the Admiralty and one that was to have far reaching consequences for the Royal Dockyards. This new post was full of hazards and pit-falls; for Bentham’s influence on the Admiralty was resented by the Navy Board who were subservient Board to that of the Admiralty but one that would eventually prove to be Bentham’s undoing.