1740 - Henry Cort

Henry Cort was born in Lancaster in 1740. Cort moved into Surrey Street in the Strand at London and found employment as an agent for the Royal Navy. It was while employed by the navy that he became aware of the poor quality of British iron compared to that of imported iron. During this period he began experimenting on ways to improve the quality of manufacturing British iron. He set up a small forge in Gosport during 1775 but was frustrated by the lack of motive power. He needed a watermill and this he found at Funtley near Fareham. Ironstone, the bed rock of the iron industry, Cort shipped in from Hengistbury Head near Christchurch.

Between 1783-4 Cort took out patents for the process of improving iron bar by hammering at a welding temperature and rolling out all the impurities. The iron produced by this method proved to be both tough and fibrous. His second patent is generally known as the “puddling process”. Ore or cast iron was smelted in a reverberating or air furnace without a blast. During the process liquid iron was constantly stirred with iron bars (puddling) which burnt off the carbon from the cast iron and the iron was separated from the slag. The iron was then hammered and rolled to produce black iron bars. Henry Cort’s advancement in the manufacturing process of iron paved the way for a new iron age in Great Britain.

By the end of the 19th century Britain was producing over 4 million tons of pig iron a year - more than the entire production of all the other European countries. It was said that in 1820 there were at least 8,200 of Henry Cort’s furnaces operating in Great Britain.

Many in the iron industry have said it was his rolling process that was his greatest achievement; some have suggested that Cort’s inventions added 600 million pounds to the country’s wealth as well as providing employment for countless thousands of persons. In the House of Commons Lord Sheffield said of Cort in 1786:

“If Mr. Cort’s very ingenious improvements in the making and working of iron, and the art of making coke at half its original price, together with the Steam engines made by Boulton and Watt, should succeed, it is not asserting to much to say the result will be more advantageous to Great Britain than the possession of the thirteen states of America.

Sadly, Cort never found financial benefit from his inventions and after twenty-three years at Funtley he left a ruined man in 1789. He was granted a government pension to support wife and family of twelve children in 1794. He died in 1800 and is buried in Hampstead Heath Parish Church where a bronze tablet was placed by Lancashire to honour this remarkable man, to whom shipbuilding and in particular the Royal Dockyards owe so much.