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On 1 April 1784, twenty year old John Hall travelled from his home in a Hampshire village to the Thames-side town of Dartford to seek, not the traditional story-book fortune, though that is what he achieved eventually, but modest jobs in the local mills. He had had such schooling as the times could offer an intelligent boy of good artisan family: that is, he was literate and had served a craft apprenticeship. Dartford was not alien territory. John's father, William, had worked there as a millwright thirty years before and was still remembered and respected in the town. He had left to join the Portal family's paper mill in Laverstoke, Hampshire and his position must have been a senior one in the business, for he was able to apprentice his four sons there to the millwright's trade.

John Hall

John was the second son and the most successful. William Hall in his last years joined his prosperous son in Dartford, and died there at the age of eighty-four. Failing to find work in the town John Hall, walked a few miles south to the village of Hawley in the Darent valley.

Paper manufacture, then as now, required an abundance of clean water, hence the choice of location on the banks of rivers such as the Test in Hampshire and the Darent among the market gardens of Kent. At Hawley a mill was being repaired and the owner, T.H. Saunders, offered John Hall a job. It lasted for a year. The mill-owner was impressed with the quality of the young man's work and promised to put jobs his way and recommend him to other mill-owners if he would set up his own shop in Dartford.

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Hall Place
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John Hall was fortunate in having been apprenticed to his father and having learned his craft in a good-class mill. In 1785,therefore, at the age of twenty-one, John Hall started as a self-employed smith in a shed in Lowfield Street, Dartford.. Expansion came rapidly at the Lowfield Street workshop, for the corn, paper, oil and powder mills in and around the town had plenty of work to offer an honest and dependable mechanic. Simple though the mill mechanism might have been, there were frequent breakdowns and good repair and maintenance services were scarce. Manufacturers were not the only customers and the smith would undertake a large variety of small jobs shoeing horses of course and supplying the metal parts of harness: providing meat-hooks, cooking utensils and garden tools; making and fitting window bars for houses: designing and erecting shop signs and decorative wrought-iron gates.

Within five or six years John Hall needed larger premises and found them in Waterside (now Hythe Street) on land which had once formed part of Dartford Priory. Included eventually in the factory was the historic Priory House of which the firm made good use.

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In the very early days of Marine Engineering John Hall was doing pioneer work. He designed and made the engines for S.S. "Batavia" for the Steam Navigation Company and in 1836 S.S."Wilberforce" built by Curling & Young at Blackwall for the Humber Union S.S.Company of Hall was fitted by Hall with a pair of 60-inch beam engines of 280 nominal horse power.Hall employed for the design of this engine Francis Humphrys, a brother of the two Humphrys who were partners in Humphrys & Tennant of Deptford, well-known marine engine makers.

Perhaps the most remarkable design was one patented in 1835 of the first trunk engine ever made, the object being to get a vertical engine into the very limited head room on board ship. This was also the design and invention of Francis Humphrys and was fitted on board the paddle steamer "Dartford," built at Gravesend. This ship was engaged in the coasting trade between London and Penzance and after many voyages a boiler plate gave way, badly scalding the engineer John Vicars and others. After two years she was fitted with new boilers built in the Dartford works and was sold to Spain, to which country she then traded, ultimately finding a resting place in the Bay of Biscay.

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Ornamental gun carriage
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A fragment of a pre-1836 Dartford Ironworks letter heading, reproduced in the company's engineering apprenticeship booklet of 1950, describes John Hall & Sons as :-
'Engineers, Steam Engine Manufacturers and Millwrights, Iron and Brass Founders'. It adds the following list of machining work undertaken - steam-engines on Woolff and Boulton & Watts principle; engines for steam vessels on improved principles; rolling mills for iron, copper, lead and zinc; patent steam presses for oil mills; roll bars and plates for paper engines; machinery for plate-glass works; oil, gunpowder, bark, corn, sugar and saw mills, hydraulic and screw presses, diving bells, pumps, cranes, etc.etc. 'fitted up in the best manner'.

Steam-engines, as the order of priority shows, were dominant, and among these the firm's beam engines were justly famous and in wide demand. Used to drive machinery in factories of all kinds, Halls ' beam engines became a regular line, in production from John Hall senior's lifetime until well into the J & E Hall period under the two sons who inherited the works. In all 356 engines were built, the last one in 1879. They were remarkably tough and efficient and many had a phenomenal working record. A 40hp beam-engine, supplied to the Royal Mint early in the nineteenth century, was sold about 1883 to J. & W. Nicholson & Company Ltd and re-erected in their brewery at Bromley-by-Row. It worked there continuously until 1947, when it was damaged by a fire in an adjacent building which housed the machinery that it drove, and was subsequently dismantled and broken up.

Hall beam engine
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A smaller ( 25hp) machine supplied to J. Davis & Bailey Ltd, agricultural machinery makers near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, worked there until the site was taken over for residential development in 1950.In the early years of the nineteenth century he helped to establish Britain's first food-canning factory, in South London. The canning of perishable food stuffs was a revolutionary breakthrough. The Royal Navy and Arctic explorers were among the early customers for the canned meat and vegetables. Tins of food from Sir Edward Parry's Arctic expedition in 1824 were found abandoned in the Arctic some 140 years later, The food was still in remarkably good condition; the contents were eaten by a group of scientists and a rather hungry cat - all without ill effect !

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The resourceful John Hall, undertook almost any assignment that was offered, and evidently gave satisfaction because the business grew along with his expertise. The local powder mills were among his customers: he supplied them with processing machinery. The mills had been a cause of much anxiety among the people of Dartford, on whose insistence a special road had been built in 1796 to avoid conveying gunpowder through the streets. John Hall, undeterred by the risks - physical or financial - went into ownership. When the government decided to close down its gunpowder factory in Faversham, Kent, he bought it and advertised the products in the following stately terms:

'This very superior Gun Powder is offered to Noblemen, Gentlemen, and Sportsmen in general as manufactured on a system differing so materially from all others that it exceeds for cleanliness, quickness of firing and peculiar strength, any other Cylinder Gun Powder yet submitted to the Public; they are therefore invited to make trial of the same in the fullest confidence that it merits that decided preference it so justly deserves.'

It gained that decided preference widely both at home and abroad and the manufacturer was known in the locality as 'Gunpowder Hall'.

Hall's tomb
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Thames-side towns and marsh-lands were dotted with gunpowder mills and stores and explosions were too frequent for the residents ' peace of mind. Halls were involved in the worse of these in 1864, when the founder's son Edward was head of the business; it was so serious that the military had to be called in from Woolwich to avert a vast disaster. Two magazines between Erith and Woolwich, one of them owned by Halls and holding 750 barrels of gunpowder, exploded with such force that the noise was heard all over London and some said up to 40 miles from the scene of the incident. The river wall was breached and barges and their occupants were blown to pieces. Two thousand troops and navvies worked day and night to rebuild the embankment and save a large area of low-lying ground from being flooded. The buildings were fortunately surrounded by 20 acres of open space, but even so nine men died and many were injured.

John Hall and the Methodist Church

Next topic: Richard Trevithick


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