Victorians hid wonder-gun piracy scandal

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The Independent Online
A rare Victorian cannon and the hitherto unknown papers of its luckless inventor have been brought together to tell a tale of murky dealing in the arms trade.

Despite producing one of the most important inventions of modern warfare, Captain Alexander Blakely died insolvent in Peru. William Armstrong, the man suspected of pirating Blakely's improved gun barrel, went on to found an armaments dynasty rivalled only by Krupps of Germany.

The story of the Blakely gun, which has gone on display at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth, Hampshire, is an early example of an arms scandal. In 1855, Sligo-born Blakely patented a method of constructing gun barrels in layers. It promised to be a vast improvement on the old cast-iron and bronze techniques but was "ridiculed" by the War Office.

However, four years later, the Government enthusiastically adopted Armstrong's design, which seemed to incorporate Blakely's barrel construction.Armstrong presented his patents to the Crown, gratis, on 15 January 1859 and the very next day he was granted a knighthood.

Ministers then pushed a Bill through Parliament to keep the patent secret - a move that neatly prevented Blakely mounting a legal challenge for piracy.

Armstrong became rich making the gun. He was made Baron Armstrong and is acknowledged as one of the fathers of modern warfare. His company amalgamated with Vickers in 1927.

But Armstrong's hold on the home market meant Blakely had to sell abroad and he was probably on a sales mission when he died in 1868. Some 400 guns were made to his designs - many for the American Civil War - but very few survive in Britain. The four-inch gun at Fort Nelson has been acquired from Coalhouse Fort on the Thames in Essex. Rescued from a scrapheap some years ago, it weighs nearly two tons and was built in Liverpool in 1862.

What illuminates the gun is the gift to the Royal Armouries of family papers by Blakely's great granddaughter, Diana Merritt. These show that four decades after her husband's death Harriette Blakely was still petitioning everyone from King Edward VII downwards for recognition and a pension of pounds 100 a year.

"Justice has not yet been done to Captain Blakely in respect of his services to the country," Mrs Blakely told the then prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury. But the Government was unmoved and the Armstrong family continued to deny any pirating of Blakely's patent.

"I think it's disgusting," Mrs Merritt told The Independent. "My great grandfather had already patented the gun barrel and they stopped him getting recognition for it."

The Royal Armouries seems to share the view that an injustice was done. Nicholas Hall, the keeper at Fort Nelson, described the gun and the papers as "a forceful reminder of the ruthless character of the Victorian arms trade".

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