Cort, Henry (DNB00)

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CORT, HENRY (1740–1800), ironmaster, was born at Lancaster in 1740, where his father carried on the trade of a mason and brickmaker. He has been sometimes, not very correctly, called the ‘Father of the Iron Trade.’ Dud Dudley, whose ‘Metallum Martis’ was printed in 1665, has a much stronger claim to that title. Cort appears to have raised himself by his own unaided efforts to a position of considerable respectability. He was first established as a navy agent in Surrey Street, Strand, in 1765, and he is said to have realised considerable profits.

About this time there was a prevailing belief that British iron was very inferior to Russian, the former being prohibited for government supplies. The Russian government raised the price from 70 to 80 copecs to 200 to 220 copecs a ton. Cort probably made experiments on iron which convinced him that British iron might be considerably improved. What they were is unknown. In 1775 he gave up his business as a navy agent, and leased certain premises at Fontley, near Fareham, where he had a forge and a mill.

In 1784 Cort patented an invention, which consisted essentially in subjecting pig-iron, as obtained from the blast furnace, in a reverberating furnace heated by flame until it was decarbonised by the action of the oxygen in the atmospheric air circulating through it, and converted into malleable iron. This process is known as ‘puddling,’ and certainly to it is due the rapid increase in the manufacture of merchant iron in this country.

In the previous year, 1783, Cort patented the so-called ‘grooved rolls,’ now known as ‘puddle rolls,’ as they are used for drawing out the puddled ball into bars, &c. These inventions are intimately associated in the development of the iron trade. The claims of Cort have been disputed. In 1812 Mr. Samuel Homfray stated before a committee of the House of Commons that a process called ‘buzzing’ or ‘bustling’ had been in use before the date of Cort's patent, and that it was an analogous process to puddling, and he also implied that grooved rolls had been previously employed by John Payne in 1728. Payne certainly in his patent specification describes something like grooved rolls, but there is no evidence that he ever used them.

Cort's discovery made way but slowly. He is said to have expended the whole of his private fortune, exceeding 20,000l., in bringing his process to a successful issue. Entering into extensive contracts to supply the navy with rolled iron, for which he put up works at Gosport, he was compelled to seek for more capital, and he entered into an agreement with Mr. Adam Jellicoe, deputy-paymaster of the navy, that on the security of an assignment of his patent rights he should advance 27,000l., receiving therefor one-half of the profits of the iron manufactory. Jellicoe died suddenly in 1789, a defaulter to the extent of 39,676l. It was then found that the capital he had advanced to Cort had been withdrawn from the cash balances lying in his hands. The navy board at once issued processes against the firm of Cort & Jellicoe, and against the private estate of the late Mr. Jellicoe. This led to the complete ruin of Cort; an enormous amount of property being absolutely sacrificed. In 1790 he offered his services to the navy board, but they were not accepted. In 1791 he made a similar application to the commissioners of the navy, which only resulted in an acknowledgment of the utility of Cort's inventions. In 1794 the lords of the treasury, on the representation of Mr. Pitt, granted Cort an annual pension of 200l., which by deductions was reduced to about 160l. After the death of Cort the members of his family received insignificant pensions from the government. When it is remembered that the production of pig-iron in these islands was in 1740 only 48,000 tons, that in 1884 the produce of our blast furnaces amounted to 7,811,727 tons, and that in the latter year 4,577 puddling furnaces—entirely the result of Cort's invention—made returns, it must be admitted that the story does not reflect any credit on the government of this country.

Cort died in 1800, and was buried in Hampstead churchyard. He left a widow and ten children, who, on the representation of the comptroller of the navy, were allowed an income of about 100l. In 1816, on the death of Mrs. Cort, two unmarried daughters were each granted an annual pension of 20l., and in 1856 Lord Palmerston, in answer to ‘claims on the bounty of the nation’ made in favour of the only surviving son, granted him a pension of 50l.

[Scrivenor's History of the Iron Trade; Percy's Metallurgy, Iron and Steel; Smiles's Industrial Biography; Smiles's Preparing, Welding, and Working Iron, 1783, No. 1351; Patent Manufacture of Iron, 1784, No. 1420; Mechanic's Magazine, 15 July 1859; Henry Cort's Petition to the House of Commons; Richard Cort's Facts and Proofs, 1855; Richard Cort's Review of Report on Services rendered; Abridgments of Specification relating to Iron, 1771, No. 988.]

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