Sunday 20 March 2011

Shot in Lambeth

The South Bank once boasted a shot-tower (for the manufacture of bullets), which was demolished and replaced with the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the 1960s. It's the big tower on the right, here (a snapshot of Waterloo Bridge, c. 1890s):

Here's a description of its workings which I found recently, from 1860:
IT is the fortune of war to be honoured with monuments. Not always dignified statues standing on short pedestals - not always marble horsemen sitting jauntily upon marble steeds - not always blood and fury relievi, which, with their attendant tablets, adorn the peaceful, dim, religious aisles of the National Cathedral - not always iron dukes, who, in the hats of beadles, and with the batons of the ghosts in Hamlet and Don Giovanni, point for a bronze eternity, to some London stableyard or skittle-ground - but sometimes it is a more ambitious monument - a column that towers upward into the outer coating of the metropolitan smoke, looking at a distance like a high constable's staff of office, or the ornamental pillar of a lamp for patent candles. Two such columns as these are among the architectural features of our city, - the monument to Lord Nelson, and the pillar of the Duke of York.
    Standing in the iron cage that crowns the summit of this latter structure, and directing your eyes in a south-easterly direction to the banks of the river, you may yet see another circular column of greater altitude, but of more homely exterior, built, in fact, of unpretending brick, and surmounted by nothing more ornamental than a bare flag-staff. This is also a building dedicated to war, but it bears the same relation to the Duke of York's column as the private soldier does to the commander-in-.chief, - the same relation to the Nelson column, as the able seaman does to the lord high admiral. It is the Lambeth shot-tower, and if poetical justice had been consulted, instead of the adornment of the metropolis, the statues of those distinguished fighting men whom England delights to honour should have been placed upon the summit, and in niches round the interior of this working monument. There the stream of deadly shot, pouring from roof to basement, with a leaden roar, would have gladdened their marble eyes and ears, and hearts, making a worthy Walhalla for their mighty marble souls, even amongst the Bankside wharves and timber-yards. As it is, the Lambeth shot-tower is in the peaceful possession of Messrs. Walker, Parker, and Company (by whose kind permission I have been allowed to go over the works), and the constant manufacture of the small, globular, insidious instruments of death does not seem to have had an unamiable effect either upon masters, overlookers, or labourers.
    Those who are curious in speculations on the effect of certain employments upon the mental and moral character of man, will probably be glad to learn that the labourer who is occupied for ten hours every day in sharpening daggers and bayonets, or giving the finishing edge to the chine-splitting sabre, is a mild and inoffensive creature in the intervals of business; an affectionate husband; and an indulgent father of a family. Deadly revolvers are not put together in all their fatal beauty by cynics who have become weary of, or spiteful to the world, but by hard-handed workmen, who laugh, sing songs, and whistle tunes as they follow their employment, and claim a fair day's wages for what they consider a fair day's work. The motley ingredients that go to make up those engines of war that are known by the titles of bomb-shells and hand-grenades, are not mixed by crook-backed, grinning dwarfs with grinding teeth, and aged, mumbling crones with withered arms. Oh no, my Christian brethren, for these things - like all things else - obey the universal law of supply and demand. Machinery may intervene, and remove the workman to a decent distance from his labour, but grant the necessary stipend, and pay it punctually, and yon shall never want for jovial, full-blooded men to obey your bidding. And while one mass of fools are determined to march against another mass of fools for the avowed purpose of fire and slaughter, who can grumble that they have materials put into their hands with which to kill each other in an artistic and expeditious manner? Therefore, if any enthusiastic and hot-headed members of the Peace Society should ever think of marching bodily against my friends of the shot-tower, I will be one of the first to defend them and their stronghold with all the physical power at my command.
   If ever I am to be sent suddenly into the lap of eternity, let it be with my body nicely beplumbed with the smooth, round, glossy shot that I have seen manufactured at Lambeth, and not - like some of my ancestors - with my head split in two, like a water-melon, by a. clumsy battle-axe, or one of my eyes knocked into my brain with a cloth yard shaft. Let me - like Julius Cresar in the forum - die decently; let me - unlike Julius Caesar - have all the advantages of civilization assisting at my death, as developed in the improvement of the engines of destruction.
    A most deceptive place is the shot-department of this Lambeth workshop. If the emblem of peace is plenty - as the poets put it - and the image of plenty, as the painters put it, is a female scattering, right and left, the seeds of golden corn, then must the shot-tower and its warehouses be the very temple of peace, for never did a place that was not a granary, put on such a natural granarial appearance. If any member of that Society that I have before alluded to was brought here blindfolded, and the bandage taken off when he was in the midst of the sifters and the troughs of shot, he would immediately fancy himself, without any stretch of imagination, in the corn-market of Mark Lane, handling his specimens of the finest agricultural produce. Canvas bags open at the top, and full of the smooth, black, deadly grain, are lying about, to aid in the illusion, which is further assisted by the general cleanliness of this department of the place.
    Led by a steady, rushing noise, like the sound of a great waterfall, I take the arm of my imaginary friend from the Peace Society, and in a few minutes we are standing inside the base of the shot-tower. It is a few feet higher than the monument on Fish Street Hill, and about three times its diameter. It is circular in form, built all the way up with solid brickwork, and lighted at intervals with small, arched, cavernous, glazed windows, the recesses of which serve to show the thickness of the wall. Winding up the side is a narrow staircase, plentifully lined with dirt, coaldust, and blacklead, and protected by a thin iron railing. The cost of this tower is estimated at thirty thousand pounds. On the floor are several bars of prepared lead - the material from which the shot is cast -and a kind of copper with a fire burning underneath it. In the centre are two short, broad tubs - like washingtubs - filled with a thick, muddy-looking water. One is perfectly tranquil on the surface, but the other is bubbling and foaming up like a water-plug that has been opened in the streets, for a stream of lead is pouring into it from the roof of the tower, at the rate of a ton of shot in every five-and-forty minutes, causing the ceaseless, deafening roar that first excited our attention. Casting our eyes upwards along this stream, and tracing it to its source, we find it coming from a few silvery drops that fall through a small square trap in a wooden platform erected across the top of the building. These drops increase in force and density as they fall lower, until, about the centre of the column, they unite in a straight, thick, slate-coloured stream, lighted up by the sunbeams as it passes the windows in the wall. Looking through the open trap at the top, watching the descent of his handiwork, is the man who is superintending the casting, dressed in a dirty canvas smock shirt and a brown paper cap; presenting the appearance of a small, quaint picture set in a square frame. He has a counterpart in a mild-looking fellow-workman below, who stands calmly by, while the cataract of death is hurrying down to the waters of oblivion. Anxious to examine more closely the source of the cataract, we toil laboriously up the winding stairs, passing the roaring, rushing stream at every turn, until, after a time, we reach the summit. There we find a simmering cauldron full of molten lead, set in a frame of brickwork on a furnace; while by its side stands over the open trap a metal pan, or shallow basin, set upon four thin iron legs. The bottom of this pan is made of paste, and as the man in the paper cap keeps ladling it full of the red-hot liquid metal from the copper, small, bright, silvery drops keep oozing through, like quicksilver globules, and falling down the open trap like harp strings into the gulf beneath. I look on, perhaps, with culpable indifference, equal to that of the placid workman who goes through his allotted task like a workhouse master serving out the dinner soup; but my shadowy companion of the Peace Society shudders as he feels that in that small, insignificant hand-basin, lies the source of the great stream of death that thunders down into the waters beneath. As we wind slowly down the stairs, we stay to reflect that in the perfectly globular form which the liquid metal assumes as it descends the pit, is contained a beautiful, although minute exemplification of that great law of physics which gave the spherical shape to every planet that rolls above our heads. The object of preparing the water below to receive the metal drops is to preserve the globular form, which would be destroyed by coming in contact with an unyielding substance.
    When the white shot is taken out of the tubs of water, it is removed to that part of the building which I term the granary; where it undergoes a simple process of drying. After this, it is found necessary that it should be carefully sifted, to separate the different sizes of shot. The machinery provided for this is a long, hollow, copper cylinder, perforated with holes like a nutmeg-grater, or the barrel of a musical box, when all the pegs are taken out. These holes are of different sizes, divided into several stages down the cylinder, the smallest coming first, and progressing gradually to the largest, which come last. The cylinder is slightly inclined towards the large perforations, and is made to revolve slowly by steam-power; the shot is then poured in through a funnel at the upper end, and the operation is then left to work itself out. The baby shots, the youthful shots, and the full-grown shots, as they roll into and are worked round the cylinder, find the holes themselves through which they can comfortably squeeze their forms, falling into the different troughs that are waiting to receive them. This is altogether so much like an agricultural operation connected with the seed trade, that my shadowy, peace-loving friend forgets where he is, and, for a time, is happy.    
    When the deadly grain is collected from the troughs, it is placed within another small, revolving cylinder (not perforated), where its leaden whiteness is changed, by the agency of blacklead, to a bright, polished sable. It is then found that amongst the mass are a number of imperfect globular shot, so much flattened at the pole or poles, as to be utterly unfit for a place in the hearts of men, or birds, or beasts, and only worthy of a tomb in the waste-box. These false ones are detected by a simple, but very ingenious process. A small, smooth, wooden, fan-shaped platform is fitted up, edged in, and inclining slightly towards two troughs, one placed immediately under the edge of the board, the other at a little distance from it. The polished shot is then poured gently, and with equal . force, down a perpendicular funnel that discharges itself upon the inclined platform. The shot that is perfect rolls with sufficient impetus down the board, to carry it over into the further trough; while the imperfect shot either sticks fast with its flattened surface upon the platform, or drops lamely into the nearest waste-trough waiting to receive it. With this mild, playful, infantine, toy-like process the terrible business of shot-making ends. That which began in the tempest of the roaring shot-tower, is finished calmly in the quiet of the granary of death. We walk out into the street once more, and into the middle of the nineteenth century-I and my shadowy, peace-loving friend; and though those who pass us by can hear no voice, there are certain questions that he pours into my ear which I cannot answer, though I have the will.

John Hollingshead, Odd Journeys In and Out of London, 1860


  1. There's a 1960s shot-tower in Bristol city centre that's recently been refurbished as offices:

    The shot-tower was invented in Bristol, and the city was a centre of lead smelting until the demise of the city harbour in the 1970s. Dorkbot Bristol meets in a building that was once a lead works, also converted to offices.

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