Disused industrial chimneys are two a penny, but some are special. Dotted around the world are tall towers, usually beautifully made of brick, which are a reminder of a very particular use – buckshot manufacture. You can see them in London and in Iowa, Melbourne and Baltimore – and indeed there is a particularly hideous concrete one (circa 1968) in Bristol. The oldest surviving one was put up in Chester in 1793. And they all owe their existence to one man – William Watts.
Good old WW was a Bristol plumber and in 1782 he discovered a way of making perfect lead shot. Prior to that date lead shot was made by casting the molten metal into a mold containing 8 to 10 spherical cavities. But they rarely filled up evenly, and were prone to becoming pitted or be mis-shapen, which caused problems for the poor soldiers who had to fire their muskets accurately.
WW recounted two different tales as to how he came by the idea of using gravity to make the lead shot, both involving dreams. In one version, he had the dream where he was in a shower, not of rain, but of perfectly spherical lead shot (plumbers apparently dream in lead…) WW knew that rain drops are not the tear-drop shape which we tend to visualize them as being – they are in fact round, and for a very good reason. As water falls it assumes a spherical shape because that causes the least surface tension and reduces resistance to gravity. True, lead shot is tear-shaped if it is just poured straight into a barrel of water, and it only assumes a spherical shape if gravity has had a chance to pull it into shape as the metal cools.
WW decided to experiment with dropping molten lead from a great height – the story going that he rushed up to the top of St Mary Redcliffe Church and poured hot lead through a sieve and noticed little ball-bearing type perfectly-formed spheres hit the ground below. Somehow I can’t see the Churchwarden being too pleased…
The other dream version has it that it was the long-suffering wife of William Watts who had the dream; that she woke her husband twice in the same night to say that she had this vision of perfectly formed shot falling from the skies into a bucket of water, and that in the following morning she commanded her husband to fetch a ladle, a colander, and some lead so that an experiment could be carried out from the top of the stairs to see if her dream would work.
This version gave rise to the following dire ditty:
Down from the staircase-head
She throws small drops of lead
One fell on Watt’s nose. ‘twas scalding hot,
The rest into the water cold
In drops of perfect roundness roll’d
And Watts with wonder did behold
The birth of Patent Shot.
(I am truly sorry for that awful doggerel): but what is certain is that in 1782 Watts set about doing some serious home improvements to his house. It was already three storeys high. He added another level, and another, and another. Then he put crenellations around the top to make it look nice, while inside he cut holes in all the floors and ceilings, one on top of the other (see why I say that his wife was long-suffering?).
He then lifted the stone slabs on the ground floor in order to give access to the deep well underneath the house, which was in Redcliffe Street Bedminster. At last he was ready to amaze the world with perfect buckshot (and all I can say is thank goodness there were no Town Planners around to stop him!). Up he went onto the roof, got out his copper sieve, stood over the line of the fall (some 150 feet to the well below) and started pouring molten lead. Eureka! There in the bottom of the well was lead shot as round and shiny as you could wish for! In 1783 he took out the patent “for making small shot perfectly globular in form and without dimples, notches and imperfections which other shot hereto manufactured usually have on their surface”, and sat back and grew rich.
Everyone wanted to use his discovery, and shot towers sprang up around the globe. His shot helped the British army in the Napoleonic Wars.
Ironically his idea was successful because he was using lead from near Priddy in the Mendips (where the Romans had been mining lead 1500 years earlier). The remains of the disused lead mines are still in evidence today – and one feature of Mendip lead is that it is high in arsenic content. Arsenic makes the lead form into globules rather than into a long string of metal…. so WW was fortunate because otherwise he might have had to sell lead string, which is not generally of much use either on the battlefield or when taking pot-shots at over-flying geese!
For a while all went well for Mr and Mrs Watts; Bedminster was never the most fashionable part of the City of Bristol, and the pair of them had aspirations to go with their new found wealth. They moved up to Clifton, one of the more fashionable parts of Bristol. In 1790 WW decided to sell out, to a local brewer called Philip George who called the business the Philip George Patent Shot Company. The price was £10,000, an enormous sum of money - equivalent to perhaps £700,000 today. Thus fortified, WW looked around for other money-making ideas, and decided to do a bit of property speculation – close to the sheer cliff face which is the Avon Gorge.
Just as Fate had smiled at his endeavours in Bedminster, so it decided that poor WW would lose every penny he had on this new venture: in order to safeguard the houses he was putting up in Windsor Terrace he had to build a wall – an enormous wall. ‘Huge’ does not do justice to the structure, known ever since as Watts Folly. The foundations alone ate up his ten thousand pounds and on 1st March 1794 he was declared bankrupt. It was to be another twenty years before his project was finished.
His curious home-come-tower remained as a shot factory until 1968 when it was demolished for a road widening scheme. The irony is that the company (by now known as Sheldon Bush & Company) then obtained planning permission to build a huge concrete shot tower right near the city centre. There it sits, ugly as sin, doing virtually nothing, as the shot-making business has ceased and it is linked to offices as a ‘conference centre in the sky’. In 1995 the structure was granted Listed Building status (meaning that it cannot be readily demolished) presumably on account of its sheer awful ugliness, a tribute to Sixties bad taste in design. And so it remains, a monument to one man’s foresight and sheer determination to make a dream come true two hundred and forty years ago!.
I am grateful to Paul Townsend who runs a site called The Changing Face of Bristol for the picture of the old Watts Tower in Redcliffe Street.