Brown, John (1816-1896) (DNB01)

BROWN, Sir JOHN (1816–1896), pioneer of armour plate manufacture, born at Sheffield in Flavell's Yard, Fargate, on 6 Dec. 1816, was the second son of Samuel Brown, a slater of that town. He was educated at a local school held in a garret, and was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to Earl, Horton, & Co., factors, of Orchard Place, In 1831 his employers engaged in the manufacture of files and table cutlery, taking an establishment in Rockingham Street, which they styled the Hallamshire Works. Earl, the senior partner of the firm, impressed by Brown's ability, offered him his factoring business, and advanced him part of the capital he required to carry it on. In 1848 Brown invented the conical steel spring-buffer for railway wagons, and soon he was manufacturing 150 sets a week.

Brown's great achievement was the development of armour plating for war vessels. In 1860 he saw at Toulon the French ship La Gloire. She was a timber-built 90-gun three-decker, cut down and coated with hammered plate armour, four and a half inches thick. This contrivance occasioned the English government so much uneasiness that they ordered ten 90- and 100-gun vessels to be similarly adapted. Brown, from a distant inspection of La Gloire, came to the conclusion that the armoured plates used in protecting her might have been rolled instead of hammered. He was at that time mayor of Sheffield, and he invited the premier. Lord Palmerston, to inspect the process. Palmerston's visit was followed in April 1863 by one from the lords of the admiralty, who saw rolled a plate twelve inches thick and fifteen to twenty feet long. The latter visit was the subject of an article in 'Punch' (18 April 1863). The admiralty were convinced of the merits of Brown's methods, and the royal commission on armour plates ordered from his works nearly all the plates they required. In a few years he had sheathed fully three fourths of the British navy.

In 1856 he concentrated in Saville Street, Sheffield, the different manufactures in which he had been engaged in various parts of the town. His establishment, styled the Atlas Works, covered nearly thirty acres, and increased until it gave employment to over four thousand artisans. He undertook the manufacture of armour plates, ordnance forgings, railway bars, steel springs, buffers, tires, and axles, supplied Sheffield with iron for steel-making purposes, and was the first successfully to develop the Bessemer process, and to introduce into Sheffield the manufacture of steel rails. He received frequent applications from foreign governments for armour plates, but invariably declined such contracts unless the consent of the home government was obtained. During the civil war in America he refused large orders from the northern states.

In 1864 his business was converted into a limited liability company, and he retired to Endfield Hall, Ranmoor, near Sheffield. He was mayor of Sheffield in 1862 and 1863, and master cutler in 1865 and 1866, and was knighted in 1867. He died without issue at Shortlands, the house of Mr. Barron, Bromley in Kent, on 27 Dec. 1896, and was buried at Ecclesall on 31 Dec. In 1839 he married Mary (d. 28 Nov. 1881), eldest daughter of Benjamin Scholefield of Sheffield.

[Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 28 Dec. 1896; Times, 11 Aug. 1862, 28 Dec. 1896.]

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