It is surprising how much history a simple street name can reveal and Bessemer Road is a good example. If you know where King’s College Hospital is situated – beside Denmark Hill – then you may also know that the side road in which the main entrance if to be found is called Bessemer Road. Its not much to look at because it is dwarfed by the large hospital buildings on one side and a large car park on the other.
This narrow roadway has a name plate that is one of the only reminders in Camberwell of a the famous English inventor who lived nearby for about 35 years. Henry Bessemer was born at Charlton, in Hertfordshire, on 19 January 1813. He was the son of a French immigrant, himself born in England, who was an engineer. The young Henry became interested in making metal models from casts and often experimented in his father’s foundry.
Steel was scarce because there was no efficient method of removing carbon from iron ore to the specifications needed for steel. It was thought that cast iron had to be converted to wrought iron by removing most of the carbon, then converted to steel by re-adding carbon. Bessemer worked out that cast iron could be converted directly into steel by applying blasts of cool air to the molten iron. Although many believed that the cool air would only solidify the iron prematurely, Bessemer’s demonstrations proved the opposite to be true. The cool air caused the carbonic impurities to ignite and burn off more readily.
Henry’s invention of the ‘Bessemer Process’, as it was called, was to revolutionise the production of steel. It enabled the quick and inexpensive production of high quality steel. Bessemer took out several patents for the process. At first nobody in the industry took his ideas seriously and so Henry Bessemer set up his own factory undercutting other producers on price but not on quality. That quickly led to other people setting up the same process and made him a very wealthy man. It is estimated that this earned him about £1 million with the industrialised world benefitting greatly from his invention.
In 1863 Bessemer bought the house surrounded by a 40-acre estate in Camberwell as a home. The property became known as Bessemer House. It was part of the much larger Dulwich College Estates which included all of Dulwich and a large part of Camberwell. He employed the estate surveyor, Charles Barry (son of Sir Charles Barry who was architect for the Houses of Parliament) to extend the existing house and to design many new buildings including glasshouses, a huge conservatory, an astronomical observatory and a model farm. In the observatory was the world’s second largest astronomical telescope at the time. In the garden were artificial caves built from Pulhamite Stone.
For her wedding gift, Bessemer had a second house built nearby for his daughter. It was called ‘Bessemer Grange’.
Henry Bessemer died at his house on 15 March 1898 and was buried in the grave of his wife who had died some years before him. The stone can still be seen in West Norwood Cemetery.
The estate was north of East Dulwich Grove and also north of the railway line between East Dulwich and North Dulwich stations. It occupied land on the west side of a thoroughfare called Green Dale.
During the Second World War the house was used as a hotel. It was later demolished and the land became a housing estate and also a school. The latter is appropriately called Bessemer Grange Primary School. The original site is about a mile from today’s Bessemer Road which people probably walk along and do not give a second thought to the very wealthy landowner who once lived in the area.