Letters from Sir Joseph Whitworth to Sir James Emerson Tennent

Scope and Content

Six autograph letters from Sir Joseph Whitworth to Sir James Emerson Tennent. They concern Whitworth's contest with Sir William Armstrong to supply the British Army and Navy with guns, Tennent's book in support of Whitworth, and field trials of guns. The rivalry between Whitworth and Sir (later Lord) William Armstrong was fierce, and in 1863 the Admiralty and War Office established the Armstrong-Whitworth Committee to determine the relative merits of the two kinds of rifling and shells favoured by the firms. Although extensive field trials in 1863-4 against test targets proved inclusive, the Committee reported in favour of Armstrong. The contest aroused considerable public interest: The Times published four articles on 'The Armstrong and Whitworth Trials', on 9 and 16 April and 9 and 18 May 1864.

Tennent was a leading advocate of Whitworth's Manchester Ordnance Company, and the correspondence takes as its starting point the publication of his book, The Story of the Guns (1864). A long and damning review of the book in the Athenaeum, 30 January 1864, pp. 147-8, claimed that 'Nearly every page indicates that Sir E. Tennent is not an impartial historian', and concluded with the accusation that the delay in conducting 'a series of comparative experiments between Armstrong and Whitworth guns' was due 'wholly to Mr. Whitworth, or rather to the Manchester Ordnance Company. Sir E. Tennent has exposed himself, no doubt unconsciously, to the imputation of being the mouthpiece of this company, and it is much to be regretted that he should have placed himself in such a position.'

For further information see Marshall J. Bastable, 'From Breechloaders to Monster Guns: Sir William Armstrong and the Invention of Modern Artillery, 1854-1880', Technology and Culture, 33.2 (1992), 213-47.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Joseph Whitworth, 1803-87

Sir Joseph Whitworth was one of the leading, if not best-known, industrialist-inventors of the Victorian age. Whitworth's contributions in the fields of mechanical engineering and scientific measurement were manifold: he invented a method of manufacturing truly plane surfaces, conceived and developed a micrometer which was accurate to two-millionths of an inch and, perhaps most significantly, devised a uniform system of screw threads.

Whitworth was born at Stockport in 1803; in 1815 following the death of his mother, he was fostered while his father trained to be a nonconformist minister. Between 1820-1824 he worked in Manchester for W J Crighton & Co. before moving to London. He returned to Manchester in 1832 to set up a business. In 1834 he applied for his first patent - a screw cutting machine. By the 1840s Whitworth was well established as an inventor and engineer, and he won considerable public acclaim after his inventions were displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition. At his extensive works at Chorlton St and Openshaw, Manchester, Whitworth also experimented to improve the design of rifles and artillery pieces. The business was converted into a limited liability company in 1874, and in 1897 it merged with Armstrong's of Elswick.

Whitworth's success allowed him to purchase the Firs estates in the suburbs of Manchester (then known as Ardern's Place and now part of the University of Manchester), and later, a country estate at Stancliffe Hall, Darley Dale, Derbyshire, where he undertook many improvements. In 1869 he was created a baronet. After his death in 1887, executors were appointed to disburse his considerable fortune; major beneficiaries included Owens College, Manchester, where money was used to build the Whitworth Hall.

Sir James Emerson Tennent, 1804-69

Sir James Emerson Tennent (1804-1869), first baronet, traveller and politician, was a supporter of Greek independence in 1820s. He was Member of Parliament for Belfast, with minor interruptions, from 1832 until 1845, when he was knighted. From 1845 to 1850 he served as civil secretary to the colonial government of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). After a brief return to the House of Commons, in 1852 he was made permanent secretary to the Poor Law Board and secretary to the Board of Trade. He was created a baronet upon his retirement in February 1867.


The items are arranged in chronological order, as they were received, with two undated items at the end of the sequence.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The collection was purchased by the Library from Richard M. Ford, antiquarian bookseller, 70 Chaucer Road, London, in October 2019.

Other Finding Aids


Archivist's Note

We are grateful to the bookseller Richard Ford, from whom the collection was purchased, for permitting us to reuse his descriptions of the material.

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Custodial History

The previous history of the collection is unknown.


No further accruals are expected.

Related Material

The Library also holds Commander Bertram R. Faunthorpe's papers relating to Joseph Whitworth, https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/gb133-fjw.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) holds correspondence and papers of Sir James Emerson Tennent, 1815-69, ref. D2922.


Norman Atkinson, Sir Joseph Whitworth: 'The World's Best Mechanician' (Stroud: Sutton, 1996) .

Marshall J. Bastable, 'From Breechloaders to Monster Guns: Sir William Armstrong and the Invention of Modern Artillery, 1854-1880', Technology and Culture, 33.2 (1992), 213-47 .

Terence Kilburn, Joseph Whitworth, Toolmaker (Cromford: Scarthin, 1987) .

Thomas Seccombe and R. Angus Buchanan, 'Whitworth, Sir Joseph, baronet (1803–1887), mechanical engineer and machine tool manufacturer', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004, online edition 4 October 2007 .

Sir James Emerson Tennent, The Story of the Guns (London: Longman, Green, 1864) .