Western Re-Enactment In The United Kingdom
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Colonel Colt's London Factory - By "Poncho"

Samuel Colt

~ Sam Colt ~

Samuel Colt and his English friend, Charles Manby, f.r.s. Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers, became a regular sight on the streets of London during 1851. Colt had had a great success exhibiting his fine firearms at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in that year and the orders had come flooding in. Together the two friends toured London seeking a suitable site upon which to build a factory. After much fruitless searching they eventually found what they had been looking for in Bessborough Place, Vauxhall Bridge, Pimlico, London City centre. It was a three story red brick building over three hundred feet long. It had been erected in 1840 by Thomas Cubitt and was owned by the British Government, and housed castings for use by the famous architect, Charles Barry, in the new Palace of Westminster.
It was Manby who successfully negotiated with the Government for the lease to the building.

Between January and December of 1852 the London sales office imported many Colt pistols (mainly .36 cal. Navy Models and .44 cal. Dragoons) and parts from the factory in the U.S. This kept the London connection ticking over until the newly furnished factory was ready. They had many problems in the beginning especially with the engine and boiler that was to be used to power the machinery. The men from Hartford, who were to set up the machines, arrived late and it wasn't until January 1853 that Colt was able to open up his books for business. It was in the June of that same year before any pistols were actually completed and most of them were either entirely or part-made in Hartford just to start the production going.

It was early 1854 before the London factory was up and running properly; making complete pistols from raw materials to the finished product. The steel and iron for the guns was supplied from a firm in Sheffield, England called, Thomas Firth & Sons. This factory also shipped tons of metal to the Hartford factory, and continued to do so until the late 1860's. Now that the factory was up and running, Colt received many famous visitors who would be guided around the place by the man himself. They included Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's husband) and the famous author Charles Dickens. Indeed, Dickens was very impressed by the factory and the superb (for the time) conditions for the work force.

He noted:
"It is the only place in England where one can see the complete manufacture of a pistol, from dirty pieces of timber and rough bars of cast steel, till it is fit for the gunsmiths case." Dickens was invited to test one of Colt's .36 cal. Navy revolvers, he concluded that, "After a little practice, I find that a mere novice may, with one hand, discharge the six rounds as rapidly as the eye can wink."

Over 200 men and women worked for Colt at the London factory. Unskilled workers received ten to fifteen shillings a week and the highly skilled could expect to get as much as a full pound a week or more. Excellent wages for the day. The factory was heated for the workers comfort and had access to changing rooms and many other luxuries that were virtually unheard of in Victorian England. But Colt needed more orders and, as luck would have it for him, the orders came thick and fast in 1854 from the British Government; for they had just declared war, along with France, on Russia. It was the start of the Crimean War.In March of that year, Colt received an order for 4000 Navy revolvers at a cost of £2.10.0 each (silver plated back strap versions cost an extra five shillings - about 25p or 65 cents.) By October it was reported that over 10.000 Navy revolvers had been issued to the Baltic Fleet. On August 2nd. I855, Colt received his biggest single order yet from the British Government. 9.000 navy pistols! The factory put on a night shift and went in to overtime. By 1856, Colt had produced approximately, 24.000 pistols. About nine thousand of them went for storage to the tower of London where they remained until the late 1860's.

~ The 1851 Colt Navy ~


After the war, as is so often the case, the Colt factory found it nigh on impossible to get many orders. The night shift was dropped and so was the over time.
Economic change and loyalty to one's own country crept in to the scene too as more and more British Government officials and M.P.'s (Members of Parliament) were persuaded to 'fly the flag' and buy British. Indeed the British gun maker and designer, Robert Adams, took full advantage of this and got orders from the Government that, maybe - given the unreliability of the Adams revolver - should of gone to Colt.
Things were quiet in America too and so, Colt decided that he could not continue production in Great Britain. He pulled in his bridges and closed the London Factory in December 1856.And so ended one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of Colt Firearms.

_______________________________________________

The above factual information was gathered from:
'The Royal Armouries - Colt Revolvers'
(1988)
Joseph G. Rosa.
Charles Dickens' Autobiography.
& Personal research at Leeds Armoury
& Museums in Liverpool, Manchester,
Edinburgh & London.
Copyright Steven J.C.Forber 2002.

 

 

 

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