Magazine & Newspaper Articles> This Page
Joseph Whitworth : Lives Which Hung by a Thread*
One of a series of articles published in "Reflections" more than a decade ago
Recently, it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir Joseph Whitworth of Darley Dale, near Matlock. Most will remember him for his development of the standardised Whitworth thread and for his local philanthropy. What is less known, however, is his work on the development of armaments and, in particular, the rifle implicated in many of the 600,000 lives lost in the American Civil War. It was known as the Whitworth sharpshooter. Lawton Slaney
Articles Index
Next Page
Previous Page
More Links
Also see
About Matlock
About Matlock Bath
Images of Matlock
Find a Name

Darley Dale Stancliffe Hall

Darley Dale Stancliffe Quarry and Saw Mill

In 1855 Whitworth designed a large 2.75-inch-bore rifled cannon which hurled a 121b 11oz shell over a distance of six miles

The Whitworth designed cannon which could fire a shell over 6 miles[1].

Sir Joseph Whitworth's early life and rise to ultimate fame and honour is well enough documented. The local reader will know that he was born in Manchester[2], and ended his life with a name and fame almost synonymous with the village of Darley Dale, near Matlock[3], where he was buried in 1887 after his death in Monaco.

Joseph Whitworth, the father of modern production engineering.
Joseph Whitworth

This prolific inventor designed not only most of the revolutionary machinery which fathered the Industrial Revolution, but was responsible for the techniques of standardisation which produced astonishingly accurate machinery, even by today's standards. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 Whitworth exhibited no less than twenty-three inventions, for which he won more awards than anyone else at this show. It was seen by more than six million people.

Until standardisation appeared, every machine was a one-off. If something broke, a replacement had to be manufactured to fit; but mass production of spare parts such as nuts, bolts, washers and so on meant that substitutes were immediately available... and most importantly, were interchangeable. Joseph Whitworth's contribution to this rationalisation earned him the title 'the father of modern production engineering.' Without him, the Industrial Revolution could easily have petered out. With him, mass production took off.

From industrial knitting machines and horse-drawn combine harvesters to a whole range of armaments, Whitworth's genius, allied to his passion for accuracy and capacity for limitless hard work, paid dividends. The many tools produced at this time, in the middle of the nineteenth century, were, however, to have a far-reaching effect on the very lives and deaths of countless thousands of people.

Whitworth and weapons of individual destruction
Whitworth's all-embracing interest turned to armaments at the time of the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. He saw room for improvement in everything, including guns, and he began making suggestions to the Government for the mass-production of these weapons. Finding fault everywhere, he produced a rifle that was more efficient than the then-standard Enfield; so in 1854 Whitworth redesigned the bullets to fit an hexagonal barrel, and it was found that accuracy was doubled as a result (Rifling, designed to spin the bullet as it left the muzzle, was originally used in Austria as far back as 1520).

The Whitworth rifle was tested by the National Rifle Association, who rejected it because they judged the bore, at 0.45 calibre, to be too small, compared with the current standard 0.577. This was in spite of the fact that the Whitworth rifle had a barrel length of only 20", whereas the Enfield was 78". Whitworth, incensed at this move in the wrong direction, moved house to Pall Mall so that he could live directly opposite his enemy, the War Office.

By 1859 Whitworth was growing rich, and was able to afford extensive testing of his rifle. He conducted a hair-raising and elaborate series of tests in which the muzzle end of a rifle was blocked with an 18"-length of lead, rammed home hard. The gun was then fired to see if the breech end of the gun would burst. This experiment was repeated with increasing loads of gunpowder, with the same result. Not only was the Whitworth rifle more accurate... it had treble the power of penetration.

The new technique had fathered yet another of Whitworth's inventions: he invented a process for making a much stronger 'fluid compressed' steel from which to make his rifles, steel which ensured that his guns were unburstable.

New rifles changed the way wars were fought
These improvements changed the face of war, because a defending army couldn't now get close to the enemy, shelter behind sandbags, and then charge whilst the opposing troops were reloading: the new rifles penetrated protective barricades with the ease of a knife through butter. But the new design was found to be prone to fouling and, as a result, was rejected by the British government. It was, however, adopted by the French Army, and found its way across the Atlantic to where the American Civil War had erupted in 1861.

The Civil War rifled musket was able to kill at a range of over half a mile, thus making a direct frontal assault a suicidal affair. The accurate fire of these new rifles spelt disaster for troops of both sides. On one occasion 26,000 men died in a day's fighting. The Confederate States found devious ways of evading the blockade imposed by the Unionists, and bought the English rifle in large quantities. It was known here as the Whitworth Sharpshooter.

Queen Victoria opened the first meeting of the British Rifle Association in 1860 by firing a Whitworth Sharpshooter and scoring a bullseye at 400 yards. It's worth noting that this was in no way a demonstration of royal prowess on the range: a mechanical rest had been set up for Her Majesty, and tested by expert marksmen before she was allowed to squeeze the trigger.

In 1855 Whitworth also designed a large 2.75-inch-bore rifled cannon which hurled a 121b 11oz shell over a distance of six miles. This was also used in the Civil War, but was again rejected by the British Army.

A depressing contradiction
Whitworth was created a baronet in 1869, and in 1870 he and his second wife Mary moved to Stancliffe Hall in Darley Dale, where they settled down to a less frantic way of life. By this time, Sir Joseph's years as an inspired mechanical engineer were about to come to an end. He directed his attention to extracting stone from his quarries at Stancliffe, but settled into philanthropic local activities, and died in January 1887[3].

A century-and-a-half later we can still buy sets of tools known as 'Whitworth' spanners, taps and dies. Looking back, however, over Joseph Whitworth's non-martial achievements in the earlier part of his life, together with the extraordinary fruitfulness of his contributions to making man's life easier and more comfortable, it seems a sad contradiction that he spent around twenty years perfecting a very efficient means of slaughtering his fellow human beings.

[One image not included]

*This is a copy of an article published in "Reflections" in May 2004, Vol. 13 Issue 148, pp.18-21.
"Reflections" is Derbyshire's largest-circulation targeted lifestyle magazine, serving Dronfield, Chesterfield, Matlock and Bakewell areas.
The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission and written consent of the author, Lawton Slaney, and Bannister Publications Ltd.

The above magazine article has aroused a great deal of comment and interest.
Someone who is well informed about 19th century firearms and owns a Whitworth Rifle has supplied the following information and a photograph of the rifle to replace the picture originally provided[4]. Whilst he does not wish to be named, the contribution published below adds enormously to the above. The webmistress is extremely grateful for this help.

The Whitworth Sharpshooter.
This picture replaces the image previously displayed

Sir Joseph Whitworth

Whitworth rose from obscurity to become the most revered machine toolmaker and engineer of the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1820s he was an expert on cotton mill machinery, then moved to London in 1825 to work for Maudslay, the Holtzapffels and Joseph Clement, respectively. He returned to Manchester in 1833 where his firm made machine tools, steam engines, textile machinery and road-sweeping machines.

Whitworth's major contributions were pioneering precise measurement; establishing a national standard screw thread; manufacturing superior small arms and the 'Whitworth' rifle; and furthering the cause of technical education and the training of engineering students. Upon his death his estate of nearly half a million pounds was distributed to educational and charitable institutions.

The Whitworth Rifle

In May 1854 Viscount Hardinge, Master General of Ordinance, sought the aid of Whitworth, the pre-eminent mechanical engineer of the day, in perfecting machinery for the production of rifles. Whitworth considered it inconsistent with his reputation to make machinery in order to mass-produce inferior articles. He instead persuaded Hardinge that the design factors influencing accuracy and effectiveness of rifles should first be considered. He offered to conduct experiments to determine these factors at no expense for his time and attention.

In order to facilitate these experiments, an enclosed gallery 500 yards long was erected in the grounds attached to Whitworth's residence near Manchester. It was provided with a target on wheels for shooting at different distances, rests for steadying the aim and screens to record the flight of the projectiles. Two constraints were imposed on Whitworth by the military in accordance with their misguided understanding of what was effective and practical for the soldier, a minimum bullet weight and maximum powder charge.

Experiments commenced in March 1855 by which time Whitworth had settled on the hexagonal form of rifling. Different bullet forms and rates of rifling twist were tried and a 530 grain mechanically fitting, hardened lead bullet fired from a barrel of approximately .451 inch bore with a rifling twist of one turn in twenty inches was found to be best.

In April 1857 when tested against the .577 Enfield Rifle, this being the service rifle of the day, the Whitworth Rifle was found to be three times more accurate at 500 yards and even more accurate at longer distances. Bullets fired from the Whitworth rifle were found to penetrate materials to many times the depth of those fired from the Enfield Rifle.

From 1860 the National Rifle Association held annual rifle competitions at which the Whitworth Rifle was dominant for several years.

Due to a number of difficulties in mass-producing a serviceable military Whitworth Rifle at a suitably low price it was never adopted for general military issue. It was, however, the rifle of choice for a limited number of sharp shooters during the American Civil War. It was also the rifle of choice of target shooters for many years.

Additional notes on the above, researched by the web mistress apart from note 1:

[1] Scott Ashton has provided the following:
An example of the Whitworth cannon can also be found at:
American Civil War Artillery web site - Whitworth cannon (this will open in a new window)
Notice how you can see that this is a breech-loader, something that Joseph Whitworth was famous for, as all other civil war cannons were muzzle-loaders.

[2] Joseph Whitworth was born in Stockport on 21 Dec 1803 and baptised at Orchard Street or Churchgate Independent on 8 Feb 1804. He was the son of Charles and Sarah Whitworth and his father was a schoolmaster. Charles Whitworth was also a "Dissenter" and became a Congregational Minister. Joseph was taught by his father at first but then became a pupil at William Vint's Academy in Idle, Yorkshire.

Census references to Whitworth show him living at 62 Upper Brook Street in Chorlton Upon Medlock in 1841 (HO107/580/9 f12 p17). He was visiting the Penn family in North Row, Lewisham in 1851 (HO107/1591 f371 p26 s113). In 1861 he was at Stancliffe Hall which he had bought in 1856 and in 1871 he was at The Firs, Rusholme, his Manchester home which was also near his works.

[3] Sir Joseph Whitworth, who died at Monte Carlo on 22 Jan 1887, was buried at St. Helen's, Darley Dale, Derbyshire on 2 Feb 1887, aged 83. His second wife, Mary Louisa (formerly Orrell), was buried there on 30 May 1896, aged 68.

[4] Kilburn, Terence (1987) "Joseph Whitworth, Toolmaker", Scarthin Books, Cromford, ISBN 0 907758 22 3 has a slightly different version of the Whitworth Rifle. Kilburn's book was the first modern popular biography of him. The foreword was written by A. E. Derbyshire, the then Chairman of the Whitworth Trust.

More on site information about Darley and the surrounding area. The parish was a beneficiary of Sir Joseph Whitworth's estate, although some of the information pre-dates Whitworth:
Kelly's 1891 Directory, Darley
Derbyshire's Parishes, 1811
Wolley Manuscripts, Matlock
Wolley Manuscripts, Derbyshire for more information about Derbyshire deeds, pedigrees, documents and wills.

The Andrews Pages Picture Gallery (in another part of the site):
St. Helen's Church, Darley | Darley Dale : The Whitworth Hospital | Darley Dale, The Whitworth Institute | Darley Dale War Memorials.
Magic Lantern Slide of St. Helens (this will open in a new window)

Also see:
The Whitworth Society (this will open in a new window)