In addition to his work on the Pinxton Railway our committee member John Vanags has researched various other topics relating to local enterprise and ingenuity. Here he presents one of Mansfield's least-known success stories.
In 1824 the opening of the Gas Works in Mansfield also introduced a new family to the town. The first Superintendent of the Gas Works was Stephen Simpson. There is very little information given about him from local sources. He was born in Bingley, but he may have come to Mansfield via Preston. Began, like most of the Simpson family, as clockmakers. His obituary, in the Nottingham Journal, gives some idea of the kind of person he was.
He died on Monday, 13th July, after a lingering and painful end. " He was a profound mathematician and one of the most ingenious mechanics in the kingdom; of an ardent temperament to he never ceased until he had succeeded in accomplishing any object, no matter how obtruse. About 12 years ago when considerable disputes existed in Nottingham as to the frauds in winding cotton lace he invented a beautifully simple instrument to which attested to the quantity to a certainty. His invention to supersede the hygrometer was allowed to be one of the most ingenious and accurate instruments ever made: so delicate was it that a single drop of water in a glass of spirits was at once detected. Having accomplished his inventions instead of profiting by them, he threw them aside as not worthy of a notice. In one of Mr Greens aeronautic expeditions from Mansfield (1827 & 1830), he was accompanied by Mr Simpson, who was accustomed to speak with rapture of the aerial journey, and of the beautiful scenery presented to his view as he sailed over the rich domains of Hardwick and its splendid valley. He was a man of generous disposition and highly respected."
His nephews Stephen (b.1816) and Edmund (b.1823) continued in the gas fitting and manufactured gas meters after his death. Issac (b.1824), a second cousin, who worked in Manchester, is described as a visitor to Mansfield, in the 1861 Census. He was a Gold Thread and Plate Manufacturer.
Stephen continued to develop the business and expanded into engineering and smithing work, at the Albert Works, Bridge Street. His first son Edmund, born 1836, was able to join him. In 1874 Simpson & Son begin to make 'Spider' bicycles and introduced their own 'Defiance' models from about 1875. Now Simpson patents and improvements began to appear quite frequently. These include the 'Flipper Brake', Automatic Rigid Wheel, Combined Pedal, the Trailing Brake, Simpson's Improved Adjustable Roller Bearings, Spring Saddle, Adjustable Handle. They were all soon superseded by new developments in that evolving industry.
In 1868, Edmund Simpson acquired a patent for a 'Machine for Drawing Fine Wire'. After the sudden death of his father in 1880, he continued in bicycle manufacturing.
He developed several versions of the 'Defiance' tricycles, but this small firm could not compete with the larger well financed firms and had to liquidate the business at the end of 1882. He was able to continue with gas fitting, mechanical engineering and the repair of bicycles, and he was still able to take out a patent in 1884 related to 'Wheels and Tyres' for bicycles. Edmund had two sons, Stephen and William.
Very little is known, at present, about William E. Simpson. However, his inventive mind was used for patents that involved bicycles, machine guns, gas and motor vehicles. Emigrated to Detroit, USA, in 1906 where he thought there was more scope for i=his engineering talents.
Stephen is said to have preferred working in his father's workshop rather than playing with his friends. At 18 he designed a sewing machine; he also made a lathe which he continued to use for many years. In 1893 and 1894 he applied for a patents for a 'coin feed mechanism' for prepayment gasmeters. This was taken up by a noted Exeter firm, Willey & Co. Ltd. (the town's biggest industrial undertaking). Stephen left Mansfield in 1894 to work for that firm, which eventually patented 200 of his inventions- the outstanding one being the penny-in-the-slot gas meter. A number of his inventions are still used in gas meters today. He also built houses designed by himself for most of his family. He was for many years the Chairman of Willey's, retiring in 1953.
It has been said of him that more Exeter families were given a livelihood through him than any other individual. He was responsible for much of the reconstruction of Exeter Cathedral, after it had been bombed in the Second World War. He was offered a knighthood but he said, "no, I want to die plain Stephen Simpson." He lived for a long time at Spitchwich Manor, near Newton Abbott, and died at the age of 84.
Diagrams from gas meter & coin mechanism patents, 1894 and 1897
©2000 John Vanags - Revised Feb. 2002.