JOHNSON JEX & HIS LATHE

Letheringsett is a small village just outside Holt in Norfolk. In spite of its diminutive size it has an interesting history, having possessed a large brewery in the 18th century. This  became the property of the Hardy family in 1781, and was finally transferred to Morgan’s of Norwich in 1899. A member of the family entered the legal profession and held some of the highest posts in the land. This blog concerns not Baron Cozens-Hardy, the Master of the Rolls, but another remarkable man who spent his working life in the village.

“The Learned Blacksmith of Letheringsett” was born in 1778. Although he was sent to school by his father he played truant. Rather he pursued his mechanical bent in the community, and did not learn to read and write in an academic environment; he had to teach himself these subjects as an adult. However he was not content with learning English, he also taught himself French, in order to read a book on mechanics that interested him. (I doubt that he could speak the language.)

CLEY CHURCH, where Johnson Jex's parents were married.

CLEY CHURCH, where Johnson Jex’s parents were married.

Johnson Jex got his unusual Christian name from his mother, whose maiden name was Johnson. His parents William (alsoa blacksmith) and Christiana were married at Cley church in 1773. They later moved to Billingford, on the Roman Road that runs east to west through central Norfolk. The village is next to North Elmham. As an adult he moved a few miles away to Letheringsett, where his uncle had previously been the smith. He worked there for the rest of his life. In spite of his great intellectual curiosity, he had no wish to travel and apparently never left Norfolk. Had he wished he could have travelled anywhere in the land, where his skills as an engineer would surely have led to fame and fortune; but he seems not to have had any inclination to venture beyond the county of his birth. He lived with his mother until her death in 1832 at the age of 88, and thereafter lived alone.

One of the inventions made by Jex was an automatic system for ventilating a greenhouse for the growing of pineapples. He had great ability, but his technical resources did not run to the making of a full-sized metal turning lathe, although he has the reputation for having done so. He acquired his lathe at about the time that Simon Wilkin’s estate was sold in Costessey, following his bankruptcy. Among the items auctioned off was a metal working lathe that had been made for him by the engineer Bryan Donkin. Donkin had been designing lathes with Henry Maudsley, the leading innovator of machine tools in the earl 19th century. This lathe that came onto the market at Costessey in 1816 would therefore have been a state of the art machine. Metal-working machine tools were extremely scarce in the early nineteenth century, and this was particularly true of rural Norfolk. I have no doubt in connecting the lathe used by Johnson Jex for his experimental machinery with the lathe made for Simon Wilkin by Bryan Donkin at his factory in Bermondsey.* The reference to the lathe is contained in Bryan Donkin’s diaries held at Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock. With his lathe he was able to produce a number of watches of great technical ingenuity.

The lathe is still in existence and used to be exhibited at the Bridewell Museum in Norwich, but in a fit of madness it was sent by Norfolk Museums Service to the Science Museum in London, where it is kept in storage. What a shame! I sometimes despair of those in control of the Museum Service in Norfolk. Maybe one day it will return, but don’t hold your breath.

Johnson Jex died in 1852 after suffering a stroke. His gravestone is now largely illegible, but it used to read as follows:

THIS STONE
IS
ERECTED
TO MARK THE BURIAL PLACE OF
JOHNSON JEX

WHO DIED JANUARY 5th, 1852, AGED 73 YEARS.

BORN IN OBSCURITY
HE PASSED HIS DAYS AT LETHERINGSETT AS
A VILLAGE BLACKSMITH.
BY THE FORCE OF AN ORIGINAL AND INVENTIVE GENIUS,
COMBINED WITH INDOMITABLE PERSEVERANCE,
HE MASTERED SOME OF THE GREATEST DIFFICULTIES OF SCIENCE;
ADVANCING FROM THE FORGE TO THE CRUCIBLE,
AND FROM THE HORSE–SHOE TO THE CHRONOMETER:
ACQUIRING, BY MENTAL LABOUR
AND PHILOSOPHICAL RESEARCH,
A VAST AND VARIED AMOUNT OF
MECHANICAL SKILL
AND GENERAL KNOWLEDGE.
HE WAS A MAN OF SCRUPULOUS INTEGRITY AND MORAL WORTH:
BUT, REGARDLESS OF WEALTH
AND INSENSIBLE TO THE VOICE OF FAME,

HE LIVED AND DIED A SCIENTIFIC ANCHORITE.

“THERE IS A SPIRIT IN MAN; AND THE INSPIRATION OF THE ALMIGHTY GIVETH HIM UNDERSTANDING.”

*For those wishing to learn more of Simon Wilkin and his life you should read my article on Richard Mackenzie Bacon in the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society Journal vol 9.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

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