Victorian Studio Photos
Victorian Studio Photos

I have decided that the Sharpe family, sometime of the Ewell Gunpowder Mills, were unusual, which is the best adjective I can apply without further information. I still have no real idea whether Mr Sharpe was a crook, a charlatan, incompetent, cavalier, or a mixture of all those. Nor do I know if his son, John William Sharpe, was someone who flitted from one job/enterprise to another because he wasn't terribly good at anything or if in some way he inherited characteristics from his father. I'm not likely to find out, since there were no direct descendants.

Mr Sharpe, the gunpowder man, was a Scotsman - John Carr Sharpe from Brechin, Angus - which will be why Master John William Sharpe is dressed as he is in the photo below.

Master John William Sharpe
Master John William Sharpe
Photograph by Cuthbert John Hopkins, courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

John Carr Sharpe was born in about 1827 and on 9 August 1853 at Twickenham, Middlesex he married Jane Ann Haselden (born c.1820 Windsor), whose father, John Haselden (born about 1770) had been a servant in the Royal Household, so he would have been working for George III at some stage.

Ostensibly the Sharpes had two children, who were the aforementioned John William (born 1858 Twickenham) and Clara Louisa (1862 Windsor), but I don't believe Clara was theirs. In the 1871 census she was listed as Clara Louisa Collins, niece to the Sharpes, and then she turned into Clara Louisa Sharpe. She might well have been the daughter of the Haseldens' unmarried servant, Emma Collins, who was with the Sharpes in the 1861 census. Formal adoption in strict legal terms did not begin in England until 1927.

Mr Sharpe's career

Although I don't have all the details of Mr Sharpe's various business enterprises, something of a pattern has emerged. He was a person who formed a partnership or company with others and then jumped ship when it started to go wrong, only to set up another such entity. However, he usually seemed to walk away with some money, leaving others to suffer the consequences. And another theme was that he managed the businesses on a day-to-day basis, but wasn't responsible, he said (even though he was a director), for the fact that the administration wasn't compliant with proper practice or law, or that money had been inadequately accounted for in the books and found its way into the wrong place or disappeared altogether. He got away with it, although not without a judicial raised eyebrow/rebuke or three.

Avenue House / Ewell Court House
Avenue House / Ewell Court House
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Before becoming involved with the Ewell gunpowder enterprise Sharpe had been a partner/shareholder/manager in the Maresfield Patent Gunpowder Company Ltd. (Maresfield is a village in East Sussex, near Uckfield, which was long associated with iron.) In 1858 he petitioned to wind it up and it was put into liquidation. Then, hey presto, like a rabbit from a magician's hat, a new company sprang up called the Maresfield Gunpowder Company (without the word Patent), with one Mr John Carr Sharpe at the helm, and acquired from the liquidator the 99 year lease which had recently been awarded to the previous company. After a mind-boggling series of financial transactions which basically left the new company virtually insolvent, Sharpe waved his wand again and set up another gunpowder company, which was Sharpe, Adams & Co (I hope you can follow all this smoke and mirrors, but the details aren't that crucial, as we can already see what's going on). Sharpe, Adams & Co took a lease on the Ewell Gunpowder Mill from the Bridges family and Sharpe moved into Ewell Court House (then called Avenue House). As we know, there were two major explosions, in 1863 and 1865, both of which resulted in fatalities, and they happened under Sharpe's stewardship. Somehow, another firm called Sharpe & Davy, merchants and commission agents, was involved with the mills too (this was probably a slightly different incarnation of Sharpe, Adams & Co) and in 1866 it became insolvent, eventually paying out 2s.6d (12.5 pence) in the pound to creditors. I can't follow all this myself, but you get the drift.

Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Image courtesy of Epsom and Ewell Local & Family History Centre

By 1872 Sharpe had decided he couldn't make a go of Ewell because he wouldn't be able to comply with forthcoming safety legislation, so he sold his lease to the Ewell Patent Gunpowder Company and pocketed the money. There was a sequel to this in 1872 when Edward Johnson, who had been Sharpe's confidential clerk, was, frankly, lied to and duped by the new manager, one Mr Mellor, and sued Mellor for compensation in court. The case was heard before a jury, who seemed to be as confused as we now are, because they returned two conflicting verdicts. When pressed for clarification by the judge, they agreed that they did not find the cases against Mellor proved but thought that Mr Johnson deserved £ 5. It was absurd that a jury had to struggle with this at all, since there had been a considerable amount of bamboozlement by both Mellor and Sharpe in the witness box. In fact, the judge criticised Sharpe for his evasive answers.

The reason we know so much about the goings-on with the Maresfield companies, and, therefore, what Sharpe was up to, is that there were two court cases in 1865: one was concerned with failure to file the correct paperwork and the second was alleged fraud. Sharpe walked away from all of it unscathed, although I daresay that any reputation he had left was seriously damaged. He even had the cheek to ask for costs, which caused the raised judicial eyebrows, considering that he had made some money and left everyone else floundering. However, there were other gunpowder manufacturers called Sharp (without the final 'e'), who owned the Chilworth Mills near Guildford, and after the first case they felt sufficiently peeved to write to the London Evening Standard as follows.
'SIR - Referring to the case before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House on Friday last, reported in your impression of the 7th instant, headed 'Charge against a Joint-stock company", we find it necessary, in consequence of several inquiries much to our annoyance, to repudiate any connection with the Mr John Carr Sharpe therein mentioned, either by relationship or otherwise; and this is rendered the more necessary from the circumstance of there being so very few gunpowder manufacturers. Requesting the favour of your early insertion of this short note, we are, Sir, yours obediently, J, T and S Sharp.'
To finish up on Sharpe's career, he seems to have dabbled in a few more things, but by the 1881 census he was in Croydon, described as a proprietor of houses and property. 1883 brought another court case concerning irregularities in the liquidated company of the Lady Bertha Copper & Tin Mining Company, of which he was a director, and by 1891 he was a commission agent, living in a shared house in West Hampstead. In the 1901 census he was 'retired' and in another shared house. He died in 1902.

Mrs Sharpe and John William

In the 1881 census John William, then aged 22, was described as a 'Solicitor on the Roll'. It emerged during the 1883 Lady Bertha court proceedings that he was also a shareholder in and solicitor to the company. Payments he had made seemed to have been incorrectly allocated, although there was no suggestion of deliberate fraud, and he was criticised concerning paperwork. 'It was most extraordinary,' said the judge 'that a solicitor, in such a case, should have omitted to put the date on the receipt'. It looks as if John had only very recently gone into partnership with a London solicitor named Grimaldi.

By 1901 John William had become a book publisher and was at home with his parents in Mill Lane, West Hampstead; his legal career had obviously hit the buffers, if it ever got going at all, and the family had no servant. As mentioned, John Senior died in 1902 and the 1911 census found Junior and his mother in a rather strange situation at 48 Agamemnon Road, West Hampstead, with Junior described as a typist (employer, at home). Jane was now 91 years old and there was a housekeeper, with a labourer husband and small son. Additionally, there was a young male lamp cleaner, who may or may not have had something to do with the housekeeper, plus a lodger who was a commercial traveller in neckwear. All these in seven rooms (excluding kitchen, WC etc). John had written a note across the census form explaining that the housekeeper's contingent occupied rooms in return for the housekeeping. Jane died that same year and John didn't last much longer, expiring on 12 April 1913 and leaving effects of £ 244. Neither of his parents seems to have left any effects at all and it looks clear that the family was all but on its beam ends by the finish, probably due to John Carr Sharpe's lack of business acumen. After all, if you're going to wheel and deal like he did and walk away with some money each time, then it's best not to keep ending up in court with barristers and court costs to pay.

Linda Jackson 2018