It is doubtful whether Donkin had much do with the building of a works of modest size in the sparsely populated low-lying district of Bermondsey in 1803.The choice of Bermondsey for a works to make fairly heavy engineering products would be influenced by the fact that land was cheap but handy for the Thames and water transport, for in those days there were no railways and transport in horse-drawn carts was slow and unreliable. The works was financed by the Foudrinier Bros. of London who were prosperous stationers intrigued by the possibilities of a new, but undeveloped invention of a Frenchman who proposed to make paper by machinery.
The Foudriniers had gone to John Hall, the millwright of Dartford, to ask for his help, but after some desultory experiments Hall left the matter in the hands of his former apprentice.
He had proved his exceptional ability to Hall during his apprenticeship in the years 1792-1795. It was with confidence that Hall recommended him to the Foudriniers in 1803 as manager of the workshops at Bermondsey from which it was hoped to reap a very profitable return in what was of necessity a highly speculative venture. That he overcame not only many engineering hazards, but also some financial storms to which even old-established firms succumbed in great numbers at that time, speaks much for Donkin’s ability.
Bryan Donkin has been curiously neglected by historians of technology, in spite of his very considerable contributions to the design and construction of paper making and printing machines and to the more general task of producing better tools with which to shape metals with precision.
This neglect can probably be attributed to the secrecy with which much of the machine building art was practised during the early part of the 19th century and the Bryan Donkin workshops were no exception as illustrated by George Escol Sellers in his account of his visit to meet Bryan Donkin at his works sometime in 1832.- “I was so fortunate as to find Mr. Donkin in his office: I presented my letters as I had been advised to do by Mr Swann. He opened the first one, glanced over it and laid it open on his desk, and opened the second, treating it in the same manner. I could read nothing from his calm, impassive face, but on opening the third there was an evident change of expression; he read it very slowly, seemingly in deep thought.
Still holding the last letter in his hand he turned to me saying, “This letter is from a most worthy gentleman whose requests I am always glad to respond to. I had a letter from him a day or two ago in which he mentioned having given you a letter, and I have been expecting you to call on me. In this letter of introduction he states that you are engaged in the paper machinery branch of my business in America. You have seen in operation at his mills one of my latest and most improved machines; after they have left my shop I have no further control over them, and their owners are at perfect liberty to show them to whomever they please. I have in my erecting shop the widest and finest machine I have ever built to fill an order from France, which I will take pleasure in showing you. But the tools and various machines and appliances I employ in their construction have been the work of almost a lifetime, and I hope you won’t take amiss my unwillingness to exhibit them.”
He then added; ” I am glad you have not come under false colours, as I am sorry to say mechanics have done.”
This was plain talk, and I felt it ended my hope of seeing his works.”
A clue to the reason for Donkins’ reluctance to exhibit his works is given in the comment of Andrew Ure, author of one of the standard mechanical dictionaries of the 19th century. ” I have had the pleasure,” Ure wrote, “of visiting more than once the mechanical workshops of Messrs. Bryan Donkin and Co. in Bermondsey, and have never witnessed a more admirable assortment of exquisite and expensive tools, each adapted to perform its part with despatch and mathematical exactness, though I have seen probably the best machine factories of this country and the Continent.”
It was becoming obvious that Bermondsey could not continue indefinitely
as the company’s works. In 1803 when the original building had been established, Bermondsey was a rather isolated country district of low-lying fields and open spaces. Now, a century later, the works had been expanded until there was no room for further building and the site was hemmed in by small property.
In 1803 there were no railways and Bermondsey provided a convenient site for the transport of heavy materials by water on the adjacent river Thames. When the original Bryan Donkin went to see Telford in Scotland in 1816 he sailed from Greenwich to Leith in 7 1/2 days; but on another occasion he records reaching Liverpool from London by light stage coach in 36 hours. After a number of partnerships in all of which members of the Donkin family predominated, it had become Bryan Donkin & Co. Ltd., in 1889 with Mr. Bryan Donkin Junior as Chairman and Mr. E. Bryan Donkin as Managing Director.
In 1900 agreements were signed for an amalgamation with Clench & Co. Ltd.of Chesterfield, a firm founded in 1896 by Mr. F. Clench for the manufacture of high speed steam engines. The company was known from 1900 to 1905 as Bryan Donkin & Clench Ltd. The move from London was made in 1902 into buildings that were surprisingly modern for their time. The machine shops, for instance, had continuous bays nearly 400 feet long and 40 feet wide.
At the time of the move about 220 workers were employed at Bermondsey and many of them elected to live in Chesterfield in order to continue their association with the company.