The Brent Family of Ship Builders
J. Brent Streit
The Brent family has been traced back to the middle of the 12th century to Sauvinus de Turre, patron of the Glastonbury Abbey. His grandson, Sir Robert de Brent inherited not only this patronage, but also the manor of Cossington as the result of being knighted by King Edward I. 1) There is nothing in the family history which would indicate any maritime destiny until Moses Brent (1694-1780) turned up on the rolls of Her Majestys Navy during Queen Annes War. Based upon his birth date, it is most probable that Moses served as a ship's boy, an honourable endeavor for a young armiger.
Moses had been born in Lymington, Hampshire, and after the war he subsequently settled in the Portsmouth area and became a shipwright at the Royal Navy Shipyard. All of his sons were also employed in the shipyard as shipwrights or joiners, (2) the most successful of whom was John Brent (1729-1812), who became a foreman for the new work at Sheerness along with Sir John Williams. (3) In 1768 he was appointed assistant surveyor of ships to the East India Company under Gabriel Snodgrass.
John Randall, Esq. had been building ships for the Royal Navy at Cuckold's Point (Nelson Dockyard) and the Greenland Dock since 1755. John Brent was brought into partnership with Randall to possibly utilize his association with Gabriel Snodgrass of the East India Company to enhance the Yard's production of large merchant ships. Together, they became major contributors to Britain's maritime dominance.
In 1802, the Peace of Amiens brought major cutbacks in shipbuilding, and considerable unrest at the waterfront, where shipwrights mutinied. John Randall, Jr., who had inherited his fathers interest in the shipyard, was so distraught by these events that he threw himself from his window and died from injuries sustained in the fall. John Brent had retired around 1797 and as a committee member of the Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture, enjoyed his dotage as maritime expert emeritus. 4) John had learned to live the elegant life in style. In 1792, he had built a remarkably modern (even by todays standards) mini-mansion called Heathfield House at No. 1 Eliot Place in Blackheath. He had "chariot horses" and a state of the art carriage for his daily commute. His first wife died in 1793, but he remarried a clergyman's daughter, who "by her constant kindness and attention smoothed his descent towards the tomb. (5)
During John's tenure, the Randall & Brent Shipyards attained remarkable success and, with one exception discussed later, enjoyed a fine reputation. In fact, four of their ships, the Leda (30), Diana (38), Endymion (50), and Acute (12) were lead ships of their class. (6) In testament to their success, the National Maritime Museum has a 1797 N. Pocock painting, possibly a retirement tribute to John Brent, entitled "Portraits of nine ships of war and others, launched from the yards, Messrs. Randall & Brent within the space of one year." Between 1770 and 1803 the Randall & Brent shipyards built a total of at least 64 ships. Eight of those ships were merchantmen (East India and Hudson Bay Companies) of 800-1200 tons, and the remainder were warships of 74 guns and smaller destined for the Royal Navy (7)
The most famous of their warships was the Serapis (44), launched in 1779, and destined in September of the same year for a fateful encounter off Flamborough Head with John Paul Jones in Bonhomme Richard. The Serapis was defeated, old J.P. uttered those immortal words, "I have not yet begun to fight;" a star was born, and the rest (as they say) is history.
Another of their ships was rather infamous. The Ajax (74) was launched in 1798. On an early deployment she encountered rough seas and was badly damaged. Shoddy workmanship was suspected. Earl St. Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty had a well-documented distain for private shipyards, considering them to be inefficient and corrupt. With the Ajax he found the perfect opportunity to discredit a major private shipyard. In February 1804, many years after the Ajax's problems had been discovered and repaired, St. Vincent brought the Brent shipyard into Kings Court (Hammond v Brent). (8) Although, neither fraud nor incompetence was proven, the Brents admitted culpability. The Ajax subsequently acquitted herself quite well during the Battle of Trafalgar.
With the end of the wars against the French, the Admiralty did what all navies do after a war, they down-sized. The down-sizing, the scandal of John Randall's death, the tarnished reputation of the yard stemming from the Ajax affair, and the fact that East Indiamen were being built more economically in India than in England, combined to sound the death knell for the yards. Although the Brents continued to produce ships until 1828, the yards never regained the productivity enjoyed under John Brent's management.
John Brent fathered eleven children, but only two lived to adulthood; Samuel (1760-1814) and Daniel (1764-1834). They took over the management of the Brent interest in the yards after their fathers retirement. After John Randall's death they bought out the Randall interest in the yards and operated from 1803-1811 under the name of S & D Brent and as Brent & Co. until 1819. During the latter period, Samuel Brent, Jr. was actively involved at the shipyard. In fact, his young son, apparently following in his fathers footsteps, became so familiar with steam engines that in 1830, at the age of 18, he applied for employment as an engineer on packet ships in New York harbor. (9)
Upon John's death in 1812 Samuel moved into Heathfield House. In the meantime, Daniel had moved into the Randall home with his wife and only son. Both brothers continued to live a rather extravagant lifestyle in the manner of their father. In 1803, for example, upon the launching of two East Indiamen, the Union and the Lady Castlereagh, they hosted a party for over 350 ladies and gentlemen which included the Swedish, Dutch and Batavian Ambassadors, a Russian General, and several assorted counts, barons, lords and ladies. Dining and dancing lasted until 2 am the following morning. It was the social event of the season. (10)
As warship orders declined, the shipyard struggled. The Brents closed out their operations at Cuckold's Point and only produced 12 (documented) ships at the Greenland Dock. Clearly, something had to be done if the shipyard was to survive. They turned to innovation and technology. They designed and built three steam powered paddle wheel packet ships, including the London Engineer that shuttled enthralled passengers between London and Margate. Their novel design had the paddle wheels located amidships, which would make them relatively safe from incoming cannon fire, and therefore ideal for use as warships. (11) The Brent shipyard became deeply involved in industrial machinations and international intrigues in competition for scarce ship building funds. (It was this atmosphere of intrigue which was one of the reasons Samuel, Jr. left the ship building industry a few years hence). With Admiralty private shipyard funds dwindling, the Brents contracted with the famous Admiral turned radical mercenary, Lord Cochrane, later Earl of Dundonald, to build a steam warship, the Rising Star to be used in the Chilean revolution. It arrived too late to be of use to the rebels, but it was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic under power, and was the first steamship in the Pacific Ocean. (12) The shipyard, with Alexander Galloway (another radical) as agent, was also building steam warships for the Greeks, while at the same time the Greek s oppressors, in the form of the Ottoman Turkish ruler of Egypt, Mehmet Ali had begun converting the London Engineer into a warship, possibly with the help of Galloway's son. (13)
The Brent shipyard was destined to never return to the heyday of ship building it experienced under John Brent's management. Sadly, Samuel died in 1814, just two years after his father. His will bequeathed his share of the shipyard to his oldest son, John, and to Samuel the younger, to take effect three years after his death. Samuel Jr. became partners with his uncle Daniel, but at some point between 1817 and 1821 both sons liquidated their share of the shipyard. John Brent moved to Canterbury, and ultimately became a three-term mayor of that city. Samuel, Jr. remained in Deptford and lived the life of a gentleman until his emigration to America in 1829. Meanwhile, the shipyard became Daniel Brent & Co., which eventually went out of business in 1828.
What kind of men were the Brents? The Brent clan, from Moses through the next three generations was ardent Unitarian Baptist. At one time, the family almost single-handedly administered the Baptist churches of Deptford and Horselydown, and by 1799 Samuel Brent, Sr. and his Uncle William were the managers of the General Baptists Fund of London. (14) Some family men were ministers, and some of the womenfolk married ministers. Daniel's only son became the Vicar of Grendon, Northants. It speaks well for the integrity and high moral and ethical values of the Brent gentlemen that they, although nonconformists, were so well received within their social and professional communities.
Incidentally, during this era when much was made of social standing, all the Brent menfolk were described as "gentlemen," e.g. landed gentry, and "armigers", e.g. entitled to bear heraldic arms.
Samuel Brent, Sr. was the father of nine children who all lived to adulthood. He published a book of over 300 pages entitled "A Father's Present to his Children for their Instruction and Amusement". It was filled with prayers for every occasion and with pithy advice such as, "do not expose any unnecessary skin," and "do not break bread in an indecent way", or "do not read in bed by candle-light." There was also an abundance of rather atrocious poetry, one stanza of which reads:
"When at war on the ocean we meet the proud foe,
With ardour for conquest our bosoms may glow;
Should we see on their vessel old England's flag wave,
They shall find that we Britons do but conquer to save!"
There are contemporary antiquarians who suspect that the Brents were involved with clandestine seditious mutterings against the crown, which may or may not be true, as one of their mentors was the radical thinker, William Cobbett. They were, however, extremely idealistic and there can be no doubt that the Brents were British patriots to the core!
As previously noted, Samuel Brent, Jr. was involved in the shipyard after his father's death. From about 1819 until his departure from England in 1829, he appeared to lead the life of a retired gentleman, overseeing his fathers estate and taking an intense interest in a broad range of subjects. His only professional activity was as Trustee to the General Baptist Congregation of Deptford. (15) The scope of his interest can be found in just a few of his activities during a short three month period in early 1829. (16) With his two eldest sons in tow (and occasionally his wife and older daughter, as well) he:
Attended a lecture at the Deptford Mechanics Institute, and another lecture on elocution at the Scientific Institution
Examined at close hand several Albinos talked to them, tested their reflexes, etc.
Observed and discoursed on a perihelion
Visited the Museum of the Zoological Society and the Zoological Garden in Regents Park
Attended the opera, Maid of Juda, at Covent Garden Theatre
Attended a sparring match to observe professional pugilism
Toured and subsequently gave a scholarly dissertation on Mr. Brunels Thames Tunnel
Visited the British Museum
Toured the cavern at Blackheath Hill
Discussed in great detail the chain suspension pier and the Pavilion of George IV at Brighton
Visited the dissecting room and museum at Guys Hospital, and discussed the putrefied bodies and
Body parts undergoing examination
Ascended in a balloon
Samuel was a Renaissance man. There is no record of his having received a formal education, yet this was obviously an erudite, self-taught gentleman. In his written philosophies, entitled "Lectures on Theology and Morality Deduced from the Light of Nature and the Contemplation of Visible Creation", he quotes Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Jesus, Confucius, Thomas Payne, and many others. Upon his removal to America, seven of the twenty-two cases of his shipped worldly goods contained over 700 volumes of his personal library books.
By the year 1829 Samuel Brent's fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. England was in a state of depressed trade and he had become disconsolate with the direction being taken by his country's leaders. On New Years Day 1829, he sat down, wrote the following manifesto, and booked passage to the United States.
"Being fully determined to remove with my wife and family to the United States of America, I shall here record some of the principal motives by which I have been actuated to undertake this enterprise.
My reason for quitting my native country are of a two fold nature, and arise, on the one hand from prudential fears, and on the other hand, from the prospect of the essential benefit I shall obtain for my family by the change of residence.
In England many causes exist which are reducing the lower classes of society to abject wretchedness, and the middle classes to poverty and dependence, and it shall be my endeavour to explain whence these fatal circumstances arise; for that they do exist is obvious to every person capable of reflection, and that they are productive of the most serious evils, is equally palpable.
The late unjust and ruinous war with France, by causing an expenditure far beyond the revenue of the country, has left us after fourteen years of peace, in an exhausted and impoverished condition, with a debt of such an overwhelming magnitude, that the greater part of the unjust and oppressive taxes, which were levied during the war, are continued to enable the government to pay the interest due to the public creditor; and to ensure the powerful influence of the higher classes of society, by supporting them in luxury and idleness, at the expense of the tradesman, agriculturist and manufacturer. By this unjust and lavish expenditure of the public property, new levies become necessary, causing wealth to be withdrawn from the industrious and working classes and to be collected into immense possessions, thereby enabling aristocratical tyranny and monopolizing power to crush that patient and persevering industry, for which Englishmen, formerly, were so justly famed, and by which they raised themselves in wealth and happiness far above the inhabitants of the surrounding nations. From this unnatural state of our political economy, it now happens that whenever any particular branch of business offers a fair remuneration for the exertion of talent and industry those masses of wealth are brought into operation, and the steady, honest and hard working tradesman sinks beneath the united oppression of monopoly and taxation.
Another serious evil has arisen from the late war, which has been the fruitful parent of almost all the miseries we are now enduring. The evil to which I allude is "Paper Money": and by its vile agency speculators and men of desperate fortunes have been able to establish a false and fatal system of credit, which being employed to an almost boundless extent, has substituted the spirit of gambling for the persevering industry of our ancestors, and thousands of individuals have been reduced to poverty, either by adhering to the original steady mode of conducting business, or by plunging into the vortex of speculation.
It follows then from the above statement that persons possessed of small property, are unable to engage in business with any prospect of success, and from this feeling I am deterred from making use of my capital, being confident that it is wholly inadequate to a competition with those large sums of money already engaged in every lucrative branch of trade, and likewise foreseeing how totally impossible it will be for me to place my children in advantageous situations in this country, I am induced to make the sacrifice of leaving England to escape the risk of losing the remainder of my property, and to avoid the misery of being compelled to descend to a lower grade in society.
Beside these general causes of distress, there exits another evil of a personal character, resulting from the heavy losses I have lately sustained. These losses have not arisen from speculation, bad debts in trade, or extravagance, but from circumstances over which I had no control. It is sufficient to add that notwithstanding I am still severely suffering from the treachery of those who ought to have protected me, yet by the practice of philosophy I am able to say they are forgiven.
I am aware that we shall experience some inconveniences from a change of residence, such as arise from extremes of temperature; absence of good domestic servants, and other vexations incident to society in a new country. But to these trifling evils we must apply the spirit of philosophy and they will be materially lessened, and ceased to give annoyance.
Oh England, my country! When I quit thy lovely shores never again shall I behold more fruitful vallies, or, more fertile plains; more temperate climate, or, more salubrious atmosphere; and with sorrow I deplore the vile causes that compel me thus to leave thee. Should thy degraded children, too long borne down by oppression & insult, rise in just indignation to chastise their tyrants, then, if my life be spared, once more shall the Atlantic bear me to thy shores, to join thy renovated sons in the great cause of liberty; and to assist in breaking down the power of tyranny and fanaticism, to the consummation of thy former happiness, power and glory!