Setting sights on big guns

Carron Iron Works met demand for cast iron cannons
Carron Iron Works met demand for cast iron cannons

When the celebrated Dr Roebuck and his partners Garbett and Cadell first proposed to start an ironworks at Carron in 1759 their eyes were set on the lucrative market for cast iron cannons.

Britain was forever at war and since the English iron masters could not keep up with demand, the entrepreneurs thought they could serve the nation . . . and themselves by filling the gap.

There was one significant drawback which they don’t appear to have noticed.

None of them had a clue how to make a cannon and by the time the first blast furnace was ready they were in a bit of a quandary. But being practical men they set about solving the problem.

A man was packed off to Edinburgh Castle with a measuring tape and a notebook and pencil with the task of drawing and measuring what he found up on the ramparts.

Thus equipped the patternmakers and moulders were given their instructions: “Have a look at this and see what you can manage”. Well of course they didn’t manage that much and the early attempts were so poor that both the Admiralty and the Army rejected almost everything they were offered.

It was an inauspicious start to what would become the product line that made the company’s name.

The transformation came about mainly through the efforts of one man, Charles Gascoigne, who by crafty manoeuvring and underhand tactics had assumed control of the company from the original partners by 1772. His early efforts to solve the problem of the guns were little better than his predecessors but eventually, using his contacts in England and a bit of industrial espionage he discovered the key secret of cannon boring.

It was a turning point for soon Carron was making and selling a ‘new light constructed gun’ and two years later, in 1786, Gascoigne unveiled what he immodestly called the ‘Gasconade’, a new style of gun which had a short barrel and wide muzzle and would pack a mighty punch.

It was the prototype of the famous Carronade and earned its nickname ‘the Smasher’ from the devastating effect of its use on wooden ships at close quarters.

Within a few years over 600 capital ships carried Carronades of various sizes and the first shots at Trafalgar came from the muzzle of a Falkirk made gun!

The reputation of the works soared and soon Wellington’s army took the field against Napoleon with Carron guns in his artillery train.

But the idea behind the Carronade was not Gascoigne’s alone. Two other men, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, and especially General Robert Melville, are credited with some part in the design which certainly changed the fortunes of the works and helped lay the foundation for future prosperity.

Gascoigne didn’t stay long to enjoy his success. In 1786 he skipped off to Russia with patterns, gun metal and a few skilled gun moulders to set up a foundry for the Tsarina. He never came back and went on to earn a great fortune and high honours. A century later when the light brigade charged the Russian guns at Balaclava they must have looked familiar because they were almost identical to those made on the banks of the Carron!

The story of the works and the guns is very well told in Brian Watters’ excellent book, ‘Carron: where iron runs like water’, which the local history society will reprint later this year.