William Gladstone Blunt - Lancashire's magnet magnate

PUBLISHED: 20:18 11 November 2012 | UPDATED: 18:02 19 January 2016

William Gladstone Blunt - Lancashire's magnet magnate

William Gladstone Blunt - Lancashire's magnet magnate

Dr Derek J Ripley unearths more of Lancashire's forgotten claims to fame

As the noted historian AJP Blunt wrote so succinctly: ‘To know the man, discover from whence his fortune came.’ Sound advice when trying to understand the enigma that was William Gladstone Blunt, the man who, with remarkable prescience, invented the fridge magnet in 1876 – almost 40 years before the invention of the domestic refrigerator. A far-sighted man indeed.

Today there are few fridges in Lancashire which are not adorned with a gallery of miniature ornaments consisting of a small magnet attached to an acrylic case which often contain a popular phrase or aphorism such as My Other Fridge Is A Smeg or perhaps a picture of a West Highland White Terrier or Professor Brian Cox. The story of the invention and development of the fridge magnet is a story I recount in great detail in my book.

So let us instead focus on a fierce controversy which has for many years raged about the spiritual home of the fridge magnet.

Our neighbours in Cheshire have laid claim to its invention on the grounds that it was on a day out to Stockport that WG Blunt and his business partner first sketched out the idea of magnetic advertising hoardings – originally to be fixed to trains.

Such is Cheshire’s desire to claim to be the home of the fridge magnet that this historic moment is commemorated by a blue plaque affixed to the fence at the side of a chip shop on Rostron Brow, Stockport.

I put this down to hubris rather than any legitimate claim for there are few things for which this flat, rather uninteresting county is renowned apart from a rather bland, acidic cheese, salt and as the natural habitat of the footballer’s wife.

As far as I am concerned, the fact that a Lancastrian takes a day out in Cheshire where he happens to come up with an idea for an invention which would eventually transform the face of the domestic refrigerator and which he subsequently develops in his home county does not make this a Cheshire product and I concede to no-one on this point. As the Duke of Wellington once said, if a horse is born in a kennel does that make it a dog?

My reading of the archive material had already convinced me that the fridge magnet is – like the wheel, the Spinning Jenny and Uncle Bill’s Meatballs – Lancashire’s own.

Imagine my delight, therefore, as I rummaged further into the Blunt papers and discovered a crumpled, rust-stained envelope. It was so quiet you could hear a mouse drop. By the weak, attic light I could just about make out the writing that told me what my fingers had already discerned – that I was holding a prototype fridge magnet, perhaps the first ever. A discoloured glass slide was attached by some form of cement to the side of an ancient horse-shoe magnet.

As I handled the Blunt magnet, I remember wondering whether even William Blunt – as far sighted as he was – realised that he had created a product that would be the future engine of the Lancashire economy? As this is the season of bonfires it is worth relating that nestling close by the magnet envelope was a bundle of documents which seem to point to the development of fireworks in this great county, too.

In my book, I refer to the smuggling of tea into Lytham by Chinese immigrants on their way to build the railroads in America and the subsequent boom in ‘proper tea’ prices. What I had not appreciated until now was that they also brought with them their expertise in firework-manufacture and that for a brief few years they were made in a corner of William Blunt’s Mortimer Street works, using a combination of surplus cotton waste, coal dust and green tea shavings.

One of the documents is a letter of complaint from a disappointed purchaser who wanted to enliven the opening of his factory with a dazzling pyrotechnic display. The complainant’s letter describes the display in these words: ‘Nowt happened for a good three hours and then we was treated to a pitiful glowing ember, like a wet wick at 30 paces, which lasted for nigh on twenty minutes. Your ‘Little Atoms’ are rubbish and I want my 1s 5d back.’

Forgotten Lancashire and Parts of Cheshire and the Wirral is by Dr Derek J Ripley. To purchase a copy go to www.forgottenlancashire.co.uk

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