William Gardner: an American inventor in St Leonards

I recently discovered that Pike’s Directory for Hastings and St Leonards has a lengthy section recording deaths in the annual editions for 1884 to 1889. 1890 is missing from the Hastings Library set, while the section is absent in 1891. Servants and labourers are included as well as the toffs and merchants, and my impression is that as long as you were an adult you would be included in the alphabetical list.

This can be quite a boon. For example, in the 1887 directory, page 127, we have:

20 January 1887. At Henley lodge, Maze Hill, Captain W. Gardner, aged 42.     

Captain William Gardner is listed at 7 Upper Maze Hill, otherwise Henley Lodge, in the 1884 edition. Before that we only have the 1882 Ransom’s directory, which lists the Misses Harford at that address.

The probate entry states that his estate of £1749 went to Sallie Howell Gardner of Henley Lodge, the widow. Out of curiosity I looked further – was he a Captain in the British Army, the Royal Navy, the merchant marine ?

He was none of these. He was from Ohio in the United States, and had served in the Union Army in the American Civil War. He invented an early type of machine gun called the Gardner Gun, which was better than the earlier and better known Gatling Gun. Both were operated by turning a hand crank. He was granted three American patents for elements of his invention: American patents 174130, 216266, and 245710, published between 1876 and 1881.

US patent 245710 by William Gardner for a machine gun

In the 1881 census he was in Hampstead with his wife (also American). The British Admiralty had been impressed by his gun, and had invited him to England to exhibit it. He stayed on, initially at least, to supervise the construction of his weapon.

Sadly for Gardner, his gun was never adopted by the American armed forces. It was anyway soon superseded by automatic instead of hand-cranked machine guns. This meant that the recoil from each bullet being fired moved the next bullet into position.

Both the Royal Navy and the British Army adopted the Gardner gun. and the weapon was used in the Mahdist War in the Sudan in 1885, where however it was found to be vulnerable to dust and sand jamming it.

There is a Wikipedia article on the Gardner gun, and also an entry for Gardner in Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography.

There is a detailed article on the Gardner gun by James W. Alley Jr. online, titled Rifle caliber artillery: the Gardner battery gun, with many illustrations. It does say that Gardner was buried in London, but he was actually buried in Hastings Cemetery. His widow returned to the United States, and died in 1910 in Michigan.

I found Sallie in a puzzling entry in the American census for 1900, in Detroit. She was born in 1853, Ohio, an Inspector in Customs, stated to have had four children. This job sounded unlikely for a woman at the time, but the really puzzling thing was that she had two children living with her, both born in England: Grace, born 1868, a stenographer, and Virginia, born 1880. Both were stated to have immigrated to the USA in 1887. She sounded like a child bride ! However, the 1868 date is apparently a clerical error, as they were stated in the entry to be aged 21 and 20 respectively.

This was confirmed by the 1881 census in Hampstead, where the daughters were aged 2 and 1, born London. Sallie was 27, her husband 37, a machine gun manufacturer, and his sister in law Eloise Hunt was also present as well as four servants.

Her tombstone says she was born in 1851, not 1853. Her death certificate confirms this, and gives her father’s surname as Mitchell, not Hunt. Perhaps her mother remarried a man named Hunt ? The sister in law was only 20 in the 1881 census.







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