Joseph Aspdin (1778-1855)
Inventor of Portland cement

Joseph Aspdin (1778-1855)In 1824 a Leeds bricklayer called Joseph Aspdin took out a patent describing ‘my method of making a cement or artificial stone for stuccoing buildings, waterworks, cisterns, or any other purpose…’ adding in brackets ‘and which I call Portland cement’. Others had experimented with improved forms of cement but this self-taught Hunslet workman secured his patent and cornered the name, chosen because he felt his cement looked like the famous pale stone of Portland. Developed and improved over the years, Portland cement – the basis of concrete, mortar and render – helped to make possible the great engineering and construction projects of the Victorian age and now in all its varied forms is a universal feature of our modern world.

Joseph Aspdin came from a Leeds family based in Princess Street, Hunslet. His father Thomas was a bricklayer cum builder; Joseph and all his brothers followed in the trade. Joseph was the eldest, baptised in Leeds Parish Church on Christmas Day 1778. When his father died he had to look after his four younger brothers and sister. He was 33 when he married Mary Fotherby, also from Leeds, in 1811 at Leeds Parish Church, in a joint ceremony with one of his brothers. Shortly afterwards he set up home and business as a bricklayer in Slip Inn Yard (now Packhorse Inn Yard), one of the ancient narrow passages which link Briggate with Lands Lane, right in the centre of town.

There he began experimenting with improvements to the ‘Roman’ cement in general use at the time. There was no money for special equipment: the story goes that after work he set up his experiments in the kitchen. He needed limestone as a basic ingredient and, as he explains in his patent, he simply took what he needed from the roads, which were roughly surfaced with broken stone. It’s said he was fined more than once for pilfering! He seems to have worked on his own, though he may have known of the earlier work of the Leeds engineer John Smeaton, who had developed a new form of cement when building the famous Eddystone lighthouse. While Joseph had no scientific background, he had practical experience and plenty of inventive spirit and determination.

When he was satisfied with his new cement, he had the good sense to patent it in 1824, and decided to go into manufacture. With Mary and his two sons and daughter he moved to Wakefield, where he set up a factory near the bridge – with high walls to protect his ‘secret’ process. But life did not go smoothly. Twice he had to move his factory as the newly-built railways cut through his property. His two sons, James and William, joined the business when they were fourteen, but William proved to be a black sheep and endless trouble. In 1841 Joseph published a notice denying responsibility for him or his debts.

William went south and set up a succession of cement works with different partners, always leaving a trail of debts and false claims (for example that his cement was used by Brunel to block a leak in the famous Thames Tunnel). He was branded ‘an incorrigible liar and swindler.’ Nevertheless he had his father’s inventive streak and is credited with several improvements (not patented) in the development of Portland cement which brought it closer to its modern form. He met with some success, his cement featuring at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. He finished up running a cement works in Germany.

Meanwhile Joseph stayed on in Wakefield, running his cement business with his other son. It remained small scale and by the time he died at his home in Harrison Terrace in 1855, aged 76, it had brought him neither fame nor fortune. But as the century progressed, as cement and concrete were developed and improved to become the essential building material of the new world, the significance of his 1824 patent was recognised. In 1924 a delegation from the American Portland Cement Association visited Leeds with their British colleagues to mark the centenary and to present the city with a handsome bronze tablet in his memory – still there on a dark corridor wall in the Town Hall. Wakefield claimed him too, erecting in 1938 a plaque and a memorial gate in St John’s church, where he was buried. In Leeds a blue plaque now marks the place in Packhorse Inn Yard where he lived and worked.

Such recognition would surely have been beyond his wildest dreams, part of an unimaginable future. The 1924 bronze tablet reads ‘His invention…has made the whole world his debtor’.

Eveleigh Bradford
February 2016