Lead Shot Tower Redcliffe

The majority of this article has been obtained from Work in Bristol 1883. A series of sketches of the Chief Manufactories in the City Reprinted from "Bristol Times & Mirror". I have quoted this since it provides an actual account of the process of lead shot manufacture as actually witnessed in 1883.
Directly opposite St Mary Redcliffe Church, in the year 1782, lived Mr William Watts, a plumber by trade and according to legend he had a dream that enabled him to make his fortune. There are several versions of this dream but two are quoted below.

He dreamed that during a walk in the neighbourhood of Hotwells he was overtaken in a heavy shower, but that instead of drops of water falling from the clouds, there came down drops of molten lead, which to his intense surprise fell in a perfectly globular form. The idea, it is said, haunted him day after day, until at last he made up his mind to test quietly the value of the dreamy picture by pouring molten lead from the top of the tower of St. Mary Redcliffe Church into some water beneath. The experiment proved a great success, and was the cause of the erection of the shot tower at the top of Redcliffe Hill immediately in front of the church, where the discovery is said to have been made, or rather tested. Some other historians, however, accord to Mrs. Watts the credit of the nocturnal inspiration, which raised her from the position of a humble plumber’s wife to that of one of the richest matrons in the then sparsely populated district of Clifton. In her dream it is recorded that she saw some molten lead fall from the top landing of a spiral staircase into a vessel of water beneath, and she had the sagacity to notice that it assumed a perfectly spherical shape. Of course, upon awakening she immediately shook her lord and master and informed him of her dream. He accepted the "tip" only with a few growls, some little chaff as to the folly of talking about dreams, and soon relapsed into another snore. Mrs. Watts also fell asleep, and again she dreamt the same dream. Once more she awoke her husband, who this time became thoroughly irritable, so much so that he could not help expressing his feelings in somewhat strong Saxon. But still once more Mrs Watts mind was haunted by the same vision, and when at the breakfast-table next morning she told her spouse about this "third time of asking", he began to think there might be something in it. He made experiments which, as before stated, were highly successful; and, as the late Mr. J. Ix says in his local legends, which first appeared in the Bristol Mirror -

Mr. Watts very soon a patent got,
So that only himself could make Patent Shot,
And King George and his son declared they’d not
Shoot with anything else - and they ordered a lot.
The Regent swore that the smallest spot
In a bird’s eye he’d surely dot :
And every sportsman, both sober and sot,
From the peer in his hall to the hind in his cot,
Vowed that they cared not a single jot,
When the game was strong and the chase was hot,
For anything else than the Patent Shot.

Old Lead Shot Tower (Redcliffe Hill) 1926 Photograph : Richard Ivens collection


Watts built the present shot-house on Redcliffe Hill, and the monopoly for sporting in those days was quite as well enjoyed as now - soon filled his coffers to overflowing, and when he had accumulated as much as he cared for, he sold the business and patent to Colonel Worrall, with whom two other partners were associated. After his retirement from active money making business Watts entered upon some hazardous building speculations, all of which turned out badly. The climax was reached in the erection, near the Suspension Bridge, of Windsor Terrace, which is so conspicuous an object to visitors, especially from the Somerset side of Avon. In this venture the gold which had flowed in so profusely is said to have melted like snow-flakes in the summer’s sun, and left Watts, once more, a poor man.
The business, however, has since been carried on without intermission. Messers. Christopher George and Patent Shot Company succeeded Colonel Worrall and his partners, and they in turn were superseded by Messrs. James Williams and Patent Shot Company. It was in 1868 that the firm of Sheldon, Bush and patent Shot Company acquired the old property, which, under their judicious management has developed so greatly in all the various branches of industry which have since been added. The firm is in possession of the original patent, which empowers them to use the Royal arms on their shot bags - a privilege enjoyed by no other firm of the sort in the kingdom.
To the manager of the works, Mr. Henry Banwell, we have to tender our sincere thanks for the kind assistance he rendered us and the courtesy with which he furnished us with all the information required. In the lower room of the tower on Redcliffe Hill are large stores of pig lead, which have been sent from Blackswarth Smelting Works, at St. Georges, each "pig" having been specially prepared for making shot. We should be sorry to wound any susceptibilities of any of our fair readers who may have sympathised with the Princess of Wales in the laudable movement she originated for preventing undue cruelty in the slaughter of tame pigeons, but in chronicling facts we are obliged to state that in the manufacture of shot it is necessary to impregnate the lead with arsenic. This is not done in order to poison as well as shoot the bird, but it is to render the metal more ductile and more ready when melted to take the globular form. The arsenic is added in the proportion of about 45lb. to the ton of lead, so that the amount of poison in a single shot is exceedingly minute. Some of the lead was formerly obtained in pigs from the Mendip Hills, this in its natural state containing sufficient arsenic to answer the purpose without being mixed. A small quantity still come from these mines, and also from St. Cuthbert’s mines, near Wells. The alloy when mixed is called "temper". The lead is raised by means of a steam crane to the top of the shot tower, and we will follow it there to see the next operation.

On the way up the winding, dingy staircase Mr. Banwell points out certain indications which seem conclusively to prove the tower was originally carried up on the top of an old house. There are the remains of an old fireplace, probably at one time in a bedroom, and a sufficient depth was obtained by digging below the level of the cellar. We are told that even with this the depth is barely sufficient. Most of the shot towers erected in the present day are built 200 feet in height, whereas this is but 112 feet.

On reaching the summit of the tower we enter a moderately sized square apartment, the walls of which are crusted over with a foul greenish deposit, a mixture of sulphur and arsenic, the sulphur emanating from the lead in fusion. In the centre of the room is a large melting pan, full of boiling metal, around being pigs of lead and a variety of tools required in the work. Beside the boiler is an open trap door, over which one of the workmen presently places an iron stand. On the top of this is securely fixed what is aptly termed a "colander", some 20 inches in length and about a foot wide, perforated at the bottom with innumerable small holes according to the size of the shot to be manufactured. On the surface of the molten lead and arsenic arises a thick scum, with which the operator has to contend rather deftly, for it is indispensable in making the shot, and it is also undesirable to mix it too freely with the metal. When the lead has attained the required temperature, and the "colander" has been placed in proper position on the frame which covers the trap, the skilled artisan skims off with an iron ladle a quantity of the scum and deposits it in the colander, continuing the operation until he has nearly filled it. This acts as a kind of filter, allowing the fluid metal to pass slowly through the small holes at the bottom. But for this arrangement the fluid would run in continuous streams instead of falling in drops, and as a matter of course no shot would be made. In their fall of about 112 feet these drops become sufficiently hardened to resist the action of the water in the well beneath, and the great bulk of them are brought out perfectly spherical. While this operation is proceeding, we descended the stairs and halting at a spot which affords a pretty good light, a startlingly beautiful sight presents itself. The molten lead is falling like a magnificent cataract of sparkling silver, while the sound from beneath, as the myriads of drops fall into the well somewhat resembles that of a distant fusillade. It is well, however, not to get too close, for fear of accidents, because the shot happen to be defective it is apt to dropout of the perpendicular. Good shot, however, always falls straight.
Before going farther down stairs we learn that both hard and soft shot of every size are made at these works. The hard shot is much more penetrating than the soft, and is coming into more general use. In the tower are landings for three separate falls. The larger the shot the higher must be the elevation from which it has to fall into the well and vice versa.

Descending to the well, which contains about 6 ft. of water, Mr. Banwell points out a curious looking recess, in which formerly a boy was stationed at the commencement of each charge. After a given quantity of shot had fallen his duty was to take a sample from the well in order to ascertain if the "temper" was all right, and the work proceeding correctly. At the present time this is done with a ladle, which has a handle about 30 ft. in length. When the liquid metal is all discharged through the colander the water is pumped out of the well, and the shot is put into small wagons, in which it is conveyed along a tramway to the store. The shot is now perfectly green, and the larger sizes look exactly like so many green peas. After drying it is taken to what is called a "hopper" - a machine that separates the perfect from the imperfect shot with surprising rapidity and exactness, and yet in the simplest manner imaginable. The surface of the "hopper" consists of a slanting shelf, in front of which are two receptacles, one a little farther away than the other for catching the shot. A shovelful is thrown on the board, and of course those that are perfectly round come rolling down quickly, leaping over the first receptacle into that farthest away; while those whose sides are in the least degree flattened come hopping down irregularly, and fall into the nearest receptacle. The best ones are tested a second, and frequently a third time. The imperfect shot is melted down again and recast.
The next process is that of polishing the shot. For this purpose it is put into a cylinder or drum containing a quantity of plumbago. The cylinder is driven by steam, and in a very short time the green shot emerges with a beautiful polish.
Those who are in the habit of carrying a gum know how essential it is to good sport that the shot shall be even as regards size. The "colanders" of different sizes perform their functions with tolerable accuracy, but the firm do not trust them entirely. They use a sizing machine, which is somewhat similar to the machines used in flour mills. It is a perforated zinc cylinder, at one end of which the apertures are small enough to allow the finest shot to pass through, but increasing in size all the way along until the largest size is passed. As the shot passes through the sieve it falls into a sort of box. It is again carefully examined, and is now ready for passing into the store room on its way to the market. Most of the shot used for home consumption is packed into bags of 14lb. or 28lb. but foreign orders are mostly sent in casks or kegs. The firm makes their own bags.

In addition to the patent shot, the firm manufactures a large quantity of bullets, and a lot of what has recently received the name in Ireland of "Foster’s buckshot". Most of these are made by a machine which, with only one attendant, will turn out 1,615 per minute, or 96, 900 per hour.
Some few bullets are still made in the old-fashioned mould, but not a great many. The moulds are of various sizes, and most of them are double, that is the lead can be poured into both sides. When the bullets come out they are all connected by the cakes of lead, and have to be chopped asunder and rounded off by hand. Those made by machinery are by far the best.


The Lead Shot Tower is categorised as a Grade II Listed Building, that is a building of significant Architectural interest which means that its preservation was a matter of National interest and demolition or alteration should not be undertaken without compelling reason!

However in 1968 the road going up Redcliffe Hill was doubled in size and this led to the demolition of the Shot Tower. Another Tower was built in Cheese Lane and the process continued for about another twenty years. Production there ceased in 1995 and the building has been classified as a Grade II Listed Building - a significant example of 1960's architecture!

The Bristol Industrial Museum has a video taken from a film of the old Shot Tower in operation.

The link below shows the process of manufacturing Lead Shot in Edmonton, Greater London (1950).

Link - You Tube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qybStWdYcs

Photograph : Alan Gray

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