Friday, 9 December 2011

Mr Hales´s Rockets and the Kossuth Affair

In April 15th 1853 a large building in Lower Deptford Road, Rotherhithe belonging to a Mr Hale was raided by the police, finding 257 lb of "gunpowder", and "... upwards of seventy cases, closely packed, containing, apparently for transmission to some distance, several thousand rockets, not such as are used at Vauxhall, but for the purpose of war". The rockets "were of great size, formed of cases with cast iron heads, and filled with powder."

Rockets were made in the building in the centre and stored on the shed on the left. The large factory behind was a rice mill and unconnected.

Hales and his son, who was also arrested, were taken to Bow Street Police Court and charged with possession of more than 200lb of gunpowder within 3 miles of the City of London (less than 200lb was apparently ok) and the illegal manufacture of rockets or fireworks. There was a vigorous argument whether it was actually gunpowder, Hales claiming it was "rocket composition" and if ignited would only "fizz like the Devil" whilst the laboratory of the Woolwich Arsenal counter claimed it would work exactly like gunpowder if loaded into a pistol, which they proved, The magistrate, Mr Henry, ruled that Hale was clearly guilty on both counts but the charge of rocket manufacture was withdrawn by the Crown whilst the gunpowder charge was referred to a sessions court.

Witnesses in the case included " some foreigners who were employed by Mr. Hales were witnesses. They were Hungarian refugees, who had been recommended by M. Kossuth, who seemed to take much interest in the manufacture." (Annual Register 1854) - it was this Hungarian connection which led to questions in the House, and it was also this that threatened to cause a major international incident between the British Empire and the Empire of Austro Hungary.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1848

In 1848 revolutionary fervour wept across Europe - in the sprawling Austro Hungarian Empire this was expressed as a revolt by the Hungarian part and a desperate bid for independence. There were victories against the Austrians, and even against a Russian Expeditionary force at the battle of Hermanstatt, but the forces ranged against them were simply too large. The Hungarians lost their capital Pest (Budapest is historically Buda and Pest, two cities on opposite banks of the Danube) and although they retook it and actually forced the Austrians back towards Vienna, they had to surrender at Vilagos in 1849.

Austrian trooper in the Raketen Korps (New York Public Library)

The Hungarian leader, Lajos Kossuth, escaped via Turkey and became the Hungarian voice in exile. Energetic, charismatic, he was a big hit in France and in October 1851 he landed in Britain. He received a hugely popular reception, with even a procession through London and a crowd of 75,000 people in Birmingham. He was also sympathetically received by the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, though they didn't officially meet, and there were many speeches against both the Austrians and the Russians.

After a wildly successful tour of the United States Kossuth returned to England, and formed part of a vocal Hungarian emigrant community.


Congreve rockets had been used by the British in the Napoleonic wars, even mounted on ships. They looked, basically, like huge versions of the fireworks we use today, mounted on long sticks. William Hale, an English inventor, thought he could do better, and in 1844 patented a new type of rocket. Basically, his rockets vented part of their gases through little holes at the side, spinning the rocket like a rifle bullet and doing away with the need for a stick altogether. Not only did this make the rockets much more accurate, but they were also more portable, easily carried by mules. This made them ideal for expeditionary warfare. By 1846 the US army was using 6 pound Hale Rockets in their invasion of Mexico, firing hundreds during the siege of the port of Vera Cruz. They were also used at the battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco & Chapultepec.

US artillery outside Veracruz, with rockets in the background

The British army tried out the rockets, but didn't take any (although they were later to adopt an improved version in 1867) and so Hale looked around for other markets. His son declared in 1853 that patents had been sold to the US, Denmark, Switzerland "and other foreign powers".
These included the Austrian Empire. The Austrians had experimented with Congreve rockets as early as 1808, establishing a factory at Wiener-Neustadt and establishing one of the largest rocket corps in Europe.By 1856, the rocket corps contained 3,865 men (and 2,460 horses) , with 20 batteries, each of 8 rocket frames. In the campaigns of 1848/9 rockets of the Feuerwerk Corps (!) were used to considerable effect, in mountain warfare against the Italians, and in Hungary, the unit commander Field Marshall Franz von Hauslab declaring that "During the Hungarian campaign enemy cavalry always fled when rockets were used against them".

The Austrians were therefore not best pleased to hear that the Hungarians might be acquiring rockets of their own.

The Kossuth Affair

Lajos Kossuth

As a guard against industrial espionage, and possibly because they were cheaper, Hale preferred to employ foreign labour. A man named Usener had previously presented himself to Kossuth asking for work, and Kossuth directed him to Hale. How Hale and Kossuth knew each other is even now unclear, and there have been documents found in Hungarian archives suggesting that Hale and Kossuth were at least considering some sort of deal. That Usener had apparently served in the Hungarian artillery is also suggestive. On the other hand, Usener almost immediately went to the Austrian embassy and told them Hale was supplying rockets to the Hungarians, implying a certain amount of espionage on the Austrian side. Whatever Usener`s motives were, it was at the Embassy's request that British police searched both Kossuth´s house, and Hales's factory. They found no evidence of collusion, nor had there been any from previous police surveillance of Kossuth, and so, at the insistence of Palmerston, the matter was dropped. Palmerston's pro-Hungarian sympathies were well known, and he was forced to claim in the House that..

"I can assure my hon. friend that he is mistaken in supposing that the government are acting in this matter upon any pledge, promise, or engagement given to any foreign government, except that given in the face of parliament, viz., that we should use our utmost exertions to enforce the law in this country, for the purpose of preventing that shelter, which I trust will always be given to foreign exiles who may come here from any political cause whatever, being abused for the purpose of organising or carrying on hostile proceedings against other countries."

It has to be said that these claims were not universally accepted.

In fact the affair damaged neither Hale nor Kossuth. William Hale and his son continued developing and selling rockets, eventually winning a British army contract which saw Hale rockets used around the Empire, from the Abyssinia to the Zulu war. Kossuth continued as the unofficial head of Hungarian resistance, even organising Hungarian foreign legions for the Crimean and Franco Austrian war, although neither saw action. But the infighting so common in expatriate groups took its toll, and the leadership back in Hungary gradually came to terms with Vienna and signed an accord in 1867. Kossuth moved to Turin, and died in Italy in 1894.

Further Reading

Hungary & it's revolutions (1854)

The New Monthly Magazine (William Harrison Ainsworth) 1856

Blazing the trail - the early history of rocketry (Mike Gruntman) 2004

No comments:

Post a Comment