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Home > Timeline > 1819 - 1875 > Stephen Moulton

Born: 7 July 1794 in Whorlton (County Durham), England.

Died: 26 April 1880 in Kingston House, Wiltshire.

Stephen Moulton is ‘the forgotten man’ of the UK rubber industry. Without him, it is doubtful if it would have developed at either the time or the speed it did for it was he who brought samples of Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber to England and who passed some of them to Thomas Hancock.

Moulton was born in County Durham in 1794 but his family were not North Country, indeed his parents were both Londoners where his father ran a law stationary business. Mrs Moulton was visiting her sister when Stephen arrived. Like Hancock, his early life is undocumented but in December 1826 the records of St George’s Church, Hanover Square show that he married Elizabeth Hales of Somerset. The union produced nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood.

We next hear of him in 1839, in America, living in New York and described as ‘a broker’. It was here that he met the American rubber pioneers, Goodyear, Hayward and the Rider brothers and it was through this friendship that Goodyear asked him, in 1842, to return to England and attempt to persuade some members of the British rubber industry to put up capital to develop his improved rubber products. The industrialists were suspicious of the secrecy surrounding the inventor of this new process as Goodyear’s name was not mentioned and, perhaps fearful of being ‘conned’, they suggested that the inventor patent his process so that they could evaluate it and, perhaps then, come to some agreement.

During these discussions some of the rubber found its way into the hands of Hancock who, as we have seen elsewhere, coincidentally or otherwise beat Goodyear to a UK patent by some eight weeks.

Having failed in this project, Moulton returned to the US but remained bitten by the rubber bug, so much so that in 1847 he returned to England, determined to set up his own rubber goods factory. He had no desire to pay either Hancock or Goodyear royalties for the use of their patents so he entered into an agreement with the Rider brothers and a chemist called James Thomas that the former would allow him to use their US factory for development work and the latter would allow him to patent in the UK his vulcanization process using lead hyposulphite instead of elemental sulphur. They would have a share in Moulton’s profits from the patent. Unfortunately the patent seemed to be based more on hope than experimental results and it took two years of experimentation before Moulton succeeded in developing it to a practical conclusion.

Although it had originally been agreed that the patent would be sold on the basis of products manufactured in England, The Riders were suffering from a downturn in the US economy and refused Moulton more funding causing him, in late 1848 to go into the manufacturing business on his own.

The location he chose was unusual in that it was in the West of England, far removed from the more usual centres of industrial activity and was a disused woollen mill, the Kingston Mill, at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. Nevertheless, it had a wealth of advantages, coal from Somerset, the river Avon alongside the mill to supply power and washing water, together with the closely adjacent Kennet and Avon Canal and the Great West Road to provide access to London. It was also cheap and contained within the eight acre site ‘Kingston House’ which would provide the family home.

Now that he had committed himself, the Riders helped with advice and by sending to Moulton the engineer who had built their machinery so that he could oversee the fitting out of Moulton’s factory. At this time it was not possible to buy much of the equipment needed so some was built on site and some by iron foundries to Moulton’s design. By 1850 Moulton and the Riders had a joint manufacturing agreement in place but Hancock was not prepared to stand by and see his monopoly disappear without a fight.

The battle between Moulton and Hancock is covered under Hancock & Macintosh at Law but is summarised here. Moulton claimed that his patent of 1847 did not infringe Hancock’s which used sulphur by itself, or Goodyear’s which used lead oxide and sulphur. Moulton also mixed ‘in the dry’ and further claimed that Hancock’s patent was, in any event technically invalid. The judge chose to find for Hancock on all counts but then said that because he had taken so long to bring Moulton to court (1847-1852) he felt unable to make an injunction against Moulton but ordered the motion to ‘stand over’ so that the plaintiffs could take further action if they so wished. The legal battles continued until Hancock finally achieved victory in 1856 This resulted in Moulton being granted a licence to manufacture rubber products excluding clothing and medical goods for the sum of £600 per annum.

Moulton was extremely unhappy with this outcome, not least because he continued to harbour a dislike of Hancock, believing him to have stolen Goodyear’s ideas and failing conspicuously to give him credit for the original discovery of sulphur vulcanization. However, he now was able to manufacture a wide range of goods and specialised in industrial and engineering applications, although his records show that he continued to produce rubberised fabrics, beds and cushions through to 1880. The major products of the company were railway and carriage springs which, together with other railway-related products, grew from 30% of output by value in 1860 to 85% by 1890, the growth being due, in considerable measure, to Moulton’s patented (1861) suspension unit which consisted of a coiled spring embedded in a block of rubber. Other areas of importance were hoses and sealing washers/valves. Perhaps surprisingly, the company never showed much interest in rubber tyres although the pneumatic tyre was not patented by Dunlop until eight years after Stephen Moulton’s death whilst the other potential growth area, footwear, was bedevilled by patent restrictions. The company flirted with rubberised conveyer belting in its early days but had dropped out due to the intense competition and low profitability by the time of Moulton’s death.

In 1891 the company amalgamated with George Spencer of London to become Spencer Moulton. This company continued until 1956 when it became part of the Avon Rubber Company. Production ceased on the site in 1993.

Stephen Moulton does not deserve to be sidelined by history. Apart from being instrumental in bringing Goodyear’s first samples of vulcanized rubber to England there are three other achievements to his name:

  1. He brought American rubber manufacturing expertise to England and, arguably for the first time in this field, built a factory which was conceived and equipped as one complete unit.
  2. He brought competition to the rubber good market which, in turn, speeded up improvements in quality (which were certainly needed as vulcanization chemistry was still very much in its infancy and quality control was virtually unheard of).
  3. He spread the base of rubber product manufacturing from the industrialised areas of Glasgow, Manchester and London to the West Country where he was soon to be joined (1875) by the Avon Rubber Company.


Stephen Moulton’s great grandson was Dr Alex Moulton (born 1920) who is also famous for his involvement with rubber in engineering. Not only did he develop the Moulton bicycle with its rubber suspension, but also the rubber suspension used in the Mini which further developed into the hydrolastic system used initially in the 1100/1300 Austin/Morris series, then the Rover 100 series and currently the MGF sports car.