Unusual trades: ever met a congreve maker?

Having recently caught the genealogy bug, I have been diving into my family history. It’s astonishing what you can turn up these days, without ever leaving your computer desk. I’ve now got a pretty complete picture of my family back through five generations – and have traced one particular line back to 1580.

What is particularly fascinating about the censuses, from 1851 onwards, is that they usually show the occupation of the person named. And of course, in the nineteenth century, the great majority of working folk had some sort of craft or trade.

Among my forebears I found a book-binder, a cabinet-maker, a boat-builder, a brick-maker, a miller, a sawyer, a backsman (foreman in a coal-mine), a straw-plaiter (for hat-making), a bombazine-weaver, a dress-maker – and quite a number of plain ‘labourers’.

One job particularly intrigued me. My great-grandfather had, as his neighbour in Norwich, a man who was listed as a ‘Congreve maker’, while his son was a ‘Slive maker’. What on earth was a congreve? A kind of coat? A bottle? I decided to do some research.

It turns out that during the Napoleonic Wars there was a certain artillery officer named Sir William Congreve who invented a kind of military rocket for firing at the enemy. When the wars ended, in 1815, it seems likely that he turned the pyrotechnic skills he had acquired to the invention of an early kind of friction match – which was known as a congreve. And that’s what my ancestor’s neighbour was making, using sulphur, potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide. A pretty explosive mixture, I would have thought.

And a ‘slive maker’? I can only think that this is a variant, or a mis-spelling, of ‘sliver’ – a thin strip of some kind (there is an old verb ‘to slive’ meaning to split). So my guess is that the son was making the match-sticks – for Dad to put the heads on.

Incidentally – have you noticed how many people say ‘slither’ when thay actually mean ‘sliver’?

Postscript: I have now discovered that, although Sir William did indeed invent a great many things, it was actually a John Walker, a chemist in Stockton-on-Tees, who invented the friction match – but he named it after Congreve, presumably because of his fame as a rocket pioneer.

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