Suspension bridges are one of the iconic features of Victorian England. Thomas Telford’s bridge over the Menai Straits to Anglesey, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bridge over the Clifton Gorge in Bristol, are world famous. But neither of these great bridges was designed by the engineer credited with their construction. Both were based on a patent filed by another great Bristol inventor, Mrs. Sarah Guppy.
Well, actually Mrs. Guppy didn’t file the patents herself. That would have been illegal in Victorian England. She had to get her husband, Samuel, to file them for her. Mr. Guppy owned a sugar refining company in Bristol. He’s not listed among the residents of Bristol who were awarded compensation under the Abolition of Slavery Act, so we can assume that he didn’t own plantations, though his fortune must have been based in part on cheap slave labor in the Caribbean.
Mrs. Guppy ended up making a fortune in the arms trade. That probably wasn’t her intention, but her invention of a system for keeping barnacles off ships netted her some £40,000 (£3.5 million in today’s money) from the Royal Navy. Of course all of the money went to her husband, because that patent was in his name too.
To give him his due, Samuel Guppy did actually register the patents in the name of “The Guppy Family”. Nor was Sarah unknown to her peers. Telford and Brunel both appear to have been her friends and she advised them both on the design of their bridges. As a good Victorian housewife she asked not to be credited for her work so as not to appear boastful.
The Oxford Dictionary has recently added Mrs. Guppy to its list of notable British biographies, which has given the Bristol Post the opportunity to celebrate her work.
Sarah’s son, Thomas, clearly took after his mother as he became an engineer when he grew up. He’s a character in my story in Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion, where I have him recruited to be the chief engineer on the Severn Barrage (which the Victorians did seriously consider building).
The family is probably best known for Sarah’s grandson, Robert, who became a naturalist and had a fish named after him.