Richard Esterbrook was born in 1780 in Liskeard, Cornwall. In 1809, he married Anna Olver, also from Liskeard and they had their first child, Martha, in 1810, followed by their son Richard Esterbrook in 1813.
Richard was ranked as a “yeomen,” meaning he was a small landholder or working man. On his son Richard Esterbrook’s baptism certificate, he is recorded as a patten maker, but he’s mainly listed in various directories of Cornwall over the years as a baker and confectioner. (a Patten is a type of shoe)
Richard Esterbrook was a devout member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) until his death in 1846, and is buried in the Society of Friends graveyard in Liskeard.
This story is not about him. It is actually about his son, Richard Esterbrook, and his grandson, Richard Esterbrook, and even his great grandson, Richard Esterbrook.
The devout Richard Esterbrook buried in Liskeard will not come back into this story, but will instead be relegated to non-existence, at least when it comes to names. His famous son, Richard Esterbrook is most often mentioned without a suffix, and his son, Richard Esterbrook, is most often mentioned as “Junior,” which leaves poor old Liskeard Richard Esterbrook forgotten. From here on, we will talk about the second Richard Esterbrook as “Richard Esterbrook Sr.” or just “Senior,” and his son as “Richard Esterbrook Jr.” or “Junior.”
Now we have that thoroughly confused, we’ll start the story back in Liskeard, Cornwall where the eldest Richard is still a baker.
In the 1830 Directory of Cornwall, Liskeard is described as
A Market and borough town, and parish, in the hundred of West, is 225 miles from London, 49 from Exeter, and 32 from Truro. The town is situated partly on rocky hills, and partly in a bottom; is one of considerable antiquity, and had a strong castle, where the dukes of Cornwall kept their court. Its ancient name was Lis Kerrett – derived, as is supposed, from two old Cornish words, signifying a fortified place. …
The principle business of Liskeard is connected with the tin, lead and copper mines in the neighborhood; serges and blankets are manufactured in the town, to a small extent; there are also several tanneries and rope walks, and the wool trade is an improving branch. …
In the town are places of worship for the methodists and quakers, and some small schools, in which children are instructed gratuitously; also a grammer-school, supported mainly by the members for the borough. The town is supplied with water from an admirable spring; and the neighborhood furnishes examples of what are supposed to be druidical remains. The market-day is Saturday, and there are six fairs held annually, viz. February 18th, March 25th, Holy Thursday, August 15th, Oct. 2nd, and Dec. 9th. The number of inhabitants in the borough and parish of Liskeard, according to the last returus, was 3,519.
In 1836, Richard Sr. (the son) was married to Mary Rachel Date, the daughter of another devout Quaker family from over in Tideford, just 8 miles away. By the time of the 1839 directory of Cornwall, at 26 years of age we find Richard Sr. already running a small bookstore, stationery and print shop located on Pike Street on Tavern Hill in Liskeard. He is also an agent for Globe Insurance Company of London, and the family also lives on Pike Street, possibly above the store. (Pike Street is a short street of shops on the ground floor and living spaces above)
In 1839 Sr. already has a small family with his young son, Richard Esterbrook Jr. who was born in 1836, just over 8 months after his marriage, and a daughter, Mary Anna, born in 1838.
Here is the bookshop and stationery store at 20 Pike St. in Liskeard, Cornwall. On the left (picture courtesy of the Liskeard and District Museum) as it looked in c.1910 after being purchased by W.H. Smith, a national chain of stationers, and on the right as it looked mid-2018 as a travel agency. There’s a small, one-story living quarters above.
In the 1851 census of England, we find 14-year-old Richard Jr. attending school in Falmouth, residing with the family of the School Master, Squire Lovell. Richard Sr. is still running his shop in Liskeard.
By 1856 Richard Sr. is no longer listed in the directories as a common shop keeper but is listed in the section titled “Gentry and Clergy” and is recorded as living at Dean Terrace. His stationery business is still running, and he’s moved up the social strata, possibly because of his business success, and/or, even more likely, his standing as a senior minister in the Society of Friends.
We also find in 1856 that 20-year-old Richard Jr. is back in Liskeard and listed as “Manager of Gas Works.” This position did not seem to last long because within the next year or two he was gone and a period of great change for the whole family takes place.
The details of this next five years get a bit fuzzy. They are highlighted here and there with markers of clear evidence, and filled in the rest of the way with some stories passed down through histories from the family and from the company, and spiced with a bit of conjecture built out of a combination of the two. I would love it if others could help me fill in some of the gaps with real information. If you have such info, contact me via the Contact link on this site. It will hopefully be clear in the next section when we have good evidence and when we don’t.
Esterbrooks in the New World
Sometime between 1856 and 1858 it seems that Richard Jr. left Cornwall and emigrated to Canada. He somehow convinced his father to join him sometime later. There are stories that say Jr. came to the US and tried to make steel pens but failed, or that he came to sell items, of which steel pens from Britain were included, and seeing a practically virgin territory with little native capacity for making good steel pens, he contacted his father to come and take advantage of this great opportunity.
Regardless of the motivation, we have a record of Richard Esterbrook Sr. arriving in New York City by ship in Sept. 1859, but he is not accompanied by his family. This is because they most likely were already in Canada and he was returning from a trip back to England. By 1859 Richard Sr. and his wife and daughter had already been living in Toronto long enough that the Toronto Meeting of Friends were able to write to the Norwich (Ontario) Meeting of Friends and recommend Richard to them. Toronto informed Norwich that Richard Esterbrook Sr., his wife Mary and his daughter Mary Anna were moving to Galt, Ontario “in the compass of yours…” It also goes on to say, “The residence of our Friends in your land is likely to be temporary only, but they request it. We send you a certificate agreeable to good order…”
Fortunately for us, Quakers had a practice when moving from one congregation of Friends to another, to bring with them, or have sent ahead, a written Certificate of Removal. This let the new group know that this stranger was of good moral standing, a devout member of the Society, and free of debts. Also fortunate for us, the Quakers in Ontario also kept meticulous records of their meetings. Even more fortunate, these records are digitized, searchable, and images are available online at ancestry.com.
From these records we can trace Richard Sr., his wife Mary and their daughter Mary Anna from Toronto to Galt, Ontario, and then from Galt to Camden, New Jersey. We also find out that Richard Jr. may have spent some time in the area as he was also under the purview of the Norwich Meeting. We know this because it is to them he directs his resignation from the Society of Friends in 1861. A committee in Norwich was formed to investigate and meet with Junior, and they finally accepted his decision early in 1862.
In 1861, Richard Sr., along with his wife and daughter, are granted certificates of removal recommending them to their new congregation in the Friends Meeting of Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of the oldest Quaker communities in the United States.
In many histories of the company, 1858 is given as the date for the founding of R. Esterbrook & Co., but it is more likely that this is the date in which Richard Jr. began to try and make pens on his own. Many stories talk about Junior attempting to make pens, and being unsuccessful, convinces his father to come to the US and help him start a new company. I’ve also run across a story that Jr. tried making pens in Canada first, and his father suggested Philadelphia as a better location because of its already extensive steel and manufacturing base. I’m sure the strong Quaker community there was at least an added bonus if not a major factor in choosing that location.
Regardless, when or where the 1858 date comes from, by 1860 Senior and Junior were putting together a company with offices in Philadelphia, and, by 1861, a factory in Camden. In a certificate announcing the re-formation of the company in 1866, which we’ll talk about further down, it mentions:
The business of Steel-Pen Manufacturing was commenced by them [Sr. and Jr.] in this country [USA] in the year 1860, the United States being almost wholly supplied to that time with Pens of foreign manufacture.
This phrase “in this country” seems to support the theory that perhaps Jr. was trying to make pens in Canada in 1858, only moving to the US by 1860. We do know that by 1861 both Sr. and Jr. appear in Philadelphia/Camden directories as living in New Jersey.
As an odd side note, we also find almost the whole family, Sr., Jr., and Mary, but without Mary Anna, counted in the 1861 Canadian Census as being in Montreal. The Census lists Richard Esterbrook and Richard Esterbrook Jr. as “Manufacturers,” and their residence is given as Philadelphia.
They’re enumerated on a page with another large family whose father is also listed as a “Friend” under his religion. Could they have been staying with a fellow Friend while traveling or visiting and been caught up in the census count? It’s possible. It’s also interesting that they list Philadelphia as their residence. If they ever actually lived in Philadelphia it wasn’t for long because by 1862 they were living across the river from Philly in Camden. And before that they were still in Canada. The last oddity about this record is that Jr. is listed as Married, but he didn’t get married until the next year. It goes to show that you can’t always trust census takers to get it 100% correct.
Esterbrook & Co.: First Iteration
Richard Sr. set up the first Richard Esterbrook & Co. in 1860, as mentioned above, with warehouses and offices at 403 Arch St. in Philadelphia, and the factory and headquarters across the river in Camden, NJ, along Cooper St., in the former water pumping station. His first partners in the pen business were Joel Cadbury Jr., and William Bromsgrove.
Joel Cadbury Jr. was the son of a prominent Philadelphia merchant who owned a dry goods store at 252 Franklin. Joel Sr. was also on the board of a local canal company and his brother ran a pharmacy in the same store on Franklin. The Cadburys were also Quakers in good standing and long residents of the city. They were logical partners for Esterbrook because they had connections, access to money, and extensive knowledge of the local business community.
William Bromsgrove, on the other hand, was also a foreigner, like the Esterbrooks. He came from Birmingham where we first encounter him as a young man boarding in the house of a tool maker in 1841. By 1845, though, the directory of Birmingham lists him as a “steel pen manufacturer, [at] 13 & 14 Cumberland St.” He’s also listed alongside his presumed partner Alex Cope as actual steel pen manufacturers with Gillott, Hinks & Wells, John and William Mitchell and the other manufacturers both famous and forgotten.
The next year, in 1846, he is also listed as a Steel Pen Maker on the baptism record of his daughter Emily.
This was a time when pen makers popped up and disappeared regularly in Birmingham. The big names of Gillott and Mitchell and Mason were only starting to be recognized as major players. Bromsgrove and Cope seem to have been one of these small manufacturers who never made it big and they disappeared after just a year or two.
What Bromsgrove did between 1846 and his joining Richard Esterbrook in 1860 is not currently known. It’s probably a good guess that he continued working in the steel pen industry, most likely for someone else if his firm didn’t quite succeed on its own. What we do know is that we next encounter him in Camden as part of Esterbrook & Co.
Richard Esterbrook and the Birmingham Men
An important part of the often-told Esterbrook origin story involves Richard Sr. bringing several Birmingham pen makers to the US to set up their factory along the current British lines. In none of the accounts are these men named, and their number varies from the vague “few” to five or as many as seven.
I believe James Bromsgrove can definitely be counted among these Birmingham men. How can we find the others? One way is to look in directories of Camden at the time of the founding of the factory. We first encounter possible candidates in the directory compiled in 1862. There is an Edmund Smith listed as “penmaker” at 120 Elm Street, and a John Turner, “steel pen manufacturer” at 133 Birch.
Edmund Smith remains a mystery despite my many efforts. Directories of the time were not terribly consistent with their entries, so it’s not clear from “penmaker” what kind of pens he made. There is a Thomas Farnham listed in the same directory, but he’s specifically a “gold pen maker.” It could also be that Edmund Smith was really Edward Smith who shows up a few years later as a partner in a new steel pen company in Philadelphia headed by the same John Turner. More investigation is needed.
John Turner, on the other hand, is a much clearer case. We know more about John Turner because after Esterbrook he goes on to run two other steel pen companies, including the major steel pen manufacturer, Turner & Harrison.
In a 1901 biographical sketch of Turner, it mentions that he came to the US from Britain in 1860 “as one of a small party of skilled pen makers to start the first pen factory in this country.” (Geyer’s Stationer, 4 April 1901, page 12) There is only one factory that fits this description, the Esterbrook factory in Camden, and at the right time we find him living just a couple of blocks from the Esterbrook factory, listed as a “steel pen manufacturer” in a city with only one steel pen factory. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to tie the two together.
John Turner was born in Birmingham in 1823, making him ten-years younger than Esterbrook Senior. Turner was apprenticed to Gillott around 1836 to learn the pen trade. Sometime after his apprenticeship as a tool maker, he left for France for a spell to learn how they made pens there. He eventually returned to Birmingham where he married his wife Eliza. He arrives in New York by himself in 1860 on the ship Persia. Some time after this he must have sent for his wife and their adopted daughter Rosina as they are listed in the 1870 Census for Philadelphia.
John Turner helped Esterbrook start up the factory and get it running, but in 1865, he was offered the position of president and the responsibilities to start up and run a new steel pen company being founded across the river in Philadelphia called Warrington & Co.
Samuel Warrington was a manufacturer of small metallic mountings in Philadelphia. He created a new design of steel pen and was granted a patent for it in 1866.
In 1865 Samuel founded Warrington & Co. and its Continental Steel Pen Works at 12th & Buttonwood to manufacture this pen. He invited John Turner to be partner and president and run the works while Samuel kept his other factory running. The other partners were Joseph Truman and Edward Smith. (possibly the “Edmund Smith” from Camden)
John Turner’s and Warrington’s stories will be told more fully in a separate article.
Esterbrook & Co.: Second Iteration
Despite Turner’s leaving, Esterbrook seems to find a solid footing and early success. In 1862 his pens are being sold far and wide. Here’s an ad from a stationer in Detroit from 26 Nov. 1862 in the Detroit Free Press.
His pens are even making it into occupied portions of the Confederacy. Just one year after the successful recapture of Vicksburg, Mississippi by the Union forces, Richard Esterbrook’s New Jersey-made pens are being sold there.
By the end of the war, in 1865, we find ads for Esterbrook pens from Kansas to Nashville, Mississippi to Vermont.
In 1866, Richard Sr. decides to dissolve the original partnership, buy out the old partners, and form a new corporation with just himself and Richard Esterbrook Junior as partners.
1866 is also when Richard Esterbrook Sr. finally sells his home and stationery shop in Liskeard. He had maintained ties back to Liskeard while starting up his business in Camden. He even voted in the local Cornwall elections of 1861 and 1863/64, still listing Dean Terrace as his address. But 1866 seems to be the year he decided to make a clean break and commit to his new country and his growing company.
Much can be speculated as to the cause and timing. One reason that may have contributed to this is that just the year before, in 1865, Richard Jr.’s first wife Jeanette had died giving birth to their daughter of the same name. Junior was now left with a young son (named Richard Esterbrook, naturally) and a new-born daughter. He had also moved to Long Island from New Jersey the year before in order to better look after the New York office, and now was in need of family and a support system more than ever.
Right about this time is when Esterbrook finally closed the Philadelphia offices for good, and soon after the announced reformation of the company, they moved the business offices full-time to New York City. By the next year (1867) they had moved from their old offices at 42 John St. to 51 John Street.
After the dissolution of the original partnership, Joel Cadbury goes on to run a very successful brass plumbing parts supply company in Philadelphia. James Bromsgrove retires back to England where he stays for a while. In the 1871 census, we find he and his wife in London, and he’s listed as a “retired clerk.” According to his obituary, in 1881 he emigrates to New Zealand where he lives out the remainder of his days. He’s buried in Auckland.
John Turner goes on to run Warrington & Co. until 1870 when he and another Birmingham pen maker, also brought over to start up another pen company, George Harrison (see the articles on WashingtonMedallion Pen Company), form Turner & Harrison, which continues to produce steel pens until its dissolution in 1952, but that’s another story.