Downfall of Henry Willis Rudd & The Lewis Gun

Downfall of Henry Willis Rudd & The Lewis Gun

Described as ‘an American man of means’, Henry Willis Rudd made the unfortunate mistake of backing the manufacture of the Lewis gun when it moved from Belgium to England in 1914. The Lewis gun was a light machine gun that was gas-operated, air-cooled and fed by a rotating drum containing either forty-seven or ninety-seven rounds, and at that time, was the most reliable machine gun in production.

Samuel MacLean initially designed the Lewis machine gun, but in 1910, Col. Isaac Newton Lewis, an inventor who held several patents for optical sights and instruments used by the U.S. Army Coast Artillary, was asked by the Army to develop and perfect the weapon. The initial design was clumsy and heavy but after two years of reworking and development, Lewis presented four prototypes, which despite impressive performances, were totally rejected by the Army officials. Despite this set back, Lewis took his lightweight machine gun, weighing only 26½ lbs, (11.45kg) and privately arranged to check on its performance from the air, attaching it to a Wright military aircraft. Capt. Chandler of the Signal Corps successfully fired a magazine at a target on the ground, demonstrating its potential all round military value. Later in 1912, Lewis formally presented the weapon to the U.S. Army whose Chief of Staff rejected the ‘novel’ gun and concept out of hand.

Undeterred, Lewis left the Army in 1913, having set up the company ‘Armes Automatique Lewis’, in Liege, Belgium, on 15th November 1912. As early as 1910, Major-General Sir Charles Haddon, Master of the Ordnance in England and Admiral Moore of the Admiralty, had expressed an interest in the weapon, but when Henry Rudd, one of the directors, exhibited the gun at the War Office, both declined to take on the patent and although impressed by the gun’s performance in tests carried out in 1912, it was not until April 1913 that an order was eventually placed for two guns for the Ordnance and one for the Admiralty. During the time that it had taken the Ordnance and the Admiralty in England to make a decision, Henry Rudd had approached several other European governments, including, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Russia and Belgium, and in all cases orders had been placed for models of the gun, each to be adapted to shoot the small arms ammunition of each particular country.

It was soon discovered that the factory at Liege was totally unsuitable for the manufacture of the gun and the company moved to Antwerp. By 1913, due to the number of orders that had been placed, including the British order of three, the company found it necessary to engage another company to supply the assorted sized barrels required. After some negotiations, an agreement was reached with the BSA, Birmingham Small Arms Company, in England. It should be noted that although three Lewis guns were purchased for trials in England, the final decision, made in early 1914, was to reject the gun.

By July 1914, the BSA had completed all orders for the models of the gun, and those for Belgium, Russia and Sweden were on their way to be delivered when World War I broke out on 4th August 1914. In the meantime, Henry Rudd had arrived in England to collect the guns that had been made for Germany, Austria and Italy, to accompany them to Antwerp from where they were to be taken to the afore mentioned countries. However, with the declaration of World War I, Henry Rudd was contacted by the War Office and was instructed not to proceed with the guns for Germany, Austria and Italy, was on no account to accept any orders from any other country except England, and that the guns destined for the Continent had to be returned to the BSA for conversion into British calibre. These instructions were complied with and finally, on 16th August 1914, the British War Office passed the first official order for fifteen Lewis guns.

Unfortunately, with the outbreak of World War I, the Germans quickly overran Belgium, and the Armes Automatique Lewis Company’s factory in Antwerp was abandoned and moved to England. However, the few Lewis guns that were in Belgium were able to demonstrate their capability by inflicting terrible losses on the invading Germans, which earned the Lewis gun the nickname of the ‘Belgium rattlesnake’. On arrival in England, the company was invited to operate from the London offices of the BSA at 27, Pall Mall, London, and manufacture of the gun was continued at the BSA factory in Birmingham. By now all orders from the Continent had to be refused, but at least the British War Office was beginning to place substantial orders.

The efficient reputation and lightweight nature of the weapon aroused the interest of the RNAS, (Royal Naval Air Service), and RFC, (Royal Flying Corps), for use as an aerial armament. Slight modifications were made to the ground gun that resulted in it becoming even lighter, 18½ lbs (7.99kg), and it became the main armament for Allied aircraft by early 1917. The gun was subsequently used by the British, Belgium and Italian armies in great numbers, both as a ground weapon and as an aircraft gun, and was the preferred weapon of the German heavy bombers, which utilized captured examples. The ground gun was to remain in service with the British and Commonwealth forces until World War II, but interestingly, the U.S. Military never did use the weapon.

In 1915, Henry Rudd was taken seriously ill, returning to America, it was not expected that he would return to England, but in April 1916, he, and his wife Mary, did return. On their arrival they set about finding a suitable property with the idea of creating a grand country estate on the expected proceeds to be gained from the manufacture of the Lewis gun. The country estate they settled on to create their grand scheme was the Felbridge Place estate, amounting to 218 acres 3 roods and 1 perch, which included the mansion house and grounds, ‘Park Farm’, ‘New Chapel Farm’, several other smaller properties and Hedgecourt Lake, at the cost of £11,750.

There is very little information about Henry Rudd, except in a letter written by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1917, ‘Rudd is so rich as to be funny. He is a simple man who began from small beginnings with a simple mind, yet shrewd and quite articulate’, and in the opinion voiced by Vita Sackville-West, Mary Rudd was a ‘rich vulgarian’. However, there is much evidence about the Rudd’s life style and ambitions between 1916 and 1924. Having purchased the Felbridge Place estate from Arthur Smeeton Gurney, Esq. they settled down at ‘Newchapel House’ to create their grand scheme. Even though war raged across Europe, Lutyens was employed to design a huge classically inspired mansion of Portland stone that was to be set in Versailles-like grounds that were designed by Gertrude Jeykll. The grand mansion was to reflect the new found status of the Rudd’s, secure in the knowledge that Henry Rudd, as patent-holder for the Lewis gun, had just signed a contract with the British War Office promising him £135 per Lewis gun, which, as orders were now rolling in, would make the Rudd’s multi-millionaires.

The price for manufacturing a Lewis gun, with a certain quantity of spare parts, but without mountings, was, in 1914, £160, so in 1915, when Henry Rudd signed the contract with the British War Office, the reduction in price of £25 per gun was, in the view of Henry Rudd, off-set by the concession, as he was led to believe, of the company being exempt from paying British Tax as it was a Belgium company in exile due to the war. However, in 1917, it became evident that the Inland Revenue had interpreted the arrangements differently, and in their view, the company may be called upon to pay taxes in respect to the profits arising out of its sales of Lewis guns to the British Government. This was despite the fact that the company had, by then, indirectly contributed over £1,250,000 towards the war effort through the reduced cost of the weapon given to the British Government, with a further £50,000 per week, from that point in time.

From the available correspondence on the subject, it is apparent that the Rt. Hon. Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer, had finally done some arithmetic and discovered the true value of the orders placed with Henry Rudd, and therefore, how much money was outstanding to the Armes Automatique Lewis Company. Law’s immediate reaction was to renege on the arms contract, firstly by trying to requisition the gun patent, (the very patent that Britain had refused to purchase when it was offered in 1912), however, this was ruled illegal by the Treasury Chambers. He then tried to draft an amendment to the 1915 munitions act, but this was also vetoed. Finally, Law accused Henry Rudd of racketeering and hauled him before special commissioners to justify the profits, stating that the weapon would cost, in his opinion, no more than £38 per gun, of which, £5 was pure profit. This allegation was totally rebuked by Henry Rudd and the Armes Automatique Lewis Company, but to no avail.

It is from the ensuing correspondence that you gain a true impression of Henry Rudd, that of a very diplomatic person, who clearly and accurately states his case. Someone, who, with the weight of the British Government and the odds stacked against him, is prepared to fight his just cause. Inevitably the British Government ruled to their own benefit, paying the company only £200,000, a tenth of what the original contract had promised, and to add insult to injury, this was paid in offshore war bonds, which Henry Rudd could not access.

Ruined by the behaviour of the British Government, the Rudd’s had no alternative but to halt their grand scheme and terminate the employment of Lutyens. Although the grand house was never built in Felbridge, the plans were not wasted as Lutyens eventually reused the design on ‘Gledstone Hall’, Yorkshire, which was begun in 1922.

The Rudd’s, who by the end of 1923 owed over £57,000 to Barclay Bank, had no option but to let the Felbridge Place estate be repossessed and put up for auction in May 1924. So Henry and Mary Rudd were forced into obscurity, taking their dreams of a grand country estate with them, leaving only speculation about their outcome and of how Felbridge might have ended up. All that survives of their vision are the former stables, now a private house known as ‘Felbridge Copse’, and the former kennels, also a private house, now known as ‘Stonewall’. These were to have formed the entrance into the grand estate, leading from the New Road that Mary Rudd had had constructed, that led off the main London Road, opposite Ward’s Farm, to what is now the Churchill Stud, emerging onto the West Park Road. Also surviving is ‘Park Farm’ that superseded the 18th century home farm that had originally been known as ‘Park Farm’ and is now known as ‘Park House’; the remnants of the stud complex, now known as ‘Churchill Stud’, after its ownership by Sir Winston Churchill between 1924 and 1965; and the imposing ‘Newchapel House’ that now forms part of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Later-day Saints complex.

The Lewis Gun,
Lewis light machine gun,
Correspondence of the Armes Automatique Lewis Company between 1917 and 1918, PRO
The London Temple,
Title deeds for ‘Holly Bush’, Copthorne Road, FHA
The buildings of Surrey by Nairn and Pevsner.
A Magician of Style, magazine article on Lutyens, FHA
Lutyens and the Edwardians by J Browne.
Arms house, article in Today magazine, 2002, FHA
Mail on Sunday article by A Tims, 2002, FHA
Horne – A history for the millennium by P Grey.
Felbridge Place Sale Catalogue, 1911, FHA
Newchapel House and Felbridge Place estates Sale Catalogue, 1924, FHA
National Monuments Listings nos. 449384, 449385 and 449386, FHA

My thanks are extended to Kate and Robert Chattaway, formerly of ‘Felbridge Copse’, for the information and help they supplied for completion of this Fact Sheet.