James Osborn Spong, founder of Spong & Co.

James Osborn Spong, founder of Spong & Co.

The next in the series of biographies from the churchyard of St. John the Divine, Felbridge, the story of James Osborn Spong, domestic machine manufacturer who founded Spong & Co. in 1856.

One of the local legends of Felbridge that has been carried down by word of mouth was that ‘Spong the mincer man’ once lived in Felbridge and that he was buried in the churchyard at St John’s. Sure enough a quick look in the burial register confirmed that a James Osborn Spong was buried on 13th July 1925, in plot no. D2 131. His age at death was given as eighty-five and the address at death was recorded as Warren House, Felbridge, Godstone. This confirmed that a Mr Spong had indeed lived and died in Felbridge and was buried in the churchyard, but was he ‘Spong the mincer man’?

From Mr Spong’s age at death a quick calculation gave a year of birth as circa 1840 and after a bit of research we discovered a James Spong in the 1881 census living at 124 Fearnlea Road, Streatham, Surrey, who was listed as a ‘domestic machine manufacturer’, and who, from his given age of forty-one, was born in 1840. The next line of enquiry was to look at the Patent Records that revealed numerous patents being raised by James O Spong, including mincing and chopping machines, the last patent raised in 1919. Confirmation that our Mr Spong was indeed the James Osborn Spong of mincer fame came when we made contact with his great grandson and last Managing Director of Spong Holdings plc. This then is the story of ‘Spong the mincer man’ who once lived in Felbridge and is buried in the churchyard of St John’s.

James Osborn Spong and his family

James Osborn Spong was born in Yardley Hastings, Northampton, in 1839. He was the eldest son and one of six children of James Spong, a minister, and his wife, Eliz, James being given his mother’s maiden name of Osborn as his second name making him James Osborn Spong. James Spong was a congregational minister at Yardley Hastings between 1838 and 1840, moving to Bedfordshire by 1843, and London by 1846, living at Mortimer House, De Beauvoir Town, London, by 1857, and at sometime during his life he was the minister of Billericay in Essex.

Of James O’s siblings, two sisters, both named Eliza Anne, died as infants, and there is no information about his youngest sibling Cleane Marten. The two brothers of James O were Ambrose Daniel who was born in 1843 and George Mansfield who was born in 1846. Ambrose followed his father into the ministry being a congregational minister in Cliftonville, Hove between 1872 and 1908, he died there in 1912. It is interesting to note that James Leonard Spong, one of Ambrose’s three children, followed in the footsteps of his uncle James O and can be found raising patents during the 1930’s and 40’s, his first being a joint patent with John Hedley for ‘improvements relating to the means of measuring liquids in tanks of various shapes’. George, unlike his brother Ambrose, followed his older brother James O and in 1873 the two of them raised a joint patent for ‘signalling in railway trains’. In 1881, George was listed as an ironmonger living at 104 Fulham Road, Kensington, with James O living at 105 Fulham Road Kensington; it would be nice to think that George, as an ironmonger, was selling the mincing and chopping machine that his brother James O had invented.

James O was educated at Mill Hill School in northwest London between 1851 and 1854. The School was founded in 1807 by a group of ministers and merchants for the sons of Protestant dissenters. Two years after leaving school, in 1856, James O founded Spong & Co. in High Holborn, London, a company manufacturing hardware and wirework, (further details can be found under the section Spong & Co). Having established his company, James O married Frances Elizabeth Scott and settled in Brompton, Middlesex, moving to 105 Fulham Road, Kensington, shortly after the birth of their first child, James William, who was born in 1868. James W was followed by Minnie Frances in 1869 and Annie Eliza in 1870, also born in Kensington, Florence in 1873 and Francis Osborn in 1875 born at King William’s Street, Wandsworth Common, Dora in 1879 born in Balham, and Irene Osborn born at 124 Fernlea Road, Streatham, in 1882. The Spong family then moved to 21-26 High Holborn circa 1886, St Pancras by 1901 and later to 65 Adelaide Road in northwest London sometime before 1910.

James W was educated at Mill Hill Grammar School in Hendon. In 1901 he was listed as the manager of an ironworks in St Pancras and in 1902 joined his father at Spong & Co. Shortly after joining the company, James W married Alice Spencer and they had Donald William in 1904 and Roger Spencer in 1906. By 1923, James W and his family had moved to 27 Braemar Road, South Tottenham in London, and James W, again like his father, started to raise various patents from 1923 until the late 1930’s. Both of James W’s sons joined Spong & Co. in the 1920’s and further details can be found under the section Spong & Co. Roger Spong was a talented sportsman and played rugby for England on several occasions in the mid 1920’ to early 30’s. One game that is generally cited was when Roger played for the English Lions against France in 1930. Recently his rugby shirts were donated to Twickenham, the home of English rugby, and several of them are now on display in their museum.

Of the remaining children of James O and Frances Spong, sadly Francis Osborn, the second son, died at the age of three in 1878. The eldest three daughters, Minnie known as Min, Annie known as Annee, and Florence known as Flo, remained unmarried, but both Dora and Irene known as Rene, did marry. Dora married Ralf John Bedham and they had two children, Ruth and David, but little else is known about the family. Irene married Norman Ierson Parley in 1910, and they also had two children, Ivor and Joan. Norman was a youthful cricketer and played chess for Middlesex, being one of only a few Englishmen to beat José Raoul Capablanca, the Cuban chess player who dominated the chess world between 1921 and 1927. Norman was a keen walker and sketcher and kept diaries and sketchbooks of all his long expeditions. He became in turn, a vegetarian, a pacifist and a Quaker, refusing to fight in the Great War. Shortly after the War he joined the printing and publishing firm of Percy Lund Humphries with whom he worked until his retirement. His work gave him scope for his enthusiasm and interest of old manuscripts and medieval church architecture, producing such books as The Canterbury Psalter, The Exeter Book, and The Ancient Glass of Canterbury Cathedral. During his latter years he became increasing interested in mysticism and for the last thirty years of his life was a Trustee for the religious community known as the Order of the Cross. Norman died in May 1961.

In 1901, James W, Minnie, Annie and Florence were living with their parents James O and Frances Spong in St Pancras. By 1910, the Spong family had moved to 65 Adelaide Road, London, NW, and around 1911/12, James O, Frances and the three daughters moved to Warren House Farm in Crawley Down Road, with the break-up of the Felbridge Place estate. Warren House Farm appears on the sale map for the auction of the Felbridge Place estate but there are no corresponding details about the property within the sale catalogue suggesting that it and the surrounding land had sold before the auction took place in May 1911. It is unclear whether this property was split at the time of sale in 1911, but evidence suggests that James Osborn Spong only purchased the site of the farmhouse and garden, and Lower Warren Field, a total of 10 acres 3 roods 2 perch.

Warren House Farm was entered via a trackway leading to a large five-bar gate off the Crawley Down Road where the entrance to Warren Close is now located. The farmhouse was set well back from the road behind a tall hedge and could not be easily seen by the passer-by, only the top of a large black barn (similar to Dove’s Barn on the Copthorne Road) was visible to the left of the house behind a rough field. There was a small gate and path leading down to the front door of the cottage, which ran through a very pretty garden. Sadly no decent pictures or photographs of the farmhouse at Warren House Farm have come to light, only a description of it given by a former Felbridge resident who visited it as a young child - ‘Warren Farm was a very old beautiful cottage in a lovely setting built with a pale pinkish/red brick and roof tiles of the same colour. It had a small delightful porch at the front of the house with a white door. I remember the porch was covered with the most beautiful pink roses. The windows were casement with white wooden lights and to the left of the cottage there was an orchard’. Another recollection from a former Felbridge resident is that the ‘Misses Spong kept donkeys in the field opposite his house in Rowplatt Lane during the 1920’s’. A contemporary postcard view of Crawley Down Road does show the original cottage mainly obscured by a large oak tree, still standing at the end of Rowplatt Lane. The postcard shows that the cottage had been extended with a taller crosswing section on the east end of the property, and that the original cottage had a large central brick-built chimneystack, with a small utility chimney on the west end of the original cottage. The Spong’s must have been keen gardeners as there is also a very new-looking greenhouse to the east side of the trackway leading to the house.

With the purchase of Warren House Farm by James Osborn Spong, his son James W also invested in the Felbridge Place estate purchasing Lots 15 and 16 on the south side of Crawley Down Road, now the site of nos. 111 and 113 Crawley Down Road, and Vine Cottage. This area covered just over 2 ½ acres, being mostly pasture, with a pair of cottages set in ½ acre of grounds. The pair of cottages known as Warren Farm Cottages, now converted into one house and called Vine Cottage, was built of brick with weather tiles under a tiled roof and each contained an attic, two bedrooms, a sitting room and kitchen. One of the cottages had the washhouse and wood lodge and the other had the brick-built earth closet. There was also a shared well with a pump for water. At the time of sale William Gibbs and Walter William Steer tenanted the pair of cottages and continued to occupy them after the sale was completed, (William Gibbs until his death in 1950), suggesting that James William Spong bought the property as an investment. In April 1917, James W sold the two acres of land and the pair of cottages and grounds to his sisters Minnie, Annie and Florence, and in December 1924 Annie conveyed her share to her sisters Minnie and Florence Spong. They held the property until April 1925, when they sold it to Benjamin Walter Dallyn.

There is very little information about the three unmarried sisters except for the memories of former Felbridge residents who recall that they remained spinsters and were keen suffragettes. Spong family sources support this and also include Dora and Irene, suggesting that all five sisters were militant suffragettes who took an active interest in the movement’s activities. Of the three unmarried sisters, Minnie, the eldest, followed a career in teaching, whilst Annie became an artist and portrait painter of some renown, but unfortunately nothing is known Florence’s chosen career. From family sources Minnie, Annie and Florence were also followers of Isadora Duncan the American dancer and teacher who pioneered the free dance movement. Her dance style was inspired by the movements of waves and trees, and Greek sculpture, and was based on simple flowing movements of the body. She danced barelegged with bare feet, flowing hair and flimsy tunics, and was considered as very risqué for her time. The Spong sisters may have held dance lessons from Warren House Farm as a former resident, now deceased, remembered visiting the house in her youth to dance. From these few memories you get the impression of three ‘modern women’ who lived independent lives albeit from the security of their parent’s home.

As for James O, apart from the company he founded that helped to revolutionise kitchen equipment and utensils and the preparation of food, he spent most his life inventing, raising over a hundred patents during his lifetime, the last in 1919 at the age of eighty. However, the first documented patent he raised was with John Fuller Spong, his 1st cousin once removed, in 1868, to ‘improve blow pipes’ that had been invented and patented in 1827 by William Spong. This was followed in 1870 by an invention for cleaning and polishing forks and spoons, no doubt developed and sold through James O’s company. In 1873, James O raised two more patents, firstly in May for ‘stick tobacco pipes’ whereby the handles of walking sticks, umbrellas, parasols or whips could be made available to be used as pipes for tobacco or as cigarette holders, and then in August another joint patent this time with his brother George Mansfield Spong, this invention was for signalling in railway trains, completely unrelated to the household products that his company Spong & Co were known for. In 1886 there were another two joint patents, this time with W J Sage, for a cinder sieve and covers for a slop pale, and a cinder sieve and an ash receiver. Generally, James O’s inventions carried sole patents. The following being a few examples of the wide and diverse inventions that James O raised patents for during his lifetime:
1874 – a boot cleaner
1876 – horse shoes
1877 – an apparatus for cleaning table knives
1881 – an apparatus for producing musical notes
1883 – sculls and oars
1884 – revolving lamps
1884 – burglar alarms
1885 – an apparatus for extinguishing fires
1885 – displaying advertisements
1886 – an apparatus for sounding an alarm in case of fire
1886 – a mincing and chopping machine
1887 – a trap to catch animals
Many of these items appeared in the sale catalogues of his company Spong & Co and are dealt with under the section Spong & Co.

Apart from his family, information on Spong & Co and details of some of the numerous patents that he raised, there are few other details on James Osborn Spong the man, although a photograph in later life shows him to be of slight build with swept back greying hair, moustache and small beard at the point of his chin. There are no reminiscences of him during his time in Felbridge save that ‘Spong the mincer man’ once lived here, perhaps this is due to his advanced years on arrival, being over seventy-two years of age he may not have ventured far outside his estate at Warren House Farm. Sadly, James O died at the age of eighty-five and was buried at St John’s, Felbridge, on 13th July 1925, in plot no. D2 131, at the eastern edge of the churchyard. His grave is unmarked having no headstone or curb-stone, being buried south of and next to Edward Beaver Batchelor who has a large cross surmounted on a symbolic rock.

It is unclear exactly when the surviving members of the Spong family moved from Warren House Farm. According to Spong family information, James O’s wife Frances died in Barnett in 1929, Minnie died in 1953 and Annie died in Kensington in 1957, none of whom being buried in the churchyard at St John’s. However, a Felbridge resident who is now in his eighties lived opposite Warren House Farm as a child and remembers the two ‘elderly sisters’ who used to give him rides in their pony and trap and allowed him and his friends to play in their field. This gentleman does not remember the Breck family that moved to Warren House Farm in the mid to late 1930’s so it is possible that the two Spong sisters remained at the property until that date. As for the company founded by James Osborn Spong in 1856 at the age of sixteen, that continued to grow and further details can be found under the section Spong & Co. Through his company, James Osborn Spong left a huge legacy to kitchen equipment and utensils and thankfully enough impression on the community of Felbridge that the older residents carried the verbal legend over the years that ‘Spong the mincer man’ once lived at Warren House Farm.

Another life that past people of Felbridge have lived, some tragic, some long, some short, some fascinating, but none of which should be forgotten. Perhaps in the future, the biographies of yet more past people of Felbridge can be told.

Spong & Co.

James Osborn Spong founded Spong & Co in 1856, operating out of 226 High Holborn, London, with their works in Emerald Street, London, to make economic household utensils, or as they were then called, ‘domestic machinery’. Spong & Co are now best known for their kitchen utensils, especially the mincing machine and bean slicer that were obligatory pieces of kitchen equipment to have until the development of electrical equipment for modern kitchens, however, they promoted many more different and varied household utensils and were one of the leading companies specialising in labour saving devices for the home. Before companies like Spong & Co, all household chores and the preparation of food was done by hand, which was time consuming and laborious. Spong & Co manufactured machinery that ‘promoted domestic economy’ an essential factor for the emerging Victorian middle class who did not have the unlimited funds for employing numerous household servants, unlike the upper classes of previous centuries where time and motion were not an issue.

The Victorian era abounded with new and ingenious inventions and no Victorian kitchen was complete without an array of kitchen gadgets, mincers, choppers, slicers and corers. Indeed, James Osborn Spong raised patents on over one hundred labour saving and safety devices during his lifetime and Spong & Co proved to be manufacturing leaders in this field boasting sales of 200,000 mincers by 1882. The company also welcomed the purchase and/or manufacture of other patented inventions and several members of the Spong family contributed their inventions including, a knife-cleaning machine invented and patented in 1882 by Charles Wingrove Spong, the 2nd cousin of James O, improved in 1884 by Charles Spong, the son of Charles Wingrove, with further improvements patented by Charles Wingrove Spong in 1886, and drinking flasks patented in 1887 by John Fuller Spong, the 1st cousin once removed of James O. Apart from the production of kitchen gadgets, Spong & Co also offered a repair service should any of their or any other manufacturer’s gadgets break or need servicing. In fact, as late as 1955 the company still had a repair section for knife cleaners.

A glance at the Spong & Co advertising and sales catalogue of circa 1895 outlines the range and diversity of the goods they manufactured. The first page is devoted to Spong & Co’s ‘Original Prize Medal Sausage and General Mincing Machine’ that had been awarded four prize medals. The machines were advertised as suitable for mincing all kinds of meat and vegetables, for chopping suet and fruit, and for making sausages being that they would mix, cut the meat and fill the skin in one operation. Originally cast in tinned iron with steel blades they were later introduced in glass enamel emphasising that there was ‘no zinc, white lead, paint or varnish or other objectionable material used in the interior of the machines, which comes in contact with the meat, suet, or vegetables whilst being cut up’. These machines came in various sizes, nos. 0-3, suitable for general household use, nos. 4 and 4a suitable large establishments processing up to 90 lbs per hour, nos. 5-9a that were driven by a fly wheel and steam and were suitable for institutions, and no. 10 the ‘Monster’ mincer that weighed in at 11cwt, was 5ft long with a hopper opening of 2ft 2ins by 2ft. This mincer was advertised as ‘very useful where large quantities of work have to be done. It is well adapted for Whalers, for cutting up blubber, fish etc, and for very large butchers’. The cost of the mincers ranged from 8/6 for no. 0 – the ‘Minnie’ mincer to £35 for the ‘Monster’ mincer. Spong & Co could boast that their mincing machine was owned by ‘Her Most Gracious Queen Victoria, the Admiralty and the War Office, and could be found in the mansions of the nobility, the mess-rooms of the army and navy at home and abroad, also in the universities, colleges and many other great institutions of England’.

Although Spong & Co were still manufacturing the ‘Original Sausage and General Mincing Machine’, the company were, by 1895, manufacturing a further four mincing machines that had been developed over the intervening years, the ‘British Mincer’ patented in 1886, the ‘Nye Pattern’, the ‘Two-Roller Mincing Machine’ and the ‘Competition Mincer’. All the household-size mincing machines were clamp on and worked on the same general principle of turning a handle that in turn spun a spindle and blades that chopped or minced the food substance being pushed into the machine from a hopper at the top. The minced or sliced food then passed through a nozzle at the opposite end to the handle into a bowl or onto a plate. Two coffee and/or spice mills were also developed using the basic principle of placing the coffee bean or whole spice in a hopper at the top, turning a handle and powdered coffee or spice was collected at the bottom of the machine. One, the ‘Improved Coffee Mill’ could be clamped to a table or screwed to a wall and the other, the ‘Box Coffee Mill’ stood on a tabletop and the ground coffee or spice fell into a small drawer at the bottom of the mill.

Again a similar process of turning a handle was used to operate the knife cleaning machines that by circa 1895 included, the ‘Non-XL Knife Cleaners’, cleaning between three and ten knives at a time made as a table top or free standing machine, and the ‘Servants Friend’ and ‘Lady’s Knife Cleaner’ that cleaned between one and three knives at a time. The ‘Servants Friend’ was screwed to a tabletop, and the ‘Lady’s Knife Cleaner’ was clamped to the tabletop. The ‘Servants Friend’ was circular whereas the ‘Lady’s Knife Cleaner was rectangular, but both used the friction of leather pads and emery powder to clean the knife blades. In 1890 a ‘Knife Cleaning Stay’ was patented that could be retrofitted to the ‘Non-XL Knife Cleaner’ and any other make of knife cleaning machine. The advantage of the self-adjusting knife stay was that what ever position the knife was in whilst it was being cleaned, the handle of the knife rested with equal pressure against the whole length of the stay. This prevented unequal strain on the handles and therefore caused less damage to the knife. This invention earned Spong & Co a gold medal diploma in the Paris Exhibition of 1892.

Other kitchen gadgets available from Spong & Co circa 1895 included, a whisk and mixer, a universal slicer for bread, meats, vegetables and fruit, a bread cutter, a wrought-iron folding cask stand with an adjustable screw tilt enabling wine and ale to be drawn perfectly to the last drop in the cask, and the ‘ABC Ice Cream and Solid Ice Freezer’ that was patented in 1893. This freezer involved the use of a freezing jar or pail, a hollow cylindrical tube and a plunger. The proposed ice cream or water was poured into the tube that was then inserted into the jar or pail. Spong & Co Freezing Compound was then tipped between the tube and the jar or pail, ice and salt could also be used but Spong & Co recommended their chemical compound for best results. The plunger was then lifted to create a vacuum until the ice cream mixture or water had frozen. A recommendation for this gadget came from one Elleonora G Mercurio who wrote in September 1893, ‘On one occasion I mixed the ingredients and made sufficient ice for a friendly dinner party of seven in half an hour’. Spong & Co also manufactured freezers on a larger scale – the ‘Portable Ice Chest’ and the ‘New Cabinet Refrigerator’. The former was constructed ‘upon the latest improved principles, it economises the ice while acting effectively as a cooling medium, and contains the best known non-conductors of heat to exclude the external atmosphere’. They were made of deal that was painted and grained like oak, had watertight liners and were well ventilated. The ‘Portable Ice Chest’ cost between £3 15s for the smallest at a height of 29ins to £8 18s for the largest at a height of 34ins. Also available was a smaller version called the ‘Batchelor’s Chest’ at 13ins in height costing £1 15s. The ‘Cabinet Refrigerator’ was designed to combine a provisions safe, a wine cooler and an ice chest, being fitted with an ice well and tank for iced water, with taps and meat hooks, and cost between £12 12s for a cabinet standing 39 ins high to £16 16s for a cabinet standing 50 ins high.

On the lines of safety in the home Spong & Co manufactured several different fire extinguishers. There was the ‘Hand Fire Extinguisher’, costing 2/- each or 24/- a dozen. This was made of glass but had an ‘Elastic Cap’ that acted as a stopper therefore eliminating breaking the glass bottle to get at the contents inside. With the ‘Hand Fire Extinguisher’ the cap could be removed with the thumb and finger and the bottle was ready for use to sprinkle over a fire. They could also be thrown from up to a distance of 20 feet away from the fire. The enclosed chemicals were guaranteed not to harm the person or clothing, and would not deteriorate by keeping. There was also the ‘Hand Fire Extinguishing Ball’, which was made of India rubber replacing the use of glass. These cost 1/6 each or 15/- per dozen. For more powerful fire extinguishers there was the Spong & Co ‘Royal Fire Extinguisher’ that won the Gold Medal at the Exhibition of Means and Appliances for the Preservation of Human Life in 1882, a Silver Medal at the Calcutta Exhibition in 1883, and Silver Medals at the International Exhibition and the Health Exhibition Medal, both in 1884. It was made of solid copper and would therefore not rust, it could be carried on the back or carried by handles and left freestanding, and was pneumatic requiring only water and air. This was available in three sizes, 3 gallons for 100lbs of pressure, costing £8 8s, 5 gallons for 100 lbs of pressure, costing £10 10s, and 7 ½ gallons for 150 lbs of pressure, costing £14 14s. Also, Spong & Co, in collaboration with and Dunmo, invented, patented and manufactured ‘The Reliance Fire Extinguisher’ in 1894. This large fire extinguisher was also made of copper using compressed carbonic acid gas or air carried in a cylinder on one’s back. The cylinder held five gallons of water that was saturated with carbonic acid gas, and being compressed eliminated any pumping action. The extinguisher was operated by turning a tap whereby the contents of an inner vessel were discharged into an outer vessel being forced down a tube and out a nozzle that could be directed at the fire. If used, the empty cylinder could be re-charged at a cost of 1/- each, the charged extinguisher costing £10 10s.

Along side the fire extinguishers, Spong & Co also manufactured the ‘New Fire Escape’, patented in 1888. A form of boson’s chair, this fire escape weighed 4 ½ lbs and was therefore portable. It was made of Manilla rope and came in four lengths ranging from 40 feet to 100 feet. The rope was reversible so it didn’t matter which way up you had it. There was a wrought iron hook at each end, one acting as a weight to the end of rope that was dropped out of the window, the other for securing the top of the rope, either to a bed frame or window frame. There was a regulator to enable you to descend at a fast or slow speed, which could be operated by the person descending or from the safe end of the escape in case the person descending was unable to operate the escape.

Other innovative ideas included the Spong & Co ‘Gas Utilizer’ patented in 1887. This was made of solid nickel which, when fitted to a gas burner, increased the amount of light being emitted by 50%. The oval disc shaped utilizer was slipped over the burner allowing the oval head to fall over the centre of the top of the burner. The ulitizer dealt with the gas after it had left the burner ensuring the ‘full benefit of the illuminating power possessed by the gas charged for’ (as it was written in the sales catalogue). No home should have been without the Spong & Co ‘Portable Shampoo’, a forerunner of the shower, which was recommended for ‘summer and winter use’. Patented in 1890, this could be used on the washstand, in the dressing room or the lavatory. The ‘Portable Shampoo’ came highly recommended because, ‘Shampooing at home is a necessity as well as a luxury. For health and cleanliness it is invaluable, and is recommended strongly by the Medical Faculty. Invigorating the whole system. Refreshing at all times. A cure for headache. A splendid tonic. It is especially serviceable in the morning after the sluggish flow of the blood during sleep. It relieves sick headaches, to which so many are subject. It stops feelings of nausea. By its use colds in the head are effectively prevented’. Instructions for use were to ‘place the apparatus on the washstand so that the end of the tube dips into the cold or hot water in the basin or jug at the side. Squeeze the rubber ball sharply and the water will flow in a constant stream, the force of water can be regulated at pleasure by the slowness or quickness of pressure put by the hand on the rubber ball.’

Also for the home, Spong & Co made a range of ‘Corner Weights’ in varying sizes to hold down mats and carpets. The weights were sown to the under side of the mat or carpet to hold the corners down therefore elimating the possibility of tripping over a curled corner. Spong & Co also manufactured a range of animal traps from mouse and rat traps for the home right up to wildcat and wolf traps. For the very rich, and supplied to the Emperor of Morocco, Spong & Co manufactured the ‘Koh-I-Noor Advertising Medium’. This consisted of a chased brass-lacquered globe set with a number of coloured glass gems. This was made to rotate on a vertical spindle, pivoted on an agate base, by hot air rising from a small gas burner in the interior of the globe acting upon a horizontal fan wheel at the top. As long as the gas was alight it would revolve. Behind the revolving globe was fixed a concave ‘multitudinous reflector, on which is produced thousands of the reflected coloured gems, and all in constant motion, rushing about in all directions’. The apparatus could also be made to work with oil lamps and could be adapted for advertising purposes wherever attraction is required’. Another apparatus developed for advertising was called the ‘Flashing Star’ with its principal aim to get the public to notice goods. It consisted of a glass faceplate with a space for the advertisement above and below an illuminated star shape that could be shown in all colours, day and night, and which also changed its size every second, as well as going in and out. As the sales catalogue pointed out, ‘No one can possibly pass without being attracted by its action, and are bound to read the advertisement. Once seen cannot be forgotten’.

In 1902, James Osborn Spong was joined at Spong & Co by his son James William Spong, the company head office and showroom being still located at 226 High Holborn, but due to the High Holborn improvement scheme the company moved to temporary premises across the road at 98 High Holborn before returning to their initial location in 1917. On 18th January 1909, during their time in temporary premises, Spong & Co became a Private Company under the terms of the 1862 Companies Act, which identified ‘the company’ as something separate from and external to the persons who formed it and recognised that ‘the company’ was constituted as a new form of persona for capital. Around this date Spong & Co also acquired their first factory building that was in their sole occupancy being built at Baron’s Place, Lambeth, London, which remains virtually unchanged to this day.

James W, like his father, also had an inventive mind and raised numerous patents during his lifetime. His initial patents, circa 1923 to 1931, were for improvements to kitchen equipment that was already being manufactured, either original ‘gadgets’ as outlined in the sales catalogue of circa 1895, including the knife cleaner and the mincing machine, or those that had been patented and manufactured since that date including, the knife sharpener, machine for slicing or cutting fruit and vegetables, and even scouring pads. Scouring pads by this time were made of thin strips of metal, which after scouring pots and pans would sink to the bottom of the sink, the improvement was to wrap the strips of metal around a cork block, therefore causing the scouring pad to float when released.

In 1925, James Osborn Spong died and James W Spong who had by then been joined by his two sons, Donald and Roger Spong, took on the running of Spong & Co. The company also moved premises from Holborn to Woodville Grove, South Tottenham, London, although the exact date is unknown but the company was operating from the new premises by the early 1930’s. In 1931, with James W Spong’s knowledge of wire through his experience at the ironworks, he began to raise patents involving the use of wire; firstly to ‘improve the construction of the holder of reels or coils of helically wound spring wire whereby the length of wire when drawn through the hole in the holder’s lid could not be released from the holder unless deliberately done, thus preventing the spring wire from being drawn back into the holder by the springy action of the coil itself’. This was followed in 1932 with two patents to improve the construction of wireless apparatus, firstly the improved construction of the aerial and secondly the earth device. In 1936, he turned his attention once again to the humble scouring pad, patenting the use of steel wool thread of substantial thickness that was to be folded in parallel order to the desired width and continued for any length, the folded portions of the threads were to be secured together during folding by multiple rows of stitching across the rows of thread to form a flat fabric to make the scouring cloth.

The sales catalogue of ‘Domestic Spong Utilities’ for the early 1930’s details the following kitchen gadgets; the ‘Earlswood Chipper’ that provided a speedy and easy means for making chips at home. You simply placed the peeled potato in the device, pulled down the wooden handle that brought the blades down through the potato producing squared edged chips. Two variations of bean slicers, both that clamped onto a table top, the 632 taking one bean at a time and the 633, taking two. The beans were fed into the hopper, the handle turned and the blades automatically drew the bean down and sliced it diagonally into even slices. There were two designs of marmalade slicers, both that were clamped to a tabletop. They could not only cut the peel for marmalade but could also be used to slice vegetables by feeding them into the hopper at the top of the machine and winding the handle, the blades then slicing the item before it was funnelled out at the front of the machine. There were four variations of mincers, the ‘National’ of which there were three sizes, the ‘No Name’, again with three sizes, the ‘Green Seal’ that was fitted with stainless steel cutters, again in three sizes, and a commercial size machine. All four machines clamped onto a tabletop and were refined models of the original Spong mincing machine. The ‘Green Seal’ was supplied with three stainless steel cutters, considered sufficient for everyday use, whereas the remaining three mincers were fitted with four ground steel cutters to chop fine, medium or coarse. The remaining items in the catalogue were four types of hearth stand, the 634 made of wrought iron, available in two finishes, black and oxidised copper, the 635 made of cast iron and available in only black, the 636 that was adjustable and self-supporting available in two finishes, black and oxidised copper, and the 637 made of stamped steel and available only in black. These hearth stands provided a rigid platform for kettles and saucepans on any barless grate and most gas fires, thus saving coal and gas.

In 1932, Donald Spong became a Director of Spong & Co and his brother Roger became a Director in 1935, with both Donald and Roger becoming joint Managing Directors in 1944. The name Spong & Co was by now a well established household name linked with the production of kitchen utensils such as, mincers, slicers, shredders, graters, coffee mills, baking tins and various metallic and plastic scourers, many of the products being of very similar design and concept as those produced under James Osborn Spong in the 19th and early 20th century. Most of the products were marketed under the well-known ‘Spong’ trademark and were sold throughout the United Kingdom, with also a substantial export trade that had steadily grown since the Victorian era. Spong & Co were by definition hardware manufacturers and wireworkers, who also produced various raw materials used in the manufacture of filters for internal combustion engines.

In December 1960, Spong & Co became a Public Company, and at that time the business was still carried on at the company’s freehold premises at Woodville Grove. The premises by then included the factory, stores and offices, covering a total of 35,000 square feet. The plant consisted mainly of presses, lathes, drilling and grinding machines and wire working machines. There was also a tinning and plating shop. The company also had its own tool room where many of its special purpose machines had been designed and built. There was also a printing department for the production of the company’s sale catalogues and other advertising material. The company had over 250 employees, which included over 50 out workers. However, by the 1960’s the premises at Woodville Grove were full to capacity and becoming inadequate for the company’s increasing turnover, so in 1962 the company moved to Crompton Close, Basildon, Essex.

The next and probably last household gadget to be manufactured by Spong & Co was the ‘Corkette’, an air cork ejector. In 1963, Spong & Co registered a design for the cork ejector that had been patented by Robert Pollak of Promac Engineering Ltd in 1962. The ‘Corkette’ was a unique air-pressure cork extractor that was operated by pushing a needle into a cork and pumping gently with the handle. The air pressure increased inside the bottle gently pushing the cork out. The manufacture of the ‘Corkette’ had strong similarities with the early days of Spong & Co, the production of a kitchen ‘gadget’ promoting domestic economy, something James Osborn Spong, the founder of the company, would have been proud of over one hundred years after founding the company.

By the late 1970’s Spong & Co were experiencing mixed fortunes and with falling sales of mechanical kitchen equipment, the hardware section of the company was sold off to Salter Housewares Ltd in 1980. Salter Housewares Ltd continued the production of some of the key Spong products like the mincer and coffee grinder but these were eventually phased out and have now ceased production. Today, Spong kitchen equipment is beginning to become collectable and certain items like the knife cleaner and coffee/spice mills can only be bought through antique fairs and antique outlets around the country, or companies specialising in antique kitchen equipment. The continued demand for antique Spong kitchen equipment goes to prove the durability of well-designed kitchen ‘gadgets’.

Spong & Co Ltd, which had become known as Spong Holdings plc, successfully continued to operate the two other sections of its business, the wire works and the printing business. The wire works produced pot scourers and filters for different makes of car engines and in the 1980’s was a thriving business. The production of the filters had been established in the 1930’s when the General Motors Company suggested that the technology developed to produce the knitted pot scourers could be adapted to produce filters for car engines. After the sale of the hardware section, the 70,000 square footage of factory floor space at Crompton Close from where the wire works and printing business operated was now far too large and was put up for sale. Due to the economic climate of the 1980’s a perspective purchaser for the factory was hard to find and the factory became an economic issue draining the company of much needed financial resources. Eventually two entrepreneurs invested in the company, changing its name to Lion Heart plc and shortly after their arrival the Crompton Close site was sold and Lion Heart moved to smaller premises in Repton Close, Basildon. Shortly after the move, there was a management buy-out of the filters side of the business that changed its name to Brit Nit, with the remainder of the company being ‘successfully destroyed’ by the two entrepreneurs. Brit Nit was eventually sold to Cafetiere Household Articles. The succession of changes from Spong & Co Ltd to Brit Nit included the involvement of Christopher Spong, the great grandson of James Osborn Spong who had founded the company in 1856, and the last member of the Spong family to be involved with the company. Christopher Spong had joined the company in 1955, following his father Roger, and uncle Donald Spong, and eventually retired from the business in 1985.

To conclude, Spong & Co is probably best known for its kitchen gadgets developed in the Victorian era to cut down on the time spent on food preparation and kitchen chores. Less well known is the fact that the company also developed several safety devices like fire extinguishers and fire escapes, pot scourers, animal traps and even a hedge trimmer. To ensure people were aware of their products (or anyone else’s), they developed advertising devices that drew the attention of the passer-by. But, perhaps least well known is that the technology that Spong & Co employed in making pot scourers was later developed to make a successful range of filters for car engines. This small family run company that was founded in 1856 had a tremendous impact on the everyday lives of ordinary people and even today most people will have heard of the Spong mincer or bean slicer, and in many cases still own one.

Burial Register of St John the Divine, Felbridge, FHA
International Genealogical Index.
Sale map and catalogue of the Felbridge estate, 1855, FHA
Sale map and catalogue of the Felbridge Place estate, 1911, FHA
Title Deeds to 113 Crawley Down Road, FHA
Background information and deeds to the Felbridge Recreation Ground, FHA
Title Deeds to Penlea Cottage, The Crescent, Copthorne Road, FHA
Title Deeds to 19 Warren Close, FHA
The London Encyclopaedia by Weinreb and Hibbert
Marriage of Parley;Spong, The Times, 6/6/1910, FHA
Obituary of Norman I Parley, The Times, 11/05/61, FHA
The Concise Universal Encyclopedia by J Hammerton
Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames
Frances Theresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond & Lennox, http://reference.allrefer.com/encycloedia
Diary of Samuel Peyps, FHA
Wills of Richard Fowles 1657, John Spong 1726, John Spong 1755, Anna Spong 1762, William Spong 1787, John Spong 1815, Rosamond Spong 1816, Ann Spong 1826, Ambrose Spong 1845, Catherine Spong 1852, Ambrose Spong 1857, PRO, FHA
Town and Country Kitchens by T Curtis, FHA
Spong & Co. catalogues, 1882, 1933 FHA
Spong & Co., Limited, The Times, December 12, 1960, FHA
Spong Patents at the Patent Office, FHA
Samuel Pepys- The Man in the Making by A Bryant
Documented memoirs of Felbridge resident H Heselden and former Felbridge residents E Hill, A Hillman, D Wedge and F Wheeler, FHA

My grateful thanks are extended to Christopher Spong, and Peter Weaton of Salter Housewares for their invaluable contributions on James Osborn Spong and Spong & Co, and June Spong for general Spong information.


The Spong name and other infamous family members

The name ‘Spong’ is first found in the Rotuli Hundredorum referring to a Robert Spong of Norfolk in 1275. There is also a later reference to a William Spong found in the Subsidy Rolls for 1327, and indeed there is a Saxon cemetery known as ‘Spong Hill’ in North Elmhurst, Norfolk, and a river that has the local name of ‘Spong Ditch’, can also be found in Norfolk. The name ‘Spong’ or ‘Sponge’ comes from the Middle English word spong, referring to ‘the dweller by the narrow strip of land’, a spong being a unit of land under the manorial system, generally the width that a strong man could just leap across.

A Spong tradition suggests that the family descends from de Spong’s who are believed to have come to Britain with William the Conqueror. However, another Spong tradition suggests that the Spong family were Anglo-Saxon and may have inhabited Spong Castle in West Yorkshire before the Norman Conquest. Alternatively, the Spong family may have just taken their name from where they dwelt – a spong.

Another Spong tradition suggests that the branch of the Spong family that descends from the great uncle of James O, (brother of Daniel, James O’s grandfather), can be traced back to Frances Theresa Stuart, a lady in the Court of Charles II. This Spong line of descent comes via Rebecca Stuart, the only daughter of Frances, who was born in 1667. The Stuart line joins the Spong family when Rosamu(o)nd Walters, (great, great grand-daughter of Frances Stuart,) married John Spong, esquire, of Mill Hall, East Malling in Kent. Frances Theresa Stuart was born in 1647, the daughter of an exiled Scottish physician, and was educated in France where she became known as ‘La Belle Stuart’ for her high spirits, beauty and kindness. When she left France for England in 1663, she joined the Court of Charles II and became maid of honour to Queen Catherine. Whilst at Court her beauty attracted the attention of Charles II and it is believed that she became his mistress, however, in 1667 she eloped to marry Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox, reputedly much to the annoyance of Charles II. Rebecca, the only child of Frances, was born in the year of Frances’s marriage to Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond and Lennox, although it is reputed that she was the child of Charles II and not Charles Stuart, the husband of Frances. When Frances returned to Court, Charles II renewed his attention and dispatched her husband first to Scotland in 1670, and then to Denmark in 1671, where he died. Charles II was so infatuated by the beauty of Frances, that he used her as the model for Britannia on his medals to celebrate naval victories against the Dutch and she remained the face of Britannia on medals and coins until quite recently. Frances lived to the age of fifty-five and died in 1702, seventeen years after Charles II.

There are also several references to a ‘Mr Spong’ found in the diaries of Samuel Pepys for the year 1660, Feb: 21st 28th, Jul: 12th 13th 18th 21st and Oct: 17th 23rd 24th. This Mr Spong was musically minded with references such as ‘Mr Spong who staid late with me singing of a song or two’, and ‘Mr Spong comes, with whom I went up and played with him a Duo or two’. There is also a reference to ‘Mr Spong who was a clerk in the Six Clerk’s Office of Chancery’, which enrolled warrants, pardons and patents. It is believed that this ‘Mr Spong’ was the same man who was a maker of optical instruments in 1662, living in Bloomsbury market in 1668. He was born John Spong whose father had died in the parish of St Brides in 1644. The two Mr Spong’s appear to be the same person as when Samuel Pepys was trying to raise a patent in 1660, he ‘procured a musical acquaintance, Mr Spong, who was versed in such practice’ to write out the required patent. Perhaps this John Spong was one of the first of a long line of inventers that were to come from the Spong family.

James Osborn Spong’s family line can be traced back to his great grandfather William Spong born about 1725. Although William’s parents are unknown, it has been possible to identify his siblings as John, Anna and Mary. The family were from the Rochester area of Kent and were landowners. William Spong’s eldest son John was later to own several warehouses and coal yards, with two of his sons entering into the paper industry through part ownership of Snodland Paper Mill. Descendents of William Spong are known to have owned or leased the significant properties of Mount Hill House, High Street, Rochester; Cobtree Manor, Cobtree; Borstal Court Lodge, Rochester; Cookham Hill, Rochester; Mill Hall, East Malling and Frindsbury Manor House, Frinsdbury.

Much of the family research was achieved via a Spong family tree first drawn in 1866, which was then verified against parish and census records. The early family history was derived through the extensive family wills that list many members of their family as benefactors. The Felbridge History Group have updated the family tree to include over 400 people.

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