The Gun Behind the Name

25 Jul 2019

The Gun Behind the Name

By Dr. Nicholas Harlow To think of Purdey is to think of the quintessential English side-by-side. That is to say a self-opening hammerless action that has been in continuous production for nearly one hundred and forty years. The design of this iconic shotgun was the product of the inventive genius of Frederick Beesley, a man who earned a reputation as being the inventor to the London Gun Trade. But the story of how he developed the action, and how he sold it to Purdey, has been the subject of much confusion and rumour over the last forty years. It is one we can now correct. Frederick Beesley joined Purdey, as a stocker, in 1869. Although there have been various stories as to how and when he left the company, the wage books record him as having left, on good terms, in May 1878. It has long been assumed that this was the start of his eponymous company, but in fact, he reappears in the Purdey wages ledger in June 1879 and remained with the company for a full year.  This is significant as it means he was a salaried Purdey employee when he invented his action. The confusion appears to arise from the fact that, when he offered his design to James Purdey the Younger on 18 December 1879, he did so from his own address and with no hint that he was already working for him. The original agreement between James the Younger and Frederick Beesley The original agreement between James the Younger and Frederick BeesleyThe original agreement between James the Younger and Frederick Beesley. James the Younger was a trained stocker and successful inventor in his own right and was apparently convinced of the merits of the design. So much so that, just over two weeks later, on 2nd January 1880, the two men had signed a provisional agreement, which set out their roles in patenting the design. Under these terms, Beesley was to undertake all the design and descriptive work necessary for securing the patent. In return, Purdey not only took on all costs and risks associated with the process but also paid Beesley three sums once significant stages had been passed along with royalties thereafter. The first significant stage was the registration of the patent, which happened the same day and for which Beesley was paid £20. Beesley’s receipt for the initial payment of £20Beesley’s receipt for the initial payment of £20. The second milestone payment of £10 was made on 3rd May 1880 when Beesley turned over a working model of the design, together with the drawings necessary for the patent specification. As such, we can assume that James was satisfied with Beesley’s progress. The third sum was due once the patent was sealed, which took place on 29 July of the same year. On that same day Beesley signed an indenture which transferred the rights to the patent to James Purdey, and in return received £20. The Indenture also laid out an agreement for royalties of 5 shillings per gun on the first two hundred made or a lump sum of £35, provided it was paid by 29 November. Beesley acknowledged receipt of the £35 on 16 November 1880, meaning that he received the total sum of £85 for his invention. Beesley’s receipt for the final payment of £35Beesley’s receipt for the final payment of £35. As highlighted previously, this was not all that Beesley received from Purdey. His wages for the year amounted to a little over £134, meaning that he earned £219 up until he left the company, for the final time, at the end of June 1880. According to his granddaughters, this helped to secure his business. But it is also worth considering the costs that Purdey absorbed above those paid directly to Beesley. Registration of the patent cost £50, and the upkeep of the patent, as well as defending it, cost significantly more. Although the Purdey records have some gaps, there are invoices totalling around £190 spread over a fourteen-year period. Therefore, it seems reasonable to estimate Purdey’s total investment in the patent to be close to £250 excluding payments made to Beesley. So, given his granddaughter's comments, it seems likely that Beesley’s company may have struggled were it not for the monies received from Purdey. Having reviewed the surviving records held at Audley House, it is clear that Beesley’s departure from Purdey in 1878 was of his own free will. He was not, as history has incorrectly reflected, dismissed for poor behaviour. Were this true it is unlikely that he could have ever returned to his former employer and, whilst there, develop and sell his first patent. Ultimately, it was the money raised from his patent, whilst being shielded from the liabilities that James the Younger took on as part of their agreement, which gave Beesley the capital to set up his business and from there to patent another twenty designs. Of course, in return for his investment, James the Younger was able to purchase the action that has become synonymous with our company, and which continues to define the ideal of a London side-by-side gun to this day.