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Guns N’ Noses by Nigel Roth


If, on a bright day in 1880, you were sat in the Old Tower Inn, drinking a pint of Bass and browsing the Hampshire Advertiser, you’d probably read about the British Army’s exploits in the First Boer War, or maybe the movement of the British Navy’s warships, like the 664-ton Vulture, a double-screw gunvessel commanded by the illustrious J E Pringle, and currently at anchor in Muscat, Oman.

Your peaceful reverie might be disturbed by the rough conversation of Southampton's stevedores, or some excited chatter about the new local football team, Deanery FC, or those strange explosions from underneath your feet, which shake the table and spill your warm beer.

Explosions, rumblings, shaking and tremors. The work of William Cantelo, who was busy inventing the machine gun in the tunnel below the Inn.

Now, if you were sat sixteen-hundred kilometers away in the Café Katzmayr, two years later in 1882, sipping a glass of Mohrenbräu and browsing the Neue Wiener Tagblatt, you might read about the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or whether the stability Count Gyula Andrássy had secured by allying with Germany still holds, or how Willhelm Steinitz and Szymon Winawer have shared first place in the second international Vienna Chess Tournament.

Here your peace could be interrupted by animated discussion about why the old cafe building was demolished, or if and when an Austrian football team will ever be created, or by the loud baritone of an inventor, regaling his American companion with the astonishing progress he’s making in his chosen career.

Accuracy, force, efficiency and rapidity. This is the work of Hiram Maxim, who was busy inventing the machine gun in his adopted London.

Cantelo had been at this for some time, creating, refining, testing, and repeating. As landlord of the Inn, he had quietly transformed the old underground space beneath the building into a workshop, where he tinkered day and night to perfect his gun. He was now forty-one years of age, and getting ready to show the world what he’d achieved.

Maxim, it seems, had been busy in exactly the same way. He’d arrived from the US to live and work in England a year before, and had dedicated himself to perfecting his own machine gun. He was of similar age, forty-two, and was also eager to show the world what he’d accomplished in this field.

As Cantelo worked underground in his workshop, he’d thought, one hopes, of his wife and three children. But he may also have had a plan in place which he was keeping secret from everyone.

That plan may have come to fruition in 1880.

As Maxim chatted in the cafe, he may have missed his wife too, who happened to be English, and their three children. It’s possible he’d also thought of Helen Leighton, who he’d bigamously married in 1878, and of Sarah Haynes who he’d also joined in matrimony in 1881. Alternatively, as he was so often traveling in Europe, he may have thought of none of them, just hoped the pastries were fresh and that he could think of a way to relieve himself of the burden of three wives.