William Cantelo, the inventor of the Cantelo Capstan, one of the earliest types of machine gun, was born at Carisbrook on the Isle of Wight in c.1830, part of an interesting family (see Sudni Heritage blog post linked below).
By the 1870s he was living in Southampton: the 1871 census shows him at 30 French Street with his wife Elize and four children. The 1881 census has him living with his wife and two sons at 22 Orchard Street. He had an engineering works at Northam, where at one time he employed forty people, and a shop in French Street. He was also the landlord of the Old Tower Inn in Bargate Street, next to Arundel Tower, and a bandmaster.
It was known locally that he was engaged in inventing a machine gun; neighbours were often disturbed by gun fire coming from the vicinity of the Old Tower Inn, where he conducted his experiments in a private and secret workshop, possibly in tunnels underneath the inn.
His engineering business prospered and he travelled frequently to France and Belgium.
In the mid 1880s Cantelo declared that his gun was completed and that he was going to take a three-month holiday. His sons helped him pack his gun into three cases so that he could take it with him. He was never seen again.
As he was in the habit of leaving home for long periods, often on business trips, his family was not initially alarmed by his lengthy absence. After about six months, however, they became anxious and his two sons set out to find him, tracing him as far as America, but no further. Later, they became convinced that American inventor Hiram Maxim was in fact their father.
Maxim, the son of a Maine farmer, also invented a machine gun, ‘The Maxim’, the first truly automatic machine gun. In the 1880s he demonstrated his invention to a number of European governments and it was eventually adopted by the British Army. Maxim moved to London, became a naturalized citizen and was knighted in 1901. On hearing of Maxim and his gun and seeing a photograph of him, the Cantelo family became convinced that he was their missing father and husband, and Maxim did indeed bear a striking resemblance to Cantelo (see images below).
The two sons confronted him on two separate occasions, once on Waterloo Station when they were able to get a very close look at him. He is said to have said "Well, boys, what can I do for you?" and then jumped on to a departing train. The only difference they were able to discern was a slight American accent. They went home and told their mother that they had found their father. Other Sotonians seeing Maxim also mistook him for Cantelo.
A further, seemingly incredible, coincidence was the fact that Cantelo was fond of quoting maxims and carried a book of them in his pocket. He was heard on a number of occasions to refer to his invention as “My Maxim Gun”.
Hiram Maxim died in 1916.
Newspaper clippings (available through the Local Studies Library):
- "The third in a series of recollections of Southampton's past" - (Now in Southampton 10/1979). This article has some good pictures of the Old Tower Inn, William Cantelo and Hiram Maxim.
- "A lingering mystery …" - (Southern Daily Echo 20/08/2012)
- The mystery of the vanishing gun inventor - (BBC Magazine)
- The Mystery of Mr Maxim - (Roy Andrews, City of Southampton Society)
- Ellen Cantelo - (Sudni Heritage Blog 02/10/2016) Post about William's sister, Ellen.
Southampton Occasional Notes,, by ‘Townsman’, p58-59. (HS/h)
Southampton People, by John Edgar Mann, p26-27. (HS/t)
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