Some of us will remember coming home from school with our hands covered in ink and having a terrible time getting them clean in time for tea. Well, that indelible ink was made in a factory in Finchley by the Stephens family who grew incredible wealthy from their invention as the British government made its use mandatory for legal documents and ships’ log books, which it is to this day.
This is what the BBC Radio 4 Making History programme has to say about our local hero:
Dr Henry Stephens was at medical school with John Keats, but later (in 1832) invented his famous ‘Blue-Black Writing Fluid’, which he developed into writing ink. It was in about 1834 that he began manufacturing what he described as a “carbonaceous black writing fluid, which will accomplish the so long-desired and apparently hopeless task of rendering the manuscript as durable and as indelible as the printed record”.
Stephens set up a family firm to manufacture the ink and the family’s fortune was on its way to being made. It was his son, Henry Charles Stephens, who turned it into big business, building a factory in Finchley, north London. He later became an MP and fought several battles over issues local to Finchley where he bought his home, Avenue House, in 1874. It was he who was given the nickname locally of ‘Inky’ Stephens. He altered and extended Avenue House, which was built in 1859, adding a laboratory. The Council used his drawing-room when they were bombed out during the Second World War. Stephens left his Finchley estate to the local community when he died in 1918.
Stephens’ ink was indelible and the British government made it the mandatory ink for legal documents and ships’ log books, which it is to this day. In its day it revolutionised office life – much time previously had been spent mixing inks and cleaning nibs.
Henry ‘Inky’ Stephens was very much a man of his time, having set up a domestic electricity system for his own house and a water company at Cholderton in Wiltshire where he built his country home. The Cholderton & District Water Company was set up in 1904 under an Act of Parliament. It was the country’s only private water company for many years until privatisation in the 1990s and it still remains the smallest of the water companies. The company’s principal shareholder is a descendant of ‘Inky’ Stephens.
Lynn Bresler, editor, Finchley Remembered (The Finchley Society, 2002)
Stewart Gillies, Pamela Taylor, Finchley and Friern Barnet: A Pictorial History (Pictorial History Series, Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1992)