Humphrey Gainsborough

Humphrey Gainsborough

A nonconformist minister and innovative engineer. Lived and worked in Henley-on-Thames.

Link with the Chilterns

Lived and worked in Henley-on-Thames




23 August 1776


Humphrey Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk and was the third son of John Gainsborough and Mary Burrough. His brother Thomas Gainsborough, the famous painter, was their fifth son and ninth child.

He trained as a minister at the Congregational Fund Academy, Moorfields, London, from 1736 – 1739. He married Mary Marshland on 6 December 1741 at St Anne and St Agnes in London, and was inducted as minister of the Independent Chapel at Newport Pagnell in 1743, where he stayed for five years. During this period he is reputed to have invented a fire-resisting cast iron box to store documents at the church. There are six boxes of similar design, two of which are in Henley-on-Thames and two in Sudbury, Suffolk

His employment as a minister in Henley-on-Thames started in 1748 with an annual stipend of £60. Gainsborough and his wife lived in the centre of Henley, then called Fisher’s Row, now West Street. However, they also used a cottage near the Independent Chapel, which is now known as The Manse. The front door of the Manse is reputed to be fitted with a security chain that was devised and made by Gainsborough.

It is during this period that Gainsborough developed his engineering skills –  some of his inventions were genius. His most notable invention was a steam engine with a separate condenser. Work on a later steam engine probably influenced the design of the compound engine invented by Jonathan Hornblower (1753 – 1815), which pioneered the design of the high steam pressure engines of the nineteenth century.

Gainsborough also manufactured a “tide-mill” which allowed a mill wheel to rotate in either direction, he received a prize of £50 for this from the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. This Society also awarded him a prize of £30 for a drill plough, built on Jethro Tull’s invention.

He experimented with pendulums with his “general plan for helping the world to the knowledge of true time, even at sea”. He designed a self-ventilating fish-wagon so fish could be kept fresh while being transported.

Gainsborough supervised the construction of eight double gated pound locks on the stretch of the Thames between Sonning and Maidenhead. During the final years of his life, he collected the lock tolls between Sonning and Hambleden.

Another of his achievements was the moderation of the slope of the road between Henley and Remenham, the turnpike route between London and Oxford in 1768. His “weighing machine” which stood in the centre of Henley, allowed carriages to be charged according to their weight when they used the new road. He supervised improvements at the Park Place estate near Henley such as the building of a bridge which still carries all the traffic on the road between Henley and Wargrave.

Gainsborough died unexpectedly while out in Lion Meadow, north of the bridge. He was buried next to his wife in a grave outside the Independent Chapel in Henley. Unfortunately, the graves and stones did not survive when the chapel was demolished in 1908.

After his death, Philip Thickness wrote in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1785:

“… one of the most ingenious men that ever lived, and one of the best that ever died … Perhaps of all the mechanical geniuses this or any nation has produced Mr Gainsborough was the first.”

Further Information

Wikipedia entry on Gainsborough.

Grid Reference


What you can visit

Blue plaque at Christ Church United Reformed Church, Reading Road, Henley on Thames (which replaced the Independent Chapel).

The bridge on A321 between Henley and Wargrave which he designed.