Arming America and the Firepower of Henry Foxall

November 7, 2022 | by Keshler Thibert

A portrait form 1806 of foundry owner, arms manufacturer, and Methodist preacher Henry Foxall by French painter Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. | Image: Public Domain

As Philadelphia approached its final years as the nation’s capital, so began the first term of President John Adams. During this time, the still-burgeoning Union continued to contend with the pirates of the Barbery States of the Ottoman Empire, which no longer received payments to ignore ships coming from what was once British North America. Other issues were political disputes with the French related to the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 that resulted in the XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War wth France.

Yet, overall, the biggest challenge was the country’s slow emergence in industries that were previously dominated by the British. As early as 1695, the British Parliament made it illegal to export advances in technology, especially in iron manufacturing. These anti-export laws were later strengthened by William Pitt the Elder who did not allow the manufacturing of anything within the colonies, notably the development and casting of heavy armaments and ammunition.

The publication of iron casting techniques did not assist or elevate the issue. Thomas Jefferson and Robert Morris would go about contracting several different foundries, but new problems arose. Various types of ammunition–cannons and shot–and a preference to simply steal what could be found on pilfered ships caused consistency and quality issues with weaponry. All of the above issues stalled the development of a formal navy or military. A solution would be found with Methodist preacher Henry Foxall.

Learning the Iron Trade

An undated portrait of British foundry owner Henry Cort. Artist unknown. | Image courtesy of The New York Public Library

Foxall was born in 1758 during the Industrial Revolution in South Wales to parents Mary Hayes and Thomas Foxall. Henry, the youngest of five children, was immersed from an early age in both Wesleyan Methodism and in the advancements in the production of iron.

In many ways, his path was already set as he grew into a young man in the British West Midlands. His father became a foreman at a forge, and Henry Foxall became an employee of Henry Cort. During his seven years as an employee, he began using coke, instead of charcoal, to fire iron forges and learned innovative puddling and rolling techniques in which Cort was proficient. Unfortunately, his biggest lesson was learned during the downfall of Cort’s business in 1788. That year, Cort became bankrupt due to embezzlement by his business partner, over-reliance in a single client, and the loss of iron manufacturing patents that left him impoverished and unable to pay his debts.

By 1789, Foxall was living in Shannon, Ireland, and had started a family. As for religion, his belief in the Methodist faith had waned. Now working for the O’Reilly family at the Arigna Iron Works, Foxall used the processes that he learned under Cort to make it a success. In a year he was promoted to superintendent. Yet, despite the success Foxall was having at the iron works, he learned another lesson about their downfall.

As the O’Reilly’s business grew, so did its offerings, which spread production too thinly. Other issues arose such as the importation of materials due to a lack of railroads and the high cost of procuring coal. The business struggled for some time. Petitions to Parliament to fund the works were not taken up. Eventually, the Arigna Iron Works was too expensive to fund. In 1793, the company was bought out and then closed in 1808 due to poor management.

By 1791, Foxall had regained his spiritual faith and moved toward becoming a preacher. His congregants were mostly other iron workers. This was an especially harrowing time when Methodists were the frequent targets of violence by both Catholics and Protestants. Foxall’s home was attacked on the night of May 20, 1793 by the Catholic Defenders. The story has been sensationalized with the retelling of how Foxall beat the mob back with a single chair. Another few years of ongoing violence and the downfall of the iron works prompted him to leave for America.

The Move to Philadelphia

St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church at 235 N. 4th Street. Date unknown. | Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

By 1795, the Foxalls boarded the ship Joseph bound for New York City. During this time, everyone in the United Kingdom was expressly forbidden to travel to the United States, especially if they had skills that could be used to assist in any industry. Being caught meant fines, seizure of property, and charges of treason.

The Foxalls took some time to not only find a way to a port, but to secure their safety out of Newry in Northern Ireland. By late September 1795, they arrived in Philadelphia and immediately connected with St. George’s Methodist Church at 235 N. 4th Street, which licensed him becoming a preacher.

Foxall quickly found work with Robert Morris, who by this time was facing financial ruin and selling assets to stay solvent. It would be at Morris’s insistence, and secret funding, that he open Henry Foxall & Company and build his Eagle Iron Works foundry on the site of Morris’s summer retreat, Springettsbury, which was next to the Schuylkill River.

An old advertisement from the 1880s for Eagle Iron Works. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Eagle Iron Works had the first boring mill in America powered by a Boulton and Watt-style steam engine and fueled by coal. Unfortunately, the operation and initial sales of the foundry did not keep Morris out of debtors’ prison. The Bank of North America on Chestnut Street soon owned the foundry.

By 1797, Foxall ran the facility as a defense contractor producing reliable cannon and shot at quantities needed to support an army. Foxall’s expertise saved Eagle Iron Works and enabled him to become the sole owner. Oliver Wolcott, Founding Father and major general for the Connecticut militia during the Revolutionary War, once said, “The boring mill [is] upon the most improved construction at the public’s expensive.” Trench Francis Jr, procurer of goods for the U.S. Navy, tried to sign an exclusive contract with Foxall to make war supplies. Foxall declined, remembering how his first employer Henry Cort’s ruin was partly due to a dependency on single client work. Instead, Foxall continued to take on civilian projects, such as numerous works commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Henry Latrobe later commented that Foxall’s cannons were much better crafted than his peacetime work.

As foreign policies and defensive positions abroad worsened between the United States, former allies, and the Barbery States, Foxall’s production of reliable guns, iron cannon, and armaments of high quality and uniformity became an asset. By 1800, after Washington, D.C. was completed, the federal government transitioned out of Philadelphia and so did Foxall and his family.

Personal Life

Henry Foxall’s Columbia cannon foundry outside of Georgetown in Washington, D. C. in 1908. | Photo: Public Domain

Foxall married three times. He married his first wife, Ann Harward, in 1780 and they had five children, three of which died young. Ann passed during Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1798. Soon thereafter, he married Margaret English Smith while still living in Philadelphia and took her and his children to Georgetown in 1803 and became the mayor. Margaret’s passing in 1816 led to Foxall’s retirement. His third marriage was to Catharine Holland in November 1816 while they were in England.

Foxall opened several foundries in the Washington, D.C. area, eventually selling off the Eagle Iron Foundry in Philadelphia to partner Samuel Richards of New Jersey. His cannons were used in the War of 1812. As Foxall’s wealth increased, so did his desire for servants, who consisted of slaves, former slaves, and indentured slaves.

Foxall put a lot of his wealth into helping the United Methodist Church grow during its most formative years, yet his faith never conflicted with his work. The Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Foxall Village is named after him.


About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history. Read more of his work on Substack.

One Comment:

  1. Yvonne Laing says:

    Keshler, your article was fascinating and very informative. I was led to ir by one of Foxall’s ancestros- a gr-gr-gr-gr-great granddaughter. Thank you for your research!

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