Mystery of the disappearing machine-gun inventor

Was Hiram Maxim, pictured testing his machine-gun, really Southampton inventor William Cantelo

William Cantelo

First published in Hampshire Heritage

A LINGERING mystery from Victorian Southampton is the strange case of William Cantelo, inventor of a quickfiring gun, who mastered another skill, that of vanishing without trace and then re-appearing as someone else.

This stranger than fiction tale has been recalled by the enthusiasts of the West End Local History Society who feature the story of the disappearing gun-maker in the latest edition of their regular newsletter.

Despite repeated research over almost 150 years, the baffling circumstances surrounding Cantelo’s disappearance have never been fully explained and remain as enigmatic as back in the 19th century.

Cantelo, an engineer, his wife and family – there were two sons and a daughter – were established in Southampton, where he owned a yard at Northam and a shop in French Street, during the 1870s.

He was an energetic man with a strongly inventive mind. He was a likeable and popular person, a fact which helped him to become landlord of the Old Tower Inn, which had an ancient underground tunnel at the bottom of Bargate Street.

For days at a time Cantelo would lock himself away in the tunnel, which he turned into an underground workshop, the doors of which would always be kept bolted against intruders.

Neighbours living near the pub began hearing strange noises, as if someone was firing a machine-gun.

In those far off days the military was only just awakening to the value of rapid-firing guns, which had been used for the first time in the American Civil War.

The Gatling Gun had just been invented, while the Nordenfeldt, its rival, was being perfected, and there was the Gardener, which the British had adopted.

It was already clear that the man who could invent a new and improved form of machine-gun could make a great deal of money by selling the weapon to the government.

It soon became known in Southampton that this was precisely the aim of Cantelo busily working away in his workshop below the pub. Cantelo was later helped in his invention by his sons, but the secret remained carefully guarded, although, in the course of time, the gun became the subject of widespread talk locally.

It was now the early 1880s and an astonishing development occurred when Cantelo announced to his family that the weapon was at last completed and he intended to take a holiday.

It must be a long holiday, he said, after all his exacting labour; he would probably be away for about three months.

However, when the time was up, not only had Cantelo disappeared, but a large sum of his money had been “transferred’’.

Private investigators were hired and it was discovered that he could be traced to America, but beyond that, there was no information of any kind.

Months became years, and Southampton was beginning to regard Cantelo as a mere memory, when something remarkable happened.

The news spread of an American inventor, an engineer, who said he was the son of a farmer, and had developed a quick-firing machine gun.

It was said to have been offered to the American government. Demonstrations had been given both in the USA and Europe, and in one case even before royalty.

In Southampton the Cantelo family studied the photograph of this inventor, Hiram Maxim, and found a remarkable likeness to their missing husband and father.

Determined to meet him, the Cantelos tracked Maxim down to London’s Waterloo Station while the American was visiting Britain.

According to accounts of the time, the two sons went up to Maxim and said: “Father’’.

Maxim turned, and asked: “Well, boys, what can I do for you?’’ and then promptly jumped on a departing train and was gone.

The sons were convinced Maxim and their father were one and the same person.

Maxim was later discovered living in Kent but when the sons went to the house, they caught a glimpse of him driving away in a carriage and he refused to meet them again.

It is recorded that Hiram Maxim, if indeed he was their missing father, was credited with inventing the weapon and he died on November 24, 1916.

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