Humphrey GAINSBOROUGH (1718–1776)

Innovative engineer

Christ Church United Reformed Church, Henley-on-Thames

Humphrey Gainsborough was born to John Gainsborough, publican, clothier, and postmaster, at Sudbury, Suffolk. He was one of nine brothers and sisters of whom the fifth born was Thomas Gainsborough, the celebrated painter.

John Gainsborough was a Dissenter and Humphrey became a Nonconformist minister, first at Newport Pagnell and then in 1748 at Henley. He employed his leisure time developing his genius for engineering inventions. Perhaps his most notable invention was a steam engine with a separate condenser. It is thought that Boulton and Watt may have had some knowledge of his design when they gained the extension of their patent, thus denying Gainsborough the fame and fortune he deserved. He contrived a tide-mill which allowed the wheel to rotate in either direction and received for this an award of £30 from the London Society for the Encouragement of Art. His drill plough, which built upon the achievement of Jethro Tull, gained him an award of £60 from the Royal Society. In 1759 he wrote to the Society of Arts with his ideas on clock design relating to his ‘general plan for helping the World to the Knowledge of true Time even at sea’. In 1770 he was asked to oversee the construction of the eight double gated pound locks from Boulter’s lock to Sonning. Other inventions were a self-ventilating fish-wagon to keep fish fresh en route and a fireproof box.

He was supported in his efforts by Sambroke Freeman of Fawley Court, a member of the Royal Society, and by Thomas Hall of Harpsden Court for whom he is thought to have designed the ‘perfect cube’ room for the house. Hall commissioned a fine portrait of Humphrey from his brother Thomas.

Another brother, John, known in Sudbury as ‘Scheming Jack’, also displayed mechanical ingenuity. He attempted to fly on copper wings and devised a self-rocking cradle. He was about to sail to the East Indies to prove an invention for the discovery of longitude but died in London before the attempt.

Humphrey died in 1776 and is buried with his wife close to the Independent Chapel where he was minister. The plaque is placed on the gates of the successor church.


  • R. Kendal, Henley in the Age of Enlightenment (produced in connection with the exhibition Genius and Gentility at the Henley River & Rowing Museum in 2002);
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subsumed under Thomas Gainsborough)

Christ Church URC



The plaque was unveiled at Christ Church United Reformed Church, Reading Road, Henley-on-Thames on 1 September 2002 by Hugo Brunner, Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire. The Revd Andrew Lonsdale spoke of Humphrey Gainsborough’s role as minister of the Independent Chapel.

Gainsborough plaque

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board



Innovative Engineer
and for 27 years
Minister at the Independent Chapel
on this site
is buried nearby.

River & Rowing Museum

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


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