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The Mystery of Mr Maxim by Roy Andrews

It used to be said that, before the destruction of WWII, you could walk from one side of the old walled town of Southampton to the other completely underground, using the cellars which filled the subterranean town. Originally built to house wine, over the years they were used for many things, none more unlikely than that of a Mr William Cantelo for one tunnel in the 1870's.

    He was of an Isle of Wight family and had been born c1838 but by the 1870’s, he, his wife, two sons and a daughter were well established in Southampton. He was an engineer, owning a yard at Northam where up to forty people were employed. He had a shop in French Street opposite the Theatre Royal and was landlord of the Old Tower Inn at the bottom of Bargate Street. William was a likeable and popular person and being a keen musician was bandmaster of the old 2nd Hampshires. The family lived in the pub and the band used the Arundel Tower against which the pub was built for band practice. Although on the outside of the town walls, a tunnel ran from under the pub and adjacent buildings as far, it was said, as the High Street.

       William was periodically absorbed in engineering experiments, which he guarded jealously. When this happened, he made use of the underground tunnel and the tower; doors were locked and nobody was allowed to enter, although it seems later he took his sons into his confidence. Neighbours however reported they were aware of something unusual occurring because they heard the sound of rapid gunfire, mostly on a Saturday afternoon, coming from the tower.
      william Cantelo Image courtesy West End Local History Society William Cantelo born c 1838 Isle of Wight

     First used in the American Civil War, machine guns already existed, the Gatling Gun, the Nordenfeldt and the Gardener gun, the latter having been adopted by the British. And so it was clear that whoever could produce an improved quick firing machine gun, and could persuade the Government of a great power to buy it, could make a fortune. Over time, although William and his sons guarded their secret, it became common knowledge that an improved machine gun was their endeavour.

     In the early 1880's William announced to his family that his gun was complete and that he intended to take a holiday. It must be a long holiday after all his exacting labour; he would probably be away three months. His sons helped him to pack his gun and he took it with him. Being absent from the family for long periods was not unusual for William as he often travelled to Europe on business. However after three months, and having heard nothing from William, the family made some enquiries and were surprised that not only had he disappeared but a large sum of money belonging to him at his bankers had been "transferred".

     The family made many enquiries as to the whereabouts of their husband and father, eventually employing the services of an enquiry agent who was able to trace William as far as America but there the trail went cold. The man and his gun had completely disappeared.

     Later, the news spread that an American inventor, an electrical engineer and holder of various fairly prominent positions in the American engineering world had invented a remarkable quick-firing machine gun which he had  perfected in London. His name was Hiram Maxim. Demonstrated to American and European military, it had been bought by the British Government. When the Cantelo family read the description of the gun, the sons exclaimed in astonishment, "our gun!" What is more, having studied a photograph of Hiram Maxim, they declared "our father!"
      Hiram Stevens Maxim. Image courtesy West End Local History Society Hiram Stevens Maxim born Sangville Maine USA 1840

    The two sons determined they would meet Mr Maxim and this they did one day on Waterloo Station as he was about to board a train which was on the point of leaving. They approached him from behind and said "Father". Maxim turned and immediately said "Well, boys, what can I do for you?" "Come and see mother," they replied. At that moment the train began to move, and Mr Maxim boarded it before another word could be said.

     The boys returned home and told their mother that, having studied him close up, they were convinced that Mr Maxim was their father, the only difference being a slight American accent. Determined not to let the matter rest, the boys visited Mr Maxim at his large house Baldwin's Park, Bexley, Kent. The first time they visited they caught a glimpse of him as he left the house at the back, climbed into a dog cart and drove away. After that Mr Maxim would never see them.

        Other Sotonians who happened to meet Mr Maxim observed the likeness. A Mr Dewey, at an artillery display in Chelmsford, seeing what appeared to be the missing man called "Mr Cantelo!" The man addressed turned instantly; then away again taking no further notice of Mr Dewey. It was Mr Hiram Maxim.  Another Sotonian spoke to Mr Maxim in London as "Mr Cantelo". Like a man accustomed to being pestered in this way, he angrily retorted, "If you call me again by that name, I will give you in charge!" So were the two men one and the same? Mr Cantelo was often heard to express a wish to be buried without the benefit of clergy. This is precisely what happened to Hiram Maxim when he died in compliance with his wish. It was known that Mr Cantelo was fond of quoting maxims, and that he carried a book of maxims about with him in his pocket. In the 1930's there were still alive in Southampton at least two people who could remember the precise words in which Mr Cantelo was accustomed to allude to his invention. He called it "My Maxim Gun."

Hiram Maxim was born in Sangville, Maine, USA on the 5th February, 1840. He married Jane in 1867. Another woman named Helen claimed Maxim had married her in 1878 stating that" He knowingly committed bigamy against his first wife." A child Romaine was born as a result of this union, In his will Maxim left £4000 to a Romaine Dennison. In 1881 Maxim married Sarah from Boston, although there is no evidence that he ever divorced his first wife Jane, having already abandoned her he moved with his new wife to England. Maxim rarely visited the USA from that time and in 1900 he became a naturalised British subject, In 1901 he was knighted. He died on 24th November, 1916 and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery alongside Lady Sarah.

[Article with the permission of Nigel Wood, Editor of The Westender]


There is no doubt through church registers, census records that Maxim was born and raised in the USA. It does seem logical that Maxim would show annoyance when residing in England if people constantly referred to him by the name Cantelo.

Strangely both Maxim and Cantelo made statements to family members that at their demise neither wanted a clergyman to officiate the burial. When Maxim died this request was followed out. 

Outdoor visit to Minstead Church image courtesy Will Temple Outdoor visit on a Guy Arab open top busTug tender Calshot in preservation