Chemical Manufactories in Cheshire - Nitre Beds, Northwich Salt, Le Blanc & Brunner Mond

wanting

caution !! this is an initial draft ...

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Weston PointMany strands of the industrial revolution eventually came together at Weston Point where the key waterways and their traffic converged on the Mersey and Liverpool - The Sankey Canal, The Weaver Navigation & The Bridgewater Canal, both with their connects to The Trent & Mersey Canal and The Manchester Ship Canal.  The Cheshire pioneers struggled with all its mind boggling complexity by the seat of their pants, the problems were intractable and the solutions quite invisible to Joe Sixpack ... folk just trialled & errored until something worked ... the downside to industrialisation was obvious; more change, more conflict, more complexity & more scarcity ... (ask Robert Owen who was busy at the Northwich cotton Mill in the 1780s?) ... congestion & waste ... waste was not only intolerable pollution which made working conditions inhuman but also waste was a costly loss ... nevertheless a sale was a sale and a job was a job and there were no better alternatives available at the time ... things were tough ...

 In 1873 young John Brunner & Ludwig Mond set up their new business at Winnington ... they were well aware of the history of the struggle ... and well aware of the gigantic opportunities ...

This was not a pretty scene in 1900 when my great grandfather Edward Hindley was forced to find an alternative to his ancient cordwainer craft when the new factories in Northamptonshire usurped his customers ... Edward and his mate Joseph Oswald Neill stumbled blindly into the filthy business of rotting cows ... there were bills to be paid ...

For centuries the Cheshire dairy farmers had made their money from cheese and the cow carcase seemed to present a waste disposal problem rather than a profitable opportunity ... but instead of throwing away the stinking cow carcases Edward turned the filth into chemical fertilizers, fabrication glues, edible gelatine, oxidising saltpetre and perfumed soap ... and all manner of other goodies which were eagerly consumed in the crowded cities and new manufactories ...

Was the industrial revolution in Cheshire built on salt? ... or was it cows? ...

John Bennett LawesCheshire Cows - Bone Manure & Saltpetre

Cheshire cheese provided superb nourishment for the urban factory workers and then the deceased cow made a second contribution when by products from the carcase found ready markets.

Maybe less in comparison to cheese production but bone manure & saltpetre were products from the cow which were required for agriculture and the manufacture of gunpowder and sulphuric acid ... sulphuric acid was an essential raw material for the chemical factories ... and gunpowder won wars ...

Animal slaughter was a tricky issue but without doubt the unimpeachable cows, dead or alive, certainly made their ample contribution to the industrial revolution. Cheshire cheese nourished the cities, bone manure produce big turnips and saltpetre oxidised sulphur for explosions & acids ...

In 1813, Sir Humphrey Davy explained the benefits to farmers from a balanced chemical manure from crushed animal bones (potassium/nitrogen/phosphorous - KNP fertilizers). Not only  s h one t manure from the living but also bone manure from the dead ... by the middle of the 19th century, bone grinding mills were springing up everywhere producing wholesome bone fertilisers for farm fields.

In 1841 John Bennett Lawes (1814–1900) began solubilising bones with sulphuric to make soluble superphosphates at his Deptford factory. Yet another major industrial use of sulphuric acid?

Bones (or apatite rock or coprolites) - Ca3(PO4)2 + H2SO4 = Ca SO4 + Ca(H2PO4)2 superphosphate ...

Soluble superphosphates became indispensible fertilisers ...

And in 1910 Joseph Oswald Neill produced his patent as bones and acids were upgraded in nutritional supplements for deprived folk ...

However despite all this success, it turned out that it was not cows that dominated proceedings in Cheshire but salt ...

Nitre Beds & Sulphuric Acid - The Lead Chamber Process 

Sulphuric acid became an increasingly important raw material for industry, not only for pickling metals but also for the production of alkali & bleaching powder via the Le Blanc process. Alkali was wanted for making soap & glass and calcium hypochlorite was used for bleaching paper & textiles. 

Liebig uttered a well known dictum, 'it is no exaggeration to say that we may fairly judge the commercial prosperity of a country from the amount of sulphuric acid it consumes'.

Production methods continuously progressed but initially the acid was obtained from distilling naturally occurring copperas = FeSO4.7H2O by heating & condensing the SO3 vapours.

Joshua Ward (1685–1761) was a notorious London quack and occasional MP from Twickenham, who made a fortune from selling patent medicines and experimenting. In 1736 he extracted sulphur from various ores by heating them, and with nitre he produced SO3 which reacted with water producing H2SO4. Ores included - Iron pyrites FeS2 - Copper pyrites Cu2S.Fe2S3 - Galena PbS - Zinc blende ZnS. There were some obnoxious wastes including spent oxides Fe2O3 and arsenous oxide As2O3 ... which he may have tried to sell?

This primitive process produced sulphuric acid in glass bottles a few pounds at a time. However a new process produced sulphuric acid by the ton ... in 1746 John Roebuck (1718–1794) working in Birmingham developed the lead chamber process. John was indefatigable and involved in medicine, chemistry, iron, coal, alkali and James Watts' steam engine ... but he forgot to patent his process and it was widely copied!

The process involved igniting sulphur and potassium nitrate in a room lined with lead. Saltpetre was the agent oxidizing sulphur to sulphur trioxide -
6 KNO3 + 7 S = 3 K2S + 6 NO + 4 SO3

The floor of the room was covered with water and when the sulphur trioxide reacted with the water, sulphuric acid was produced -
SO3 + H2O = H2SO4 

Roebuck's process, industrialised at Prestonpans near Edinburgh, was a batch process and resulted in the consumption of potassium nitrate. However in 1835 Joseph Gay-Lussac (1778–1850) improved the process by recovering the nitrogen monoxide and recycling it to replace the saltpetre as an oxidising source. This accomplished two things simultaneously, it sharply reduced nitrogen monoxide emissions and at the same time reduced the dependence on expensive saltpetre.

In 1746 this process required scarce saltpetre from the nitre beds of India ...

Before the discovery of Chilean saltpetre beds in 1825, saltpetre production from the nitre beds had been getting more and more expensive ... there was competition for the raw materials ...

Northwich Salt - Sodium Chloride - NaCl.

Salt had been extracted from the salt beds underneath the Cheshire Plain since before Roman times. The brine pit by the side of the River Dane in Northwich produced valuable salt from good quality brine.

 In the early days Northwich had a competitive advantage over the other wiches, Middlewich and Nantwich. At 25% Northwich brine was close to saturation and clean, it took only 12 cwt of coal to produced a ton of salt, the Middlewich brine required 15 cwt and at Nantwich 29 cwt ... Northwich was also closer to Frodsham Bridge on the Mersey where salt from the wich houses was stored prior and shipment.

From Roman times to the Civil War methods changed little, busy bucketing from the pit continued and quality white salt was raked from the smoky wood fired leads in the adjacent wich houses. Wich houses 'walled' the brine in 'leads' with local wood, dried the salt in wicker baskets or 'barrows'.  Unfortunately good strong ale was used, together with albumin from egg whites &  calf's blood, to clarify the solution and emulsify impurities. But it was all in a good cause; helping to produce better quality salt.

NorthwichThe town as a borough and Cheshire as County Palatine meant 'burgesses' enjoyed some independence from the national hierarchy, nevertheless local officials introduced conservation and taxation hurdles; 'peecings' & 'lead fines'. Typically output was stinted and technological innovation snuffed out as onerous regulation, confiscatory taxation and shortage of fuel all took there toll.

 Around 1650 competitive pressures brought change to Northwich. Coal replaced the rapidly disappearing wood fuel and continuous evaporation in iron pans was introduced to withstand the higher temperatures involved in coal firing. Some folk made a lot of money out of the salt trade but threats to profitability came from over capacity, cheap imports and, inevitably, the vagaries and unintended consequences of the tax system. And then whilst prospecting for coal at Dairy House Meadows, Marbury, 'The Philosophical Transactions' of December 12th 1670 reported a momentous discovery ... rock salt ... and by 1850 there were 23 mines in the Northwich area producing 100,000 tons of the stuff ... salt gold!

The discovery of rock salt in William Marbury’s Cheshire estate was the catalyst for the development of the Lancashire coal fields, the Port of Liverpool and the Cheshire salt fields. Was this a triangular trade which seeded the industrial revolution? ... this development was early early ... earlier than the Coalbrookdale & Gadlys initiatives ... earlier than cotton & the slave trade ... earlier than Wedgwood, Arkwright, Watt, Cort ...

Salt had always been a necessity of life, not only for seasoning but also as a preservative for meat and fish, and as the population increased, the growing demand for the commodity made its preparation on a large scale essential. Before this discovery of rock salt, brine had to be purified on site, but now the economics changed and it became cheaper to transport the rock salt to factories closer to the coal fields where it could be refined (up to 10 tons of coal was required to produce 1 ton of white salt). Three refineries sprouted on or near the Mersey; at Frodsham Bridge (1690), Liverpool (1696) and Dungeon (1697), all attempted to benefit from the closer proximity to the Lancashire coalfields ... and Liverpool.

Salt exports spurred the growth of Liverpool and shipments found their way to Ireland, Norway, Hamburg, Holland & Flanders. It was the salt trade with Cornwall which brought in the china clay for the potteries in Staffordshire, and the potters themselves used salt for glazing, salted fish was taken from the Newfoundland cod fisheries to the West Indies and sold or exchanged for sugar, coffee or fruit ... and this was before the slave trade became important. The Liverpool, St Helens, Northwich salt trade was profitable trade; the Liverpool, Africa, America slave trade came later during the 18th century ... and it was sugar & tobacco which were significantly important for Liverpool ... before cotton began to dominate ...

The salt industry in the 17th century offered an further opportunity to study the suffocating effects of regulation & tax as economic realities rubbed against the grain of the ambitions of the authorities.

Competition was rife amongst the brine evaporators and output was restricted to a few days a year using a limited number of pans in an attempt to maintain prices & tax revenues. But after rock salt was discovered in Marbury the dynamics changed and salt production moved to the Mersey.

Salt tax (originally one of William IIIs ruses) was paid when the salt product was sold. So ingenious rock salt producers moved salt to Bristol for refining. Cheaper transport of the rock made it easy to confuse tax inspectors by movement & storage. Furthermore the 1694 Act suggested refiners were exempt from tax on their raw material and received a rebate of one shilling a bushel on their purchases. The Act assumed tax would still be paid on the salt product produced, but it was quiet on specifics. Naturally the rock salt refiners claimed the rebate on their raw material and avoided paying the tax! The brine evaporators and the authorities were up in arms. In 1696 the Act of Parliament was rewritten and loop holes closed but a lesson was clear. Economic reality will always discover a way round tax & regulation. It was in nobody's interest to attempt throttle the salt industry which was to provide nurturing life blood to the Port of Liverpool ... exports to pay for cotton imports, jobs for many in Cheshire and rewards for Liverpool merchants who risked capital and demonstrated the way to the self sustaining growth of the industrial revolution.

Inevitably economic realities won in the end and restrictions to enterprise were eventually broken by competition from outside town but nevertheless a salt tax hung on precariously until 1825. Lessons from the salt tax shenanigans were still echoing in 1929 when in judgement Lord Clyde suggested, ‘No man in this country is under the smallest obligation, moral or otherwise, so to arrange his legal relations to his business or his property as to enable the Inland Revenue to put the largest shovel into his stores’ ...

By the end of the 17th century a major salt mining industry had developed around the Cheshire 'salt towns' of Northwich, Middlewich, Nantwich and Winsford. New brine pits and rock salt deposits were discovered, Lancashire coal became available, as did larger iron pans, and above all new transport possibilities transformed the economics of salt production in the 18th century. Although the wood fuel crisis had been solved with the introduction of coal & iron pans, it was clear the pack horses couldn't cope with transportation burden.

In 1694 an Act of Parliament was passed to make the River Mersey navigable up to Warrington. Parliamentary authorisation for the Weaver Navigation was obtained in 1721 and in 1732 it eventually opened for business. In 1757 the Sankey Navigation from the St Helens coal fields to Warrington completed a water transport system that transformed the economics of the industry and of Liverpool. The salt works by the river thrived, as did the port of Frodsham, and the St Helens coal fields now provided a much cheaper source of coal for the wiches than the established suppliers in Staffordshire. Things started to roll.

Salt production - 15,000 tons in 1732 - 150,000 tons in 1800 - 500,000 tons in 1840 - 1,000,000 tons in 1870 - and then Brunner Mond!

Interestingly the Weaver river had been harnessed and canalised but the Sankey Brook work involved a complete new still water cut ... the first canal in England ... and some for years before Bridgewater & brindley's more famous canal connecting Manchester with Liverpool ...

Marston Salt MineOne of the early salt mines, the Old Marston Salt Mine, achieved some fame in its heyday as the biggest & best. The 'Old Mine' was occupied with the top salt layer some 30 metres down until 1781 when the promising bottom layer was opened up at a depth of 90m. In 1844 Tsar Nicholas I travelled to Britain to meet with Queen Victoria and the Foreign Office to talk over the political situation in Turkey. Perhaps as light relief from these discussions, the Tsar travelled to Cheshire where he was the guest of honour at a banquet held by the Royal Society in the Old Marston Salt Mine. The mine caverns were illuminated with some 4,000 candles, tastefully displayed against the glittering rock. Visitors marveled at the scale of the caverns over 300 feet below the surface. One such visitor in 1814 described how they 'appeared as if in an immense, solemn and awful temple' where the miners 'seemed like dark shadows' and only the noise of their hammers broke the silence.

In 1825 the infamous salt tax was finally repealed and the 'Bubble Act' was torn up. This was an important watershed for the Cheshire salt industry. For centuries 'the powers that be' had created havoc for the salt men of Northwich who were forced to divert their energies into tax avoidance and securing permissions in the bureaucratic nightmare of bribery & corruption as technological innovation was neglected for bigger & bigger tax scams and political intrigue. But now at last the entrepreneurs had a chance ... no longer were the smugglers of Rudheath and the excise men of leafy Sandiway the only rich men in town ... and the salt proprietors risked their capital with the convenience of limited liability ... the chemical industry was invigorated ...

 There was a familiar sequence involved in the exploitation of salt in Northwich -

brine pits were fed from natural water courses running along the top salt layer

top layer rock salt mining followed from 1670

the rock pit holes fell in & were abandonment, the old rock salt mines then flooded providing new sources of brine

 the bottom layer rock salt was discovered and mined in Marston

 massive subsidence and flooding of the mines inevitably followed providing new sources for brine pumpers

 better understanding and technology eventually led to controlled brine pumping ...

Although the exploitation of salt brought jobs, prosperity, wealth, the Weaver Navigation & the chemical industry, it also left a legacy. There seemed to be two persistent problems -

everybody who was anybody was in salt, a cast of hundreds all ferociously competing and nobody making any money ... it was a cut throat business and throats were cut ...

as fast as the salt was extracted the land subsided ...  

In 1846 the white salt traders got together and attempted to stabilise the industry by fixing prices to increase profits and by squeezing out new entrants & new technology ... this was perhaps the first of many such vanities.

An almost complete lack of business acumen continued to dog The Salt Union as they became embroiled in the brine pumping controversy. In 1882 the local salt proprietors had been appalled when a few upstarts formed The Mersey Salt & Brine Company and built a high technology pumping station & pipeline to move brine out of the district from Marbury to the white salt and alkali producers at Weston point, pumping technology which avoided onerous Weaver Navigation tolls.

Brown rock salt had often been shipped down the Weaver to the 'white salt' producers on the Mersey, where it was purified by dissolving it in sea water prior to re-crystallisation. This trick reduced fuel costs by some 10% and around 1900 further improvements were made when triple effect vacuum evaporators were introduce. Technology borrowed from the sugar refiners. There were further savings available to competitors by relocating investment nearer to the coal fields. As local wood disappeared the salt industry was faced with the cost of shipping coal up the Weaver to the pans in Northwich. Technological competition was everywhere ... and technology was destroying the cosy price fixing attempts of the Northwich proprietors ...

In 1888 The Salt Union was formed in yet another tragic attempt to solve the profitability problems of the industry by creating a more formal monopoly. Some 64 businesses, 90% of the salt works in the country, were bought up at inflated prices.

The Salt Union's capital structure never recovered from this initial folly of over paying for the unprofitable assets of numerous companies. Calvert describes it as 'reckless optimism'. And inevitably, as the monopoly introduced quotas and increased prices they found enterprising competitors seized the opportunity and new ventures sprang up, thus wrecking the quotas and reducing prices again. Back to square one! During all these shenanigans The Salt Union just couldn't make any money ...

 The Mersey Salt & Brine Company had been bought out as the Salt Union attempted to establish their monopoly in 1888 and the Union soon found themselves arguing against the vested interests of their original constituent companies. They were urging the pumping of brine not only to Castner Kellner who started producing alkali by the electrolysis of brine in 1895, but also pumping to their own brand new salt production unit at Weston Point using double effect vacuum evaporation technology borrowed from the Liverpool sugar refiners. This further decimated the local salt industry they were attempting to protect! All the vested interests turned against them, the Weaver Navigation, The Cheshire County Council, The Canal Companies and, of course, all the Northwich salt proprietors who were losing yet more sales revenue. Questions were raised in the House, what a shambles, was technological competition to be banned?

A salutary lesson was learned, it was not resource ownership that made a successful business but technological innovation that gave customers the product they wanted, at a higher quality & lower cost than competitors.

SubsidenceThe first concerted effort to help with the subsidence problem was The Brine Pumping Compensation Act which was belatedly passed in 1891. The Act imposed a levy on all brine pumped which was used to fund  compensation for the victims of subsidence in a designated subsidence area around the north of Northwich. The Act was promoted by Sir John Brunner, who with Ludwig Mond had started alkali production at Winnington in 1873, but it was unsurprisingly resisted by the Salt Union. The clear assumption underlying the Act was an acceptance of a thorny problem ... it was impossible to determine which brine pumpers were responsible for which subsidence ...

Nevertheless The Salt Union courted trouble again and suggested that they themselves were adversely affected by subsidence and theft of salt and claimed recompense from Brunner Mond who were enjoying considerable success with their alkali manufacture. The court case Salt Union v. Brunner Mond heard at the High Court of Justice, Kings Bench Division, should be required reading for all students of economics. Lawful brine pumping from the massive interconnected Northwich brine basins could not later become unlawful ... a situation well understood by all. Undoubtedly The Salt Union were after Brunner Mond's money. It was all reminiscent of the bank robber, Arthur Sutton, when asked by council, 'Mr Sutton why do you rob banks?' he reportedly replied, 'because that is where the money is!' ... The judgement was reported in The Times on August 16th 1906, The Salt Union v. Brunner Mond.

In 1906 Henry William Macrosty summarised the Salt Union debacle in 'The trust movement in British industry: a study of business organisation' - 'The calamitous history of the Salt Union formed for long the staple warning against attempts to introduce the 'unEnglish' device of monopoly into British trade, and the morals drawn from its failure were amply reinforced by the similar illsuccess of the United Alkali Company'.

In 1923 the date of this wonderful photo of the Marston Rock Salt Mine from Cheshire County Museums this type of mining was in serious trouble from subsidence and flooding. By the time The Salt Union eventually fell into the hands of Brunner Mond (ICI from 1926) in 1937 the technology of controlled brine pumping had solved the future subsidence problems. Clearly it was Brunner Mond's technology which not only provided jobs and prosperity for generations of local residents but also eventually provided a solution to the 'tragedy of the commons' caused by herds of wild brine pumpers who over the years had left Northwich  precariously poised on the top of a void!

Interestingly the old subsidence problem was still apparent in 2004 when a £30 million safety project was undertaken to stabilise the abandoned salt mines of Northwich by pumping waste fuel ash & cement into the huge voids underneath the town centre ...

But we get ahead of ourselves ... firstly it was the salt processors who eventually showed The Salt Union how to make money out of salt.

The new technology of the Le Blanc process and then Brunner Mond's ammonia soda process required salt as a raw material ... but their customers wanted alkali not salt ... it was the brine processors at Widnes, Weston Point & Winnington who were profitable ... the brine processors were adding value to Northwich salt ...

To understand the success of Brunner Mond we have to grasp the thorny problems which had beset the Le Blanc process during the 19th century ... the Le Blanc process required both sulphuric acid and salt ...

The French SolutionThe Le Blanc Process - Soda Ash & Bleaching Powder - Na2CO3 &  Ca(ClO)2.

The four major customers of the Le Blanc processors produced high volume, high value staples ... soap, glass, paper & textiles ... alkali was important for making soap & glass and calcium hypochlorite was important for bleaching paper & textiles. The 'chemical phase' of the industrial revolution depended on sulphuric acid and salt ...

Alkali was originally sourced from wood ash & plant ash (kelp, barilla, varec, blanquette, salicor or soude douce) which contained high levels of potash - K2 CO3. But thousands of Scots kelpers were finding it hard to keep up with demand ...

In 1780 James Keir (1735-1820), had a go at Tipton. Eager to use science as a get rich quick device, he had experimented for years on how to extract alkali cheaply and in quantity from sulphuric acid and lime. Through empirical chemistry and patience he became expert in the chemistry of crystallisation, and on the new techniques of percolation. He bet on making alkali by seeping a weak solution of sulphuric acid through a thick sludge of lime. The acid bonded with the lime, forming crystals of sodium sulphate, leaving the alkali to run off at the bottom as a clear liquid.

In 1791 Nicholas Le Blanc (1742-1806) developed his patent for alkali production from salt -

NaCl + H2SO4 = Na2SO4 (Saltcake) + HCl (Waste!). Then Na2SO4 + C + CaCO3 = Na2CO3 (Black Ash) + CaS (waste!)

Supported by royalty he built a factory at St Denis, near Paris, but it was a difficult and wasteful process and success in the chemical industry depended on exploiting by products more efficiently than competitors.

 LeBlanc had endless problems in France; interference from Napoleon, nuisance litigation, nationalisation, shortage of capital and eventually in 1806 abject suicide. Leblanc had been forced to give up his patent 'for the good of the country', he disclosed all the details of his patented process to the government, which published them for anyone to use. The Duke of Orleans his capitalist backer was guillotined. Private profit was not for revolutionary France ... Frenchmen strived for the glory of France and not for personal aspiration & greed. The rewards for innovation & enterprise were denied to Leblanc and the industrial revolution in France was hobbled ...

The situation was very different in England where freedoms and incentives were well established after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 ... there were babies to feed... a host of chemical entrepreneurs busied themselves with patents and the Le Blanc process took hold on a large scale ...

The first English soda works using the Leblanc process was built by the William Losh (1770–1861) on the River Tyne in 1816. However steep British taxes on salt production hindered the economics of the process and kept such operations on a small scale until 1825.

James MusprattFollowing the repeal of the salt tariff, the British soda industry grew dramatically, and the chemical works established by James Muspratt in Liverpool and Charles Tennant near Glasgow became some of the largest in the world.

James Muspratt (1773-1886) was born in Dublin of English parents. He started manufacture at Liverpool in 1823. Dublin was not a suitable location and he perceived Merseyside as better because of the neighbouring coal fields, the proximity to the salt district of Cheshire, the soap and glassmaking industries within easy reach and the abolishing of the salt tax. It is no coincidence that Muspratt and the Le Blanc processors set up their operations in the Liverpool, St Helens, Northwich triangle. From 1820 the Merseyside soap boilers rapidly overtook the producers in London and at St Helens glass making was well established and in 1826 William Pilkington founded his glass works there. Soap and glass making were not new but mass production on an industrial scale was.

Charles Macintosh (1766–1843) was from Glasgow and in 1798 he discovered bleaching liquor, calcium hypochlorite, by bubbling chlorine into lime solution. Unfortunately for Charles his patent failed due to prior art.

CaO + Cl2 = Ca(ClO)2

St Rollex Works 1831Charles Tennant (1768-1838) in Glasgow, in 1799 he discovered and patented bleaching powder from reacting chlorine with dry slaked lime and went on to commission the Le Blanc process at the St Rollox Works. During the 1830s and 1840s the St Rollox plant grew to be the largest chemical works in the world.

 Henry Deacon (1822–1876) was a chemist and industrialist who established a chemical factory in Widnes involved in the recovery of chlorine from Le Blanc wastes.

 HCl + copper/clay catalyst (Deacon's Marbles) = Cl2.

Deacon's process was a boon for the environment and the paper & textile industries which were generating a big demand for bleaching powder. Bleaching powder provided a new lease of life for the Le Blanc processors when the Ammonia Soda process took off in 1873 and decimated their profits from soda ash.

There were two other attempts to recover chlorine and sulphur from Le Blanc wastes.

Scheele - HCl + MnO2 = Cl2 + MnCl2. Then MnCl2 + CaO + air = MnO2 (Weldon's Mud) + Cl2.

Chance-Clause - CaS +H2O = CaCo3 + H2S. Then H2S + O2 = H2O + S.

The Alkali Act of 1863 had the perverse effect of switching the disposal of waste from the chimney stacks to the drains!

The LeBlanc processors tended to be co-sited with their customers the soap, glass & textile producers ... and their raw material suppliers the salt, coal & limestone mines ... soapers left London for Merseyside, glass grew around St Helens, and Manchester dominated textiles ... there were massive salt deposits in Cheshire, quality limestone in Buxton and Flintshire and pyrites imported through Liverpool ... Glasgow, Tyneside, Bristol and Birmingham were at a disadvantage ...

WidnessFrom 1850 Widnes thrived as a centre for the chemical industry. Widnes was propitiously sited on the Sankey Canal, opposite the Weaver confluence and with Liverpool a little way downstream. Coal, salt and markets came together and an illustrious spate of industrial chemists had factories sited there ... Muspratt, Deacon, John Hutchinson, Holbrook Gaskell, William Gossage.

What prosperity! ... but inevitably the town became heavily polluted with smoke and the Le Blanc wastes. No wonder the town was described as 'poisonous hell-town, the dirtiest, ugliest and most depressing town in England' ...

In 1863 The Alkali Act required 95% of muriatic gas to be absorbed before discharge ... and alkali inspectors were to vet the process ...  but Scheele and Chance had already solved the problem and the ammonia soda process was waiting in the wings ...

In 1891 The United Alkali Co Ltd was formed, an amalgamation of the Le Blanc processors but it was an unwieldy giant. Too little too late ... for a century the Le Blanc processors had struggled to make money out of their wastes and avoid polluting the environment ... they made progress but it was awful tough ...

The process chemistry was fraught with obnoxious difficulties. 10 tons of salt produced six tons of acid HCl gas which was disgorged into the atmosphere to denude the local vegetation of any semblance of productive vigour, farmers and neighbours were rightly askance. Furthermore six tons of calcium sulphide was thrown onto spoil heaps, and when the acid rain fell the poisonous evil smell of H2S enraged one and all. And more, the rubbish slowly oxidised, sometimes becoming red hot, and SO2 tarnished the vicinity. But what a waste! The Le Blanc chemists were frantic, they were throwing away valuable chlorine and sulphur. Deacon, Chance & Clause were greeted as saviours, there was profit to be made out of bleaching powder and sulphur.

But a polluted environment and profit denied were only half the story. What about the workers? The working conditions were intolerable. But a job was a job and there was a stream of Irishmen, ready, willing and able. For the pot men on saltcake there was intense heat and corrosive acid to contend with. Nevertheless there was Luddite activity when labour saving machinery was proposed. The black ash men faired no better; intense heat and uncertain chemistry made for guesswork, dispute & fraud ... this was piecework but it was quality that made money.

Then there were the yard men breaking Buxton limestone with sledges and the bleaching powder workers coping with chlorine gas and lime dust with nothing but flannel rags for nose & mouth. The alkali workers were not poorly paid, there was a market of soda ash, but they earned their money!

And there's more ... the economics of production were distorted by pointless taxes on glass, soap & salt. The growth of production of such useful commodities was unnecessarily inhibited and the problem solving technology was delayed. All because of the political greed of the rent seeking tax authorities ... nevertheless we should remember that the industry fared much better in England than in France!

A vast complexity of interactive interdependencies ... it was the laws of  chemistry that determined the ratios of soda ash to the by products and the product markets were fickle and did not reflect God's ratios! And then after all the effort, black ash became fatally uneconomic as the new technology of the ammonia soda process was developed ...

Brunner Mond started their revolution in Northwich in 1873 ...

Winnington WorksBrunner Mond -

Ernest Solvay solved the problems that beset the Le Blanc processors and took out his patents on the ammonia soda process in 1861. Carbon dioxide bubbled up through ammoniated brine, and sodium bicarbonate precipitated. The ammonia buffered the solution, without the ammonia, hydrochloric acid would make the solution acidic, and stop the precipitation.

NaCl + CO2 + NH3 + H2O = NaHCO3 + NH4Cl

CaCO3 = CO2 + CaO

2 NH4Cl + CaO = 2 NH3 + CaCl2 + H2O

2 NaHCO3 = Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2

The industrial process was not easy and there was much prior art, but Solvay was flattered to do an important deal with a distinguished industrial chemist from Germany, Ludwig Mond ...

Ludwig Mond and a commercial mate from Liverpool, John Brunner, found the ideal factory site at Winnington where the River Weaver and Northwich salt were instantly available and Buxton limestone close at hand to supercharge the new technology ... production started in 1873 ... here is an first hand account of the early activities ... a cannon had been placed on the front lawns of the Leblanc processors ...

... and production steadily grew ... and grew ... 

BM&Co AdvertAn uneconomical Solvay plant at Sandbach was taken over and after a loss in 1874, there was profit in 1875 and a limited company in 1881 ... and expansion ... and constant improvement ...

The partnership was an outstanding success, the output of the works required strict attention to the process detail and the procurement of necessary risk capital was a nightmare ... Brunner & Mond ideally complemented one another ...

Murgatroyds erected an ammonia soda plant at Middlewich in 1893 which was taken over by BM&Co in 1895 similarly Bell Brothers at Middlesbrough were taken over in 1900, then Bowman, Thompsons at Lostock also in 1900 ... acquisitions just went on and on ... and in 1911 included soapmakers Joseph Crosfield at Warrington and William Gossage at Widnes which set up an unnecessary confrontation with another successful entrepreneur William Lever ...

In addition to buying up product manufacturers, early investments were also focused on securing raw materials - brine, limestone, ammonia, water ...

Then in 1895 electrolysis of brine! The Le Blanc folk were now making their money from chorine & bleaching powder and rejected the opportunity to invest in the new technology. The Solvay folk accepted it ...

In 1895 Castner Kellner built a plant for the electrolysis of brine at Weston Point, Runcorn. The Le Blanc processors now had modern competition for alkali & chlorine manufacture but they ignored it and the cheap Cl2 by product from electrolysis slowly killed them off. The Ernest Solvay reacted differently and invested in the new process. Although Brunner Mond did not participate immediately, in 1915 they did invest in electrolysis and bought a 25% stake in Castner Kellner. 

By 1906 Brunner Mond so dominated the local landscape in Northwich that unsurprisingly some discontent reared its ugly head ...

Later Brunner Mond were called into the war effort to make the ammonium nitrate for high explosives -

ammonium nitrate could be produced by treating calcium nitrate with CO2 and ammonia. The calcium nitrate was made from Chilean sodium nitrate and calcium chloride at Plumbley and the Victoria Works, Northwich

the ammonia soda plant at Lostock, also produced ammonium nitrate by sodium nitrate replacing salt as raw material

a third method at the Sandbach works crystallised ammonium nitrate from sodium nitrate & ammonium sulphate. 

Brunner Mond were also involved in the synthesis of phenol for Lyddite and the purification of TNT at Gadbrook by re-crystallisation from alcohol.

Furthermore after Brunner Mond took their stake in Castner Kelner in 1915 they became involved in chlorine production for phosgene (CO and Cl2) and mustard gas (dichlor-diethyl sulphide). The LeBlanc processors and the United Alkali Co lost out again as the war effort transformed Brunner Mond into a general chemical company ... the chemists on the Cheshire plain around Northwich had proved there worth ...

Alfred NobelNobel Industries Ltd

The first explosive used in warfare and mining was gunpowder, black powder, probably invented in China in the 9th century. This material had some notable disadvantages in warfare, it was sensitive to water (keeping your powder dry was essential for effectiveness), and it evolved lots of dark smoke (immediately identifying your position). It was well into the 19th century before acceptable replacements for black powder became available ...

Guncotton - In 1845 guncotton came along as concentrated nitric & sulphuric acids on cotton produced an explosive mixture. A substitute for gunpowder but the oxygen came from the nitric acid, carbon came from the cellulose, but bound together in the molecule.

Blasting Oil - 1846 blasting oil was discovered, a mix of glycerine and the same concentrated nitric & sulphuric acids ... a dangerous unstable material.

Both cotton and glycerine have the molecular structure of alcohols and produce nitrates with the acid mixture, the result nitro-cellulose and nitro-glycerine ... both contain in their chemical structure the carbon & hydrogen and the powerfully oxidising nitrates. Saltpetre had eventually been replaced ...

Dynamite - In 1866 Alfred Nobel (1833-96) discovered he could stabilise nitro-glycerine with kieselguhr. Kieselguhr + nitro-glycerine = dynamite. Dynamite was a blasting explosive not a propellant. Stable until detonated with a shock to mercury fulminate, which exploded with little gas but a high velocity shock wave igniting the nitro-glycerine.   

Operations in England were fraught, law & opinion were hostile on 'health & safety' grounds. Eventually The British Dynamite Co was formed in Glasgow in 1871 with a factory in the sand hills of Ardeer.

Gelignite - 1875 blasting gelignite = nitrated cellulose 7/8% was added to nitro-glycerine to produce a 'plastic' explosive which needed detonation. Quality consistency was a problem.

1886 Nobel-Dynamite Trust Co. = a cartel stitch up!

1885 smokeless propellants. 'Ballistite', powerful and a controlled rate of burn which did not threaten to wreck the gun! A combination of two violent explosives nitro-cellulose and nitro-glycerine produce a 'mild' propellant! Sheets were cut into sizes required to give controlled surface area.

1889 Abel & Dewar developed 'Cordite' where a similar mix of nitro-cellulose and  nitro-glycerine was stabilised with petroleum jelly and extrudable, with the rate of burn was controlled by the diameter of the composite 'chords'. The two Government academics, Profs Abel & Dewar stitched up Nobel's patent by using 'insoluble' nitration. A trivial technical definition broke the patent! Cordite took over and by 1889 the black powder business had modern competition!

During the Great War Cordite propellant was made in government facilities at Waltham Abbey and by private sector companies dominated by Nobel Industries. The profit pooling arrangements with the German manufacturers were abandoned and Harry McGowan, the power in Nobel Industries Ltd, was keen to rationalise the diverse bits & pieces of the British manufacturers. In 1918 he pushed the formation of Explosives Trades Ltd (renamed Nobel Industries Ltd in 1920) as a holding company for all the merged explosives companies - Nobel (explosives, Ardeer),  Bickford Smith (fuses, Cornwall), Kynock (ammunition, Birmingham), Eley Brothers (sporting ammunition), Chilworth (cocoa powder), Curtis & Harvey ... including W H Wakefield ... was this the innovative spark which fired the British Glues & Chemicals amalgamation two years later?

Propellants had been sorted out but the war exposed the need for high explosives. It was TNT (tri-nitro toluene) and 'Lyddite' (picric acid - 2,4,6-trinitrophenol) which now dominated warfare as shells were necessary to batter fortifications. Dynamite was useless as explosives were needed which would withstand the shock of firing & impact and could be detonated by a fuse. The new products were coal tar derivatives and had more in common with dyestuffs than nitro-glycerine.

Picric acid proved to be corrosive and unstable for artillery shells and attention moved to TNT. Ammonium nitrate was used to augment TNT in an 80/20 ratio, 'Amatol' ... Brunner Mond were called into the war effort to make the nitrate ...

Harry McGowanThe war was profitable for Nobel and diversification became an appropriate strategy ... but some strange investments were considered ... the motor industry? Dunlop? General Motors? Sure du Pont led the way by diversifying into paint & upholstery (nitro-cellulose) and GM wanted access to the Empire ... but it all seemed dodgy at the very time when Brunner Mond needed a partner to invest in Billingham? The seeds were sown, McGowan's strategy at this time also included rationalisation of the overseas businesses and effective management controls which formed a model for the 1926 ICI ... Harry McGowan was already running a diversified global financial holding company ...

British Dyestuffs Ltd

Adding colour to the world was an ancient custom as cave walls & faces received adornment ... colours were obtained from various plants & animals  ... roots, berries, bark, leaves and wood... from ochre to woad ... and as soon as textiles were around so was staining, pigmentation & dyeing ...

Substantive dyes, such as indigo, become chemically fixed to the fibre without the aid of any other chemicals. Mordant dyes, require a mordant to fix the colour and prevent it from washing out, most commonly alum for protein fibres and tannins for cellulose fibres.

As Manchester textile technology advanced with the advent of machines for spinning & weaving, dyeing technology was required to produce quality dyestuffs in quantity with exact shades, matching colours and most importantly, ones that would stand 'fast' to the new mechanical and chemical processing. In addition, exporters wanted colours that would stand up to tropical sunlight and still be exotic enough for foreign tastes. The synthetic chemical dyestuffs industry took off ...

Prussian blue had been discovered by accident in the early 18th century and quantities of prussiates (complex cyanides) were made by furnacing organic matter with iron salts and alkali - Fe7(CN)18.14H2O.

Charles Macintosh in Campsie and James Muspratt in Liverpool started manufacturing prussiates in the early 1800s. Coal gas was found to contain hydro cyanic acid which was recovered.

In 1915 British Dyes was formed by the takeover by the Government of Read Holliday & Sons. This company was started in the 1850s by Read Holliday in Huddersfield. The research staff in Huddersfield grew to 100 chemists to support the range of acid, basic, mordant, sulphur and vat dyes. Works at Turnbridge also produced TNT, detonator compounds and picric acid during World War I.

In 1916 Major Lionel B Holliday who was not asked to join British Dyes but his share of the money from the takeover, £10,000,  into some land in Deighton, next door to the picric acid works he was running at Bradley. On this 30-acre site, which was the former Huddersfield racecourse, he started to manufacture dyes under the name of I B Holliday & Co Ltd.  The company prospered and over the years and built a reputation for the quality of their dyes and chemical intermediates. In 1970 a new azo plant was built at a cost of £2 million. By the late 1970s, the firm had grown to become the largest privately owned dye manufacturer in the world. Major Holliday was well known as an owner and breeder of racehorses. He was not a betting man and never put any money on his horses. He died in 1966 at the age of 85.

In 1919 British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd was formed from a merger of British Dyes and Levinsteins. Yet another imperative consequence of the war and the need to modernise & rationalise the dyestuffs industry to avoid dependency on Germany. Dyestuff technology had been dominated by the Germans. Not only was the massive British textile industry sourcing their quality dyestuffs from German but also German dyestuffs companies were getting into pharmaceuticals and, of course, coal tar was not only the source of dyestuffs but also TNT ... coal tar derivatives attracted the attention of the Ministry of Defence and Harry McGowan!

The premier British dyestuffs company, Levinstein Ltd, was formed in 1864 by yet another hungry Jewish immigrant scientist, Ivan Levinstein. Levinstein enjoyed a good reputation for his technology but he was tiny in comparison to the German goliaths and his management skills were suspect, quality scientists and risk capital proved difficult to attract. But Levinsteins did successfully purchase the Hoechst indigo plant at Ellesmere Port who were also equipped to make a treatment for syphilis and a local anaesthetic, quite a coup! In November 1917 McGowan joined the Levinstein board, paving the way for the 1919 rationalisation ... and perhaps the 1926 rationalisation which resulted in ICI ... ?

Government involvement in the 1919 amalgamation meant political decisions trumped commercial decisions and inevitably the result was a loss making basket case. Exacerbated by joint Managing Directors quarrelling over the conflicting claims the two rival constituent companies, Levinstein & Read Holliday. What a mess! And all the time the calico printers demanded access to cheap, high quality German dyestuffs ... war reparations were not the answer, neither were agreements with IG as disparities in size and competence were massive ... competitive technical innovation was an answer but BDC needed a heavyweight partner ...

Thus rationalising for economies of scale & specialisation in production and R&D together with a reaction to the war effort produced a dominant propellant group, Nobles, and a dominant coal tar group, BDC ... and Brunner Mond who could apparently turn their hand to anything! But it was BDC that was desperate for help ... once again Brunner Mond stepped in, with profits, technical, organisational & commercial excellence and a track record of successful new ventures ...

The pressure was on, post war euphoria evaporated - 1921 slump, 1923 German inflation, 1925 formation of IG Farbenindustrie ...

I C IImperial Chemical Industries -

By 1919 it seemed Harry McGowan and Cheshire locations were at the heart of the British chemical industry ... Le Blanc & trouble at Widnes, Nobel Industries & TNT at Plumbley, British Dyestuffs & indigo, pharmaceuticals & anaesthetics at Ellesmere Port, Brunner Mond's advanced technology at Gadbrook & investment at Runcorn ...

But there was one more element in the mix. Nitrogen was not only needed for explosives but also for fertilisers ... ammonium sulphate worked wonders. Sodium nitrate from Chile and ammonia from the coke ovens and gas works was not good enough, chemists everywhere were interested in ammonia from the German Haber process. Before the war BASF had sponsored Haber & bosch to synthesise ammonia using magnetite catalyst. In 1919 Brunner Mond were at it again, at Billingham, called in by the Ministry of Munitions. Partners were needed for the considerable capital investment needed for the British high pressure (200bar) high temperature (450 centigrade) Haber Process. Nobel Industries declined to be involved. 

Once again Brunner Mond became involved in commercial success. Billingham eventually prospered from an unlikely mix of war reparations, industrial espionage, cheap hydrogen from Castner Kellner and from the Billingham site was located on top of a bed of anhydrite (CaSO4).

NH3 + CO2 = (NH4)CO3        (NH4)CO3 + CaSO4 = (NH4)2SO4 + CaCO3

Edward Hindley watched & learned as the Le Blanc processors were rationalised & modernised in 1891, the explosives industries and the dyestuffs industries were rationalised & modernised in 1918/9 and Brunner Mond blossomed into an organisation brimming with general commercial & chemical technical excellence ... following all this frenetic local activity it was, perhaps, unsurprising when Edward moved his own chemical refining business at Acton Bridge into British Glues & Chemicals in 1920 ... the timing was immaculate ...

In 1921 post war optimism was dashed ... pre-war it was fun to be in business but after there was no peace dividend for the winners, complacency returned and guilt ridden introspective arrogance set in ... as Britain's foreign markets collapsed, cotton mills, coal mines, works and shipyards were shut, unemployment soared to 11.3% ... for so long an industrial great, Britain did not know which way to turn. The old order passed as innovation in coal, iron & steel and textiles disappeared and with it profits were replaced by debt ... worldwide competitors didn't owe us a living ... most of the chemical industry was beset by laurels, protectionism, austerity, lower wages & longer hours as the old industries battened down the hatches, borrowed & begged... the government lent rashly and the debt proved as uncollectable as reparations from Germany.

Things were masked for a while by investments in the Empire but the failure to innovate and modernise hit the old basic industries hard ... old products were old hat ... the entrepreneurial action was largely elsewhere ... in America ... and a reinvigorated German ... 

It seemed that only Brunner Mond went from strength to strength ... after the war British Dyestuffs were in the worst shape as German competition re-emerged. How was BDC to be propped up? du Pont were preoccupied with anti trust fears and investments in General Motors and in Germany IGFabenindustries were busy consolidating both dyestuffs and explosives into a giant.

By 1926 competition forced the British chemical industry to reorganise and four key companies merged into Imperial Chemical Industries - Brunner Mond, Nobel Industries, British Dyestuffs & The United Alkali Co ...

The jewel was in the heart of the Cheshire salt fields by the Weaver at Winnington ... at last the Germans had competition ...

I C IP S eventually ICI succumbed to competitive pressures as comparative advantage ebbed away from, what were now nothing more than traditional 'commodity' chemicals, and into R&D in high margin pharmaceuticals ... perhaps those at the sharp end were intoxicated by history and blind to the new advantage ... but it was clear to some from the outside, and in 1991 Lord Hanson identified both the opportunity in pharmaceuticals and the millstone of commodities ... Hanson's bid for the company failed but somewhat belatedly ICI itself reorganised ...

In 1993 ICI cashed in on its formidable innovative technological expertise and Zeneca pharmaceuticals was spun off and the many remaining commodity chemicals businesses were sold ... ICI was dead ... long live ICI ... as Zeneca! In 1999 Astra of Sweden and Zeneca of the UK merged as two companies with similar science based cultures and a shared vision became a worthy successor to ICI.

The reorganisation of ICI had started earlier when in 1991 Brunner Mond Holdings Limited was formed from the UK and Kenyan soda ash businesses. This saw the return of the Brunner Mond name to the stock market! In 1998 the company acquired the soda ash production facilities from Akzo Nobel to form Brunner Mond BV, now a wholly owned subsidiary company of the group in The Netherlands. In 2010 Brunner Mond acquired British Salt, the Cheshire based brine company. In 2006 Brunner Mond was purchased by Tata Chemicals and in 2011 Brunner Mond was re-branded as Tata Chemicals Europe.

The 9th of October 2013 was a significant day; Tata Chemicals announced the closure of soda ash production at Winnington; continuous production ceased after 140 years! The message was simple, 'we have to reconfigure our business to focus on higher-value products and reduce our energy bill' ...

Throughout the story it is clear the important lasting economic breakthroughs were in technological, organisational & commercial innovations ... it was the ingenuity of folk that inspired the industrial revolution with technological 'know how' which turned rocks & wastes into goodies, ores into fabrications and rivers into canals ... the science of the industrial revolution ... it is equally clear that the daily efforts of the participants were not focused on technology and were concerned with dubious schemes & scams which were aimed at inveigling competitors into global market rigging combinations, mergers, takeovers, pooling agreements & profit carve ups ... invariably aided & abetted by government!

There were, of course, other things going on in industrial chemistry, but they had less impact on entrepreneurs like Edward Hindley who was massively influenced by the activities going on around him in northern Cheshire ...

Alum - Al2SO4 + alkali = KAl(SO4)2.12H2O = astringent and mordent for fixing dyes. Chrome alum for tanning.

Nitrogen - Nitric Acid H2SO4 + NaNO3 = HNO3 + Na2SO4

'Producer Gas' - CO + N2. 'Water Gas' - CO + H2.

Coke = Gas lighting + scrubbed liquors = ammoniacal liquor = (NH4)2SO4.

1780 Charles Macintosh - sal-ammoniac - soot & urine = NH4Cl.

Silicates - 1854 Sodium Silicate - Soda Ash + sand = Na2SiO4.

And, of course, there was brewing ... for sure Cheshire made its ample contribution -  

Why Cheshire Le Blanc
saltpetre Brunner Mond
gunpowder Nobel Industries
sulphuric acid British Dystuffs
Northwich salt ICI

Any corrections and additional information gratefully received contact john p birchall

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