Bristol & the Competition & Soap


Liverpool & Manchester were at the heart of the industrial revolution but they had formidable competition from Bristol, Birmingham & the Clyde, Tyne & Wear -


Bristol DocksFollowing the Glorious Revolution of 1688 two significant Royal monopolies were broken -

in 1689 The Mines Royal Act saw an end to the Royal monopoly in metal mining. The Act specified that 'no mine of tin, copper, iron or lead, shall hereafter be adjudged, reputed, or taken to be a royal mine although gold or silver may be extracted out of the same', thus releasing an entrepreneurial flurry. By the turn of the century two groups of influential Quakers had established major industrial investments in metal processing at Gadlys, Flintshire and Baptist Mills, Bristol.

in 1698 the London monopoly of the Royal African Company collapsed and the Bristol merchants engaged in the lucrative trade in slaves which they dominated from 1720 to 1740 ... by the mid 18th century Bristol became England's second biggest city ... Britain was flooded with goods imported via Bristol including sugar cane, tobacco, rum and cocoa ... all products of the slave trade ...

Baptist Mills right on the edge of Stapleton Road was viewed by some as the birthplace of the industrial revolution.

The Bristol Brass Works Company was established at Baptist Mills in 1702. Nehemiah Champion (a Merchant from Stapleton) was a partner in the Company and Abraham Darby (1678-1717) was the innovative manager -

- Baptist Mills was close to the City and Port of Bristol and the slave trade
- there was water power from the River Frome
- both charcoal and coal were available locally
- copper manufacturing had been established in the area at Conham in 1698
- calamine zinc ore was available close by from the Clifton Downs and the Mendip Hills
- there was room for establishment and expansion

Two important Quaker industrialists emerged from the operations at Baptist Mills – Abraham Darby and William Champion.

Abraham Darby went on to greater things at Coalbrookdale in 1708/9 and it was there that he made scientific and industrial advances of great importance ... blast furnaces & cast iron pots.

Nehemiah had three enterprising sons, the eldest being John (1705-1794), Nehemiah (1709-1782) and the youngest William (1710-1789). In 1738 William Champion took out a British patent for the invention of distilling metallic zinc from calamine by reduction with charcoal or coal. Slowly calamine brass was superseded.

Thomas Gouldney (1620-1694) was the son of Gabriel Gouldney, a prosperous clothier of Chippingham. Thomas was apprenticed to Theophilus Betheland a Bristol grocer in 1637. He was attracted to Bristol because it was a thriving port with 'a flourishing trade to the West Indies' where his father had successful 'trading interests'.

Thomas Gouldney II (1664 - 1731) was the son of the above Thomas Gouldney, born in 1664 and also a Quaker. Gouldney used his considerable riches to back Abraham Darby and his iron factory.

The brass industry thrived in Bristol for 40 odd years until pollution of the River Avon became problematic and in the late eighteenth century manufacturers elsewhere in the country managed to break the monopolies established by Bristol.

Liverpool expanded rapidly with the rise of the Lancashire Cotton trade. When canals were built goods which had once been sent to Bristol from the north midlands down the River Severn were now sent to Liverpool instead.

The cotton industry failed to develop in the city; sugar, brass and glass production went into decline and Abraham Darby had left Bristol for Coalbrookdale. Perhaps complacency and inertia set in as prominent mercantile families failed to invest ... a serious handicap as significant capital was required to adjust to the new conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Bristol was also a very expensive port to use. The Merchant Venturers of Bristol, who controlled the overseas trade, collected all sorts of payments from Bristol traders. These included charges or anchorage, moorage, cranage, for upkeep of lighthouses in the Bristol Channel and for the right to use the quays. Guiding the ships through the Avon Gorge was difficult, which meant that pilots' charges were greater in Bristol than elsewhere.

In 1807 slavery was abolished and in spite of the heroic efforts of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bristol finally lost the competitive battle with Liverpool as the leading trading port.

Bristol had grown wealthy through its harbour. Yet for centuries strong tides left vessels half buried in mud at low water. Seagoing ships had always had problems using Bristol's relatively shallow port. The port had one of the highest tidal ranges in the world making its exceedingly difficult navigate. The problem was alleviated in the early 19th century, when a stretch of the River Avon was enclosed to create a deep water pool - the Floating Harbour. Liverpool, unlike Bristol, has a very large deep waterfront, easily accessible to ships of the day and not affected by tidal range. Ships could be unloaded and reloaded very much more quickly, which further reduced mooring/docking charges. By the time Bristol's Floating Harbour was completed, many merchants had made the move to Liverpool and did not wish to return to Bristol. As a result of these advantages, Liverpool merchants were able to sell slaves £4 or £5 cheaper than Bristol merchants. The demand for slaves carried in Liverpool ships rose. By the middle of the 18th century Liverpool was sending twice as many ships to West Africa as Bristol; by the end of the 18th century, Liverpool had over 60% of the entire British trade and 40% of the entire European trade. No city was ever to so overwhelmingly control the trade again.

Even though new docks were built at Avonmouth in the 1870s, the port declined, it was not ideally suited to the massive ships that new technologies were making possible. With few industrial towns nearby, the port failed to keep pace with the newer manufacturing centres in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester ...

John SomervilleBristol Soap and John Somerville (1923-).

Christr. Thomas & Bros were soapers of Bristol, and makers of Puritan Soap. In 1966 we were managing the Hard Soaps Department at Port Sunlight and at this time we reached two notable milestones in the soap business -

the last framed & wire cut soap production at Port Sunlight was produced following investment in the more efficient and better quality Mazzoni vacuum drying and plodding technology

the renowned Puritan Brand played out an 'end game' as it wrestled with profitability and low volumes during the inevitable decline of hard soap used for fabric hand washing

We knew and had a deep respect for the old methods and brands of the soapmakers of Bristol.

We met John Somerville (1923-) when working overseas with Unilever and in 1991 he told a fascinating story of historical entrepreneurship in Bristol.

Soapmaking was one of Bristol's pioneering industries of the industrial revolution together with - glass, English Delft pottery, Georges beer, Harveys sherry, Frys chocolate, W D & H O Wills tobacco, shipbuilding & Isambard Kingdom Brunel and aircraft & BAC, Filton ... and of course the bankers always followed the action ... or led it?

 Soapboilers were at work in the city at least as far back as the twelfth century. 'Bristol Gray Sope' was recorded as early as 1242 at 1d a pound. Until 1840 it was little more than a cottage industry. Fats and alkali were all that were needed. At one time only olive oil had been used in its manufacture but increasing cost & competition led to the use of cheaper materials; whale, rape and tallow oil.

As was usual London was the main activity centre but the local Company of Soapmakers of Bristol was a keen competitor and organised activity from 1562 to 1642. But The Society of Soapers of Westminster with their licensed monopoly imposed restrictions on Bristol, deciding how much soap could be produced and where it could be sold, this was bad news.

The Companies were concerned of course with restrictive practices of various kinds -

restricting entry into the trade through apprenticeship schemes

maintenance of quality standards justifying price controls.

 Charles I, like all kings, was short of tax revenues and the status of soap, and its price was raised by Excise Duties. Tax revenues were collected by the merchants as a quid pro quo -

political tax ... licensed monopolies, protected by the crown, were grated in return for revenues. But the dead weight burden of tax was increased as costs went up and output down ...

economic tax ... licensed monopolies were given the exclusive right to manufacture but from 'raw material of the kingdom' in return for £4 for the King ... thus favouring local suppliers over foreign suppliers and additional local revenues. But the comparative advantage in trade was decreased and costs went up and output down ...

Life was not easy, the Bristol trade was almost destroyed.

Companies and the king were in cahoots to keep prices and taxes high. Competition was condemned as they, 'endeavoured with all their power and skill to frustrate His Majesty's intentions'. Decreed, 'all pans & vessels employed for making soap contrary to the decrees in Star Chamber were to be pulled down'.

An avalanche of regulations and restrictions over quality, price, waste disposal and nuisance externalities stunted growth.

And needless to say, a black market in soap thrived and crowd trouble surfaced ... together with evasion, avoidance, smuggling and all manner of intrigue as folk voted with their feet and bricked up their windows to avoid the window tax ... and one brazier alone 'made 100 boyling pans to be set up in obscure places'. London tried to control Bristol as many soapmakers spent weeks in jail as others fled to obscure places, or the country or overseas.

An example of the crass distortion and technological drag which came from regulation and red tape, was the requirement to maintain small cast iron soap pans heated by open fires with locks on the lids at night. Larger more efficient steam heated pans were banned by zealous tax inspectors who ruled that soap could be smuggled out through the steam pipes!

Everything, all and more, appeared to be restraint of trade described as necessity ... even the accounting procedures were less than satisfactory as the fat balance never balanced ... but was fat lost to the drains or to the smugglers? ... wot a mess ... excise duty declined, manufactories fragmented and proliferated and only those in obscure places thrived.

Originally the harbour area hosted the soapmakers, close to the imports of olive oil and barrilla alkali and tidal disposal of the 'soapers ash'. But the restraints on trade and volatility forced the industry to disperse.

Broad Plain Soap WorksBy 1750 Samuel Fripp & Co and Farrell Vaughan were established and merged in 1771 as Fry, Fripp & Co based in Castle Gate, predecessors of Christopher Thomas, they fared well. Renamed Samuel Fripp & Co in 1787. The partners were all prominent in Bristol society. In 1780s the first soap factory was built at Broad Plain, St Philips Plain. The company name changed as the partners changed then in 1841 Edward Bowles Fripp Senior (1787-1870) invited the Thomas family to form a partnership; Thomas, Fripp & Thomas.

The relatively unknown Thomas family had joined the big wig Fripps ... entrepreneurs were socially mobile.

In 1840 London made 15,000 tons of soap, Liverpool 8,500 and Bristol 3,600; half of the Bristol tonnage was made by Fripps at Castle Street and Broad Plain, St Philips Plain.

The Thomas family were 'in trade', grocers, wholesale butter merchants and haberdashery at Llangadog. Thomas Thomas senior (1776-1856)  married into the influential James family. Son Christopher James Thomas (1807-94) bought in supplies from London and traveled extensively in South Wales and Bristol, learning about the business, credit and debt. The drudgery of the butter business affected Christopher health although he managed to read voraciously.

Thomas Thomas senior had probably been involved in Bristol soap from 1814 at 79 Castle Street. and in partnership with his brother in law from 1824 as soap boilers & tallow chandlers; Jones, Thomas & Thomas, Redcliffe Street. Christopher joined in 1829 and Jones was bought out in 1831 and in 1832 traded as T Thomas & C J Thomas and T Thomas & sons in 1837. T T senior retired in 1841 when the new partnership with the Fripps, St Phillips Plain, was formed; partners Christopher James, Thomas junior and Edward B Fripp junior. Thomas senior died in 1856; he had successfully grown his soap business from £400 to the £10,000 investment in Fripps.

Around 1835 the family moved to Bristol leaving the Llangadog business for more promising adventures in soap.

By 1844 the business Thomas, Fripp & Thomas was expanding rapidly. By  1856 the concern was Christr. Thomas & Bros; Christopher, Thomas junior, Herbert & Charles. Unitarians, Liberals, Councilors and etc ... respected and active members of Bristol society.

Soap Duty was abolished in 1853 and this enabled the company to expand its works at Broad Plain and to introduce innovative mechanised production techniques. For example in 1855 T T junior took out a patent for the incorporation of sodium silicate & sodium sulphate in a 'jacketed steam heated apparatus fitted with stirrers' which would have been illegal a few years earlier!

John Somerville got it; costs went down and quality went up -

'The abolition of soap duty and its attendant regulations on how soap was to be made liberated the industry's ingenuity in experimentation with raw materials & formulations, and enabled companies to incorporate the type of plant already in operation in the USA'.

There were changes afoot. A trend from expensive Russian tallow to cheaper palm oil. Liverpool 21% now rivaled London 24% tonnages with Bristol at 7% and Runcorn 6%. Joseph Crosfields was founded in Warrington in 1815. John Knights of Wapping founded in 1817 was a rising star. Gossages in Widnes was established in 1855 and pioneered 'filled soaps' with silicate of soda at 45% TFM. In 1870s Brunner Mond solved the alkali production problem with the Solvay Process. And in 1884 Crosfields began recovering glycerine from soap lyes. Joseph Watsons of Leeds were also in the game from the 1820s.

 The soap business survived the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co in 1866 but competitive wrangles were rife as Trade Associations tried to keep the peace. Christr. Thomas had formidable competitors and Liverpool had all but eclipsed Bristol as a port for exports.  

In 1882 a new factory was built at Christr. Thomas & Bros, Broad Plain and in the lab was scientist William Lant Carpenter who in 1885 wrote, 'A Treatise on the Manufacture of Soap & Candles, Lubricants & Glycerine'. Science had become essential to quality improvements ... and edible oils were now being refined. The family business was not big but it was well run, profitable, invested capital wisely and treated its workforce well ... the only thing it lacked was W H Lever's 'show bizz' flair.

This was the soap scene when in jumped Billy Lever, a grocer from Bolton, who knew a bit about marketing. Sunlight 1889, Lifebuoy 1894, Lux flakes 1899. Then Australia, Canada, USA, Germany, Switzerland, Brussels 1905. 1906 Vinolia, Hadgson & Simpson. 1907 R S Hudson & Rinso. 1911 Edward Cook, Hazlehurst. 1912 Joseph Watson. 1913 John Knight.

In 1889 the C J T family partnership was incorporated into a private company and in 1897 a public limited company as family members wished to cash in all their hard work. Apart from a drive into cocoa butter substitutes for Frys, Schicht coolers and in 1898 the first boil of 'Puritan Soap' C H Thomas didn't innovate but copied every new launch of competitive products and purchased Lawsons but ended up with a sprawling price list of miscellaneous products and associated costs ... and a dispersed shareholding with associated procrastinations, the family were more interested in prestigious professional careers rather than trading. 

In 1914 Christr. Thomas & Bros. was purchased by Lever who by then dominated one third of the UK soap trade. Price fixing didn't work but amalgamation did. But Brunner Mond controlled Crosfields & Gossages.

From Bristol to Merseyside.

Soap followed shipping to Merseyside. And the bar of Sunlight soap was to lead a procession of product innovations in personal, laundry and home care. Sunlight 1885, Lifebuoy hygiene 1895, Lux Flakes 1900, Vim 1904, Persil 1909, Rinso 1910, Pears Soap 1915, Lux toilet soap 1925, BOCM & New Pin 1925, Wisk 1948, Surf 1952, Omo 1954, Quix 1948, Dove 1955, Squezy 1957, Skip 1965 ... with competitors Procter & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive and Henkel.

And expansion overseas; 1919 USA, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Germany ...

Then raw materials; !920 Royal Niger Company, Soloman Islands, Congo ...

?Thailand, Indonesia, China, Argentina, Brazil

Monsavon continuous soap making and glycerol recovery plant kept the Broad Plain factory going until 1953. The Woodroofe report rationalised production at Port Sunlight & Warrington and Crosfields, Hudson & Knights and Lever merged into one selling company Lever Brothers & Associates.

In 1949 John Somerville joined Christr. Thomas & Bros as a trainee., he was Chairman in Argentina and finshed up as Corporate Development Director, UEL, Bristol ... when he was with the OSC in 1972 we spoke with him about strategic continuity in Unilever Overseas ... John Somerville, 1991; 'The factory was more than a mere factory: it was a continuing social affair' ... quite so, he must have remembered our conversation? 



The primary metal masters in Bristol, Coalbrookdale and Swansea supplied the raw materials to the burgeoning secondary metal industries of The Black Country. Birmingham became specialised in metal fabrication and famous for the Soho Foundry and the production of James Watts' steam engines ... many say Birmingham rivaled Liverpool & Manchester as a focus of the Industrial Revolution.

Derby -

Derby was a key location, as the Derwent river had a fast flow and it was here that it was crossed by the London to Carlisle road. The site was significant as it hosted the first successful silk throwing mill in England, and probably the first fully mechanised factory in the world. Thomas Cotchett's Mill, built in Derby in 1704, was a failure. However in 1716 John Lombe visited the successful silk throwing mill in Piedmont, Italy, and returned to successfully rejuvenate Crochett's Mill. But who was responsible for John Lombe's mysterious death six years later in 1722?

William Hutton wrote about life in the Derby Mill, 'days of play were now drawing to an end. The Silk Mill was proposed. I was accepted. There were three hundred persons employed in the mill, I was the youngest'.

In 1771 the Arkwright partners built the world's first water-powered mill at Cromford.

Derby's initial promise was eroded by competitors who adopted more competitive business friendly policies which encouraged entrepreneurship and lowered tax & regulation costs.

A note on Scotland -

Scotland underwent a Protestant Reformation and Luther & Calvin began to influence Scotland. The most influential figure was theologian John Knox (1510–1572).
Most significant Scots supported William & Mary, but many, particularly in the Highlands, remained sympathetic to James VII.
The Darién mercantilist scheme reflected the view that overseas trade and colonialism was the route to upgrade the economy. But the scheme was a disaster confirming the patterns of civil wars & adventures with decisive English interventions. The Darien Company tried to emulate the English East India Company without any understanding of how the East India Company made its money ...

By 1707 a union between Scotland and England became economically attractive. The country depended heavily on sales of cattle and linen to England. The promise of the much larger markets of England and the growing British Empire, was irresistible.

In 1750, Scotland was a rural, agricultural economy which was suddenly propelled into the modern, capitalist world through scientific and technological breakthrough. The transformation was led by two cities that grew rapidly. Glasgow, on the river Clyde, was the base for the tobacco and sugar trade with an emerging textile industry. Edinburgh was the administrative and intellectual centre where the Scottish Enlightenment was chiefly based.

The Industrial Revolution was based upon the efficient exploitation of nature’s raw materials and labour as new scientific theories developed by the Enlightenment thinkers were quickly transformed into practical, money making applications.

England’s financial entrepreneurs found the cheaper labour in Scotland attractive and many moved north to make their fortunes.

Transformations in the industry came through a series of English inventions which the Scots were quick to adopt: Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny, Arkwright’s Waterframe and Crompton’s Mule all accelerated the weaving process and improved competitiveness. It was boom time for the few who held the capital.

Water supply powered business and the Falls of Clyde at New Lanark became a centre.

England’s financial entrepreneurs found the cheaper labour in Scotland attractive and many moved north to make their fortunes.

Much of Scotland’s new found wealth rested upon the Atlantic trade, particularly in tobacco, sugar & cotton.

1756 - Joseph Black discovers carbon dioxide, and bleaching powder.

1759 - Carron Ironworks, Falkirk and Newcomen atmospheric steam engine.

1786 - David Dale founds New Lanark Mills and Robert Owen helps out.

James Hutton (1726-97), Geologist.
The findings of science, and not tradition, should be the basis of the laws of the universe: that any theory should be established by observation and testing of hypotheses against the evidence.
Limitless time explained how natural forces had shaped the Earth’s surface, not over 6000 years but over millions of years.

David Hume (1711-1776), Philosopher .
A sceptic, a thinker who questioned everything.
Fundamentally driven by our passions, our sentiments, which shaped our reason.

Adam Smith (1723-90), Moral Philosopher and free trader, interested in a more efficient economy, and the better society that free trade would create.

During the Scottish Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, Scotland became one of the commercial, intellectual and industrial powerhouses of Europe. Adam Smith and his mates were the first to explain to the world the moral and economic progress which flowed from the industrial revolution and the Act of Union. 

Newcastle-upon-Tyne -

When water power was replaced by coal, The Great Northern Coalfield was the biggest producer of coal in the country. However there was a variety of other industries which were established on the banks of Tyne & Wear.
In 1635, Newcastle was described as 'after Bristol & London, the fairest and richest town in England' and at the crossroads for trade, the bridges over the river Tyne at Newcastle, together with its access to the sea and the emergence of coal ensured the city’s supremacy for over 800 years. The City of Newcastle maintained its effective monopoly on the coal trade right up until the mid-nineteenth century.
During the industrial revolution the two rivers were used for transportation, which delivered the rapid growth of the two regions. Tyne & Wear were to first inherit their industrial fortune by wool and then later coal & steel industry played their major role by making Newcastle the biggest shipbuilding region in the world.


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