BECKTON PRODUCTS WORKS 1879 - 1970
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE WORKS
The decision is made
In 1872, shortly before his retirement, Frederick Winsor Jnr, a Director of the GLCC, recommended that the company should establish its own autonomous chemical by-products works, because of the dislocation of the coal tar market by the Franco - Prussian war. Little account was taken of his suggestion at the time, but it arose again in 1877, the arguments in support of it being similar to those which had driven the construction of Beckton gas works: the consolidation of resources and an increase in the scale of production.
For several years, since the opening of Beckton gas works, large quantities of tar, liquor etc had been sold to outside firms at uneconomic prices. Since there was a growing and highly profitable market for chemicals derived from coal tar, it was agreed that the construction of a tar and ammonia by-products works, owned by the GLCC, should be commenced as a matter of urgency. On 23 August 1877, the Directors visited Beckton to view a number of possible sites for a works.
They selected an area adjoining the north west corner of the gasworks, but their choice could have been better. The ground was low lying and marshy and, had it not been for the embankment which ran for along the shore of the River Thames, it would have been submerged at high tide. In fact, during spring tides, the level of surface water frequently rose above ground level and partially flooded the works, particularly near the Benzole Plant. When the reconstruction of the Products Works took place in the 1950s, it was necessary to drive piles for the foundations of new buildings down some forty feet, before a bed of firm gravel was found. And when excavations for new buildings were carried out in the 1930s, several earlier buildings were discovered below ground level, revealing some interesting industrial archaeology!
Before work began, three Directors of the GLCC: Evans, Bennoch and Chubb, paid a visit to Paris, where the city’s gas company was operating a large by-products works. Because parliamentary powers were required before a major project like the construction of Beckton Products Works could go ahead, officials of the Paris company agreed to come to London to give evidence to support the GLCC. The necessary authority was duly obtained and J G Lyon, who was employed specifically for that purpose, prepared the initial plans of the works. He also undertook to supervise operations at the works for the first six months of its existence. Some measure of expenditure was also agreed upon.
The construction and commissioning of the first process plant
On 11 January 1878, the Directors gave instructions to begin installing the foundations for the process plant, and to prepare specifications for constructional iron and steelwork. A tender for this was accepted in May 1878 and work then proceeded rapidly. Two months later "twenty-one sulphuretted hydrogen condensers" were ordered and, after a further two months, the engineer at Beckton was instructed to apply all his available resources to the completion "at as early a date as possible of one half of the tar distillery plant." The development attracted some interest from the Press. In 1878, a reporter from the Illustrated London News visited Beckton and observed that:
… the Company are now erecting chemical works for the manufacture of tar and valuable liquors from coal.
An article that is of unique value to this history was published in the Co-partners Magazine of 1930. It was entitled "Memories of Fifty Years", written by a pensioner, A E Bigg, who started work at the Products Works in 1878 at the age of fifteen, whilst it was still undergoing construction. Parts of it are quoted, here and elsewhere in this account, as it provides an evocative description of the works during its construction, in which Bigg was involved.
What a glorious morning! 4.15 a.m. I found myself with a big bag of food starting away from home to catch the train at Canning Town at 5.30 to take me to a strange place called Beckton. On arriving there all too excited to notice the inconveniences of travelling, I looked round expecting to meet someone who would know me, but was scared when I saw the place. After a bit of roaming, I was directed to a building being erected in the midst of a large rhubarb field, and was told to enquire for a Mr. Lennox, the Plumber, so, making myself known, as I had been recommended by an uncle, William Searle, as a likely budding plumber I was soon made to feel at home by Pat Duggan, Jack Donachie and Hughie Donachie, the first two being plumbers and the last a brother to Jack. I soon became a pet of this Irish family and so got on very well.
My mother was very fond of filling my bag up with many nice eatables, and when the boys were hungry I used to pull some rhubarb and make them some stewed rhubarb, as it grew all over the works, so that the place was called Rhubarb Junction, and anyone arriving at Beckton Station was asked the question, "Beckton or Rhubarb Junction?"
I might say there were no proper workshops erected, just huts for some time and a shed answered the purpose of the Office when all particular wages were paid at Beckton then. Well, the work of erecting was going on, Mr Trewby and Mr Beal from Barking making periodical visits to see how things were progressing. Mr Lacey was quite a frequent visitor and many hours he spent at Rhubarb Junction, testing the piles as they were being driven. I had the opportunity of seeing quite a lot of him while helping my Uncle Searle out with his work. The [sulphuric acid] chambers were gradually erected, then the tower draught pipe had to be made, [sulphate of ammonia] saturators built, and no end of boilers and towers to be put in and erected. When all was nearly finished, we had our first experience of actual manufacture of sulphate of ammonia.
Our plumbers went to Bow Common, close to my home, to put up an experimental tower, and when finished, started the saturator up, and one morning, all excitement, when Mr Orchard was told the salt was making, so all expectant, we waited and saw a man scraping about with a scoop, and he shouted "Look at this" and dragging up his scoop, we saw what looked like a heap of yellow mud, but it soon drained and the top became nearly white crystals, so the man placed his scoop over his shoulder, and with Mr Orchard and three others, carried it carefully round the works to show Mr Harris, the Manager. I can look back now and see how funny it was.
A few weeks later, to our surprise, Mr Orchard came to take charge of our Sulphate of Ammonia Plant which had now been completed; one saturator, two towers and three condensers, one large boiler and one lime tank for one set scoop method. Acid was bought then in carboys, unloaded at foreshore into trucks, and unloaded at plant, carried and emptied into the saturator. The chambers now being ready, [the] carboys were emptied into [a] tank and [the acid was] blown up into [the] chamber until our [sulphur burning] ovens were ready to make acid, which was first done by burning brimstone in [the] ovens, and with nitrate of soda in nitre pots.
While this was going on, gangs of navvies in picturesque dress were excavating on the Tar Wells, and also Liquor Well; and it was so strange to see the navvies arrive at work with their coloured knee breeches and stockings, and sleeve waistcoats with long velvet backs to them, pipes sticking in their slouch hats. It took months to get [i.e. dig] these wells out.
By this time the Tar Works was getting ready for work and Mr Fenner and Mr Mann arrived to start the stills; this soon led to a mishap, and one morning our passengers were startled to see a great flare towards Beckton. On our train arriving, we found the still had boiled over and was on fire. It was soon put out, but we were terrified in case another would catch. [The arrangement of] Mr Fenner, in charge of Tar Works and Mr Orchard, Liquor Works did not last long, so Mr Fenner was appointed Manager of both and Mr Orchard left. Then came Messrs T Wilton and H H Jones, Assistants.
Bigg also recalled the never to be forgotten tragic accident, the sinking of the Princess Alice pleasure steamer in the Thames:
The most sensational experience in my fifty years was the sight of the Princess Alice disaster off Beckton Pier at 8 p.m. on the 3rd September 1878, when the pleasure steamer, returning from Southend with 700 passengers on board, was cut into by the light collier Bywell Castle and sunk, when nearly 600 lives were lost, and I had the worst experience of going up the next day from our Rhubarb Junction and seeing the dreadful sight of the bodies floating in the river being picked up by boats or rafts, and anything improvised for the purpose. There were sheds on the Foreshore full of bodies, and many others were lying uncovered waiting identification, which was an awful experience for anyone. Some were never owned and some of the saved were rendered insane by the shock. Some children were saved but never claimed, and a few were adopted by some kind friend. Among the latter was Mr G C Trewby, manager of the Gas Works.
Trewby took out a rowing boat and saved a number of people; he later adopted an unidentified baby and brought it up as his own child.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS
As a result of the urgent priority given to the construction work, both the tar distillation and sulphate of ammonia plants were ready to start production early in 1879. The first tar was distilled on 7 May 1879, producing creosote, pitch and a few other products, including anthracene and carbolic acid. Purified naphthalene was also made in 1879, but it proved difficult to sell and the first sales contract was not signed until 1884, when a boost to sales was given by the short-lived fashion for the Albocarbon lamp, mainly between 1883 and 1886. The popular name for naphthalene, "carbon", which was used for many years, originated from this application. The range of products soon expanded, to include pitch, anthracene, green oil, creosote, creosote salts, sharp oil, crude carbolic acid, crude solvent, best solvent, heavy naphtha, and 30, 50, 80, and 90% benzoles.
In October 1882 a special expenditure of £3,000 was authorised for the construction of additional plant for the increased manufacture of anthracene: 85% pure grade was produced. This was a step towards supplying alizarin, a chemical vital in dyestuffs manufacture, which had been synthesised by Graebe and Liebermann in 1868. We have heard earlier of the demise of the British dyestuffs industry. By 1890, it had virtually ceased to exist and it was not to recover until the First World War. However, the Germans and Swiss, who had taken it over, imported the raw materials for making dyes from this country. So our tar and ammonia by-products industry didn’t suffer greatly from the loss of our dyestuffs industry; only part of its products were used for dyestuffs anyway, and these were simply exported instead of being sold here.
The production of sulphuric acid and sulphate of ammonia commenced in 1879. In the beginning, the sulphuric acid, which was required for the manufacture of sulphate of ammonia from gas liquor, was made from imported iron pyrites, as was usual in the sulphuric acid industry. At that time hydrogen sulphide was removed from coal gas by absorption in lime, and it was not practicable to recover the sulphur from this. When the iron oxide process for removing sulphur from gas was introduced, there was a marked increase in the quantity of acid made at the Products Works.
Management and organisation
At first, the Products Works (known then as the Tar & Liquor Works) was regarded as an appendage to Beckton gas works and in 1880 G C Trewby, the Superintendent of the gas works, was given the additional, impressive, title of "Managing Engineer of the Tar & Liquor Works at Beckton". At the beginning of 1879 H W Fenner had been appointed Manager of the Products Works, subordinate to Trewby, and at the same time T J Briggs took up his duties as Factor for the sale of tar products, having an office in the City.
However, Trewby’s responsibilities at the gas works proved too onerous for him to be able to devote sufficient time to managing the Products Works and, furthermore, when Vetruvius Wyatt, the gasworks Constructing Engineer, retired in 1882 there was a further increase in Trewby’s duties. It was decided, therefore, that the Products Works would be completely separated managerially from the gasworks, with Fenner becoming directly responsible to the Court.
There was little proper organisation of labour at the Products Works in the early days: it took several years for a formal system to be developed. Every foreman appears to have been a contractor. For example, when a customer ordered a large quantity of sulphate of ammonia, the single clerk in the office had to borrow men from the gas works and elsewhere to get the material packed and loaded. On the first day of one contract 150 men were brought into the works and managed to load 50 tons, and the whole order took three days to complete. An early example, perhaps, of crisis management!
Despite his apparent success at managing the Works, Fenner resigned his post in July 1883 for some unspecified reason. He was replaced by Thomas Wilton, who was given the new title of Superintendent. Wilton was assisted in managing the works by William Hammersley and a group of foremen. Hammersley was also responsible for carrying out research and development work. Wilton was such an outstanding personality that Chapter 7 has been devoted to a full account of his career.
Charles Davis began his career at the Products Works in 1879 on the Sulphate of Ammonia Plant. He was responsible for many of the developments at the works, inventing processes for purifying anthracene, benzole, carbolic acid and naphthalene, and for manufacturing prussiates and cyanides. He designed stills for treating gas liquor. Later, he became head of the laboratory which, together with the office building, had been completed as a matter of urgency as early as 1880. Between 1908 and 1923 Davis carried out research on the use of a German ammonia oxidation process in the lead chamber sulphuric acid plants; this was of particular value during the Second World War. John Green also began his career at the works on the Sulphate of Ammonia Plant. He soon took over the management of the Liquor Works, under Fenner, but left the Products Works in 1904.
Process development and the expansion of the works
From the earliest days of the Products Works, there was some innovative activity. In 1880, Trewby and Fenner patented an improvement to a tar still in which the tar was agitated during distillation by injecting steam into it through a system of pipes and nozzles. They claimed that there was better distribution of heat through the tar, thus preventing over-heating and coking.
In 1884 Fenner patented an improvement to this invention by injecting the steam through the hollow vertical shaft of a rotating mechanical stirrer. The shaft had branch pipes through which steam was injected into the tar whilst the stirrer was rotating. The idea does not seem to have been much of an improvement on the original arrangement. Lunge commented that:
It does not seem necessary to employ agitators in the case of ordinary tars. At Beckton, where Fenner’s agitator had been introduced into some stills, Mr Wilton found that there were no advantages against the system of simply blowing in steam during the latter part of the distillation, and the use of agitators was therefore discontinued.
Also in 1884, Fenner patented an invention to improve the efficiency of heat transfer from the burning fuel beneath a tar still, by ensuring better contact between the flames and the base of the still.
Although it was situated adjacent to Beckton gas works, the Products Works did in fact process tar and gas liquor from most of the GLCC’s gas works. This centralisation meant that large quantities of raw materials were available, which fully justified the construction of such an ambitious processing facility. The Products Works was very ably planned and, as at Beckton Gas Works, provision was made for future expansion.
Much careful thought and planning was put into the design and siting of the earliest process plants, and credit must be given to the designers for the logical and ordered layout of the works. The first plans of the works, drawn in 1881, show that future developments were properly considered. Many of the plants that were in operation seventy years later were still in their original positions, and the early layout provided space for future expansion.
Development of the works was regarded as being of the highest priority and a considerable amount of capital was expended. In March 1884, tenders were accepted for the foundations of some sulphuric acid chambers. These were followed by additional ones in 1886, at a cost of £11,000, which had the capacity to burn 2,500 tons of ‘pyrites’ per annum. It is probable that the term ‘pyrites’ included gas works spent oxide. An additional sum of £2,500 was allocated for the "shelf type" oxide burning furnaces (or "ovens").
In 1884 new creosote tanks, having a capacity of 600,000 gallons, were purchased at a cost of £3,750, and the management introduced its own process for extracting carbolic acid from certain tar distillates. In 1885, pure benzole was produced and, interestingly, a lubricating grease was also being made from green oil. Steam pumps were used for pumping gas liquor and tar.
In 1896, the works was still being expanded, with new plant being built. The estimated expenditure on new plant for that year was £7,488 for the Tar Works; £4,450 for the Liquor Works and £5,000 for the Cyanogen Works. Considerable expansion continued into the 20th century, up to the outbreak of the First World War. There was an increase in the staff of research chemists. Among these were three Doctors of Science from Germany, who came at their own request to widen their experience of the coal tar industry. They offered their services without payment.
An informative works visit
On 9 July 1885, the works was visited by a group of 400 members and guests from the Society of Chemical Industry. They were conveyed in style by the SS Glenrosa, ‘the finest boat of the London Steamship Company’ from All Hallows Pier to the landing stage at Beckton Gas Works. They visited both the gas works and the Products Works. The report of the visit gives useful contemporary information about operations at the Products Works:
The latest and best improvements in the art of … tar distilling are employed by this, the first, and we believe still the only, gas company in the country supplying at once illuminating gas, pure coal-tar products and dyestuffs.
So, just six years after it commenced operations, Beckton Products Works was sufficiently developed to impress these professional industrial chemists. The reference to dyestuffs is probably incorrect; it should have been dyestuffs intermediates.
The group saw the ‘admirable’ system of setting the tar stills so that the red-hot cinders were wheeled away from under the still through a subterranean arched passage. This kept sources of ignition away from the top of the still, so preventing fires or explosions.
A process was seen for moulding naphthalene into corrugated sticks, using moulds similar to those used for making candles. The naphthalene was used for ‘enriching’ illuminating gas by the use of the Albo-carbon lamp.
The rectification (fractional distillation) of benzene, toluene and xylene in a dephlegmating column, was carried out in a special plant. This suggests that the plant was separated from the rest of the works, no doubt because of the highly flammable nature of its products.
The description of sulphuric acid manufacture in the report confirms the arrangements in 1879 (described above), particularly regarding the source of sulphur for the process:
The acid was made in extensive vitriol chambers, supplied with sulphurous acid (sulphur dioxide) from pyrites burnt in the ordinary pyrites burners. Spent oxide saturated with sulphur from the gas works oxide purifiers was also used and this was burnt in shelf kilns.
The probable reason for the use of both pyrites (which would have had to be purchased) and gas works spent oxide, was that the quantity of acid that could be made from spent oxide alone was insufficient to satisfy the demand for sulphate of ammonia: a valuable product. The report mentions that ‘sulphate of ammonia was made in comparatively vast quantity’.
Prior to 1890 the only ammonium compound manufactured was the sulphate; later, aqueous ammonia solution, ammonium chloride and ammonium nitrate were made. In 1894, anhydrous ammonia was produced.
The coloured pigment, Prussian Blue, was first made in 1892 from potassium prussiate (potassium ferricyanide); the production of both of these substances continued for many years. In 1889 the MacArthur process for refining gold, "cyaniding", had been invented and this resulted in an interest in cyanogen recovery from gas, because of the demand for cyanides. A plant for manufacturing potassium cyanide was built in 1892 and sodium cyanide was first made in 1894. In 1897, it was agreed to spend a further £1,000 on expanding the plant, so increasing its output substantially, by five tons per week.
An account of the Products Works, published in Gasworks, their construction and arrangement by S Hughes, 8th edition re-written by W Richards, (Crosby Lockwood, London, 1892), mentions some secondary products:
At the Beckton works is a staff of chemists in the experimental laboratory, beside which there is a chemical manufactory of such importance that only a favoured few are admitted. At that manufactory … all the naphthalene employed in the Albo-carbon process is produced, and there was first obtained saccharine from coal tar. This saccharine is a beautiful white powder, possessing 220 times the sweetening power of sugar … but has no nutritive properties. In this, the wildest dreams of the alchemists have almost been realised.
Beckton Products Works under siege
In 1885, when the works had been operating very successfully for five years, an event occurred which threatened its ownership, if not its very existence. At the time, tar distillers throughout the UK were attempting to stabilise the industry through co-operation, and this resulted in the formation of the Association of Tar Distillers in 1885. The Association played an important part in uniting tar distillers for mutual defence: it was the first trade association of its kind in the country. The Northern Group, based in Manchester, was the backbone of the association in its early years, but the prime mover was Samuel Boulton, chairman of the London firm of Burt, Boulton and Haywood, a leading independent tar distiller. In its first year, the Association had about twelve member firms. (By 1939 this had risen to sixty six, representing over 95% of all British tar distillers).
The Association concerned itself with contracts, specifications and, in particular, with combating the growing threat from the producers of crude tar (gas companies and steel makers) and from municipal undertakings. For many years, a number of crude tar producers had carried out the distillation of tar at their own works. The GLCC had certainly done this, as had some of the provincial gas companies. In 1885, two experts from the by-products industry gave advice to the GLCC on the most appropriate means of disposing of its crude tar etc. As a result, the Company was invited to join the Association of Tar Distillers.
One of the principal objectives of the Association was to restrict sales of anthracene (and possibly other tar products) in order to enhance prices. W T Makins, the Governor of the GLCC, declined to become party to this plan, but made the counter suggestion that the other tar producers might like to purchase the entire stock and output of anthracene from Beckton Products Works at a quoted price. The proposal was agreed to, but the price offered to the GLCC was 44% less than they had asked for. This was obviously quite unacceptable and the GLCC withdrew from the discussions. Since Beckton Products Works was the largest producer of anthracene in London (probably in the UK), the Association’s intentions with regard to the price of anthracene would be unworkable if it could not include the GLCC in its membership.
As a result of these discussions, and because of the growing unease which the Association felt about the processing of crude tar by the gas companies, the independent tar distillers made a bid in 1886 to buy outright all the tar distilleries in London, including Beckton Products Works. The GLCC, however, had an easy answer to this: Beckton Products Works had been established under Statutory Powers and could not be sold. The plan for a tar monopoly never came to fruition.
Commercially, Beckton Products Works got off to something of a slow start. This was, perhaps, understandable in view of the challenge of bringing together on one site such a variety of operations, carried out on a far larger scale than had been done before at other of the GLCC’s works. The early years were not particularly successful financially. In 1879 only 20% of the value of the crude materials from gas making was recovered as refined products. In 1880 the works made an overall financial loss on paper, the value of the GLCC’s refined products being 4s 5.32d per ton of coal carbonised, which compared unfavourably with 4s 8d for the similar operations of the South Metropolitan Gas Co.
In 1883 things were little better, but by 1886 the situation had greatly improved. Sales of tar and ammonia products amounted to £7,000 per week, even if creosote was something of drug on the market at 1/2d per gallon. Because of this encouraging situation, the construction of new plant continued and existing plant had to be increased in size to cope with the demand for the products. Creosote and pitch had been exported for a number of years, as confirmed by the Court minutes of 10 June 1892:
… that 30 empty iron drums sent to the [Products Works] 12 years ago by the Spanish Government to be filled with creosote and which they have neglected notwithstanding many applications to remove, be confiscated and appropriated to the use of the Company as payment for rent of storage, etc, during the period named.
By the beginning of the 20th century Beckton Products Works was something of a showpiece in the by-products industry. Numerous visits by interested parties took place, and the Company ensured that their products were always well-represented at trade fairs, going to the extent of appointing a qualified chemist, P H Joselin, to organise their exhibits. Venues included the International Gas Exhibition at Earl’s Court in 1904; St Louis, 1904; the Franco-British Exhibition, 1908; Brussels, 1910; Turin, 1911; and Wembley, 1924-5. There were also regular attendances at the British Industries Fair throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and at the Glasgow Exhibition of 1938.
The International Gas Exhibition, Earl’s Court, 1904
Contemporary accounts of the products and processes at Beckton Products Works are not common, but Webber includes, in his textbook on gas and its uses, a description written by T Wilton, Superintendent, for the 1904 Gas Exhibition. Because of its comparative rarity, it is quoted here in full.
The Products Works ... at the present time occupy an area of some ninety acres, and afford employment for about eight hundred men.
The whole of the tar and ammoniacal and cyanogen liquors produced in the purification of gas at the various stations of the GLCC is converted into marketable products at the works. Forty-eight tar stills, each of a capacity of 2,500 gallons, are used in the initial distillation of the tar, producing light oil, creosote and anthracene oil, while the residue left in the still constitutes pitch, from which much of the briquette fuel so largely in use on the Continent is made. Some quantity is also used in electrical work as an insulating medium. The annual production of pitch … amounts to 60,000 tons. From seventeen to eighteen million gallons of tar are thus dealt with in the course of the year.
From the light oil … are recovered benzol, toluol and solvent naphtha. Benzol is the parent substance from are derived the aniline and azo colour industries, the well-known magenta, ‘fuchsin’, being one of these … Toluol is also the starting point for some valuable coal tar colours, artificial indigo being formerly made from this product. It is also a most useful solvent and is employed in the manufacture of xylonite. That wonderful substitute saccharin, which is three hundred times sweeter than cane sugar, and has thus largely supplanted the latter for some purposes, is manufactured from toluol. Creosote is still the most valuable preservative for timber, and from it and the carbolic oil are obtained naphthalene and carbolic acid. Apart from the well-known use of the latter … as an antiseptic, it is a starting point for a further series of important dyestuffs. Lyddite (picric acid) is made from pure crystal carbolic acid.
Naphthalene is made in various forms, such as: Flake, Tablet, Candle, Balls, Powder, Rice etc, suitable for its various and important uses. As a moth preventive it is well known … but few people are aware that artificial indigo is now made from this substance, besides other valuable colours. From anthracene oil are obtained anthracene, from which is made alizarine (Turkey red) and a number of madder dyestuffs. A valuable lubricant is also made from this oil.
Another fraction from the initial distillation of crude tar, carbolic oil, produced carbolic (phenol). Apart from the well-known use of this as an antiseptic, it was the starting point for a series of important dyestuffs. The explosive, Lyddite (picric acid) was made from pure crystal carbolic acid.
The refined tar is used for tarring rough woodwork and iron structures and for the manufacture of roofing felts. It is used as a road metal for making a dustless and excellent covering for roads.
Other by-products obtained from the tar are a disinfectant known as ‘Beetol’; pyridine, which is largely used for denaturising alcohol, and also used in the manufacture of certain dyestuffs; and soluble creosote, a valuable disinfectant largely used with sheep dip.
At the ammonia works of the company, 54 million gallons of ammoniacal liquor are treated every year. From it are made 16,000 to 17,000 tons of ammonium sulphate per annum.
Muriate of ammonia is also made from this liquor, some 200 tons per annum being manufactured for the use of galvanisers and calico printers, and also for charging galvanic batteries. Nearly 500 tons of liquid ammonia of various strengths, and 150 tons of anhydrous ammonia are manufactured each year from the gas liquor. The former is used for cleansing and other purposes and the latter, which is the liquefied gas and is sold in steel bottles under considerable pressure, is largely used in refrigerating machines. Nitrate of ammonia is also made from the … liquor. It is the important constituent of the modern ‘amide’ gunpowders, and is used in the manufacture of explosives and also used for the preparation of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), used … in dentistry and surgery.
The extensive sulphuric acid plant which is necessary for the manufacture of the ammonium sulphate is capable of producing 25,000 tons of acid per annum.
From the cyanogen liquor are produced cyanides of sodium and potassium of high purity, also Prussian blue, besides a large quantity of prussiates [i.e. ferricyanides] of soda and potash. The cyanide is also employed in the electro-plating industry, and in photography … Prussian blue is made in a number of grades and tints, ranging from an exquisite bronze to a deep indigo blue. It is used in the manufacture of fine printing inks, and also for paper staining.
There was a list of the impressive range of products made at the works, with their uses:
Solvent naphtha. Waterproof fabrics; indiarubber solvent.
Pure benzole. Solvent for fats, waxes, sulphur, phosphorus, iodine and gutta percha. Aniline dye manufacture.
Pure toluol. Solvent, aniline dye manufacture.
Sharp oil. Lamp black and soluble creosote; fuel.
Creosote. Lighting, fuel, naphthalene, and wood preservation.
Naphthalene. Dyes, preserving skins and furs, moth preventative.
Carbolic. Disinfectant, picric acid.
Soluble creosote. Cleaning and disinfecting, sheep dip.
Sulphur. Sulphuric acid.
Iron oxide. Paint.
Green oil. Wagon grease, fuel.
Anthracene. Alizarin and alizarin dyes.
Crude bases. Pyridine, lutidines etc.
Nitro-benzol. Aniline, perfume.
Pitch. Fuel briquettes, asphalt, electrical insulation.
Refined tar. Wood preservation, roofing felt, asphalt.
Ammoniacal liquor. Liquid and anhydrous ammonia, ammonium compounds.
Liquid ammonia. Ammonium compounds, cleaning agent.
Ammonium carbonate. Smelling salts.
Ammonium chloride. Galvanising, calico printing, battery manufacture.
Ammonium sulphate. Fertilisers. Liquid ammonia, alum, ammonia soda.
Ammonium nitrate. Nitrous oxide, explosives.
Anhydrous ammonia. Refrigeration.
Cyanogen liquor. Pigments e.g. Prussian blue for artistic and mural decoration work, printing inks.
Prussiates of soda and potash. Prussian blue, sodium and potassium cyanides.
Potassium cyanide. Gold extraction and silver plating.
In October 1910 members of the German Association of Gas & Water Engineers visited the works, and the report in the Journal of Gas Lighting &c provides information on the processes and plant.
The pitch beds had an aggregate capacity of 30,000 tons, the tar plant distilled 18 million gallons of tar per annum. Plant for the production of anthracene, naphtha and light oil was seen.
About 120,000 gallons per annum of benzole, toluole and naphtha were produced. Some 2,000 tons of naphthalene were produced annually; anthracene was also recovered.
Stills for the distillation of phenols (carbolic acid), produced 2,000 tons of refined product per year.
On the inorganic side, anhydrous ammonia and sulphuric acid were made. The sulphate of ammonia plant produced 24,000 tons of 25% sulphate per annum. In 1913 research was carried out on improving cyanogen and ammonia recovery from ammoniacal gas liquor.
The German engineers had apparently visited the works some years previously, and the Journal commented that:
Such an extent of tar and ammonia products works impressed the visitors with the magnitude of the Company’s operations; and among those who had known these and the Beckton works in days under a different regime, there was expressed a view, well put by one of the visitors, that in years past the place and plant looked as though they were begging for an owner, but now they look like someone’s property. The statement may seem a little overdrawn, but it is expressive of the policy of proper upkeep and order that rules in the works of the Company today.
In 1912 the Company’s sales of tar and ammonia products were valued at over £350,000, much of the production being exported. The GLCC Centenary Booklet of 1912 gives an evocative if somewhat flowery account of activities at the Products Works, but is worth quoting as it is a rare primary source:
Turning out of the village [from Winsor Terrace] we enter the Tar & Liquor Works where the various residuals incidental to gas making are prepared for the markets of the whole world. … For many years the tar and ammonia were practically thrown away, and when the tar first became an article of commerce it was sold at a farthing a gallon.
"Oh, Gas-Making", say all our friends, with an air of amused condolence, when told the subject of our researches and scribbling. "How uninteresting". Is he a motoring man? Go to Beckton, we say and watch them turning out dockfulls of tar for the making of dustless roads. Is he a farmer? Beckton can supply him with countless tons of sulphate of ammonia for the enrichment of his crops. Is he a painter? Beckton helps to supply him with colours. Is he a printer? His Linotypes are dipped in ink that Beckton Products Works helps to make. Is he a Doctor? Beckton’s products are to be found in his dispensary. Is he an Army or Navy man? Beckton helps in the making of explosives that he must use in warfare. I she a lady? Beckton gives her dyes for her gown.
THOMAS WILTON AND THE BECKTON RANGERS
One of the most outstanding personalities to be associated with Beckton Products Works was its second Superintendent, Thomas Wilton. In addition to his abilities as a chemical and gas engineer, he found fame as the founder of the Territorial Army unit that was to become known as the Beckton Rangers. He merits a chapter of his own, which describes his life and achievements in both these areas.
Thomas Wilton was born in Mile End, East London, in 1861. He came from a family of gas engineers: his father, John, started work in the industry in 1858, working with his brother, W G Wilton, who was Engineer at Ratcliff gas works. John had a long and distinguished career in the gas industry. He was Engineer of the Silvertown works of the Victoria Docks Gas Co before it became part of the GLCC. He then managed both that works and the one at Bow Common until his retirement in 1912.
Wilton at the Products Works
Wilton started work at Beckton Products Works in 1880, shortly after it opened, at the age of nineteen. Three years later he was appointed Superintendent, at the age of only twenty two. Nothing is known about his career before he arrived at the Products Works but, since a number of his inventions were concerned with gas manufacturing, it is probable that he had been employed on this, perhaps at Beckton or Silvertown gasworks. In 1881, when he was working at Beckton Products Works, the census shows Wilton as being unmarried and living with his parents John and Fanny, his younger brother George, and two sisters, at the Gasworks Factory House at North Woolwich Road, Silvertown.
Wilton was Superintendent of Beckton Products Works for 32 years, from 1883 to 1915. He was an outstanding personality, who gained a wide reputation in the design of chemical and gas-making plant, producing a proliferation of inventions, mainly related to the processing of by-products. His best-known invention – a continuous pipe still for the distillation of crude tar – came into use in 1895 and was widely employed throughout the tar industry.
His other inventions included: improvements to plant for making sulphate of ammonia; furnace design; the manufacture and purification of alkali cyanides; the manufacture of anthracene; the processing of hydrogen sulphide from a sulphate of ammonia saturator; the design of apparatus for raising and forcing liquids such as gas liquor, and for the distillation of ammoniacal liquors; improvements to oil fuel burners; the manufacture and recovery of pyridine and similar organic bases; and the distillation of tar.
Some of Thomas Wilton’s patents were written jointly with G Wilton, of Beckton and London, who was probably his younger brother, George. The Bibliography lists the Wiltons’ patents and publications. From about 1907, items of chemical plant were patented and marketed by G. Wilton and N. Wilton on behalf of the Wilton’s Patent Furnace Co, at first in London and later Hendon. This appears to have been a family firm set up, probably by George, who left the employment of the GLCC to exploit the various inventions of Thomas, himself and other members of the family. In 1939 this company was still in existence as The Chemical Engineering & Wilton’s Patent Furnace Co Ltd. Its Governing Director was T O Wilton, Thomas Wilton’s son.
It is recorded that Thomas Wilton was:
… a very capable man, of great integrity who, though choleric at times, was just, forgiving and an untiring worker.
In 1896 he helped a Count Raggio to design a tar plant for installation in Genoa, and he was instructed by the Directors to demand a fee for his advice.
Wilton was ahead of his time on one aspect of employees’ welfare. Beckton Products Works was one of the first industrial undertakings to be equipped with X-ray apparatus. In 1898, advised by C Davis who had a great deal of photographic experience, Wilton installed an industrial X-ray unit, largely on his own initiative. This was just three years after Rontgen had first published his discovery. The apparatus was used regularly by Mr McAndrew, Dr Cantley and Dr Ross in the treatment of accident cases from both the gas works and the Products Works, and also, for a considerable time, on patients referred from the nearby Seamen’s Hospital.
The Beckton Rangers
In addition to his success as the manager of a major chemical works, Wilton demonstrated a different range of abilities in his principal spare time activity: the Territorial Army. He devoted a great deal of time to this organisation, obtaining promotion to senior rank. A full military history of the Beckton Rangers is beyond the scope of this book. But because Thomas Wilton played such an important part in it, and it affected the leisure time (and in some cases the lives) of many Products Works employees, a brief description of the unit, and of Wilton’s involvement with it, is included here.
The Volunteer Movement, later the Territorial Army, was an activity that received the whole hearted support of the Directors of the GLCC over many years. Large numbers of the Company’s employees were members of this organisation, from the 19th century to the Second World War.
In 1894 the 22nd Middlesex Regiment of the Rifle Volunteers, known as the "Central London Rangers" was allocated vacant land at several of the GLCC’s works for use in training. The Company’s officers were encouraged to apply for commissions in the unit and, from 1896, the Court of Directors presented a Regulation Sword to every officer commissioned in the Rangers. One of the first recipients of the sword was Thomas Wilton who, with the support of other senior managers of the GLCC, undertook to raise a Company at Beckton (the Gasworks and Products Works) for the Corps. In fact he exceeded his expectations. Within a month he had recruited 274 men from both works, who constituted (variously) "B", "D" and "G" Companies of the 12th (County of London) Battalion, the London Regiment (The Rangers). The Beckton companies were known locally as "The Beckton Rangers". By the end of 1897, "B" Company, composed of Products Works employees, took the premier place in the battalion.
At the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, a number of Army Reservists from among the GLCC’s employees were called up and others were permitted to volunteer, with the promise of six months leave on half pay, and job reinstatement upon return. The war did, in fact, last more than six months, and the half pay period was extended accordingly.
In 1906 "G" (Gas Works) Company had greatly diminished in numbers and Captain Thomas Wilton, who commanded "B" (Products Works) Company, arranged for the two companies to drill together at the Products Works, where they were provided with a drill hall and small bore rifle ranges. In 1911 Wilton held the rank of Major; by now, the three Beckton Companies had an outdoor rifle range and an indoor Rifle Club, with three ranges. There was also a Rangers Band.
By 1913 interest in the Rangers had grown considerably. Sir Corbett Woodhall, Governor of the GLCC, was their Honorary Colonel and Thomas Wilton became Lt. Colonel, Commanding the 12th Battalion, County of London Regiment (the Rangers). By now, war was looming on the horizon and membership of the territorial army, which up until then had been something of a pleasant spare time activity, began to take on a more sinister aspect. Some of its members were Army Reservists from the Boer War and they, and indeed all members of the unit, expected to be among the first to be called up for active service.
The First World War
In 1914, Sir David Milne-Watson became Honorary Colonel of the Rangers, and at the outbreak of war they came under the command of Major General Sir Louis Jean Blois, an experienced regular soldier. Wilton, as Battalion Commander, was among the first to be mobilised and, by September 1914, he had left the Products Works with his unit. He was not to see active service, however, because of ill health, and it is possible that he returned to the Products Works for a short time. Then, in July 1915 it was announced that he had been obliged to retire from the Company’s service due to illness and in June 1916, he died, at the early age of 55.
The Regiment (now known as the 12th London Regiment) formed part of the 84th Infantry Brigade and, after initial training in the UK, embarked for France. In September 1914 a second battalion was raised, which spent the next two years on guard duty in Britain and then moved to France in February 1917. Between them, the two battalions took part in most of the major battles of the Western Front and suffered appalling losses. Altogether 1,933 officers and other ranks became casualties. Numerous medals and battle honours were awarded to the regiment, including three DSOs, thirty-three MCs, seven DCMs and 98 MMs.
When war broke out, the GLCC decided that every married employee who was mobilised into the armed forces should have an allowance during his absence and also that as far as practicable his job should be kept open for him. A total of 324 Products Works employees (many of them in the Rangers) served in the war. Forty one of them lost their lives, which was well above the accepted average of 10%. Seven men received the MM, two the MSM, and two were mentioned in despatches.
Between the wars
As the memories of the First World War receded, interest in the Territorial Army revived and re-establishment of the pre-war link between the Rangers as a Territorial Army unit and the GLCC was considered. In 1924 the Governor, D Milne-Watson, visited the Products Works to look into the possibility of forming a new company of the Rangers there and, as a result, the Rangers again became associated with the Products Works.
During the 1930s there were units with drill halls at a number of the GLCC’s works, including the Products Works, and Headquarters and Machine Gun Companies in London’s West End. Before the Rangers became mechanised, the GLCC permitted their lorries to be used as troop transports, and their workshops produced dummy barrels for Bren guns, to help make training more realistic.
By 1938 the Regiment had changed from motorised infantry to a motor battalion of an armoured division. It also became part of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, with the official title: The Rangers (Territorial) The King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
On 7 December 1938 The Times reported:
The War Office announces that Major and Brevet [Acting] Lieutenant Colonel F M Potter OBE, has been selected to command the Rangers (Territorial), The King’s Royal Rifle Corps … [with effect from 18 October 1938].
F M Potter was Assistant Superintendent at the Products Works. He had been an officer in the Rangers at the beginning of the First World War, crossing to France with the first Territorials to go over. After the war he worked as a chemist in the laboratory at the Products Works. He was gazetted Lieutenant in the 12th County of London Regiment, the Rangers, in September 1924 and in February 1937 was promoted to Brevet Lt. Colonel.
In April 1939, the strength of the Rangers "C" Company (Products Works) was four officers, seventy six warrant officers, NCOs and Riflemen, and two boys. In that month, with war looming on the horizon, the Territorial Army was doubled in size and the Rangers formed an additional battalion. The two battalions were then known as the 9th and 10th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. The women of No.12 GD Company of the ATS were affiliated to the Rangers. Lt Col Potter was awarded the Territorial Army’s efficiency decoration.
The 1st Battalion of the Rangers, whose role was mounted infantry, met regularly in their drill hall at Beckton Products Works. They attended camps at Tidworth and in the New Forest in 1939.
The Second World War
On 1 September 1939, the Rangers were mobilised and dispersed into billets away from the works, under Potter’s command. Their HQ was at first in Bow Street Police station and later at Richmond.
For the several months of the "phoney war", at the end of 1939 and the beginning of 1940, the Rangers were part of the passive defence of London. They supported the police in anticipation of German air attacks, guarding vulnerable points, particularly on the Southern Railway property. In 1940 they were involved in anti-parachutist duties in the Midlands and the Home Counties, and received training in the use of scout cars as support troops to an armoured division.
In September 1940, Potter was appointed advisor to the newly formed 40th (County of London) Battalion of the Home Guard, the GLCC’s unit. Then, in April 1941, he relinquished his command of the Rangers Regiment. This may have been due to his age or, more likely, because he was felt to be of greater value to the war effort at the Products Works, to which he returned. He became Commanding Officer of the Home Guard battalion, a post which he held until it was disbanded in December 1944, when the Home Guard was stood down.
The 1st Rangers (9th KRRC) saw action in Greece and Crete in 1941. Assailed by German armoured columns and overwhelming attacks from the air, they fought a splendid rearguard action from the north of Greece down to the evacuation beaches, where they destroyed their vehicles. They then fought courageously against German parachutists in Crete until their ammunition was expended. After two months of hard fighting, they struggled back to Egypt when Greece and Crete were evacuated; they had suffered 662 casualties.
After reforming in Cairo, the 1st Rangers took a major part in the Western Desert campaign against Rommel. They were overrun by tanks during a German attack near Bir Hacheim, but many of them broke out and were absorbed by the 1st Battalion KRRC, with whom they served for the remainder of the war, in North Africa and Italy. They formed a valuable addition of specialists to this regular battalion, which had suffered many casualties. The regiment received many battle honours, chiefly in Greece, Crete, and North Africa.
A total of 387 GLCC’s employees, serving in all the armed forces, were killed in the war, compared to over 2,000 in the First World War.
After the war
The Rangers continued in existence after the war ended. In 1949, a new headquarters was constructed for the Beckton Company near the works. Col. Potter, by now with Scottish Tar Distillers, attended the opening ceremony. He died in 1960 and his obituary appeared in the Thames Gas Magazine:
We learn with the deepest regret of the death on May 3 at his home in Stirling, and after a short illness, of Lt. Col. Potter O.B.E., T.D., D.L. he was 75.
Col. Potter combined a highly successful civil career with a distinguished record of military service. For 17 years and until his retirement in 1945 he held the post of Assistant Superintendent at Products Works, which he joined as a chemist in 1919. He was a Vice President and a member of the Council of the Society of Chemical Industry and was awarded the Lampitt Medal. In this field he is best remembered as an acknowledged expert on creosote and carbolic products, but he was also an invaluable member of a great number of technical committees. The year after his retirement from the GLCC he joined Scottish Tar Distillers where until 1960 he was General Works Manager and a Director.
Between the wars Col. Potter, who had served with the London Scottish in the first one, was the driving force in the Rangers and in 1937 he was appointed their Commanding Officer. From 1941 until the stand-down in 1945 he commanded the 40th County of London (Gas Light & Coke Company) Battalion of the Home Guard. He was awarded the O.B.E. and also made a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of London.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
The war and the by-products industry
The outbreak of the First World War brought many changes to the gas industry and, in particular, to the Products Works. Almost overnight its activities assumed national importance. The pattern of production changed: some products needed to be made in greater quantities, some to be cut back, and new ones had to be introduced.
The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, recognised the vital contribution which the gas industry, and in particular chemical by-products, would make to the war effort. This war was the first one in which high explosives were to play a major part and the raw materials for these came from coal.
The ties between the gas and explosives industries were so close that in 1917 Lord Moulton, Director of High Explosives in the Ministry of Munitions, was elected President of the Institution of Gas Engineers. In his presidential address, referring to chemical by-products, he said:
Your industry, typically peaceful in character and aims, has furnished material purely for war purposes, without which it would have been impossible to maintain the fight.
In a speech made in 1940, during the Second World War, Sir David Milne-Watson, Governor of the GLCC, recalled that:
During the last war [Beckton Products Works] supplied enough chemicals to make TNT and other explosives to fill 160 million shells; 17 million gallons of [fuel] oil; 13,000 tons of disinfectants; and enough tar to treat all the military roads on the Western Front."
Benzene, toluene and phenol
Benzene, toluene and phenol were essential in the manufacture of explosives; all three of them were extracted from coal tar, and benzene and toluene also came from crude benzole.
Prior to the early 1900s, the extraction of benzole from coal gas was not widely practised by gas companies, since its presence in towns gas increased its luminosity. With the coming of the internal combustion engine, however, some thought was given to alternative uses for benzole, possibly as a motor fuel. Pure benzene had, of course, been manufactured for many years from coal tar light oils, for synthetic dyestuffs manufacture. The GLCC introduced oil-washing of crude coal gas to recover benzole in 1913 and, by the time the war began, most of the major gas works in Britain were recovering benzole in this way.
Beckton Products Works was in the forefront of the processing of crude benzole to produce pure benzene and toluene. In 1915 a continuous still was designed and brought into production by W G Adam, the works Superintendent. This was a steam-heated vacuum still that produced light fore-runnings, 90% pure benzene, commercial toluole and heavy residues, which contained naphthalene. The distillates were further refined by acid treatment and distillation to produce pure benzene and toluene.
At the explosives factories, benzene and toluene were converted to trinitrotoluene (TNT). One of the places where TNT was made was the Silvertown works of Brunner Mond & Co, which was the scene of a massive and much publicised explosion in 1917. Almost certainly, the Silvertown explosives factory would have used benzene and toluene that was produced at Beckton Products Works, just three miles away. Elsewhere, phenol was converted to trinitrophenol (picric acid) for the manufacture of the explosive, Lyddite.
In addition to its application in explosives manufacture, benzene from the Products Works was of great value as a knock-resistant fuel for high compression aircraft engines. The middle oils from the distillation of tar were used as liquid fuels for the engines of warships.
Gas liquor and spent oxide
Prior to 1914, 60% of Britain’s sulphuric acid production (most of it from the lead chamber process) was used for manufacturing of sulphate of ammonia and phosphate fertilisers. During the war the value of sulphate of ammonia as a fertiliser increased, as the country began to produce more food at home, rather than risk the German blockade when importing it.
There was another, competing, requirement for gas liquor, which took priority over fertiliser manufacture. Concentrated ammonia solution was required for making nitric acid and, from this, ammonium nitrate, a vital constituent of explosives. Large capacity plants for manufacturing concentrated ammonia solution from gas liquor were erected at the Products Works and at a number of the GLCC’s gasworks. As early as 1915, ammonium nitrate was made at the Products Works by neutralising nitric acid with concentrated ammonia solution, but the amount produced, five tons per week, was small compared with the output of other chemical companies. For example, Chance & Hunt made eighty tons per week and the United Alkali Company fifty six tons. Sulphuric acid was also essential for explosives manufacture.
As a result of the demands of the explosives industry, gas liquor and spent oxide, which would normally have been made into sulphate of ammonia, were used instead in explosives manufacture. Nationally, the production of sulphate of ammonia fell by a third.
In 1917, at a time when the end of the war could not have been easily predicted, the government had the foresight to set up a committee to consider the post-war position of the sulphuric acid and fertiliser industries. The Sulphate of Ammonia Association was represented by David Milne-Watson, who was to become Governor of the GLCC in 1919.
Coal tar products
The principal primary products of coal tar distillation are creosote, refined tar and pitch and, prior to 1914, there was a considerable export trade in these. During the war these exports were seriously restricted and there was also a fall in the home consumption of road tar. This resulted in a surplus of pitch and creosote. It was found that a mixture of pitch and creosote made an excellent liquid fuel, which could be used as a substitute for petroleum based fuel oil. It was used as a boiler fuel for ships of the Royal Navy.
Soon after the outbreak of the war research was carried out to develop a plant for the manufacture of beta-naphthol from naphthalene. The production of this "coal tar secondary" continued on a large scale until 1927.
Production figures during the First World War
The following data for the war is interesting, and it is probable that it also represents the situation at the works in the years both prior to and following the war. The inclusion of nitric acid and ammonium nitrate is interesting, since these had not been manufactured at the works prior to the war, and their production ceased when the war ended. The wartime uses shown for the substances would not, of course, have been relevant in peacetime.
Pure benzole 3,451,800 galls
Pure toluol 1,041,300 galls
Solvent naphtha 311,600 galls
Crystal carbolic acid 1,946 tons
Pure naphthalene 5,556 tons
Conc. oil of vitriol 14,098 tons
Nitric acid 1,748 tons
Nitrate of ammonia 1,12 tons
Conc. ammonia liquor 23,25 tons
Liquid ammonia 5,53 tons
Anhydrous ammonia 1,472 tons
Total oils (naval fuel) 17,517,000 galls
Special fuel oil 1,996,000 galls
Motor benzole 72,400 galls
Liquid carbolic acid 667,000 galls
Salicylic acid 39 tons
Road making and maintenance – chiefly in France
Road tar 4,000,000 galls
A lesson to be learned from the war
We saw earlier how, in the late 19th century, the lack of economic support by the British textile industry for the synthetic dyestuffs industry resulted in the transfer of the manufacture of dyestuffs and other organic chemicals to Germany. When war broke out in 1914, Britain had virtually no dyestuffs, pharmaceuticals or fine chemical industries of its own, and became cut off from the continental suppliers of these substances. Only 20% of the dyes used by the British textiles industry were made in this country and even these were largely produced from foreign intermediates. Interestingly, for a brief period after war was declared, Britain was still purchasing khaki dye from Germany for our soldiers’ uniforms! It took a world war for us to realise how short-sighted we had been in allowing these German industries to develop whilst ours stagnated.
It is greatly to the credit of the British chemical manufacturers that, within a year of the outbreak of war, all of the essential dyes and pharmaceuticals (or acceptable substitutes for them) which had previously been made in Germany, were being manufactured in this country. Most of the starting materials for these would have been supplied from tar distilleries such as the Products Works.
On 30 June 1917, a series of articles entitled The organic chemical industry in England, sponsored by the dyestuffs manufacturers, Levinstein Ltd, and contributed by a number of leading scientists and industrialists, described the situation. The blame was laid upon the failure, as early as 1870, of both the British government and industry, first, to recognise the need for and encourage the higher education of scientists for industry and, secondly, to give adequate economic support to the development of our own organic chemicals industry. It was resolved that, after the war, steps would be taken to ensure that never again would we allow ourselves to lose control over the supply of chemicals that were vital to our economy. After the war ended, the implementation of this policy resulted in a boost to the fortunes of the coal tar chemicals industry in general, and Products Works in particular.
Probably in response to this perceived need, it was decided, just before the war ended, to establish a Research Laboratory at the Products Works. Prior to that time, there had been only an Analytical Laboratory; research and development work had been carried out there and on the various process plants.
The Products Works goes to war
In September 1914, a change in the management of the Products Works took place. Orders were given for the immediate erection of a house on the works for the Chief Research Chemist, W G Adam, so that he could be readily available in the event of an emergency, because the then Superintendent, T Wilton, a Lieut. Colonel in the Rangers Territorial Army Unit, was going off to war with his unit. Wilton did depart in September 1914, but he soon returned to the Products Works, because of ill health. He remained there until his early retirement in July 1915. It was during that time that he carried out valuable research on the use of creosote oil and naphthalene as possible motor fuels. He had some success: his son, T O Wilton, recalled later that he had driven a car propelled by these fuels which his father had developed.
During Wilton’s initial absence on military service, Adam was required to report on the ability of the works to manufacture a wide range of chemicals essential to the war effort. When Wilton retired, Adam succeeded him as Superintendent. Under Adam’s management the works moved rapidly on to a wartime footing. One of the most important objectives was to assist in increasing the national production of explosives and all resources were to be directed towards this end. It should be emphasised, however, that explosives as such were not made at the Products Works, but the starting materials for them: benzene, toluene and phenol, were among its principal products. New plant was installed to manufacture these, on land that had been set aside before the war for planned expansion, and additional chemists and engineers were recruited.
The author’s grandfather, Abe Smith, who was a tar stillman, was too old to serve in the war, so "did his bit for the war effort" by joining, albeit reluctantly, the Beckton Company of the Special Police. This consisted in 1916 of about 66 constables, 8 sergeants and 6 officers. Their uniform included a greatcoat, peaked cap, armband and truncheon.
Equipped with a steel helmet, Abe’s duty was to patrol the perimeter fence of the works during the night (after a hard day’s work) on the lookout for German spies. The full-time Police Sergeant who supervised the Products Works constables was a sadistic tyrant who constantly bullied and brow beat them, giving them no credit for the fact that they were volunteers. It was his habit to creep around the works in the hope that he could catch one of them failing in his vigilance (or sleeping on duty), when more bullying would result. At length, Abe (normally a quiet and peace-loving man) decided that something should be done about the problem. One dark night, he seized his opportunity. He was just inside the works perimeter fence, and he saw the sergeant’s head slowly rising above it on the outside. With great vigour, he smashed his truncheon down on to the unfortunate man’s head, crushing his helmet down over his eyes. When the sergeant recovered, he angrily asked my grandfather to explain his actions. "Because of your stealthy approach, I thought that you were a German spy", was the reply. The sergeant changed his ways from then on.
Women at War
The war brought great changes in the lives of many British women. In 1914 women had still not achieved full emancipation and the range of employment in which they were engaged, particularly in the upper working classes, was limited.
As the war progressed, more and more men were recruited into the services, and many of them lost their lives. The only course of action if vital industries were to be kept running was to replace these men by women. Women found themselves doing work (even manual labour) that hitherto had been exclusively the province of men, which would have been inconceivable a few years earlier.
The GLCC, in common with many other industrial concerns, began to employ women in large numbers, in a wide range of jobs. A letter to the Co-partners Magazine in 1916 reported that the total number of women employed by the Company was between 175 and 200. By January 1917 this had risen substantially, to 1100, and a year later to 1600. However, because of the long-standing attitude towards women in Britain, women could not be fully integrated into the work force without some recognition of their differences from men. It was decided that they needed special consideration, particularly regarding their welfare and security. At the Horseferry Road offices, for example, female clerical workers were provided with their own cloakroom, a rest-room with easy chairs and a sofa, and a library. The Company appointed a number of Matrons at its production works:
…who had had a very ample experience in dealing with women workers, both in regard to their work and in control of their hygiene. This system of supervision … is now almost universally adopted by all large employers of women.
By 1917, women were being employed on manual labour throughout the Company. The Co-partners Magazine recorded that:
At the Products Works women turn over all the various products etc and in fact as far as possible do practically the same work as the men did before going to fight for their country.
The tasks which women carried out at the Products Works included bagging sulphate of ammonia, pipefitting, and trimming solid fuel at the steam boilers. Women manual workers were provided with special protective clothing, which was not done for their male counterparts until decades later. It consisted of a two-piece suit, probably of waterproof fabric, comprising a knee length belted tunic buttoned up to the neck, trousers and boots or clogs. The head was protected by a "Sou-wester" similar to that worn by fishermen and lifeboat crews, or by a floppy beret.
Although they were in the midst of a world war, the women workers still found time for leisure activities. There was a twelve-a-side women’s cricket team at the Products Works, whose members wore a tasteful two-piece blue uniform, with the captain in white. In June 1917 this team defeated the ladies of the Beckton Gas-works Blacksmiths’ Department by twenty-six runs, scoring sixty runs. In August of the same year 120 of the Products Works’ women employees travelled by horse brakes to Theydon Bois. Lunch and dinner were partaken at a restaurant and the Works Matron arranged games and races. In recognition of this, she was presented with a tea service, subscribed to by those attending the outing. The Co-partners Magazine recorded that a number of women could not attend the outing, which confirms that the total number employed at the works was more than120.
The enemy at the door – or almost!
When the Germans began to bomb London towards the end of the war, using both Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, it was realised that prime targets would include Beckton gas works, the Products Works and the docks. As a defence, in 1918 an anti-aircraft gun and searchlight station was set up in High Street South, close to the Products Works.
Air raid precautions were taken on the works and the workers’ spirits were undaunted at the possibility of being bombed. A Products Works man wrote about their experiences in the Co-partners' Magazine in 1918:
We have something new at these works, namely, ‘dug-outs’ for the protection of the men and women workers during air raids. These had been ready for occupation for some time, there had been no occasion to use them until December 18th , when the alarm was given early in the evening and one of them was quickly filled with the workpeople. As soon as the guns began to play the women started singing, the men joining in the harmony. By the time ’All Clear’ was given all the popular songs of the day had been sung with a spirit that would have pleased the boys at the front. I consider that I had as good a shillingsworth of entertainment as I could have got for the money at a variety theatre, and we are all grateful for the sense of security derived from the experience.
On the night of 19/20 May 1918, a German Gotha bomber was brought down by a Bristol Fighter based at North Weald. The pilot was Lt. Tony Arkell and his gunner was 1st Airman Albert Stagg. The bomber crashed near Roman Road, Boundary Road and the Northern Outfall sewer, only about half a mile from the north-west corner of the Products Works.
BETWEEN THE WARS – EXPANSION AND MODERNISATION
Prior to 1914, the British organic chemicals industry had been substantially overshadowed by Germany, but the war had thrown the country back on its own resources and there was to be no turning back from this in the future. H Levinstein, a leading British dyestuffs manufacturer, whose business had developed substantially during the war as a result of the cessation of supplies from Germany, wrote in 1919 that:
The development of dyestuffs by British industry is vital because … it would be madness after the close of this terrible war, fought to secure the ideals of political freedom, not to make ourselves economically free from Germany.
It is impossible for us to maintain our commercial supremacy if we throw away the one chance of organising the inventive talent of our chemists.
Our immediate object is to manufacture, in the shortest space of time, a range of dyes sufficient to render the country substantially independent of German dyes.
Although Levinstein was speaking about the supply of dyestuffs, his words applied equally to refined organic chemicals, many of which had been obtained from Germany up until 1914.
Planning for peace
Beckton Products Works had made an invaluable contribution to the Allies’ victory in the First World War, but there was a price to pay for this. Such were the pressures to maintain the production of chemicals vital to the war machine, that there was little opportunity to repair or renew process plant and equipment. Furthermore, materials such as steel for pipework and process vessels could not be easily obtained because they were required for munitions and armaments.
It was very much to the credit of the Directors of the GLCC that, in September 1918, just before the war ended, they were far-sighted enough to instruct W G Adam to submit plans for extending the range of chemical products after the war. He was to pay particular attention to the probable trend in post-war prices, concentrating on those products which would be most profitable. The war had brought the by-products side of the gas industry into greater prominence, and its development was to become an important factor in keeping the price of gas low. Moreover, since the processing of crude by-products produced high value refined chemicals, the Directors of the GLCC felt that by-products manufacture should perhaps be considered, not merely as an ancillary part of the gas making industry, but as an important branch of the British chemical industry in its own right.
Thus, as soon as the war was over, the management commenced work on a programme of continuing development, which had been the policy of the Company since the earliest days of the Products Works. The existing process plant was to be refurbished and updated, and production expanded by building new, modern plant. Improvements to the works infrastructure, such as the provision of new steam raising and electricity generating plant, were planned. This policy was to be repeated in the years following the Second World War, but to a far more ambitious extent.
The need to make improvements was driven by a new philosophy, based on the harsh lesson that had been learned by British industry when the supply of German chemical products, particularly dyestuffs and pharmaceuticals, ceased in 1914. In 1920, the Key Industries Duties came into force, the intention of which was to protect the developing British chemical (and indeed other) industries from foreign competition. Until this actually became law, though, it was not considered prudent to embark upon any new major developments at the Products Works, in view of the doubtful state of potential product markets. But, as a preliminary move, Adam visited the USA early in 1919 to carry out a survey of potential commercial possibilities, so that plans could be made for the future expansion of the GLCC’s production of tar, creosote, fertilisers, and refined chemicals.
D Milne-Watson, the Governor of the GLCC, applied his belief in co-operative action to the production of chemical by-products by successfully advocating the setting up of a number of trade associations. The first of these involved the producers of sulphate of ammonia and sulphuric acid; later ones were concerned with benzole and road tar.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the GLCC’s production of gas expanded with, correspondingly, a substantial increase in the quantities of by-products produced. To the Beckton Products Works was added the products works at Southall, which had been acquired by the GLCC when it purchased Brentford Gas Co. Whilst not on as large as Beckton Products Works, it did make a significant contribution to the Company’s output, particularly of creosote and road tar. The works was strategically situated on the opposite side of London to Beckton, which facilitated the company’s road tar spraying operations on that side of the metropolis. Southall Products Works also manufactured sulphate of ammonia until 1946. It ceased distilling tar and was closed down in 1968.
In 1924 the Co-partners Magazine reported on the Products Works stand at the Wembley exhibition in glowing terms. By now, recovery from the effects of the First World War was well under way, and the variety of products made at Beckton and their potential applications were greater than at any time in the history of the works. The processing and marketing of chemical by-products became a successful and specialised part of the GLCC’s commercial activities, due principally to the efforts of W G Adam and J H Olliver, the Products Salesman. This success depended upon a detailed knowledge of the world chemical markets: just prior to the Second World War products were being exported to such exotic locations as Istanbul, Tehran, Buenos Aires, Oslo, Australia and New Zealand. One particularly important customer was the USA, where large quantities of wood preserving creosote were used in the timber industry, and substantial quantities of naphthalene went to Canada. There were large exports of pitch by ship from Beckton to the continent, for use in the manufacture of pitch briquettes (a solid fuel) in Belgium and France. Throughout the 1930s a number of new processes that used coal tar derivatives were introduced; examples were plastics and synthetic fibres.
The GLCC’s promotion of by-products at the British Industries Fair in 1931 was positive and optimistic, but an article in the Co-partners Magazine about the poor economic state of the gas industry, including by-products, which was caused by the general depression in industry, was pessimistic: " The declining revenue from by-products is still a matter of concern to the industry". More constructively, though, details were given of innovative measures which were being undertaken to improve the quality, range and applications of chemical by-products, demonstrating that the industry was actively engaged in optimising its viability, even in those difficult times.
During the 1930s, the works began processing tar from the coke ovens of the Ford Motor Company at Dagenham, and this continued into the 1960s. The last major innovation at the Products Works prior to the Second World War took place in 1937. A continuous pipe still had been employed for a number of years for dehydrating crude tar prior to distilling it in pot stills. Then a modern and sophisticated pipe still unit, designed and constructed by the Koppers Co, which was the first of its type in the UK, was installed to augment and partially replace the batteries of pot stills. It had a capacity of 400 tons of crude tar per day and was fired by coal tar fuel (a mixture of pitch and creosote oil) which was produced on the works.
Until the inter-war years, the company’s production of refined tar had always been sold in bulk, both at home and abroad, with little interest being shown in its application. Now, growing competition was being encountered from bitumen, which was produced by the fast-growing petroleum industry, for road making. This posed such a serious threat to their markets that the GLCC decided that counter measures were required, and they entered the business of spraying tar on to roads. In 1927, a specially designed road tar spraying vehicle was purchased and based at Beckton Products Works. The machine was, by modern standards, of quite primitive construction, but by the 1930s the Company owned a fleet of fifteen greatly improved models each holding 1,500 gallons of tar, operating from both Beckton and Southall Products Works.
The Company’s move into road tar spraying was a lasting success. More and more contracts were obtained from local authorities, not only in the London area, but also further afield, throughout the Home Counties, including Sussex, Kent and Berkshire. During the summer tar-spraying season, a spraying vehicle’s tank would be filled with hot tar in the early hours of the morning and it would set off for road surfacing jobs as far away as the South Coast. Not only was this business profit-making in itself, but it also increased the quantity of road tar sold by the Company. In addition to providing a tar-spraying service, road tar was sold in barrels to local authorities. By 1932 a wide range of road tars was being offered for sale according to the application. They had the trade names: Becspray, Becgrout, Bectaphalt, Becmulse, Beckold, and Beccrete.
In 1937 W G Adam published the results of research into the constitution of road tar, which proved that vertical retort tar was as suitable for making road tar as were horizontal retort or coke oven tars, removing some previously-held doubt on this point. In 1938 he was part-author of a book entitled The Use of Tar for Road Work.
In 1919 the National Benzole Company was set up under the auspices of the GLCC to market National Benzole Mixture, a popular fuel suitable for petrol-driven vehicles, on behalf of the majority of benzole producers in the country. These included gas undertakings, coke oven operators and independent tar distillers. There was in an increase in the number of gas companies that recovered benzole from their gas, a practice which, until then, had not been universally practised.
In 1915 WG Adam patented a continuous distillation unit for the refining of crude benzole; a model of it was exhibited at the Wembley Exhibition in 1926 and subsequently at the Science Museum. The plant was in operation until 1934, when two Barbet continuous units were installed for distilling crude benzole.
Sulphuric acid and sulphate of ammonia
During the fifty years since the opening of the Products Works, the production of sulphuric acid by the lead chamber process had developed both in scale and sophistication. In 1930 the output was over 100 tons of acid per day. The feed stock had changed from iron pyrites to gasworks spent oxide, and mechanical stoking of the oxide burners had replaced hand firing. Oxides of nitrogen, used for catalysing the sulphuric acid reaction, were made by the oxidation of ammonia (a procedure developed at the Products Works) rather than by nitre pots, as in earlier days.
In 1937 a contact plant was built at the works to make sulphuric acid from the hydrogen sulphide in the exit gas from the sulphate of ammonia saturator. The plant produced 3,000 tons per annum of acid of high purity and strength, which was used within the works for refining benzole and naphthalene.
Sales of sulphate of ammonia were healthy, due in part to the activities of the Sulphate of Ammonia Federation, whose annual report for 1937-8 claimed that the production of sulphate had increased by 5% and exports by 18%.
During the 1920s, salicylic acid was made at the Products Works. In 1931 a product of the works was being used to control pests in the newly developed Kenya coffee industry. In 1932, copperas (ferrous sulphate) was made.
In 1933, the manufacture of cyanogen products, including prussiate (sodium ferricyanide) was flourishing, and the production of Prussian Blue, which had been made at the beginning of the century, was recommenced after a period of inactivity. The plant was very successful, with a wide range of colours being produced, until it was destroyed by bombing in 1940. It was never re-built.
A programme of research using the company’s road vehicles resulted in the production of a grade of creosote which could be used as a motor fuel, a development which was to be of great value during the Second World War.
Steam raising and power generation
Originally, steam had been produced by batteries of Lancashire boilers situated in various parts of the works and d.c electrical power generated by gas driven generators. In 1921, all this was centralised in a central power plant; a combined steam-raising and power-generation scheme was introduced, with the installation of the first back-pressure turbo-generator. This was followed in 1926 by the commissioning of two of the earliest industrial water tube boilers to burn coke breeze successfully on chain grate stokers. By 1942, this massive and far-sighted development had been completed by the installation of a further ten such boilers and two more turbo-alternators.
Some distinguished visitors
Between the two world wars there was an interest by various distinguished persons in industrial activities that is not often seen today. On 21 November 1922 the Duke of York, later King George VI, visited Beckton Products Works. Proceeding by train from the gasworks, he was met at the works entrance by W G Adam. After hearing about the part that the works had played in the recent war, the royal party visited the Naphthalene Plant and the General Office.
Not to be outdone by their son, King George V and Queen Mary visited the Products Works on 10 July 1926, being accorded similar treatment, including a ride on the "Royal Train". This was a luxuriously appointed single coach drawn by one of the works locomotives; it had been constructed for the use of the Company’s Directors and their eminent guests. Their majesties were most impressed by the variety and value of the chemical by-products made at the Products Works. The Queen memorably exclaimed (in her thick German accent) "How very wasteful coal fires must be! Why do we use coal fires?" They were greatly impressed by a demonstration of coal tar dyes in the Laboratory, and on the process plants by the manufacture of prussiate of potash and naphthalene. Before their departure they partook of tea at the works. Finally, on 3 May 1932, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, visited the laboratories at the Products Works.
In 1939 a new edition of the well-established chemists' handbook: "Standard Methods for Testing Tar & its Products" was published and the British Standards Institute produced new specifications for benzole, toluoles, xyloles and coal tar naphthas.
Preparations for war
The Second World War came as no surprise to the majority of the British people. By 1938 it was clearly inevitable, despite the attempts of the politicians. The by-products industry began to prepare for war. In January 1939, the Managing Director of the National Benzole Co stressed the importance of motor spirit in home defence and on 10 February 1939, at the 232nd Ordinary General Meeting of the GLCC, the Chairman, Sir David Milne-Watson, rallied the employees of the Products Works:
Gas is a key industry for re-armament purposes and is itself a vital source of munitions. Explosives are dependent upon a supply of toluene and carbolic acid. Among other substances essential in war are disinfectants, fuel oils for the Navy, road tar for military roads and toluene as an ingredient for aeroplane fuel, motor spirit for mechanical transport and sulphate of ammonia for fertilisers.
Also in February a paper was published in the Gas Journal on the use of coal tar pitch, as molten liquid or in pulverised form, as a war-time fuel for steam boilers and articles on air raid precautions in the gas industry began to appear regularly in that publication.
Interest was beginning to be shown in war risk compensation schemes. Qualified gas engineers, scientists, and similar technical professionals in the gas industry were requested to register for national service. This did not imply that they would be called up for military service; its purpose was to establish their position in what would be a reserved occupation.
At the annual conference on 26 April 1939 of the British Commercial Gas Association (a body that rarely acknowledged the existence of the by-products industry) Sir Harold Hartley stressed the importance of chemical by-products to the war effort. He emphasised their value in the manufacture of explosives, plastics, dyestuffs, insecticides, wood preservatives, motor spirit, road tar, drugs, fine chemicals, and fertilisers. The management of the Products Works must have been truly proud of their role in the approaching conflict.
Undeterred by the seriousness of the situation, the Association of Tar Distillers held their 54th Birthday Party on 5 March 1939. And the Products Works prepared for six years of war.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Very little technical information about production activities at Beckton Products Works was published during the war; this was either for security reasons, or simply because the staff were too occupied with wartime production. Their main objective during the Second World War was to maintain "business as usual" at the works. Production, particularly of chemicals that were vital to the war effort, was to be maximised at all costs, even if the opportunity to export products was greatly reduced.
Although the installation of new process plant was curtailed, there were two new plants whose products were of the utmost importance. In 1940 the Dephenolation Plant was erected to recover phenols from gas liquor, prior to the removal of ammonia and hydrogen sulphide from it. The process, which was developed at the Products Works, involved the counter-current washing of the gas liquor with a tar oil (Wash Oil), followed by extraction of the phenols from this with caustic soda solution. There were two benefits. First, there was a 50% increase in the quantity of phenols produced at the works. A third of this then came from gas liquor and two-thirds from tar distillation, so the former was a valuable additional source of revenue. Secondly, the removal of phenols from gas liquor reduced the cost of treating the aqueous effluent that was discharged into London’s sewage purification system after ammonia and hydrogen sulphide had been removed.
In 1941 a Barbet continuous distillation plant was constructed on the Benzole Plant for the production of pure toluole, which was a product of major importance in the manufacture of explosives. Barbet units had been used on the plant since 1934 for the continuous distillation of crude benzole.
The importance of the Products Works to the war effort
All through the war there were numerous references in the technical literature to the essential part which coal tar by-products were playing in the war. Phenol and toluene for explosives manufacture; benzole as an ingredient of aviation fuel; and road tar in many vital construction projects. And in addition to these primary coal tar derivatives, there were the sophisticated secondary products, such as carbazole, cyclopentadiene, acenaphthene, fluorene, chrysene, and iso-quinoline. During the war the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research carried out investigations into possible new applications for coal tar chemicals.
In November 1939, government controls began to be placed on coal tar by-products by means of licensing procedures. The first of these concerned the sale of pure toluene, toluole and other coal tar spirits that contained more than 2% of toluene. A maximum price was set, and a maximum amount was allocated to explosives manufacture. Further similar legislation, covering a growing range of coal tar products, was introduced annually throughout the war.
As early as 1940, the Government demonstrated its interest in the value of by-products when the Minister of Supply, L Burgin, paid a lengthy visit to the Products Works. The management made the most of this opportunity to impress upon the Minister the extensive range of their products and their many uses. After visiting the Benzole and Tar Distillation Plants, and the Laboratory, the Minister saw an exhibition that demonstrated more than fifty chemical by-products, and several hundred examples of their application in industry and commerce. These included explosives, motor spirit, aviation fuel, disinfectants, drugs, camouflage paints, resin for aeroplane parts, and rubber solutions, all of them essential to the successful promotion of the war. In 1941 the Government asserted its control over the by-products industry by appointing Major T Knowles, of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, to the post of Coal Tar Controller, which he held for the duration of the war.
The recovery of benzole from coal gas had always been a matter of contention within the industry, and the degree to which this was carried out varied to a great extent over the years. During the First World War recovery was high but, after the war, it fell considerably because it was felt to be more profitable to leave it in the gas. During the Second World War strenuous efforts were made to maximise benzole recovery; in 1943 benzole was being extracted from 95% of the gas produced at those gasworks that carbonised over 5000 tons of coal per annum. Since most of the GLCC’s works came into that category, the amount of crude benzole processed at the Products Works increased substantially. Benzole was of great value to the war effort as it contained benzene (for aviation fuel) and toluene and xylene (for explosives).
In October 1939, the gas industry was exhorted by the government to extract as much toluene as possible from gas, as it was essential for explosives manufacture. In the same month, T O Wilton, Governing Director of The Chemical Engineering & Wiltons Patent Furnace Co, and the son of T Wilton (see Chapter 6), wrote to the Gas Journal describing a plant which his company had designed for producing high quality toluene. In 1940 the Ministry of Supply stated that the British carbonisation industry was now the principal source of toluene for explosives manufacture, whereas during the First World War it had been necessary to import substantial quantities from the USA and the Far East.
In January 1940 the British Road Tar Association produced the booklet, "Road Problems in War", which described uses for road tar: road maintenance; camouflaging; emergency road repairs after bomb damage; the surface tarring of concrete roads, and the manufacture of tarmacadam, including single coat and grouted macadam. In October 1941, the Government’s interest in road tar was demonstrated by the publication by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, assisted by the British Road Tar Association, of "Wartime Road Note No 1". In October 1942 the Gas Journal reported that the demand for road tar by the Navy, Army and RAF had been heavy. It was widely employed in the construction of landing strips for aircraft. In 1943 British standard 76/1943, Tars for Road Purposes, was published.
In January 1941, the Department of Mines and the Ministry of Transport proposed research on the use of creosote as a fuel for motor vehicles. This produced a number of prompt responses in the columns of the Gas Journal, pointing out that this had already been satisfactorily achieved during the First World War. T O Wilton, the son of Thomas Wilton (a former Superintendent of the Products Works) claimed that his father had successfully developed the use of both creosote oil and naphthalene as motor fuels as early as 1914, a car having been propelled by these. In 1942, creosote and pitch/creosote mixtures were replacing imported petroleum [boiler] fuel oils. Coal tar fuels (pitch/creosote mixtures) were an important product of the Products Works. Coal Tar Fuels, Their Derivation, Properties and Application, edited by J Sach, a chemist at the works, was published in March 1945.
The Products Works under attack
Beckton Products Works was closely involved in the Second World War because of the importance of its products, and its proximity to Beckton gas works and the London Docks, suffering a number of major attacks by German bombers. The 1940 Blitz on London was particularly directed at the London Docks, and Beckton was close to one of these – the Royal Albert Dock. Beckton gasworks was photographed by the Luftwaffe on 31 August 1940, as part of their pre-strike cover of East London. The photograph shows mainly the gasworks, but some Products Works storage tanks are also included. Also, on a target map of about the same date, the Beckton complex is marked as being one of London’s Zielgebiete - Key Points for an air attack.
Not many accounts survive of the bombing of the Products Works, but some are described in the GLCC document: Awards to Employees for Acts of Gallantry, 1939-1945 War and in the Co-partners’ Magazine. What is remarkable about all the incidents described below, and they are representative of many others, is that most of the employees who were involved, at considerable danger to themselves, were not trained fire-fighters, nor were any lives at risk. Nevertheless, they placed themselves in considerable personal danger in the interests of protecting their place of work.
On 7 Sept 1940 W Jordan, Fire Brigade Foreman, G Blunt, Sulphate Plant Foreman, W Tidy, Fireman and J Keogh, Assistant Yard Foreman, assisted L T Rinder, Works Officer, to examine craters of unexploded bombs. W Dines records in We Carried On: the War Record of Eastern Division, GLCC :
It was that memorable day, Saturday September 7th 1940, still vivid in the memory of everyone in the Division. Hundreds of German aircraft took part that afternoon and on through the night, for it was designed to paralyse and destroy London’s Dockland, with its large industrial installations, including Beckton, … Great damage was caused.
Even after the 1940 Blitz, when the bombing of London had lessened to some extent, the raids becoming less frequent, the Products Works continued to be harassed by German bombers.
On 7 January 1941 a high explosive bomb fell in the back garden of a house in Winsor Terrace, close to the Benzole Plant, and two smaller bombs fell within the works.
On 12 January 1941, just before 7pm, three baskets of incendiary bombs fell on the works, followed by an attack with high explosives. Hundreds of incendiaries dropped on about 75% of the works. The place looked like a fairground at night. Most of the incendiaries were put out within a few minutes, but a few started major fires. About twelve incendiaries dropped on or near the Benzole Plant. All but two were rapidly extinguished; of the rest, one pierced the roof of a building where inflammable material was stored and got wedged in the floorboards; the other fell among drums of benzole. A number of men, led by S Bendall, Benzole Plant Foreman (awarded the BEM), attacked the fires. Some of the men took up the floorboards to get at one bomb, which they extinguished together with the fires. The rest tackled the second bomb and moved the benzole drums to a safe place.
An incendiary bomb ignited the roof of the powerhouse. The roof was inaccessible by ladder because of smoke from an adjacent burning building, and so E W Meadowcroft (awarded the BEM) pushed a small fire extinguisher inside his shirt and scaled the 30ft wall of the building by means of iron cable stands. Climbing through clouds of smoke and steam over electric cables and steam pipes, with high explosive bombs still falling, he extinguished the fire, then climbed back down.
In a third incident, an incendiary bomb fell on a sack store and set fire to empty sacks. Several men extinguished the fire, some being overcome by smoke.
In all the above incidents, those involved that were not awarded the BEM received a Commendation for Brave Conduct.
On 19 April 1941 both Beckton gasworks and the Products Works suffered a severe attack, at first from incendiary bombs which were dropped in the early evening. Fires lit up the area and enabled the enemy to attack with high explosive bombs and more incendiaries. The gas works had a sophisticated fire-fighting organisation, which seems to have been superior to that of the Products Works. A report of the night’s events from the gas works states that:
The raid of the night of April 19th opened with a shower of incendiaries on the neighbouring Tar and Products Works. This works, although a part of the GLCC, is quite separately managed and staffed, so when a squad of firemen was sent from the gas works to assist them with a serious fire, it was done by calling for volunteers. At 1 a.m. … this squad was still engaged in fighting the blaze…
At 10pm 300-400 incendiary bombs fell on the Products Works, so many that it was impossible to deal with all of them. Nine major fires developed, the most serious of which were at the Benzole Plant washpots and can filling shed; the crude naphthalene plant; the still road; the pitch beds; the tar loading ground; and the research laboratories and offices.
Drums of flammable liquid burst, firing others; the intense heat caused dozens of tar barrels to explode, so that burning tar spread like lava over the ground. Planes were still overhead and high explosive bombs fell uncomfortably near but, wet through from the waist downwards, ankle deep in tar and choked by fumes, the men toiled on. Some of them got stuck in the tar and had to be hauled out. One lost the soles of his boots. At one time additional water was needed, so a fireman and several helpers accomplished the almost impossible task of dragging a live wriggling hose in the dark for 50 feet along a 9 inch wide concrete parapet spanning a water bay.
R G James (awarded the George Medal) worked throughout the night clearing the top of an oil tank of incendiaries that were burning through the crown. After that, he ran some of the oil into underground tanks and then, standing away from bursting drums, he continued to play the hose on above-ground tanks to cool them.
Fires that broke out at the Naphthalene Plant and the Pitch Beds were the most dangerous ones that were tackled that night. The pitch had melted and was flowing down the road. Some of the fire-fighters had to wade through inches of molten pitch; the only way to make progress was to play water on the pitch ahead of them.
J E Mott, Staff Chemist, was very active in putting out incendiaries in the yard. He climbed on to the roof of the offices with a stirrup pump and also attempted to rescue balances from the laboratory, but without success. High explosive bombs were falling while this was going on. Another Staff Chemist, J H White, climbed to the top of a blazing waste acid tank on the Benzole Plant and directed hoses down into the flames. He also extinguished fires in the Benzole Stillhouse. They were both given Commendations for Brave Conduct.
This was the most severe raid experienced at the Beckton Products Works. A great deal of damage was done and valuable products lost. The fire fighting activities were co-ordinated by the Superintendent, W G Adam, who was awarded the George Medal. Had W Brodie, the Head of Works Fire Brigade (awarded the GM), his firemen and many other employees been less fearless or less active, half of the works would have been destroyed. The supply of essential tar products from the largest works of its kind in the country would then have been stopped for months. As it was, the next morning the plant was again in production. As a result of this raid, two George Medals, two British Empire Medals, and thirteen Commendations for Brave Conduct were awarded.
The attacks on Beckton continued with the Flying Bomb (V1) raids in 1944. On 22 June a V1 fell in East Ham Manor Way between the roadway and the spoil heaps which marked the Products Works western boundary. On 4 August a V1 fell inside the works adjacent to the Carpenters Shop.
Employees in the armed forces
Because it was vital to keep those parts of British industry which were essential to the war effort operating at peak efficiency, and Beckton Products Works certainly came into that category, many of its employees were exempt from military service and they were not permitted to volunteer. Staff chemists and engineers were thus classified; the following manual grades were exempt in 1939 ( the rules changed somewhat during the war).
All ages reserved: Crane drivers, engine men, heavy lifters
Reserved at 21 years of age: Various engineering trades
Reserved at 25 years of age: Process workers, tar distillation
Reserved at 30 years of age: Process workers, chemical plant
In October 1939 the Directors of the GLCC issued a statement regarding the conditions of service of employees who served in the armed forces. Their pension and co-partnership rights were maintained and their service pay was made up to their basic GLCC wage when they were called up, less a small deduction for food provided by the service. They were promised their jobs back at the end of the war, although this was a legal requirement anyway.
Many Products Works employees served in the war, particularly in the Rangers (see Chapter 7). In 1944 there were 220 of them (both male and female) in the armed forces. Throughout the war the Co-partners Magazine published letters from servicemen (as had been done in the First World War), although these rarely mentioned where the writer had worked in the GLCC, and only his initials were given. Their work mates did not forget their colleagues who were in the forces: the Products Works Comforts Fund was set up in November 1940. It was one of many in the Company that made collections of cash and goods to be sent to serving employees.
Just as in the First World War, women were recruited to carry out a wide range of manual jobs at the Products Works.
The Home Guard
The GLCC had its own Home Guard unit, the 40th (County of London) Battalion, which was formed in 1940. "C" Company was allocated to Products Works employees. In September 1940, Lt Col Potter of the Rangers (see Chapter 6) was advisor to the battalion. He later became its Commanding Officer, after leaving the Rangers and returning to the Products Works, retaining command until the unit was disbanded in December 1944.
THE POST WAR YEARS – NATIONALISATION AND EXPANSION
As soon as the war ended, the first priority for the Products Works management was to return to the commercial and technological bases of the pre-war years. There was much to be done. It was essential to re-establish export sales and, in 1946, the first ship conveying creosote to the USA since 1940 left Beckton.
It was a matter of urgency to return the process plant to the standard of maintenance and production efficiency that it had enjoyed before 1939. In the longer term, the intention was to make major improvements to both the process plant and the works infrastructure, so that the works would be even more successful than it had been in the 1930s. The Products Works was to be greatly improved and expanded and, over the next fifteen years, these plans succeeded to an extent that would not have been believed possible in 1939. Had the works continued operating for many more years, instead of being closed down in 1970, then it is certain that even more improvements would have been made.
In December 1945, as part of this rejuvenation exercise, the GLCC appointed W Hutchinson as Controller of By-products, taking responsibility for the Products Works, the Products Sales Office, and coke sales. Up until that time, these three had been managed separately. In 1946 W G Adam retired from his post as Superintendent of the Products Works, which he had held for thirty-one years. He left an enviable legacy of improvements that he made to the works during that time. Most of them have been mentioned elsewhere in this account, but it is worth summarising them to demonstrate the breadth of Adam’s abilities. He installed plant for steam and electrical power production, and improved or constructed process plants for tar distillation, the dephenolation of gas liquor, and for manufacturing sulphate of ammonia, carbolic, naphthalene, sulphuric acid, benzole and road tar. He served on many national bodies, including the National Benzole Association, the Chemical Research Board, and the Road Research Board. Adam died in 1969 at the age of eighty-three. He was succeeded as Superintendent in 1946 by L W Blundell, a chemical engineer who had been employed at the works since 1929, had been in charge of tar distillation since 1939, and had held the post of Deputy Superintendent since 1945. When, in 1947, Hutchinson became Managing Director of the GLCC, Blundell became Controller of By-products, a post which he held until the Products Works closed down in 1969.
On 25 July 1947 the works was featured on the BBC programme Woman’s Hour. Participants were L W Blundell, D G Murdoch, Production Manager, J S Sach, Statistics Officer, and Ethel Eldred, a Process Worker on the Naphthalene Plant. Hers was the only remaining process job still being done by women; a legacy of the employment of women during the two world wars.
In December 1947, in the run-up to nationalisation, the works was honoured by a visit from the Minister of Fuel & Power, Hugh Gaitskell.
Nationalisation – the formation of the North Thames Gas Board
Discussions had been taking place throughout the war about the possible nationalisation of the gas industry and, as soon as the war ended, this happened quite quickly. In early 1948 the labour government introduced a bill nationalising gas undertakings in the UK. On 1 May 1949 the 1948 Gas Act became law and brought into being twelve area Gas Boards, of which the largest was the North Thames Gas Board (NTGB). This consisted mainly of the GLCC, plus a number of smaller gas undertakings, so it was somewhat larger than the GLCC had been. The 137 years traditions of the GLCC continued largely unchanged, in spite of nationalisation, until the major re-organisation of the industry in 1970, when gas manufacture ended. Even the Coat of Arms of the GLCC, and its house journal, the Co-partners Magazine, were taken over by the NTGB. The magazine’s Editorial at the time of nationalisation was entitled somewhat defiantly Business as Usual. And, as the author recalls, for several years GLCC stationery was used overtyped North Thames Gas Board (perhaps a perpetuation of wartime frugality).
At the time of nationalisation it was envisaged that the quantity of gas manufactured in the foreseeable future would increase steadily. This encouraged the plans to spend money on improving the efficiency and production capacity of the Products Works. In 1956-7 the sale of chemical by-products provided 9% of the total income of the NTGB (almost the same as in 1911). This was considered to be a worthwhile contribution to the Board’s revenue and, furthermore, it should not be overlooked that there was considerable hidden revenue in the cost of disposing of crude tar etc as waste materials if they did not undergo processing.
Under the 1948 Gas Act, one of the three duties with which the twelve area boards were charged was "To develop and maintain efficient methods of recovering by-products obtained in the process of manufacturing gas". This point was very much to the advantage of Beckton Products Works, since it gave official sanction to the large expenditure of money that was to be made to improve the works. However, some twenty years later, when coal carbonisation ceased, this proviso worked against the Products Works, since it prevented diversification into chemical processes not related to gas manufacture.
The improvements to the Products Works
A massive amount of investment was made at the Products Works in the ten years following nationalisation. Breathtaking improvements were made, both to the process plant and to the works infrastructure. In some ways they mirrored the regeneration work undertaken after the First World War, but on a far more ambitious scale. The quantity of primary products manufactured was higher than at any time in the history of the Products Works but, at the same time, the variety of secondary products was reduced. More emphasis was placed on bulk products than on some of the specialist chemicals, such as Prussian Blue, which had been made between the wars.
The improvements excited a great deal of interest from politicians and other dignitaries, and from outside organisations. For example, on 4 January 1957, the works was visited by Sir Harold Smith, Chairman of the Gas Council and Sir Henry Jones, Deputy Chairman. In May 1957 delegates from the International Conference of Benzole Producers paid a visit, followed in December 1960, by Richard Wood, Minister of Power.
In 1957 the Thames Gas Magazine reported that:
During the last few years a great programme of reconstruction and modernisation has been pushed steadily forward. [This has included] a new steam and power installation, a water treatment plant, No.2 Boiler House, No.2 Generator House, the APV phenols refining plant, the No.2 Koppers Plant and the effluent reception plant. There are new overhead steam distribution and service lines.
The principal works carried out were:
Crude tar distillation
A new continuous pipe still fractionating unit for the primary distillation of crude tar, designed and constructed by Koppers-Woodhall Duckham was erected in 1953, augmenting a similar one built in 1937. Each unit had a capacity of 400 tons of crude tar per day. (There were also eight batch stills having a capacity of 350 tons per day).
In the late 1950s a new self-contained continuous distillation plant (the COD Plant) was installed for the production of refined creosote oil. One of its products was hydrogenation creosote, which was sold to ICI for catalytic conversion to motor fuel.
One stage in the refining of distillates from the fractionation of crude benzole was to wash them with sulphuric acid to remove impurities. The process produced a waste product: acid tar, the disposal of which had always been a problem throughout the industry. After lengthy research at the works, a plant was designed and constructed both to dispose of the material and make a profit, by recovering the acid and blending the organic component with crude tar.
By 1954 the annual production of refined phenols had trebled compared to 1935, and the capacity of the existing batch stills that were used for distilling crude phenol extracted from crude tar distillates and gas liquor was insufficient. In 1955 a continuous fractionating unit, constructed by the APV Co, was installed. The plant produced pure phenol, cresols and xylenols. In 1957 1.15 million gallons of refined phenol were produced: nearly twice the quantity in 1954. New storage tanks for refined products were installed and new stainless steel road tankers were used to deliver the refined products.
Zone melting plant for the purification of naphthalene
In 1961 advantage was taken of a newly developed technique for purifying solid substances: zone melting. This was in effect the opposite of recrystallisation, which was already being employed on the works for refining naphthalene. The process was an immediate success, producing naphthalene of very high purity in a single stage and replacing the existing labour-intensive sublimation process.
Sulphuric acid, ammonia and sulphate of ammonia
The original lead chamber sulphuric acid plant had been built in 1880. Over the years, minor improvements had been made to it, but it was still basically unchanged. After the war, the rising cost of producing acid on this old plant, due to high labour and maintenance costs, made its replacement a matter of urgency. In 1952 a modern lead chamber plant, designed and constructed by the Mills Packard Co, was installed at the works. Its principal difference from the traditional lead chamber plant was that the heat produced in the sulphuric acid reaction was removed by running water over the chambers, instead of relying on natural air movement. The cooling of the chambers was far more efficient and so they could be made much smaller. In 1958 the Mills Packard plant produced 16,000 tons of acid and the old chamber plant, part of which was still in use, made 8,400 tons. At the time it was intended to completely replace the old plant by a second Mills Packard plant, but this never came about.
In 1937 a contact plant had been built at the works to make sulphuric acid from hydrogen sulphide gas recovered from gas liquor during the manufacture of sulphate of ammonia. The plant produced 3,000 tons per annum of acid of high purity and strength, which was used on the works for refining benzole and naphthalene. So successful was this plant that a second unit was built in 1952. In the late 1950s the viability of this plant was improved by modifying it to enable it to use pure molten sulphur, purchased from an external supplier, to augment the hydrogen sulphide.
Some minor improvements were made to the plant for manufacturing pure ammonia and sulphate of ammonia, with the object of improving product quality and yield.
On 4 November 1948 the Duchess of Kent laid the foundation stone for the new Welfare Centre and the completed building was officially opened by Sir Edgar Sylvester, Chairman of the Gas Council, on 24 March 1950. It was a model of its kind, providing welfare facilities for over 1,000 workers and salaried staff under one roof. There were baths, showers, 1,100 clean and dirty lockers, a workers’ cafeteria seating 650, a staff restaurant, a games room, a billiards room and a bar. The facility was visited in January 1951 by Alf Robens M.P.
As a vital part of the development of the works, the facilities for carrying out both laboratory-scale research and pilot plant process development work were extended and modernised. There was a substantial increase in staff, particularly graduates, who were accommodated in a new purpose-built research block. This replaced the small and antiquated research and technical laboratories that had existed for many years under virtually Victorian conditions. Hitherto, only laboratory-scale research had been carried out in these; process development work had always been done on the process plants by the plant chemists, in their own small process control laboratories. Now, properly organised programmes of process development, the commissioning of new plant and the improvement of existing processes, were entrusted to qualified chemists and chemical engineers.
The new research block was built during 1951. It consisted of three laboratories, in the form of a C-shaped building. The centre room had a high-level tower in the roof to accommodate tall experimental distillation and absorption equipment. There was a library, a photographic darkroom and an office for W E Golding, the Head of Research.
Prior to 1952, the works had a number of small dispersed workshops, each serving one or two trades. As much work as possible was carried out actually on the process plants, where conditions were far from ideal. As time went on the complexity of the engineering equipment that was used dictated that the work should be done in properly-equipped workshops, efficiently supervised.
The new Mechanical Workshops were opened by the Chairman of the Gas Council on 2 October 1952. The building had a floor area of 80,000 sq.ft., and housed some 400 men covering the following trades: engine fitters, pipefitters, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, boilermakers, welders and chemical plumbers. In those days large companies usually carried out the full range of maintenance work using their own resources; sub-contracting was rare. The advantage of this policy, compared to the present day practice of employing external contractors, was that the tradesmen had an intimate knowledge of the process plant, based on years of experience. The new workshops were equipped with overhead travelling cranes and he most up-to-date equipment. There was a pit for servicing and re-building railway locomotives and rolling stock. There were engineering stores, a drawing office and offices for mechanical engineering staff.
Effluent treatment plant
The works had always produced large quantities of aqueous effluent, both from the processes and from the collection of rain and surface water. All this was sent for purification to the nearby Northern Outfall sewage treatment works. The charges for treating this effluent were based on its chemical analysis: the most expensive pollutants were dissolved phenols, and hydrocarbon oils which were not water soluble. Bizarrely, even process cooling water used on the Sulphate of Ammonia plant, which had been extracted from the River Thames and simply raised in temperature by a few degrees, but not otherwise polluted, could not be returned directly to the river, but had to go via the sewage works. There, its treatment was charged for on the basis of the pollutants, which were, in fact, those of the river and not added by the Products Works. Thus the works was, in effect, paying for the purification of the highly polluted Thames! To avoid this unfair cost, closed circuit cooling water towers were installed.
During the 1950s the annual cost of effluent disposal was about £50,000, which excluded internal works costs for handling waste products. To reduce this cost, a semi-automatic effluent reception plant was built in 1957, which was designed to virtually guarantee that the aqueous effluent would pass to the sewage treatment works substantially free from solid matter and hydrocarbon oils. This replaced the old, less efficient, settling beds. After a six-hour period spent in a 260,000 gallons capacity reception tank, oil and scum were separated and solid matter settled out. Scrapers then pushed these into hoppers. The solid matter, which was of a buttery consistency, was pumped to lagoons where its volume was reduced by evaporation before eventual disposal as a solid residue. The clear effluent, which contained only water-soluble pollutants, was then pumped to the sewage works.
Boiler house and water treatment plant
The steam-raising and power-generation plant at the Products Works dated from 1921 and 1926. It produced steam at 160 psi. and d.c. electrical power. As part of the improvements to the works infrastructure, it was decided that this plant would be supplemented by new plant that would produce process steam at a higher pressure, and a.c. electrical power. The fact that, up until 1951, only d.c. electrical energy was available on the works had placed future developments at a serious disadvantage. Any apparatus that required alternating current had to be provided with power from a rotary converter.
New coke breeze fired boilers operating at 500 psi were installed which provided steam to both the Products Works and Beckton gas works. There was a new generating station housing back-pressure turbo-alternators that provided a.c. power for all the process plants and to Beckton gasworks. Any excess was sold to the Electricity Board via the national grid.
The old lime-soda boiler feed water treatment plant was replaced by one using a three stage system: lime softening, sand filtration, and finally base exchange softening using an ion exchange resin.
All good things must come to an end
In the 1950s Beckton Products Works was at the peak of its success. During the whole of its life it had been the largest tar and ammonia by-products works in the UK, possibly in the world. Thanks to the enormous financial investment in the 1940s and 1950s, it had reached a standard of technological development that was second to none in the by-products industry. Tar and ammonia by-products manufacturing was an industry that, for many years, been regarded as a poor relation of the gas industry: smelly, dirty, and archaic in its processes. This was no longer true of the Products Works. As a professional chemical engineer employed at the works, the author had the opportunity of becoming involved with some of the most sophisticated technology available in chemical manufacturing at that time.
When this vast amount of improvement and development at the works was being planned and implemented, it was confidently assumed that the Products Works would continue to exist and grow for many years to come. Sadly, though, because of the cessation of coal carbonisation for gas-making, shortly followed by the closure of the Products Works, all the intended improvements did not materialise. The end of the works, and of an era in British chemical manufacturing, was not far away. By the early 1960s, the life of Beckton Products Works was drawing inexorably to its close.
DECLINE AND CLOSURE
By the beginning of the 1960s, things were beginning to go wrong for the Products Works. The writing was on the wall for its demise and final closure, but in no way could any blame be placed on its management for what happened. The reason was that the quantity of by-products available for processing at the works had always depended directly on the quantity of coal that was carbonised to make gas. Until 1957, the throughput of the Products Works had increased steadily, as a society that was becoming more prosperous and an industry that was expanding in the post war period made ever increasing demands on the gas industry. In 1957 the quantity of coal used for making gas was unexpectedly large (and so was the amount of by-products produced) because the increase in oil prices in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis dictated a greater emphasis on the manufacture of gas from coal, rather than oil. But thereafter there was a steady fall in the quantity of crude raw materials processed at the Products Works, as the traditional carbonisation of coal declined and new gas making processes were introduced that yielded no by-products.
The gross revenue from the sale of chemical by-products by the NTGB rose from £3.2 million in 1950-51 to a maximum of £5.6 million in 1956-57. Thereafter, it fell to £4.9 million in 1958-59 and (despite higher prices) to £1.6 million in 1968-9, when the Products Works was closed down. The quantity of crude tar that was processed fell by three-quarters between 1949 and 1969.
During the 1950s, because the government was unable, or unwilling, to introduce an integrated fuel policy, the nationalised coal industry was permitted to increase the price of coal that it sold to the nationalised gas industry to an exorbitant extent. As a result of the differential charging scheme introduced by the National Coal Board in 1954, the gas industry had to pay about twice as much for its coal as virtually every other industrial customer. The government was powerless to persuade the National Coal Board to change this policy. The cost of coal doubled in just nine years and, since this accounted for some 40% of the cost of gas making, the gas industry was placed in what was clearly an impossible position.
In addition to these rising prices, there was a continuing decrease in the quality and quantity of British coal available for gas making, and the NTGB was forced to purchase expensive coal from overseas. Even when it used British coal, the NTGB (unlike some other Gas Boards) had to pay high transport costs (which were rising steadily) for transporting coal over long distances to its gasworks from other parts of the country. It had no alternative but to look for other solutions to the problem.
In 1960, most of the gas produced by the NTGB was made from coal, but within a few years the picture was to change dramatically, until coal carbonisation ceased altogether in 1970. New processes for making gas from feedstocks other than coal were introduced. The most successful of these were the steam reforming of petroleum hydrocarbons, and the mixing of butane or propane with air. The substitutes for coal gas that were made in this way could be used without making alterations to domestic or industrial gas-fired equipment.
Then, just when it had been accepted that these new methods of gas manufacture would be used for the foreseeable future, another innovation arrived on the scene which, within a few years, caused gas manufacture in the UK to cease entirely. Natural gas (substantially methane), obtained from oil wells under both the land and sea, had been used elsewhere in the world for a number of years. It had the attraction that it could be piped virtually directly to the user, with a minimum of processing. By 1976 the NTGB had converted to natural gas.
There were no chemical by-products from these new methods of gas production, and the Products Works (being part of the nationalised gas industry) was not permitted to diversify into the manufacture of chemicals not related to gas manufacture, which the independent tar distillers were free to do. Some of these processed coke oven tar from the steel industry as well as from gas manufacture, so the changes in the gas industry did not affect them so much. By the mid-1960s the change over to the manufacture of gas from petroleum feed stocks had gathered considerable momentum, and the final closure of the Products Works was inevitable. References to the works and its products began to disappear from the Thames Gas Magazine (particularly when reporting the Chairman’s Annual Address), to be replaced by glowing accounts of new steam reforming plants and the importation of liquid methane by ship. The Chairman’s Annual Address of 1961 sounded a pessimistic warning regarding the future of the Products Works:
The by-products department has been going through a very worrying time. With the reduced quantity of coal gas made, the quality and quantity of the tar produced have gone down and there has been a constant battle, not only to find new markets but also to improve distillation efficiency so as to produce improved products for new markets. We now sell road tar to New Zealand, pitch for the aluminium industry in Australia, phenol to China, pyridine bases to India and creosote to Scandinavia.
And, in 1962, an additional problem – competition from petrochemicals – was mentioned.:
The adverse conditions for selling the Board’s [chemical] products in a world market, characterised by a reduced demand and fall in prices, have been aggravated by competition from plants installed by other refiners for producing petrochemical products.
In 1963, things were no better:
Markets for tar and ammonia products remained depressed. The effects of reduced demand and further falls in prices were aggravated by general over production. Continued expansion of the petroleum industry throughout the world d gave increased facilities for producing petrochemical products and many of the Board’s export markets for tar products faced competition from products of petroleum origin in the countries concerned. The search for new outlets continued to be the main object of technical and market research.
The 1960s was a period of gloom and unhappiness for the staff of the Products Works. It was clear that the days of this vast and successful chemical works were numbered and that it would soon cease to exist. It was obvious that the NTGB was eager to be rid of the works, to make way for the new high-technology gas producing processes and, later, the conversion to natural gas. Some damage limitation was attempted, but without much hope. Trials were carried out to see whether the Koppers tar distillation plant might be suitable for processing Venezuelan crude oil, since it resembled the crude unit of a petroleum refinery. It was found, somewhat surprisingly, that it was far more sophisticated than the crude oil distillation unit at a petroleum refinery, and so was unsuitable for processing crude petroleum.
Rationalisation of by-products sales was undertaken by the formation, at the beginning of the 1960s, of the London Tar & Chemical Co, which replaced NTGB’s products sales office. This undertook the sales of the, by now, declining amounts of chemical by-products (mainly road tar) from both the NTGB and the South Eastern Gas Board, which was in a similarly unhappy situation to NTGB. An associated company to the London Tar & Chemical Co was Salamon and Co, Rainham, Essex. This was small chemical manufacturer, in whom the GLCC, then the NTGB, had long had some sort of financial interest. Very little information is available about the company; its principal product was magnesium trisilicate and it also carried out the batch distillation of small quantities of tar.
During its dying years in the 1960s, the Products Works had a brief period of fame as a venue for the making of comedy films and TV programmes, such as Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World. The high mounds of chemical waste that bounded the works on two sides, known as the "Beckton Alps", were used to portray mountaineering scenes. It may perhaps be worth remarking that, after the closure of the works, part of the Alps was turned into an artificial ski slope!
Managerial changes began to be seen at the Products Works. Following the retirement of the Head of Research, the Analytical and Research Laboratories were combined under one roof, with a newly appointed Chief Chemist in charge of the two departments. The staff began to dwindle away. Some retired and others departed to posts both within the gas industry and elsewhere. Plant began to be dismantled for scrap. One of the author’s last tasks, before he left the works for other employment in 1967, was to test static storage tanks and rail tanks that had been gas-freed of flammable vapours and to issue a safety certificate so that they could be cut up for scrap. The process plants were gradually run down, operating at first on reduced throughputs and then finally closing down altogether.
The intention to close Beckton Products Works was announced in the Thames Gas Magazine in 1968:
As a consequence of works and plant closures already mentioned, and of the continuing decline in coal carbonisation, it has been decided to cease the processing of crude tar at Products Works Beckton by the end of September 1968, and to transfer the remaining processing of materials to the by-products works of the South Eastern Gas Board.
Certain plant at the Products Works which is required to generate and supply electricity and steam to Beckton gas works will, however, continue to be kept in operation for a while after that date. Nevertheless, this will, of course, represent the closure of the major part of the Products Works.
… following the Board’s normal practice, all employees concerned are being interviewed regarding their future, with a view to offering alternative employment to them, as far as is
The final report of the closure of the works appeared, without emotion, in the Thames Gas Magazine of October 1969:
The Products Works ceases operations. The amount of coal carbonised was half as much as the previous year, making economic operation of the Products Works no longer possible. Distillation finally ceased at the end of September 1968.
L W Blundell, Controller of By-Products, remained at his post until the end, retiring after forty years at the works in November 1969. The spraying of road tar continued until November 1969, when the last operation was carried out for Leighton and Linslade UDC. Since the Second World War over 32 million gallons of road tar had been sprayed, both on and off the NTGB’s area, from as far north as Buckingham and as far south as Horsham. Two sections of the new M1 Motorway had also been treated. The last train carrying chemical products: a load of pitch, left the works at 5.15 pm on Monday, 1 June 1970. After that, the railway system was closed down and eventually demolished. Beckton Products Works can be said, from that date, finally to have ceased to exist.
So ended, after ninety years, the life of a chemical manufacturing complex that was unequalled in the UK, perhaps in the world.
Beckton Products Works today
The author visited the site of the works in 2001 and was unable to discover any trace whatsoever of the process plant or buildings. The area had been turned into housing, commercial and light industrial estates. Bizarrely, part of the heaps of chemical waste (the so-called Beckton Alps) that bounded the works on the northern and western sides had been converted to an artificial ski slope! Some of the Victorian houses in Winsor Terrace were still in existence, but of the Products Works nothing else remained.