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The Native Guano Company at Crossness

Owen Ward


In mid-nineteenth century Britain the sewage question was imposing itself on people's minds and senses, especially the town dwellers and nowhere more so than in London. Despite a series of six commissions between 1848 and 1855 and the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) in 1856, which took over the responsibilities of the Metropolitan Sewers Commission (MSC), it famously took the 'Big Stink' of summer 1858 to finally precipitate action. Joseph Bazalgette, formerly engineer to the MSC and now Chief Engineer to the MBW, developed the ambitious and comprehensive plan to connect all the local sewers with arterial drains, one on the north side of the river and the other on the south, carrying all the sewage downstream for treatment and ultimate disposal, at Barking and Crossness respectively, well clear of the densely populated area.1 The question of how best to treat the organic waste preferably at a profit became an issue of serious debate, and one solution advocated was to convert it into fertiliser for sale to the market gardens which provided fresh vegetables for the urban population.

Such schemes had been a common feature of earlier plans for solving London's sewage problems. For example, three social reformers, John Martin, Edwin Chadwick and Thomas Wicksteed, each worked out significant plans.2

John Martin (17891854) was known as a painter of grandiose subjects in a grandiose manner, but, an avid social reformer, he proposed in 1828 the collection of the city's sewage in reservoirs beside the Thames. He thought that, by allowing it to settle, the solid part should be useful as manure, the watery part being run off into the river. Later plans of his proposed the diversion of the drains underground in iron pipes to convey the sewage well away from the built-up area of the city, and discharge it into the Thames downstream. His plans had no hope of success because of opposition from the existing private water companies who rightly feared that his plans for the fluid effluent were to be refined in such a way as to undermine their quasi-monopoly.

Edwin Chadwick (18001890) and the Metropolitan Sewage Manure Company proposed in 1845 to gather the city's sewage and wastes at 'some distant point' to be recycled back onto the land. But the business was never proceeded with because of the way capital and engineering expertise were attracted to railway speculation in the 1840s.

Thomas Wicksteed (18061871) was Consulting Engineer to five of the nine water concerns which so frustrated John Martin. As Resident Engineer of the East London waterworks he removed the source of the company's water above tidal influence, and used the machinery of Lea Bridge Mills to pump water from the river Lea into his network. Around 1850 he proposed a system of waste management which, like Bazalgette's, involved carrying away the entire sewage of the metropolis 'beneath the surface of the streets to a reservoir and works to be constructed in an angle between the westen banks of the Barking Creek and the northern banks of the Thames'. Although he wanted the 'solid matter ... to be dried and packed for transmission by land or water' he did not consider the fluid run off to be of any use and it would be let out into the Thames.

The most natural way was simply to convey sewage to irrigate and fertilise the fields directly. The Standard newspaper, in a report published in 1871 agreed with the view that sewage irrigation is 'sound and right ... for the plants need to drink as well as eat, and all their food is taken in a form which necessitates the presence of fluid'.3 But the system had to earn the cooperation of landowners, especially farmers, 'to perfect the drainage of his land, to lay it out in a certain way, and to adopt the necessary devices', and he is understandably reluctant to 'enter on such an undertaking'. It would therefore be more acceptable somehow to remove the solid from the fluid, usually by running the sewage into settling tanks, drawing off the fluid, and then dealing with the solid residue in some way so that it could be carried to the fields in the usual way of manure.


However, the liquid portion still contained considerable organic matter and was itself subject to putrefaction and the production of foul odours. This led to a number of attempts to precipitate the valuable constituents by chemical means.4 In fact a mysterious chemical treatment had been proposed in 1816 in a patent issued to William Higgs. Sewage was to flow into enclosed buildings and the gases 'collected, condensed and combined with chemical agents, and the salts thus formed were to be crystallised on an arrangement of spars or bars for application for agricultural purposes'. Other more practical treatments were often variants of the lime process in which milk of lime (calcium hydroxide/limewater) was added. Though simple and relatively cheap, the lime process was ineffective and in the view of the Sewage Commission was 'not profitable in an agricultural sense and did not purify the sewage.'5 A variety of attempts were made to improve it by inclusion of other chemicals such as iron salts and carbon in the M & C process and in the ABC process adopted by the Native Guano Company.

In the ABC process the sewage was treated with a mixture containing 'animal charcoal, blood, clay and alum' from which it derived the title of 'ABC'. Other chemicals, such as 'magnesia, chloride of sodium, manganese, sulphate of lime' were included in the process description, but these were later to be added to and varied from time to time as experience, and experiment, suggested. As Corfield notes, 'the only noticeable difference between it [the ABC process] and some other processes already described consists in the addition of freshly-drawn blood ... and a small quantity of various other ingredients'.6

The Native Guano Company

The Native Guano Company was established in March 1869 to utilise town sewage, purified according to a patent 'assigned in Trust to this company' for 'the manufacture of a dry and portable manure, possessing highly fertilising properties'(Figure 1).7,8 The patentees were William and Robert Sillar, both bullion brokers, and George Wigner of King's Lynn, a 25 year old analytical chemist. All three were amongst the members of the Board of Directors.9

George William Wigner (18421884) was employed by a chemical works and seems to have been inveigled onto the Board: presumably he was given at least a promise of some form of remuneration. However he soon ceased to take any active part in the business of the Native Guano Company in order to concentrate his considerable ability and energy on the promotion of his private consulting practice, and the formation of a new professional body, the Society of Public Analysts. At its outset in 1874 he was the joint Honorary Secretary, and by 1884 he had become President of this increasingly active Society.

In 1871 the Native Guano Company appointed Christopher Rawson as General Manager. The Company had been quick to get involved with the rash of sewage disposal plans mooted by large towns and cities in Britain and even on the continent offering to collect their sewage, clarify it, and help to sell the outcome at a profit.

The words 'native' and 'guano' were carefully chosen. The former was presumably intended to emphasise that this was a product whose source was easy to check because it was undeniably local and not of doubtful foreign origin. While the word guano was an attempt to benefit from the newly established reputation of genuine imported guano from Peru as a fertilizer rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and the subject of a lucrative trade.10

In 1869, after a temporary address at no.2 Austin Friars, the company had installed themselves by 1871 permanently at no.1 St Swithin's Lane, and it was from there that Christopher Rawson sought potential collaborators.

The Native Guano Company and Crossness, 1871/1872

With trials of the Company's system either already in process, or under discussion, in places such as Bolton, Leamington, Hastings, Southampton and even Paris, the prospect of the Metropolitan Water Board's large southern outfall at Crossness drew them like a dog to an especially meaty bone.

By 1871 the Metropolitan Water Board had installed four steam engines at Crossness which were busy lifting 50,000,000 gallons of effluent each day from sewer level into huge reservoirs, and the Native Guano Company proceeded to put in a 15hp high-pressure steam engine, by Messrs. Appleby Brothers of Southwark. This provided the power to pump a representative sample of one per cent of the accumulated sewage into the base of a vertical iron cylinder. Mixed in with the sewage was the selection of chemicals, at the ratio of one part per hundred.

At Crossness the admixture of sewage and chemicals was propelled to the top of the mixing cylinder, then allowed to flow along a channel to be diverted into one of half a dozen settling tanks. The London Standard newspaper reports on the exercise went on to recount how each tankful in turn stood for six hours, 'at the end of that time the floor of the tank will be covered with a deposit of sewage mud, while all above it will be clear water'. This fluid was then led to 'an aperture in the lower wall, whence it is intended to gush forth in a bright, pellucid jet'. Further refinement could be obtained later by means of filter beds. Once the fluid had run away to the river, the next step was to recover the potentially valuable 'mud' which remained in the tank in the form of slurry. It was now swept down a channel to smaller acidifying tanks where sulphuric acid was added to fix the ammonia. Any superfluous fluid was again run off and the residue was then dried. The Company already had experience of this part of the process at their works at Hastings where they used the heat from waste steam beneath a drying floor, but they were also testing a newly patented system at their Leamington works which they hoped would prove more efficient.11

According to the Standard newspaper on 2 Sept 1871 the experimental plant appeared at the eastern side of the Crossness pumping station on land owned by the Metropolitan Board. The company had simply obtained permission to occupy the site for twelve months and had to 'erect their own buildings, and find their machinery, chemicals, working staff etc. all at their own cost. The Board had the right to enquire into every particular as the experiment goes on ... nothing can go into the place, and nothing can be taken out of it, without the knowledge of the officers of the Board.' The accounts, the 'chemical facts' and the mechanical details are all to be subject to the investigation and oversight of the Board with a view to providing 'an indisputable report as to whether or not the company's process is successful both in a sanitary and commercial sense'.12

Dr Voelcker's report, 1870

The hopes of the Water Board for a profitable output were shaken by a critical analysis of the samples taken from the Company's works at Leamington by Dr Augustus Voelcker (18221884). He had been appointed chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society, and his report was published in their Journal in 1870.13 In his paper Voelcker commented at length on the details of the Company's process, and noted the large number of chemicals which, according to their latest patent, had to be added to the sewage. After an extended analysis he observed that of the main active ingredients 'alum for the purpose of clarifying foul water has been known from time immemorial', that there was no need to introduce blood, and the 'chloride of sodium being a very soluble salt will, of course, pass off with the effluent water'. In calculating the limited economic value of the native guano, Dr Voelcker concluded that 'it had not been proved that the process could be adopted with any hope of profit to the ratepayers'. His final conclusion was that 'the really valuable fertilising constituents in a ton of the manure may be produced in concentrated form and be easily carried by a lad on the field in a very small bag'. Adding the cost of the chemicals used to the trouble of conveying a ton of it onto the land the Company's guano was being valued at three times its true worth.

Effluent water quality produced by the ABC process during its trial at Crossness was reported to be 'on the whole very good' and 'in a fit state to be admitted into any ordinary river without producing a dangerous degree of pollution'. But it was noted that heavy rainfall over the whole time of the trial meant that the sewage at Crossness was abnormally weak and deficient in putrefactive matter. The results were therefore considered inconclusive.

Voelcker's criticism seemed to exclude any possibility of a profit from the scheme, and this was what the Water Board had hoped for, and had been promised. It must come as no surprise to find that the Board rejected the Company's proposition, and instructed them to remove their works from Crossness. The Company consequently withdrew, and were still writing off a small amount of 151 by the time of their statement of accounts for 1874/5.

The Company's growth and decline, 18901926

In the face of professional criticism William Sillar, one of the original patentees, was left to defend his process at a meeting in 1884.14 He didn't do very well. His chemical expertise was tested when he was taunted by members of the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Sewer Discharge. The commissioners, armed with Dr Voelcker's analysis of 1870, interrogated Sillar to find out what he believed was the special ingredient which appeared to enhance the virtue of his native guano. No-one had ever been able to isolate such a chemical and Sillar could only insist that his product must incorporate 'some unnamed growth producing characteristic' which he was unable to identify, but which was responsible for the enhanced performance of the treated crops as reported by some of the farmers involved. Some outspoken members received his suggestion with scepticism, even derision; others, perhaps the more open-minded, observed that scientists should be prepared to accept that they did not yet know everything there was to know.


The company maintained its positive attitude and, in spite of all the criticisms and setbacks, it continued to keep an eye open for any towns or cities contemplating new sewerage developments to which they might successfully link themselves. In 1877 the company signed an agreement with Aylesbury which was intended to last for seven years. The town had chosen the scheme because it was able to produce an effluent acceptable at least for addition to the waters of the river Thame, which in turn flowed into the Thames, and it was able to make use of installations already in place for another, rejected, process.15

Muted support came from one contributor to the discussion at a meeting of the Civil Engineers in 1887 who reasonably said that at least the company 'deserved, for its dogged perseverance, greater success in the future'.16 By this time sewage sludge with its 'growth promoting substances' was being obtained through cheaper methods than that advanced by the Native Guano Company by avoiding the use of quantities of expensive chemicals. Nevertheless they were given the opportunity to begin an operation at Kingston upon Thames in 1888, taking sewage from Kingston, Surbiton and, a little later, Hampton Wick. The liquid effluent was 'clear enough to be put into the Thames and solid matter ... was dried, ground and sold as fertiliser'. According to the local press it helped to grow harvests in Singapore and sugar in Barbados. Sewage was supplied to the plant at Kingston by pipeline, but following complaints from neighbours, the operation was moved to Southall in 1909 with the supply now by barges from Kingston, when the town ended its relationship with the company.17

By 1890 the Native Guano Company to support its claim of producing a satisfactory manure published a long list of testimonials from farmers who had been their customers (Figure 2). One such list appears as a whole page advertisement in The Farmer's Magazine for the months of April and May 1890 [illustr.]. It reproduces fulsome recommendations from seventeen individuals or companies, testimonials which are said to have been 'extracted from the fourteenth annual collection', fourteen years taking us back to 1876, or some seven years after the firm was launched. The price, held at 3. 10s. per ton, appeared, they said, extremely modest compared with the price of Peruvian guano at 9 rising to 11 per ton.

The company was however increasingly aware that, however well they conducted their method of treating sewage, other systems using fewer, cheaper, or no chemicals at all, were achieving results as good as theirs. And although their treatment had its virtues, it was evidently not able to operate in a way which gave the operators and the shareholders a satisfying financial return. It was in 1926 that the company was finally wound up, the shareholders receiving 3s. 6d. for each 5 share.18

The industrial archaeology

Scant remains have been found at any of the Company's working sites, partly because some were barely started, at others because nobody has looked.

The Archaeology Unit of Southampton City Council did undertake an excavation of a site which the Native Guano Company had entered in 1870 in Northam, to the east of the city. The foundations of four concrete tanks, arranged in pairs, were recorded by the Unit although only part of the site was accessible for exploration.19

From 1866 to 1868 the town of Hastings, concerned about sewage which was being washed up on its beaches, constructed a large sewer pipe which led to a reservoir to the east of the town which eventually discharged its load into the sea when the tide was running further east. The Native Guano Company joined forces with a local businessman, one James Rock junr, to create the Hastings Sewage Manure Company in 1870, and to construct the necessary premises for treating the sewage before discharge. It was later realised that the 'ABC System' didn't prevent the dissipation of unpleasant smells over the town and the Hastings Sewage Manure Company was wound up in 1874. The area was so comprehensively developed that nothing but a section of brickwork remains to be seen in the cliff behind the site of the former business.20

No-one has recorded any vestiges of treatment works which are supposed to have been undertaken at Bolton, Leamington or Leeds.


The author is pleased to acknowledge the help of staff at the Library of the University of Bath, members of the Bristol Industrial Archaeology Society and Professor Daniel Schneider of the University of Illinois. I am grateful for the continued support of the History of Technology Study Unit and its Hon. Director, Prof. R. Angus Buchanan.

The author

Since his retirement Owen Ward has been a visiting Research Fellow at the University of Bath attached to the History of Technology Study Unit. His research interests also include millstones and he has published studies on these for the International Molinological Society.

Notes and references

1. Halliday, S. 1999. The Great Stink of London. Stroud: Sutton Publishing

2. Tomlinson, C. (Ed.) 1851. Cyclopaedia of useful arts, vol. II. London, p 602

3. Anon 1871.'The utilisation of sewage and a description of the ABC process: reprinted, by permission, from the Standard newspaper', London: E Newman, p 10. Kindly brought to my attention by Celia Thompson, University of Bath Library.

4. Corfield, W.H. 1887. The Treatment and Utilisation of Sewage (3rd edition). London: Macmillan & Co, pp 307351

5. Op cit, p 310

6. Op cit, p 326

7. Patent no. 1954, dated 15 June 1868, as patented in the USA no. 91,373 dated 15 June 1859

8. 'The sewage question settled' published in London by the company. East Sussex Record Office DH.B199.1707

9. 'The Native Guano Company Ltd: Prospectus' (n.d. but 1869). East Sussex Record Office DH/B 199/1708

10. It had never been Anthony Gibbs' intention to deal in guano when he set up his export business in London in 1808. He became expert in trading in valuable goods with the continent of Europe, especially Spain, but from the 1820s the upheaval in that country led him to divert his sights to its colonies in South America which were then emerging into independence. By 1840 Anthony's son, William Gibbs, was the head of a reasonably successful company, but he was dismayed to learn in 1842 that the firm's family representative in the Lima branch had committed them to a monopoly with the Peruvian government for the purchase and import into Europe of guano. Guano had hitherto been spurned in Europe, but had long been appreciated in Peru as a rich fertiliser, literally heaven sent, in the form of droppings of sea birds on the bone dry Chincha Island off their west coast. Contrary to his own expectations, William Gibbs, who was already well off, managed the trade in guano so adroitly that he accumulated enough wealth to buy and adapt a substantial 30 year old country house at Tyntesfield near Wraxall in north Somerset acquired by the National Trust in 2002.

11. Anon 1871. 'The utilisation of sewage and a description of the ABC process: reprinted, by permission, from the Standard newspaper', London: E Newman, pp 916.

12. Op cit

13. Voelcker, A. 1870. 'On the composition and practical value of several samples of native guano prepared by the ABC sewage process of the Native Guano Company'. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, pp 41525

14. Royal Commission on Metropolitan Sewage Discharge, Minutes of evidence taken before the Commission from May 1884 to October 1884, Vol. II, 1885 [C. 4253-I], pp 2633, on pp 26, 27

15. The Engineer, 1 June 1877, p 169. Kindly brought to my attention by William Pummell, BIAS

16. Trans. Inst. Civil Engineers, 1888, p 225

17. 'Notes from Bob Carr'. GLIAS Newsletter, February 1995

18. Schneider, D. 2011. Hybrid nature: sewage treatment and the contradictions of the industrial ecosystem. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, pp 127, 139, 1567

19. Russell, A.D. 2000, Council Archaeological Report SOU1000, Southampton

20. Peak, S, 'Rock a Nore', Hastings Chronicle, 2010

© GLIAS, 2016