THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY IN RUNCORN & WIDNES
Our January 2018 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Dr Diana Leitch - a trustee of the Catalyst Discovery Centre in Widnes - took us through two centuries of the chemical industry's development, highlighting the key role that both Runcorn and Widnes have played in its history.
In the 18th century, Liverpool people went to the villages of Runcorn and Widnes for the good of their health. But within 50 years there were complaints about 'acid rain' killing trees. The solution adopted - the building of taller chimneys - was ineffective, and living conditions deteriorated. Nevertheless the towns continued to attract people, because of the jobs available. The raw materials - salt from Cheshire, coal from Lancashire, lime from Buxton and North Wales - could all be easily obtained by canal or railway.
Industrialists also came from far afield. Johnson, Hazelhurst, Hutchinson, Gossage (an apothecary from Skegness), Gaskell, Mathieson and McKechnie (from the Mull of Kintyre) and Wigg (from Suffolk) became famous local names. Some of them lived in fine mansions in Runcorn, but others lived further away, e.g. Holbrook Gaskell in Woolton and Neil Mathieson near Sefton Park.
Soap was regarded as a 'magical' product because it made people clean. Heaps of the notorious 'galligu' waste product were regarded as a necessary evil. Men came from Germany, Poland, Russia and Lithuania - as well as Wales and Scotland - to work in the factories. 12-year-old boys made packing cases, and women cut up and packed the soap. Diana showed us photographs of 'bleach men' swathed in cloth, whose bare hands suffered chemical burns.
The United Alkali Company was founded in 1890 as an amalgamation of small firms, to fight off competition. The Hurter Laboratory was established in Widnes by a Swiss chemist. The Castner Kellner works was set up in Runcorn using American equipment - and is still producing chlorine 121 years later. The Salt Union was founded in 1882, piping brine to Weston Point.
The 20th century saw more mergers. Lever Brothers took over Gossages, and soap making in Widnes ceased. ICI was created in 1926, as a combination of United Alkali, Brunner Mond (of Northwich), British Dyestuffs (of Blackley) and Nobel (of Ayrshire). ICI was a philanthropic employer. Activities such as Rose Queen festivals and pensioners' parties were recorded in the staff magazine; the copies held at Catalyst are now a very useful historical source. Sadly, the name has now disappeared, as the various divisions were sold off one by one.
WW2 saw Widnes play a key (though top secret) role in the development and manufacture of poison gas, and research on uranium isotopes. The workers at the Hurter Laboratory and the 'Hush Hush Works' on Wigg Island had to sign the Official Secrets Act. After the war, the research continued. Dr Charles Suckling, who lived in Woolton, invented Halothane, the first non-flammable anaesthetic.
Diana recommended the Manchester Ship Canal cruise as a way of seeing what is left today. More especially, she recommended a visit to the Catalyst Discovery Centre, which was founded in the former Gossages building in 1987 to preserve artefacts and archives and to promote teaching of the 'STEM' subjects in schools. No doubt many of our members will have been sufficiently inspired by Diana's talk to follow her advice this summer.