by Roger Baker

Glaxo, Ulverston (L.Hill)

Bleaches and dyestuffs
Coal-tar chemicals
Paint and pigments

Cumbria does not normally spring to mind as a centre for the chemical industries, but most branches of the industry have been represented in the county.

This article is intended as a general introduction to the subject, and anyone interested in finding out more should consult the list of references and the links to other parts of this website and elsewhere. It is loosely arranged by time, and with rough links between the various topics in mind, but anyone wanting to jump to one particular branch of the industry should click on the links in the column opposite. Any notes in italics are mine.

If you know of any other information that I can add, or recognise any errors, please let me know at

The manufacture of copperas held a key position in the early chemical industry from the 17th century, but especially from the mid 18th to the mid 19th centuries. Copperas had nothing to do with copper, but was made from iron pyrites (alternatively referred to as “fool’s gold”, “marcasites” or “brass lumps”) mainly found in coal measures.

The manufacturing process involved laying small pieces of pyrites to a depth of 2′ in a tank, which was left open to the elements to “ripen” for 4 or 5 years. The liquor that was produced was collected in a cistern, boiled and cooled, with the addition of amounts of scrap iron to control its strength. Crystals of copperas (“green vitriol” formed on twigs and branches suspended in the liquor, and were used to produce ink or black dyes (or to darken other dyes). The remaining liquor would be strongly heated to produce “oil of vitriol” i.e. concentrated sulphuric acid, and the residue of red iron oxide used in pigments for the paint trade. The “oil of vitriol” was used to prepare Epsom salt from magnesian limestone – for medicinal purposes or as a mordant in dyeing – or with alum as another mordant.

The Carlisle Journal of 1st January 1820 includes the following sale notice:

“A well established works occupying 3 acres and having a long range of buildings, mostly cellared, containing 1 lead boiler which contains 5 to 6000 gallons, 4 coolers, 3 of which are lined with lead, several lead pumps (which are well supplied with water) and troughs and all other necessary fixtures and fittings. The cellars are flagged and walled round with freestone and bricks for the reception of copperas liquor to which belong the extensive beds or brass lumps near the same. There is no other copperas works in the County (but see Harrington below). A sufficient quantity of brass lumps may be obtained from the collieries at Whitehaven from which copperas may be conveniently exported.”

This was the works established by Sir John Lowther in The Ginns at Whitehaven in 1718 and referred to in R R Angerstein’s illustrated travel diary of 1753-1755 as the “vitriol works at Whitehaven” with this description:

“The iron pyrites, which is found in the coal here, is sold to the vitriol works situated near Whitehaven. The price is the same as that for coal, 3s 4d per ton. The pyrites is laid out in rows on a piece of ground that has been walled in. The vitriol is leached out gradually, depending on how much rain falls, and is led to a cistern. From here it is pumped up into the lead vessel where iron scrap is added in a certain proportion…..In this way 3 tons of vitriol can be boiled here per week, for which ½ ton of scrap iron is used. The vitriol is sold to Ireland for £9 per ton.The scrap iron comes from Holland, is bought in London packed in barrels and consists of old nails, locks, keys and all kinds of rusty iron.”

Rival landowners in the shape of the Curwen family took some time to respond, but in 1798 James Christian Curwen leased land at Walton Wood to Joseph Dutton of Liverpool for the building of a chemical works to produce copperas from marcasites. This became the Harrington Chemical Works at Copperas Hill. Dutton took all the brass lumps produced at Curwen’s “coal works” at Harrington, and could use his wagon road for transporting materials and copperas. A sale notice in January 1835, following the bankruptcy of the then owner Joseph Theodore Dutton, describes the works as “comprising all the buildings required for the manufacture of green copperas, vitriol, bleaching powder, muriatic and nitric acids, roll and flour brimstone, soda and soda or white ashes etc. On an extensive scale.” After a number of changes of ownership, and periods of inactivity, the works closed for good in 1855.

The 1847 Mannix directory for Cumberland includes both these works with another – the “copperas and vitriol manufactory” of Peter Spence at Burgh Head and West End, i.e. Burgh-by Sands to the west of Carlisle. The manufacture of copperas declined rapidly at this time with the discovery of better ways of making sulphuric acid, and the discovery of synthetic dyestuffs and pigments.

Whitehaven : Alan W Routledge, Tempus, 2002The history, industries and community of Copperas Hill, Harrington, Cumberland, 1798-1936 :
Olive B Townley, 1998(University of Newcastle upon Tyne dissertation in the Whitehaven Record Office)
R R Angerstein’s illustrated travel diary 1753-1755 : Science Museum, 2001Industrial sites of Harrington (research notes), Philip Ashforth, 2009

Although Carlisle Gasworks, for example, constructed plant in the 1890s to extract sulphuric acid from the waste products of coal-gas production, the manufacture of sulphuric acid on an industrial scale was largely carried on outside the county  in the industrial centres of Tyneside and Merseyside. Both Cocklakes and Long Meg anhydrite mines in the Eden Valley sent large quantities of the mineral to Widnes to make sulphuric acid in the post WW2 period, a million tons from Long Meg between 1954 and 1961.

This use of anhydrite rock for producing sulphuric acid was stimulated by the search for alternative supplies of sulphur when imports from America were curtailed during the Korean War. This was particularly fortuitous for Marchon Products of Whitehaven and their decision in the late 1940s to move to manufacturing on site of as many as possible of the raw materials needed for the production of detergents and other cleaning agents. The essential detergent raw material STPP (sodium tripolyphosphate) needed phosphoric acid for its production, which was in turn derived from attacking phosphorus rock with sulphuric acid. Marchon were virtually sitting on a huge deposit of anhydrite, and the Sandwith mine and sulphuric acid plant both opened in 1955. The manufacturing process involved roasting the anhydrite in a kiln to produce sulphur trioxide gas and cement clinker. Sulphuric acid production rose from 100,000 tons per annum to 350,000 tons in 1968, with at that date the same quantity of cement, 165,000 tons of phosphoric acid and 170,000 tons of STPP. In the 1970s it became once again more economic to revert to sulphur as the raw material, and molten sulphur was imported through the port of Workington, until production of sulphuric acid on site ceased in 1976, followed by phosphoric acid in 1992. (Click here to read more)

Gypsum in Cumbria : Ian Tyler, Blue Rock Publications, 2000

Alkali – carbonates of soda (sodium) or potash (potassium) – is the essential ingredient of soap and glass making. Although a salt industry was established in Cumbria – (click here to find out more) – it was not on the scale necessary to support an alkali industry like those based on natural brine or rock salt in Cheshire and on Teesside. Indeed, until the Leblanc process for the production of alkali from salt was introduced into this country in the early 1800s, potash from natural sources – wood ashes and seaweed – was the principal source of alkali.

Within Cumbria, the demand for alkali for use in the textile industry (see below) was satisfied by the roasting of wood or bracken in potash kilns.(Click here to find out more). A copper and iron cauldron containing birch twigs or bracken was placed within a stone cistern in the kiln and heated from below. The alkali in the resultant ash was dissolved with lime in a wooden cistern before being evaporated in iron pots. Research has located many dozens of these pits within a short distance of Kendal, for example, a typical structure being about 18′ across with the pit itself measuring 9′ or 10′ wide and deep internally. The industry became uneconomic by the early 1800s as high quality ashes were being imported from North America, and as the soda based alkali industry developed.

The traditional way to make soap was to boil together oily or fatty material with alkali and whatever else the individual maker might imagine would improve his results, such as sand, rosin, borax, fuller’s earth or flour. The addition of potash produced a soft soap, while soda was used to produce a hard soap. Early production of soap was usually based on rendered animal fat, such as tallow from beef or mutton. Later, growing imports of oils such as palm, coconut, olive, linseed and cottonseed oils offered a wider choice of raw materials. Up to and during the 19th century soap manufacture was a widespread affair with many towns having small local soap works. The Carlisle Journal of 11th August 1810 contains a sale notice for “The stock in trade of John Crighton and William Monkhouse of Wigton, tallow chandlers and soap boilers : a large quantity of kelp, rendered tallow, candles etc.”

During the 20th century soap making has become a large scale continuous process in centres outside Cumbria. However, advances in the chemistry of surface active ingredients have revolutionised approaches to the manufacture of other cleaning agents – household and industrial cleaners, laundering agents, shampoos and other cosmetics – and here Cumbria has played a part. The Marchon Company of Whitehaven has from the late 1940s been producing shampoos and toiletry preparations; emulsifiers for the textile, leather and food industries; and spray dried detergent powders. As early as 1949, 90% of the shampoos sold in the UK (under a variety of labels) were made at Whitehaven. (Click here to read more). Another local company with even earlier roots – McBrides at Barrow-in-Furness produces laundry products and household cleaners.

Marchon – the Whitehaven chemical works : Alan W Routledge, Tempus, 2005
A short history of soap in The Pharmaceutical Journal, December 1999
A little known late medieval industry – The making of potash in Lakeland : Mike Davies-Shiel,Part One – Transactions of the CWAAS, 1972, Part Two – Transactions of the CWAAS, 1974
Albion Square, Whitehaven – Investigation of an 18th century soapery and a 19th century foundry : Caroline Raynor and Stephen Rowland, CWAAS Transactions, 2015

The county’s textile industry also gave the impetus to the production of bleaches and dyestuffs. Until the 18th century, the bleaching of textiles was a slow, labour and land intensive process. The fabric was steeped in lye, washed, boiled and then exposed to the sun in a bleachfield for 2 to 3 weeks, a process that was repeated up to 5 times, before it was finally soured in buttermilk for several weeks. The whole process took 6 months for linen, and for cotton 6 weeks to 3 months. The first improvement came with the replacement of buttermilk with sulphuric acid (see above), which reduced the souring period from weeks to hours. Chlorine bleaches became widespread in the 1800s, and hydrogen peroxide in the early 1900s.

Before the development of dyestuffs based on coal-tar products from the mid 19th century, dyes were produced from natural materials – animal, vegetable and mineral – modified by the use of iron, tin or aluminium salts. These included:

  • Yellows using (old) fustic (tree from Americas); Quercitron oak bark (N America); Weld (plant)  “dyer’s rocket” growing wild and cultivated in England; ˜Persian” berries from buckthorn; young “fustic “ a small tree from the Mediterranean and Jamaica; turmeric from roots and stems of the safflower plant
  • Reds using madder (plant); kermes (bug); cochineal (beetle); the petals of safflower & dyer’s thistle
  • Blue using woad (plant)  and indigo (tree) – no other sources achieved any commercial importance
  • Green from weld with indigo or woad
  • Purple from madder with indigo or woad
  • Black using oak galls then logwood
  • Browns from redwoods such as Brazilwood, peachwood, sandalwood

The use of different mordants to fix the colour – alum, chrome, tin, iron – produced different shades. Alum was by far the most important in ancient and medieval times; potash was mainly used with woad; chrome came later; followed by sulphuric acid and Glauber’s salt. The Kendal Weaver includes a recipe for dyeing yarn green. “Dye wool with Indigo vat. Mordant afterwards with alum. Overdye with Genista tinctoria (Dyer’s Greenweed)”.

The industry in Cumbria was as widespread as textile manufacture. Parson & White’s directory of 1829 records two firms of dyers in Cockermouth – Thomas Robinson at Cocker Bridge End, and Joshua Sim in Main Street. The 1847 Mannix directory for Cumberland records at Weddicar (west of Cleator Moor) “a mill belonging to Messrs Randleson and Forster of Whitehaven for grinding dye wood, colours, cement etc.”. The same source records several “bleacheries” in Carlisle.

Kendal : A social history quotes from the 1856 catalogue of I. Braithwaite & Son – “Indigo and dry salters (a later name for dyers)” which lists “ebony, peachwood, redwood, royal yellow dye, white, cream of tarter, brown, fine red and prussian blue”. The Carlisle Navigation Canal notes that dye-woods were being unloaded in the city on the opening day of the Carlisle Canal in 1823, and in 1827 four casks of madder were included in the cargo of the Solway steam packet.

The Carlisle Journal of 4th May 1811 announces to be let at Kendal “a large and convenient dye house on the River Kent having 13 copper vats and the necessary utensils for carrying on the blue dyeing business, a store room, a printing room with 3 tables, and a store above”. The same newspaper announces for sale on 15th June 1811 at Caldewgate, Carlisle: The property of William Nixon, a bankrupt, at the dye house adjoining Mr Donalds print field : 9 large indigo vats with indigo therein and fit to work, 5 cast iron boilers, 1 large copper boiler, 2 large stoves and pipes with various other dyeing utensils, and about 6cwt of best East India indigo, also all the manufacturing utensils, viz an excellent new warping mill with bobbins, staffs of different kinds, hiddles, fixtures in the warehouse, and a still for making bleaching liquor. The dyehouse is let.”

Important natural dyes of history : K G Ponting, in Industrial Archaeology Review, Spring 1978
Colour – Making and using dyes and pigments : Francois Delamere & Bernard Guineau, Thames & Hudson, 2000
Colour : Victoria Finlay, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
Dye plants and dyeing : John & Margaret Canon, A & C Black, 2002The Carlisle Navigation Canal : David Ramshaw, P3 Publications, 1997
The Kendal weaver : John Satchell, Kendal Civic Society & Frank Peters Publishing, 1986
A history of Cockermouth : J Bernard Bradbury, Phillimore, 1981
Kendal -a social history : Roger Bingham, Cicerone, 1995

The large scale manufacture of pigments for paint (and other products) began in Elizabethan times with the making of white lead. Blue pigment has been made under the name of ultramarine since 1828, and was produced at a works in the south of the county at Backbarrow from 1895. (Click here to read more). The “Lake District At Work” includes a photo of the remains of the crushers at the Warton & Silverdale Paint Mill (c1880), which were used to prepare iron ore from the Crag Foot Mine for use as reddle or red paint (an area still known as Paint Mines Wood). The 1901 Bulmers directory includes a reference to the manufacture of paint from yellow ochre at Gildersdale Fell near Alston. Ian Tyler notes on the fellside above Roughten Gill an umber/china clay mine linked by aerial ropeway to an umber mill in the valley below.

The dyestuffs industry was revolutionised by the production of the first synthetic dye – mauvene (purple) –  in 1856 by William Perkin in London, as he was carrying out research on coal-tar extracts. Fifty years after the discovery of mauvene it was estimated that Perkin’s work had led to the existence of 2000 artificial colours. Tar was until then a largely useless by-product of the production of gas from coal – (follow this link to read more about gasworks in Cumbria) – but the second half of the 19th century saw an increasing number of coal-tar chemicals produced by the heating and condensing of tar. The products of distillation could be roughly divided according to the temperatures at which the various fractions appeared:

First runnings – up to 110C – include benzine, toluene and xylene for dyestuffs, and solvent naptha for rubber manufacture
Light oil – 110C to 170C – was in demand as a solvent for superior varnishes and resins
Middle (or carbolic) oil – 170C to 230C – contained phenol which was used in the preparation of azo-dyes, picric acid (used in dyes, explosives and flavouring) and antiseptics; and napthalene for dyestuffs (and insect repellent)
Heavy (or creosote) oil – 230C to 270C – for preserving wood, or converted to lampblack for printing or blackleading
Anthracene (or green) oil – 270C to 330C – to produce the dye alizarine
Pitch – residue over 330C – was used on the roads and as a fuel

Ulverston Chemical Works first appeared as Sadlers Tar Distillery at Sandside in the 1870s. Bulmers 1901 Cumberland directory includes entries for the Drumburgh Chemical Works, west of Carlisle, which was erected in 1856 and extended in 1881 by the addition of a tar distillery, and for Messrs William Metcalfe – tar distillers – of Grinsdale Bridge, north-west of Carlisle. Another works (possibly also by the latter company) was located at Flimby, north of Workington, but by 1910 this was known as the West Cumberland By-Products Company Limited, which absorbed the products of the various local gasworks. The West Cumberland Industrial Survey of 1938 describes the company as producing sulphuric acid, carbon di-sulphide (for the viscose industry), and tar products.

The first plant in Cumberland for the recovery of by-products from coke ovens commenced working in 1908 at Risehow Colliery at Flimby, and originally consisted of 40 regenerative coke ovens with plant for the recovery of tar, sulphate of ammonia and crude benzole. By 1938 these coke ovens and many more at various other collieries had been replaced by more modern ones at 3 central locations: The Allerdale Coal Company at Great Clifton (50 ovens), the Cumberland Coal Company (Whitehaven) Ltd at Whitehaven (69 ovens), and the Workington Iron & Steel Company at Workington (53 ovens). Crude tar from the Whitehaven ovens was processed at the plant of Messrs T Ness adjoining the coke ovens at Kells. Tar from the Allerdale and Workington company works went to the United Coke and Chemicals Company by-products plant at Lowca which was built in 1923 (and closed in 1978).

The successful tender for the works at Lowca from W C Holmes Company Ltd of Huddersfield included the necessary equipment – stills, heaters, condensers, tanks, washers etc – for building

  • Tar works (tar distilling plant) capable of distilling 100 tons of coke oven tar per day of 24 hours (with provision for extensions in future)
  • Oil refining plant capable of treating the distillate products from 200 tons of tar per day, working continuously, and producing crude naptha, crude benzol, naphthalene, light oil, light and heavy creosote, carbolic and cresylic acid, anthracene oil and pyridine
  • Pyridine recovery plant
  • Steam raising plant

The products of distillation were listed in the 1938 survey as

  • road tar for local use, with some export to Ireland (affected by competition from oil-based bitumen by the 1950s)
  • pitch – some to South Wales and the Continent for briquette making (but always difficult to dispose of)
  • carbolic acid, cresylic acid, pyridine and creosote chiefly sold for use outside Cumberland
  • absorbing oil – to iron and steel works ovens (as fuel??)
  • refined benzol is purchased by The National Benzol Company
  • sulphate of ammonia is marketed under the auspices of the British Sulphate of Ammonia Federation
  • whole naphthalene, toluol and napthas are also disposed of outside the Special Area
The industrial archeology of South Ulverston : Rob McKeever & Jack Layfield, R McKeever, 2004
Workington iron and steel : Richard Byers, Tempus, 2004
West Cumberland (with Alston) Industrial Survey : GHJ Daysh, Cumberland Development Council Ltd, 1938
Risehow Colliery report on the coke ovens and by-product plant at Whitehaven Record Office (T/NCB/6/49)United Coke and Chemicals, Lowca, 1923-78 – miscellaneous, including annual reports – CRO, Whitehaven (YDB21/1)
The Lakes and Cumbria mines guide : Ian Tyler, Blue Rock, 2006
The metalliferous mines of Cartmel and South Lonsdale : Max Moseley, Northern Mine Research Society, 2010

The sulphate of ammonia resulting from both coal-gas production and coal-tar distillation was in demand as a nitrogenous fertiliser. Indeed, Sadlers Chemical Works at Ulverston – referred to above – was by 1904 advertising itself as “Chemical Manure Manufacturers, for promoting the growth of turnips, mangolds, grain and grass”. The alternative source was from treating calcium phosphate (from animal bones or imported guano, but later pulverised rock) with sulphuric acid to produce calcium superphosphate which was then mixed with organic matter for ease of handling. The Kellys Directory of 1873 lists George Rayon & Son of Corkickle, Whitehaven, as “bone manure manufacturers”, and similar small businesses were located around Cumbria.

On a bigger scale were the fertiliser works at Silloth. The first was established in 1870 by Scotsman William Crab, the second by what became J & W Maxwell & Sons. Both used raw materials imported through the docks – phosphate rock from the United States and North Africa, sulphur ore and pyrites from Spain, kainite and potash from Germany and Israel.The process involved burning sulphur ore to give off fumes which were used to make sulphuric acid. This was mixed into the phosphate rock and ground to produce superphosphate, to which other ingredients were added as required. Maxwell’s Solway Chemical Works acquired Crab’s Border Counties Works in 1899 which then ceased production. Maxwell’s continued to expand, then in the 1940s became part of Fisons’ until closure in 1962.

One of the other by-products of coal-tar distillation was toluene, a colourless liquid which was until 1914 the raw material for the important explosive TNT. However, Cumbria’s role in the production of explosives – apart from the manufacture of gunpowder described elsewhere on this website (follow this link) – was centred on “the greatest munitions factory in the world”, constructed in 1915 to manufacture cordite – the propellant for shells and bullets. (Click here to read more about the making of “the devil’s porridge”).

Another unusual and short-lived project was the construction of the “magnesite” plant at Harrington, which was set up during WW2 by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to extract magnesium from seawater for use in aircraft components and incendiary bombs. Cheaper foreign supplies resumed after the war, and the plant closed in 1953. (Click here to find out more). And one of the many uses of the diatomite deposit in Kentmere was as an ingredient in the production of dynamite.

Mention has been made earlier of the use of chemicals in various preparations for medicinal use. The modern pharmaceutical industry is represented in Cumbria by the GlaxoSmithKline factory at Ulverston which was established after World War Two to produce antibiotics.  Plastic film was produced at Barrow from 1959 to 1991 by British Cellophane, with more than 60% of production going for export. Innovia Films (org. Sidex Ltd.) manufacture cellulose and polypropylene films for packaging and labels at its Wigton plant. Since 1988, PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) for plastic bottles and other containers has been produced at the Workington site of the Eastman Chemical Company (155,000 tonnes plant).

The way we worked (Book 1) : Bill Myers, Furness Newspapers, 2006
A Lakeland valley through time : Joe Scott, 1995
A century around Silloth : Peter Ostle & Stephen Wright, P3 Publications, 2013

The chemical industry : W.A.Campbell, Longman, 1971
The chemical industries (MPP Step One report) : Cranstone Consultants, English Heritage, 2000
Twentieth century industrial archaeology : Michael Stratton & Barrie Trinder, E & FN Spon, 2000
The industrial archaeology of The Lake Counties : M Davies-Shiel & J D Marshall, David & Charles, 1969
The Lake District at work : J D Marshall & M Davies-Shiel, David & Charles, 1971
Trade directories, both in print and on-line
The newspaper indexes by Geoff Oxley in the bulletins of the Cumbria Industrial History Society.
Cumbria Record Offices at Barrow and Whitehaven
The Catalyst museum of the chemical industry at Widnes ( )

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 23/02/14)