Backbarrow Ultramarine Works Company

An edited version of an article by Mike Davies-Shiel in the CIHS Bulletin, December 2000, by kind permission of the author

Click here to see more photos of the blue (and earlier cotton) mills at Backbarrow.

BLUE: A blue powder used by laundresses (1618) (OED)

ULTRAMARINE BLUE: Blue pigment originally from lapis lazuli (1686) (OED)

This company, headed by a Mr.King, bought the old cotton works in 1895 and transformed it into a large pigment factory supplying the then British Empire. Three-quarters of the output has always been sold overseas.

A tall chimney was built to the north of the main road through the mill complex, to take away highly obnoxious fumes from the process of making artificial lapiz lazuli. The firm used the large old south mill for the preparation, concentration, grading and mixing processes needed, and the middle mill (over the road) for firing the mixture using coal-fired kilns. The north mill was still then a separate concern producing woollen goods.

From about 1897 to 1913 they made blues, until a serious fire in an ancillary shed – probably due to sulphur catching alight – spread to the whole of the south mill and thus stopped all production. Mr.King asked his colleagues at Reckitts in Hull, who made a similar but not competitive product for washing clothes whiter (the famous Dolly-Blues), to do their mixing for them but not to fire the mix, since Reckitts used electric kilns which would alter the results.

Reckitts agreed, and by 1918 they bought out Mr.King’s company, and proceeded to restart the coal-fired process at Backbarrow. By 1929 the firm was Reckitts Colours, and they continued to work the site until closure in October 1981, the firm by then being Reckitts Colman. The firm employed 65 people, so covered in blue at the end of the day that those living in Ulverston had to have their own bus.

The mill produced an artificial lapis lazuli from a complex of raw materials – bones, china clay, coal tar pitch, coke, feldspar, hydrated iron oxides, silica, soda ash, sodium sulphate, and sulphur. No wonder that the works chimney was so tall! Each raw material was purified, powdered, carefully mixed by the gram, and then roasted in the coal-fired kilns. A range of browns appeared when manganese was added. Even then the process was not 100%, and browns and yellows sometimes appeared, and of an unintended shade.

The kilns were silica-brick built, in rows of six or so, each row in an iron framework, about 5m high, 2m wide, and over 8m deep, with flues running all the way through. Two groups of firing flues surrounded the central kilns of rectangular cross-section, so that pots of about 30cm cube would fit them tightly. Each yellow silica-brick pot of ganister was 5cm thick and open at the top. Once stacked full, the kiln doors were blocked up and steel guillotine doors closed over them, balanced by weights over pulleys. Large exhaust gas and smoke hoods sat over the kiln tops linking with the chimney.

Once fired, the pots were broken open, the contents re-ground to powder and sent back to the big mill for wetting, de-sludging, drying, and then matching by grade, shade and tone.

The Reckitts complex at Backbarrow closed because of a collapse in the demand for washing blue with the introduction of domestic washing machines and a new range of detergents. The bases of these were mostly manufactured at the new Marchon Works at Whitehaven, with a tiny secret something added by Daz, Fairy, Omo, Persil, Surf and so on!

The site is now a hotel and timeshare complex, but machinery associated with the works can still be seen, and there are photos of its industrial past on the walls of the Blue Works Bar in the hotel.

Additional information supplied by Brian Gamble, March 2006

The Backbarrow factory was acquired by Reckitt & Sons Ltd, and produced dolly and packet blue for UK and overseas use. This factory complimented Reckitts main factory which was located in Hull. Eventually the company changed its name to Reckitt & Colman Ltd, and the Backbarrow factory was incorporated into the Colours Division whose HQ was (and still is) at Morley Street in Hull. Another factory at Comines near Lille also formed a part of the division’s ultramarine capacity. Later a further name change took place, and the division became known as Reckitt’s Colours Ltd.. After the closure of the Backbarrow factory much of the manufacturing and processing equipment was moved to two sites in Hull. Eventually, because of environmental considerations, the factory was closed and was subsequently turned into accommodation for Lake District visitors. The Hull factory was subject to sale as a going concern and, whilst having changed hands several times since, continues to produce ultramarine blue to this day.

Lost industries of the Leven Valley – Backbarrow Blue Mill Film (DVD) : Oxen Park Cinema Club, 2014

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 11/01/15)