Chemical and Glass Industries in the North East

Chemicals and Glass 1800AD – 1900AD

The chemical industry of the North-East today is most closely associated with Teesside but the early chemical industries of the 18th and 19th Centuries were centred on Tyneside. The most important chemical activity was the making of alkali. When mixed with fat, alkali could be used to make soap, and mixed with lime and sand could be used to make glass.

ICI Billingham.
ICI Billingham, pictured from the Ferryhill area of County Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Salt making

Salt, made from heating seawater in salt pans using coal was an early chemical industry associated with the region from medieval times and was naturally associated with coastal areas. Greatham and Hart on Teesside were early places noted for the soil and Sunderland was making salt from at least 1511.

North Shields and South Shields were home to around 200 salt pans by 1767 and they created unpleasant fumes. Brine pumped from collieries could also be utilised in the salt manufacture as exploited by John Losh at Walker from 1798.

Alkali from brine

Alkali-making started to develop in the 1700s and was linked to increasing production of industrial products like cloth. Chemical products like soap, dyes and bleach were increasingly in demand and the need for glass also encouraged the industry.

In 1798 John Losh and the Earl of Dundonald took out a lease on a rich supply of brine pumped from Walker pit and the salt from the brine was later used in the manufacture of alkali. Alkali works were established by Losh, Wilson & Bell at Walker-on-Tyne in 1807. The manufacture of bleaching powder began at Walker-on-Tyne in 1830 and Losh Brothers soon manufactured half the soda in England.

Tyneside alkali works

In 1814 the Le Blanc process of making alkali from common salt was introduced to Britain making production easier. Alkali works opened at Tyne Dock 1822, Felling shore 1826, Friars Goose (Gateshead) 1828 and Felling Shore 1834. Such works also produced soda, alum and Epsom salts.

One of the great problems associated with the alkali works was pollution, mainly from emissions of hydrochloric acid fumes which devastated the neighbouring countryside. One solution was to build tall chimneys to drive the fumes further away and in 1833 the highest chimney in England was built at the Friars Goose Alkali Works. The Alkali Act of 1863 further reduced pollution.

Samuel Sadler, father of the Teesside chemical industry

Teesside chemicals

A chemical works was founded by Robert Wilson at Urlay Nook near Egglescliffe in 1833 to produce sulphuric acid and fertilisers. It was Teesside’s first great chemical works. Teesside did not, however, take over from Tyneside until the 1860s and 1870s. In 1859 huge rock salt deposits were discovered at Middlesbrough by Bolckow and Vaughan while boring for water at a depth of 1,206 feet.

The following year William James established an alkali company at Cargo Fleet and in 1869 Samuel Sadler set up a works nearby. Sadler’s works produced synthetic aniline and alzarine dyes and distilled tar. A new method of making alkali called the Solvay process, introduced in 1872, made the Tyneside industry uneconomic but was a boon for Teesside. Further salt deposits discovered at Port Clarence by Bell Brothers in 1874 also boosted Teesside production.

Brunner Mond

A number of salt works were established at Haverton Hill near Billingham in 1882 by Bell Brothers of Port Clarence which became the first firm to begin large scale salt production on Teesside. Salt workers were brought in from Cheshire and housed at Haverton Hill.

The salt-making interests of Bell Brothers were bought by Brunner Mond & Co of Cheshire in 1890 which became the giant of Teesside chemical-making in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Meanwhile rationalization of chemical firms in 1891 left only four works on Tyneside.

Billingham chemical works

The Chemical Industry was established at Billingham in 1918 by the Government for the production of synthetic ammonia. It was intended for use in the making of bombs for the war. The 700 acre Grange Farm at Billingham was chosen for the site.

The war was over by the time the plant opened and it had to adapt to new manufacturing. It was taken over by Brunner Mond in 1920 and manufactured synthetic ammonia and fertilisers.

Brunner Mond merged with other great chemical manufacturers in 1926 to form ICI. From 1928 anhydrite or dry gypsum was mined from 700 feet below Billingham for use in the making of fertilisers.

Plastics and nylon

The making of plastics commenced at Billingham in 1934 and a new plant was established the following year for making oil and petrol from creosote and coal through a process called hydrogenation. In 1946 another great chemical works opened on Teesside at Wilton on the south side of the river. Further lands were purchased by ICI in 1962 at Seal Sands where land had been reclaimed from the sea.

Petro-chemicals

Coke ovens used in the making of chemicals at Billingham were replaced in 1962 by new plants utilising the steam naphtha process which enabled the use of crude oil. This proved to be a much cheaper process of making ammonia on Teesside.

From 1964 to 1969 four great oil refineries were erected at the mouth of the Tees, two by Phillips Petroleum and one each by ICI and Shell. Their main purpose was to supply the Billingham chemical industry. A 138 mile pipeline was built in 1968 linking chemical works on Teesside with chemical plants at Runcorn for the transportation of ethylene.

Salt making at Greatham

Salt-making in and around Greatham (between Hartlepool and Billingham) had been important in Medieval times but by the 16th Century the industry had been eclipsed by South Shields on the Tyne. In 1894 the industry returned to Greatham with the establishment of the Greatham Salt and Brine Company by George Weddell. The works was later purchased by the famous salt-making company Cerebos in 1903

Anglo-Saxon stained glass at Jarrow
Anglo-Saxon stained glass at Jarrow : Photo © David Simpson

Glass making

Glass had long been an important industry in the north since stained glass glaziers were introduced to Wearmouth and Jarrow monastery in 674AD.

The abundance of sand and lime when combined with alkali from salt meant that glass has been an important industry for centuries. Sunderland and Tyneside were once again noted for glass-making from the 17th Century and from the 19th Century it was particularly important.

Glass was heated in specially made buildings called glass cones which channelled the heat from the central furnace in which the glass was made. Dating from 1787, the cone of the former Lemington glass works can be seen at Lemington near Scotswood in the western suburbs of Newcastle.

The Scotswoood Bridge and Lemington Glass Cone
The Scotswoood Bridge and Lemington Glass Cone : © David Simpson.

In 1827 about two fifths of all English glass was made in the Tyneside area and in 1845 South Shields was making more plate glass than anywhere else in England.

Sunderland was also rising to prominence as a glass-making centre. James Hartley’s Wear Glass Works was opened in Sunderland in 1836 and by 1865 one third of the sheet glass in England was supplied by his Sunderland works.

A Thomas Delaval set up a glassworks for making bottles at Seaton Sluice in 1763 and an important glassworks was established by John Candlish at Seaham in 1853.

Brewing

A chemical industry of an altogether different kind, but linked to the demand for glass, was of course the beer brewing industry. Major beer brewers in the region were Tetley’s, established in Leeds 1822, Vaux Breweries at Sunderland 1837-1999, The Lion Brewery at Hartlepool (later Camerons)1852, and the Newcastle Breweries established in 1890.

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