T. Howard Deighton.

The struggle for supremacy : being a series of chapters in the history of the leblanc alkali industry in Great Britain online

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of soda (used in the dyeing industry), and many
other chlorine products have been their salvation.
But it can readily be credited that an industry
into which such a bombshell as the "Solvay"
process was thrown was bound for some years
to be perturbed and disorganised, and open to
attack upon all sides. No longer able to place
upon the market their main product at a price
which carried a profit, it became necessary to
develop the economic production of the residuals
which the "Solvay" process does not yield. For
a while it seemed as though the vast machinery
employed in the Leblanc process would be no


better than so much scrap iron, for the new process
forged ahead with startling rapidity. The very
existence of the industry itself, in which many
millions of capital had been embarked, depended
hereafter upon the output and price of the products
recovered from the "wastes."

To enable the reader to realise the situation,
one might for a moment picture in imagination the
position of the gas industry if an extremely cheap
and easy method of manufacturing electricity
were suddenly discovered. In order to avoid
utter extinction through internecine competition,
to regulate the selling prices of the Leblanc
products, to establish friendly arrangements with
the " Solvay " manufacturers, and to present a
united front in dealing with the growing foreign
tariffs, it was essential that some amalgamation
of the Leblanc Soda Works should be formed.
There was, and always would be, a demand for
chlorine and other products, and the formation of
a combination would enable all patent processes
to be used without restriction throughout the
amalgamated firms. It would further concentrate
all the scientific research work in one central
institution, and secure a unity in management
capable of effecting economies and enforcing a
general standard of efficiency. The same standard
of purity of the chemical products throughout the
numerous factories could alone be secured by
incorporating the Leblanc works under one
common directorate. Additional advantages would
also result in the reduction of cost of transit by


supplying goods from the works nearest the
consumer. With these ends in view THE UNITED
ALKALI COMPANY was founded in 1890 by the
amalgamation of 44 of the principal alkali firms in
the United Kingdom. Since that date other firms
have also been incorporated. The Company
consequently possesses the plant and processes,
whether patented or otherwise, of nearly all the
principal well-known brands of alkali and its allied
products. It has retained in its service all the
principal managers and technical experts who
were attached to the respective works, so that
continuity of manufacture was assured. The
organisation is now so arranged that the
manufacture at each works is subject to central
comparison and control, which has naturally
resulted in the best methods being adopted in all
the works, and in a levelling up of the quality of
their respective products. The total share and
debenture capital of the Company is at present
between eight and nine millions sterling.

A large staff of scientific men are continually
Laboratory, at "Widnes, near Liverpool, investi-
gating new methods and improvements in old
processes. This work, which has been of enormous
value to the Company, combined with the works
organisation, to which reference has been made,
has resulted in placing the Company in the
position of being able to manufacture its combined
products as cheaply as, and probably more
cheaply than, any other manufacturing concern in


the world. Notwithstanding this the struggle of
The long continued trade depression following
shortly upon its incorporation, together with the
frequent strikes in the coal trade and consequent
rise in the price of the raw materials, and the
steady growth of hostile tariffs, struck severely at
the prosperity of the newly-founded organisation.
Then, too, the Company was dependent upon the
proprietors of salt beds and copper mines for the
supply of salt and pyrites, the very thews and
sinews of the industry.

gradually triumphed over all these adverse
circumstances, until now in possession of its
own inexhaustible salt deposits and its own
pyrites mines, it occupies a position of exceptional
independence, with brighter prospects before it
of prosperous achievement than at any moment of
its previous history, must be told in another


THE Leblanc alkali trade may be likened to
a ponderous building resting upon four
massive piers, each pier being absolutely essential
to the support of the superstructure. The piers
may further be represented as hewn out of the
four minerals which constitute the raw materials
of the alkali manufacture coal, limestone, salt
and pyrites. A "corner" in any one of these four
great staples of the industry, or sudden fluctuations
in their market price, would be capable of dis-
organising the whole alkali trade, by raising the
cost of production so as to leave no margin of
profit. One of the earliest and heaviest tasks of the
amalgamated companies, lay in the inauguration
of a policy whereby THE UNITED ALKALI COMPANY
should be raised to a position of independence,
and protected against the variations of fortune to
which those dependent upon others are, and ever
must be, open. In other words, the Directorate
felt the imperative need of owning their own salt
and pyrites, the two mainstays of the industry
most subject to fluctuations in price. Coal and
limestone do not present the same problem.
Though the latter materials rise and fall in value,


largely in sympathy with the price of labour, there
is no possibility of any monopoly in them being
established. Coal and limestone (or chalk) are,
moreover, found in such extraordinary abundance
in Great Britain, that a contemplation of any
shortage in the supply of these prime necessities
is outside the range of practical politics. THE
UNITED ALKALI COMPANY can draw upon in-
numerable sources for the supply of these
commodities. But the case is quite otherwise in
respect to salt and pyrites. They are neither
so abundant nor so widely disseminated. A
monopoly of the output of these materials is

The salt lands in Great Britain, until quite
recently, were supposed to lie almost entirely in
Cheshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. But
in 1862, whilst boring for water near Middlesbrough,
an extensive deposit of rock salt was discovered.
Incidentally, petroleum was also tapped, but not
in paying quantities. Again, in the "seventies,"
at Preesall, near Fleetwood, when in search of
hematite iron ore, a very valuable bed of rock
salt, some 3Ooft.-5ooft. thick, was penetrated at a
depth of 400 feet from the surface. Though the
existence of this salt bed had been proved, as
above stated, it was not until 1889 that, through
the untiring energy and foresight of the late Mr.
Joseph Wethered, this immense and virgin salt
field was explored and developed. In association
with Mr. F. H. Gossage, of Liverpool, and Mr.
Charles Thomas, of Bristol, the undertaking


known as the Fleetwood Salt Company Limited
was established, being subsequently acquired by
magnificent works on the most modern lines for
the manufacture of alkali by the Solvay process
(to which system frequent reference has already
been made), and at the present moment many
thousands of tons of soda ash are turned out
annually from this factory alone.

Briefly put, the whole of this process as
conducted at the Fleetwood works consists, as
stated in the last chapter, in saturating brine with
ammonia gas, and afterwards with carbonic acid
gas. Bi-carbonate of soda is precipitated as a
sediment and is filtered out. The bi-carbonate is
then converted into soda ash by strongly heating
it in a "muffle" furnace. The ammonia gas is
obtained from the by-products of the power-gas
plant, and the carbonic acid gas from lime kilns.
It is a simple process, but one involving many
mechanical difficulties. In 1894, the Company
opened out a mine at Preesall, and are now
raising some 4,000 tons per week of salt. A
descent into the Preesall pit is an experience of
unusual interest. Though the mining operations
have only been conducted for a dozen years,
the weird lofty cavernous vaults formed by the
excavation of over a million tons of salt are
sufficiently impressive, when illuminated as they
are by electricity, to bewilder the spectator who
visits them for the first time. The rock salt is so


dense and tough that it is necessary to win it by
blasting. It is discharged directly from the mouth
of the mine into railway trucks beneath, and is
then run down to Preesall jetty, where vessels and
steamers up to 1,600 tons, exempt from all dock
dues, can be loaded with great rapidity. With
such enormous supplies of salt at command THE
UNITED ALKALI COMPANY can not only supply all
its own wants, but has also become the second
largest white salt manufacturer in Great Britain,
having put down extensive evaporating works both
at Fleetwood and Middlesbrough.

The Fleetwood Rock Salt has established for
itself a very high reputation both in the Australian
and South American markets, especially for cattle
purposes. For these two particular markets the
Rock is not only loaded direct from the Fleetwood
docks, but is also shipped from Liverpool and
elsewhere. Agriculturists know the value of salt
in "sweetening" old pastures, and consequently
the Fleetwood "Fine Screened Rock" is in great
demand amongst agricultural communities. Large
quantities are sent every year to Denmark,
Holland, and Belgium, in addition to the home
consumption. At the port of Fleetwood, vessels
up to 5,000 tons burden can enter the docks,
which offer every facility for quick despatch of
tonnage. Vessels loading salt at the Company's
Burn Naze Jetty are also exempt from dock dues,
and the trimming of cargoes in bulk is undertaken
by the Company at a merely nominal charge.
The essential feature of the Fleetwood Salt


obtained by evaporating the brine, is its brilliant
colour and its flocculent nature, which have
obtained for it a recognised character in the home
and export markets. The various qualities of
table salt are prepared by the latest milling
processes. Perfect cleanliness is enforced in the
manufacture, rendering it particularly suited for
domestic purposes. "Common" salt is largely
exported to the Baltic, Canadian, and Continental
markets during the season. In India and Burmah
"Fleetwood Butter Salt" has also won a high
appreciation, owing to its brightness, whiteness,
and lightness. For fish curing purposes Fleetwood
Salt is largely shipped, among other markets,
to the Faroe and Iceland fisheries.

To render its position still further secure, and
even impregnable, in the matter of its salt supply,
the Company has also acquired, some seven or
eight years ago, the Wimboldsley estate, near
Winsford in Cheshire, consisting of 1,000 acres of
the very best salt land in the county. At present
this source is untapped, and is being kept as a
reserve in case of need. The Company is also the
proprietor of large salt works at Middlesbrough-
on-the-Tees, where the deposits are much further
down than at Fleetwood, being from 800 feet to
i, 600 feet from the surface. The salt is not mined
here, but is obtained in the following manner. A
bore-hole is driven, into which a double iron pipe,
one within the other, is lowered, and, in the jacket
or annulus thus formed, fresh water is let down to
form brine. This is pumped up again through


the inner tube. No doubt vast cavities are being
formed in the bed of rock salt, but owing to the
depth at which it lies, and the thick, strong rock
roof over it, no subsidences have taken place as in
the Midland districts, nor, indeed, are they likely
to take place. The Company now possesses an
almost inexhaustible supply of salt (the starting
point of the alkali industry), and is, therefore,
completely independent of any external control of
the salt trade. This is particularly fortunate in
view of recent movements, which have been made
in certain directions, to restrict the output of this

Of the four great pillars upon which the
complex structure of the alkali trade rests, the
last, but not least, to be considered is the raw
material known as "pyrites." The same policy
which dictated the acquisition by the Company of
its own " salt lands," has led also to the purchase
of extensive deposits of copper pyrites. The chief
supplies of pyrites suitable for the purposes of the
alkali trade are drawn from the vast deposits in
Spain. Within the last two years THE UNITED
ALKALI COMPANY has acquired large properties in
the province of Huelva, in close proximity to the
famous Tharsis and Rio Tinto Mines. Within
the present year some 75,000 tons of these pyrites,
from the Company's own properties, were shipped
direct from Huelva to Garston (above Liverpool),
within easy reach of the great centres of the
chemical industry at Widnes, Runcorn and St.
Helens. This figure can be largely exceeded in



the future. The possession of its own pyrites
deposits cannot fail to have a profound influence
upon the future prosperity of the Company.
Instead of being in the hands of the mine owners,
whose prices for ore were constantly fluctuating, it
is now itself in the position of a proprietor, and is,
therefore, independent of outside control. The
position is curiously anomalous. The mineral is
required in the first place for the sulphur that it
contains. The copper, as described in the last
chapter, is merely a residue, found in the ashes or
cinders after the sulphur has been roasted out.
But in this instance the "tail wags the dog," for
copper is in such great demand that these cinders
practically regulated the price of the original ore.
Hitherto, therefore, the Company has found the
cost of its pyrites rising and falling in sympathy
with the copper market. For the future, however,
as owners of immense deposits of cupriferous ore,
the Company can naturally take advantage of any
advance in the market value of the metal. The
ore which is now being quarried from the Spanish
mines of THE UNITED ALKALI COMPANY is rich in
sulphur, containing nearly 50 per cent, of this
element. The residual cinders contain iron,
copper, silver, and a small, but appreciable,
quantity of gold. The above metals are extracted
by the Henderson process, described in the last
chapter, and contribute no inconsiderable share to
the profitable operations of the Company.

The forementioned acquisitions have not
by any means exhausted the activities of the


Directors in still further fortifying and intrenching
their position so as to meet foreign competition.
Friendly relations, as already stated, have been
established with the great firms which produce
soda products by the "Solvay" process. The
home and colonial market has been extended by
the manufacture of cyanide, fertilisers, soap, acetic
acid, acetone (for cordite purposes), disinfectants,
and by many chlorine products, besides bleaching
powder and chlorates, such as chloroform, sal-
ammoniac, chlorobenzene, &c. In conjunction
with a Norwegian firm, the manufacture of carbide
of calcium (used for the production of acetylene
gas) has been established in that country, where
water-power is to be had very cheaply. Similarly,
though in this case for tariff reasons, about
six years ago large interests were acquired in
certain concerns in America for manufacturing
the chlorates of potash and soda by electrolytic
processes. When it is realised that up till 1894
these chlorates were admitted free into the United
States, whereas now there is a duty upon them of
nearly 12, per ton, the necessity for the acquisition
of these interests will be apparent. The American
chemical manufacturer is protected by high tariffs,
and on that portion of his production which is
consumed in his own country the profits are
exceedingly high. The same is true of the
German producer.

The vicissitudes of THE UNITED ALKALI
COMPANY, as told in this and the preceding
chapters, have been the experience of many great


industrial concerns in this country. Not all of
them have survived the dark days of the last two
decades, during which hostile foreign tariffs, one
after the other, have destroyed the greater portion
of their over-sea trade. The foregoing pages have
endeavoured to show how, though sorely stricken,
this great Company has survived the " slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune." Founded and
conducted in no aggressive spirit, but simply upon
the principal that unity is strength by securing
for itself an unlimited supply of the raw materials
of its industry, by gradually consolidating its
resources, and by meeting competition with brains
the Company has at length arrived at that point
where it is able, not merely to hold its own, but
even to challenge the position of those rivals in
the strife who fight behind the sheltering barriers
of protective tariffs. The maintenance of the
supremacy in the industrial battle with foreign
manufacturers is no easy matter. Certain other
factors that make for, or against, success will be
discussed in the next chapters.




THE readers of the preceding chapters will
have already gathered that the term "alkali"
in its commercial sense has a somewhat extensive
signification. Originally meaning nothing more
than the carbonates of soda or potash, it now
includes a vast number of subsidiary and auxiliary
manufactures which could not under any modern
scientific nomenclature be classed as "alkalies."
In strict chemistry an alkali is the antithesis of an
belies its title, in that it is the largest manufacturer
in the world of sulphuric acid (vitriol). It will be
remembered that the first stage of the classic
Leblanc process for preparing soda ash requires
that common salt shall be decomposed by sulphuric
acid. Hence the alkali manufacturer is generally
also a producer of vast quantities of "oil of vitriol,"
to give it the old-fashioned name. Inasmuch as
this acid is in great demand in numerous other
industries, the Company, after supplying the
needs of its own works, places upon the market all




grades of sulphuric acid, at prices, it may be
added, with which others find it hard to compete.
In thus supplying the great demand for sulphuric
acid they are aided materially by their ownership
of the pyrites mines near Huelva, as described in
the last chapter. The practically illimitable
resources of sulphur contained in these deposits of
ore would alone place THE UNITED ALKALI
COMPANY in a position of exceptional strength
in the manufacture of vitriol ; but when it is also
recollected that the residual cinders after the
sulphur and arsenic have been roasted out are rich
in iron, copper, and silver, and contain also a
small but regular proportion of gold, it will be
readily conceded that the Company has solid
reasons for believing itself able to maintain the
lead in the manufacture of this highly important
chemical product. One of the chief uses of
sulphuric acid is in the preparation of artificial
fertilisers. Certain substances such as bones and
the mineral known as "phosphate rock" contain a
quantity of phosphates in an extremely insoluble
condition. To convert these materials into a state
in which the valuable phosphoric acid is present
in a more soluble form it is necessary to break up
the chemical constitution of the bones or " rock"
by means of sulphuric acid. The resultant pro-
ducts are respectively known as "dissolved bones"
and " superphosphate," familiar to agriculturists
as the most valuable of all fertilisers for the growth
of cereals and roots, and also for developing the
clovers and richer grasses on pasture land.


Agriculture tends more and more to become a
branch of the science of chemistry. The soil of
all old countries is to some extent exhausted, and
the artificial restoration of those elements of which
it is robbed by constant cropping is rendered
imperative if the farmer hopes for a profitable
yield in return for his labour. Two substances in
particular which must be present for the successful
growth of food-stuffs are phosphoric acid and
nitrogen. A soil deficient in these constituents
cannot possibly produce a satisfactory crop,
however careful may have been the tilling, and
however good the seed. Moreover, a soil once
deprived of its phosphates and nitrogen does
not readily regain them. The processes of Nature
are slow, and years must elapse before the lost
elements are once more restored through natural
agencies. To the modern farmer cheap fertilisers
are therefore as essential as cheap labour,
transport, or machinery. THE UNITED ALKALI
COMPANY is one of the agriculturist's most trusted
friends. Since it started this branch of business
its sales have continued steadily to increase, until
it is now the largest manufacturer of chemical
fertilisers in the United Kingdom.

Though the Company handles every kind of
artificial fertiliser, it has made a speciality of
superphosphates, which, used in conjunction with
farmyard manure, supply the plant food required
by all crops. The Company has lately built, on
the Manchester Ship Canal at Runcorn, a great
fertiliser manufactory, where steamers of large


tonnage can berth alongside and discharge or load
directly into or from the works. At the moment
of the visit by the present writer, a large Spanish
vessel of some 5,000 tons burden, from a port in
Florida, was unloading a cargo of "phosphate
rock" within ten yards of the machinery which
would presently reduce the rock to powder, before
mixing it with the dissolving acid. In this great
factory everthing is designed to save labour. As
the cargoes of phosphates, bones and other raw
materials come up the canal, they can be dis-
charged by an elevator, day or night, on to a high
stage, which thus places them on the desired level.
Very little manual labour is then bestowed upon
them until they reach the final operation of being
stowed in the form of finished products in the hold
of some ocean-going or coasting vessel. A quantity
approaching 100,000 tons of superphosphate is at
present turned out annually from the works of
the Company, much of which is exported to our
colonies and foreign countries, where its value
is appreciated quite as well as amongst British
agriculturists. The power for this extensive factory
is supplied by a 6oo-h.p. Corliss engine, generating
the power for driving the whole of the machinery
electrically, and for lighting the premises. The
Company employs a staff of highly-trained scientific
experts, who are also practically acquainted with
agricultural subjects. Special combinations of
fertilisers are manufactured for the culture of the
vine, tea, sugar, tobacco, cotton, beetroot, rice,
&c., each mixture being devised to meet the


particular needs of the plant. Advice is given
freely to inquirers as to the best and most
appropriate fertilisers for any particular kind of
crop and soil, as well as the most suitable method
and time for applying them. Indeed, the Company
invites correspondence upon these matters, and
the expert knowledge of the staff is always open
to customers and other enquirers. The Company
issues a handy and very practical little pamphlet
descriptive of the various fertilisers. This booklet
also gives the analytical composition of each
(all the analyses being guaranteed by eminent
agricultural chemists named in the pamphlet), and
also contains instructions as to the soils and crops
for which each individual fertiliser is particularly
suited. One of the points upon which the
Company prides itself, is that its special process
of manufacture turns out the fertilisers in a

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Online LibraryT. Howard DeightonThe struggle for supremacy : being a series of chapters in the history of the leblanc alkali industry in Great Britain → online text (page 3 of 5)