13th September 2018 talk. Notes by Eion MacDonald. Photos in Public Domain or CC by SA

Our meeting had 29 members and 8 visitors to a

Talk by Dr Diane Leitch MBE on:
 The History & Development of the Chemical Industries in Runcorn & Widnes.

Catalyst Museum of the Chemical Industry Widnes 640px Catalyst Science Discovery Centre
Catalyst Discovery Centre & Museum

Dr Diana Leitch took us through two centuries of the chemical industry's development, highlighting the key role that both Runcorn and Widnes and the surrounding area played when populated by ‘incomers’ and locals in the history of the chemical industry.
Dr Diana Leitch is a trustee of the Catalyst Discovery Centre in Widnes and has a background, as a local person, and is an eminent historical librarian to the chemical industry. While on her way to us she visited Croft Church where her great grandparents were married.

It is a story of new incoming people developing an industry with all the trials of invention, partnerships (often broken), using the area resources in travel, transport and raw materials, all of which playing a part. The ‘wastelands of Widnes’ was a relatively cheap place to erect a works and import labour from anywhere.

Before the industry came.

Refer website

From website files. Copyright acknowledged.

no mans land sm


 Rural to Industrial.

Liverpool and Manchester people went to the rural villages of Runcorn and Widnes for the good of their health, sea bathing and ‘taking the waters’ in the eighteenth century. But within 50 years there were complaints about 'acid rain' killing trees, bad odours and ill health. Building of taller factory chimneys was a way to mitigate the pollution but it was ineffective, and living conditions deteriorated. The difficulty to get work meant the towns continued to attract people as they offered employment. The raw materials were obtainable by new transport arrangements then under development: salt from Cheshire, coal from Lancashire, lime from Buxton and North Wales obtained by canal or railway, and labour from Ireland, Russia, Lithuania, Romania, Scotland and Wales. New innovations including French developments (as some French patents were not enforced due to lack of funds to re-new them) assisted English use of the French new chemical knowledge. Immigrants have been constant in UK development over the last 2000 years or so.


PD Taken from Charles Nicksons History of Runcorn published in 1887. It shows the Bridgewater Canal with Hazlehursts factory on the left and Johnsons640px Runcorn soapworks

Factories on Bridgewater canal.


PD Runcorn Dock Engraving by Hedley Fitton died 1929 Date 1880s Source Nickson Charles 1887 History of Runcorn London and Warrington Mackie Co. Author Scanned and enhanced by Peter I. Vardy800px Runcorn Dock


 (PD) Runcorn Dock Engraving by Hedley Fitton died 1929 Date 1880s Source Nickson Charles 1887 History of Runcorn London and Warrington Mackie Co. Author Scanned and enhanced by Peter I. Vardy800px Runcorn Dock




The factory developers 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. These people made the ‘must have’ products of the time (soap and bleach) which changed the health of others if not their workers.

Soap was regarded as a brilliant product because it made people and clothes clean. Heaps of the notorious waste product [galligu] were regarded as a necessary evil. The usual age range of workers were: children of say 12 years to “old” men at 40 years due to industrial ill health. 12-year-old boys made packing cases, and women cut up and packed the soap, with heavy labour on the vats by men.

PD Henry Brunner chemist scanned and enhanced from Hardie D W F A History of the Chemical Industry in WidnesHenry Brunner

   Henry Brunner
( PD )Henry Brunner, chemist  scanned and enhanced from Hardie, D W F, "A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes"    Henry_Brunner


PD John Hutchinson scanned and enhanced from Hardie D W F A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes 524px John Hutchinson

John Hutchinson
(PD )John Hutchinson scanned and enhanced from Hardie, D W F, "A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes" 524px-John_Hutchinson


CCby SA NicholasLeblanc

The process developer.
CCby SA NicholasLeblanc





 Gossages Dry Soap Wheel Brand enamel sign now in the cafe at Catalyst Science Discovery Centre Widnes England by Andy Mabbett640px Catalyst 2015 08 08 Andy Mabbett 06

The product, soap

Gossage's Brand




The talk was extremely well illustrated with many old photographs which showed the bad working conditions and the separation of labour for jobs, light work for children, medium work for females and heavy work by males.

Photographs of 'bleach men' swathed in cloth, whose bare hands suffered chemical burns.

Worker in Bleach 800px Catalyst 2188



Small companies and amalgamations.

The small initial companies went through the normal (industrial revolution) process of fighting each other, lawsuits, amalgamation, bankruptcies, and people going off to try their own thing, and do better than their previous masters, some emigrating to do so.

The Salt Union was founded in 1882, piping brine to Weston Point. Where still salt products are made.

The United Alkali Company was founded in 1890 as an amalgamation of small firms, to try to survive and fight off competition. The Hurter Laboratory was established in Widnes by a Swiss chemist. The Castner Kellner works was set up in Runcorn to produce chlorine . Chlorine is stil produced at Runcorn y the technical descendant of the old firms under the Ineos Group facilities “INEOS Enterprises / Inovyn” making chlorine derivatives in Runcorn some 120 odd years after starting.


20th Century.

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. Rose Queen festivals and pensioners' parties were recorded in the staff magazine; the copies held at Catalyst are now a major and useful historical source for these activities. The company name “ICI” has now disappeared, as the various divisions were sold off one by one, in order for some parts to survive under different ownership.



War activities.

World war I saw production of chemicals for munitions.
World war II saw Widnes play a key (though it was then a “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. Which produced silence but locals all knew it as the “Hush Hush” plant, somewhat similar to the atomic bomb plant in USA where new arrivals at local town told to ask for a specific innocuous name were advised by local bus company “oh, you mean the new weapons plant”.

After the war, the research continued. Dr Charles Suckling, who lived in Woolton, invented Halothane, the first non-flammable anaesthetic. This was a major step in health, (and safety) and is used still in some low income countries while its derivatives are used in major economies.


340px Halothane container

Halothane container. (Catalyst photo)



INEOS salt in Runcorn today.

INEOS vacuum salt plant at Runcorn, Cheshire supplies a range of quality products that fit most applications and industry needs including food salts, water softening salts, animal feed, industrial and chemical, and de-icing salts and operates to ISO9001:2000 standard.

Picture on website:


geograph 1693236 by Alan James

Todays bridges at Runcorn-Widnes


Spike Island Widnes Winter Scene 291468

Spike Island today


Catalyst Discovery Centre

The modern extension Catalyst 1024px Catalyst 2149 



This is now a major museum and record centre as it holds among other things the old ICI records which are important for their social history as well as their technical records. Genealogy takes a major interest in people’s life with computer searches and the social newspapers of ICI now are a ‘mine’ for social historical research.

The Catalyst Discovery Centre was founded in the former Gossages building in 1987 to preserve artefacts and archives and to promote teaching of the 'STEM' subjects in schools. This helps the local area and enables incoming industry to get human resources from the local population.

It is a superb place for youngsters to visit and activities for them include ‘sleep overs’ which can be arranged. [This adult was very jealous on visiting and seeing schoolchildren building a working child-carrying-bridge modelled on suspension bridge joining Runcorn to Widnes.]

We were told a Manchester Ship Canal cruise was a way of seeing what is left today, as the industry was based on the river and canals for transport the view from the water shows the old and new developments.

Please visit.

The author recommends a visit by members, some have already visited the Catalyst Discovery Centre




John Hutchinson

Duncan McKechnie

Dr Diane Leitch MBE announcement in RSC Historical newsletter

2012 view on Uk chemical industry manufacturing.
Sites still operative, but ownership is diverse and not UK

Foreign Comment by The George Washington University, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences,
History News Network. “6/12/18”

Local notes
Chemical Manufactories in Cheshire - Nitre Beds, Northwich Salt, Le Blanc & Brunner Mond

Outside The Weaver Refining Company notes & GIF
The Weaver Refining Co Ltd
Riparian Manufactory, Acton Bridge & Witton Brook


Halothane note Wikipedia (low cost still in use in undeveloped countries)

successor in developed countries.


Photos CC by SA

Runcorn Widnes Gap Bridge


Chlorine production