From Pickle Bridge to Wyke Lane
Samson Breaks & the beginnings of Bradford’s modern chemical industry
The business which became A H Marks & Company Limited derived from two remarkable nineteenth century success stories: the development of Bradford’s woollen and worsted trade and the birth of the modern organic chemical industry.
When the Society of Chemical Industry met in Bradford in 1900, the guide prepared for its members pointed out that ‘The foundation of Bradford is wool’. Five-sixths of the woollen goods manufactured or partly manufactured in the United Kingdom passed through Bradford.The city was particularly renowned for the worsted trade, with its wool- combers, spinners, weavers, dyers and finishers. On the success of the wool trade, the city’s population had burgeoned from 13,000 to more than a quarter of a million during the course of the century. In 1896 it was said without exaggeration that ‘Bradford is .. the metropolis of the wool industry of the British Empire. It is bigger, busier, and more prosperous than ever’.
The British textile industry, which owed so much to the woollen mills of Bradford, was largely responsible for the country’s position as the world’s leading industrial nation by the middle of the nineteenth century.The growing scale of the industry led to an increasing appetite for chemicals supplied in bulk to the textile trade for cleansing, bleaching and dyeing. It was the advances made in dyeing, as manufacturers searched for ever more reliable and brighter colours to promote sales, which helped to create the modern organic chemical industry.
Before the nineteenth century only a handful of dyestuffs were in use. These were extracted largely from plants, such as madder, indigo, and logwood, whose supply depended upon a good growing season. The skill of the dyer, stained and often stinking abominably, lay in using less than a dozen dyes to produce a variety of fine colours. He achieved this by soaking fabric in a solution of the dyestuff, his particular skill being in obtaining an even distribution of the colour over the fabric and ensuring that the dyed fabric withstood washing and exposure to sunlight.To fix the dye permanently to the fabric, metallic salts, known as mordants, were employed. The use of different mordants produced different shades or distinct colours.
The first synthetic dye was the yellow of picric acid (or 2,4,6-trinitrophenol), developed in London in 1771 by Peter Woulfe from indigo and nitric acid, but this was never commercially developed until the middle of the nineteenth century. It was only in 1856, with William Perkin’s discovery of mauveine, the world’s first commercially successful synthetic dye, that the revolution in the dyestuff industry really began.
Synthesis, described by one author as ‘the building up of complex molecules by linking together simpler molecules’, became one of the most important ideas in industrial organic chemistry. Its two main aims have been to obtain natural products by chemical methods and to produce completely new compounds. Synthesis was first propounded by Liebig and Wohler in 1828, who stated that ‘all organic matters’ could be produced in laboratories, but it was not widely adopted until the latter part of the century.
Perkin was a pupil of the famous chemist, Hoffmann, at the Royal Holloway College in London.He was only 18 when he discovered the first aniline dye.This occurred during an attempt to synthesise quinine, which was in great demand by the medical profession in the rapidly expanding overseas tropical colonies of the British Empire. Instead Perkin produced a mauve solution with the properties of a light-resistant dye.The response from dyers to the few samples of silk coloured with the new discovery was so favourable that in 1857 Perkin and his father built their own factory at Greenford. Perkin worked with Pullars of Perth to develop the necessary technology, passing on the technique to other dyers, especially in the Bradford area, where he spent a lot of time.The major advantage of mauveine lay in its resistance to light, since fading was the great weakness of vegetable dyes, particularly blues and purples. By the 1860s numerous aniline dyes had appeared on the market, although none of them supplanted vegetable colouring matter, since they could still not be used for dyeing wool.
Aniline dyes were easy to produce with abundant supplies available of the main raw material, coal-tar benzene. Coal-tar was a by-product of the coal-gas which lit up most of Britain’s largest towns and cities during the nineteenth century. Benzene was a major part of coal-tar.When benzene, distilled from coal-tar, reacted with nitric acid, it formed nitro- benzene, which could be reduced to aniline by the action of ammonium sulphide. This reaction later featured strongly at A H Marks with the production of sodium picramate. Nitric acid too, which until now had played a relatively minor role in the chemical industry, used mainly for cleansing metals, became much more important.
Then came the discovery of the azo dyes, based upon Griess’s work with nitrous-acid upon aniline in 1864.This created the first dyes, such as ‘aniline yellow’ and ‘Manchester Brown’, which could be applied directly onto cloth without the need for mordants.They quickly became the largest single group of dyestuffs, accounting for more than half of all commercial dyes in use in 1902. Coal-tar was again important. From it was distilled the carbolic oil which produced the phenol whose derivatives were used for preparing these new dyes.
The next great step was the discovery of synthetic alizarin. Synthesised by Perkin in 1869 from anthracene (another product distilled from coal-tar), this was the first synthetic material to replace a dye derived from a plant, since natural alizarin was the colouring principal of madder. This discovery represented the peak of the technological achievements of the British chemical industry in the nineteenth century.At the same time as Perkin was producing alizarin, so were two German chemists, Graebe and Liebermann. This was a sign of things to come for within a very short space of time the British dyestuffs industry, which had led the world until now, was overtaken by the rival German industry, which would dominate the market until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
That, however, belongs to another part of this story. In the August of 1869, the same year Perkin discovered alizarin, Samson Breaks, described in one newspaper as ‘a bluff, homely, outspoken Yorkshireman’, bought the cottage he was renting from a local builder in Wyke on the outskirts of Bradford. Breaks was a dyer’s chemist, born in Wyke, and several generations of his family had lived in Bradford. His grandfather, John, and his father, William, were yeoman farmers.William supplemented his farming income by trading as a grocer and tailor. Samson’s uncle, Jonathan, also had a small grocery and drapery business in the village.
Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the name is supposed to mean ‘dairy farm’Wyke had been a predominantly agricultural area for centuries. By the time the enclosure of open common and other waste land of the Manor of Wyke had been completed in 1821, substantial local deposits of coal and minerals were already being exploited.The earliest coal mine in Wyke began in 1728; by 1850, the mining interests of the Low Moor Iron Company extended to 72 shaft pits and 16 open cast mines. Like Bradford itself,Wyke was steadily expanding. It already had 4,000 inhabitants in 1869, and this figure rose to around 6,000 by the 1890s. Many of them were employed in the local worsted industry.
To service this industry, the Bradford canal, a short three-mile link with the Leeds- Liverpool canal, was completed in 1774 and continued to operate until 1922.The advent of a cheap means of transporting bulky goods freed Bradford from its previous physical and economic handicaps and gave further encouragement to the development of the area’s coal industry. Even after the railways appeared (Low Moor was linked to the Lancashire &Yorkshire line between 1848 and 1850),the canal continued to carry large quantities of coal (102,000 tons in 1910).The canal head became the focus of the coal and mineral wagon ways which sprang up around the local workings, largely owned and operated by the Low Moor Iron Company.The wagon ways ran down into the centre of Bradford, firstly on an inclined wooden track, and later on metal rails, using large wheeled trucks drawn by an endless rope passed through pulleys at each end, although horses were used on some sections. The Low Moor system included 22 miles of tramway, linking 8,000 acres of land locally by 1906. By then the mineral reserves worked by the company had been largely exhausted and the company had become dependent upon its collieries and holdings in the Leeds area.
Inhabitants were employed in mining, often working for the Low Moor Iron Company working at the local brickworks and at the extensive dyeing and finishing works operated by J Sharp & Son and card-making for the textile industry. The only chemical manufacturing of any description in Wyke went on at the small Flash Pond works operated by John Marsden, who was also the local sub-postmaster.
As a dyer’s chemists, Samson Breaks was breaking away from the family traditions of farming and shopkeeping and becoming part of Bradford’s prosperous and expanding textile industry. After serving his apprenticeship, according to a later newspaper report, he worked at James Sharp’s dyeworks for 14 years. Sharp was born at Shelf in 1828 and entered Shelf Dyeworks as a dyer’s apprentice’s assistant when he was 15. He then joined his father and brother in the Bradford dyeworks of George Armitage & Company and eventually became head dyer. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, he began his own dyeworks with John Sharp at Pickle Bridge in Wyke in 1861. Pickle Bridge illustrated the close relationship between the dyeing and finishing industry and the infant industrial organic chemical industry.A wide range of chemical activities went on there over the years in addition to dyeing and finishing. Acids, ammonia, tin and iron solutions, and wood liquors were made and traditional dyes were handled. For instance, the Sharps refined indigo to produce indigo extract.They added synthetic dyes when they appeared to their range of products.They set up a coal-tar distillery to make the raw materials for many of these dyes, such as benzene, carbolic acid, nitro and dinitrobenzene. They also adopted nitration to make the dyes themselves, including aniline, magenta, Bismarck brown, naphtha yellow and picric acid.
In 1879 James Sharp and his son withdrew from the Pickle Bridge business, leaving John Sharp in sole charge. Instead James and his son acquired the dyeworks at Heckmondwike and later built the Tower Dyeworks at Low Moor. The former was operated by James’s brother, Milton, through another company, known as M S Sharp & Co, while James and his son ran the Low Moor works.
In the late 1890s the two businesses amalgamated to form J & M S Sharp & Co, with the Low Moor business becoming known as the Low Moor Chemical Company. In 1898 it became part of the Bradford Dyers’ Association, combining 22 firms accounting for 90 per cent of the Bradford piece dyeing trade.
As a dyer’s chemist in the late 1860s, Samson Breaks would have worked on both natural and synthetic dyes. While synthetic alizarin eventually replaced the madder plant, it was not until the late 1890s that synthetic indigo was developed in Germany.While Breaks would have helped to prepare aniline dyes, azo dyes and alizarin, he would also have worked on improving the preparation of natural dyes, which still remained very important. Breaks moved with James Sharp from Pickle Bridge to Low Moor, and developed a close enough relationship with Sharp to act as his trustee in property matters.
Sometime between the end of 1881 and the middle of 1887, Samson Breaks also decided to become his own master. He left Sharp’s employment to set up his own chemical manufacturing business. He found a site a short distance up the road from the Tower Dyeworks. At a bend in Wyke Lane, bounded on one side by a road known as Saucy Lane belonging to the Low Moor Iron Company, lay the site of the old Wyke corn mill. Breaks was already in possession of the site by the time he bought it from the local maltster, James Briggs, in August 1887. It comprised a house and five small cottages and their gardens fronting Wyke Lane and the steam-powered corn mill and malt kiln, with water reservoir, which lay beyond them.
Five years later, on 20 May 1892, Breaks extended the site. He bought the farmhouse and outbuildings which lay on the south side of Wyke Lane and the south-west side of Saucy Lane, together with the barn and five and a half acres of land at Upper Ing, Lower Ing, Upper Birch Ing and the Tenter Croft. This appears to have been the smallholding once occupied by his father, William. Samson Breaks paid the owner, John Thornton, a waste dealer from Oakenshaw, £490 for the land and buildings. In September 1895 just over another three acres were added when Breaks bought more land at Lower Ing and Lower Birch Ing, adjoining the western boundary of the existing site and lying to the south of Saucy Lane.This was the site of the Bentley coal pit, connected to the extensive tramway network of the Low Moor Iron Company by a spur which ran alongside the boundary of the former corn mill and across Wyke Lane. The pit, with the distinctive pit hill accumulated from waste over many years, is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 but not on the 1908 edition. Breaks probably made an offer for the land when the pit closed sometime between 1893 and 1895.
The 1893 map clearly shows additional buildings erected on the site of the old corn mill. A site plan dating from October 1898 shows that the constricted entrance to the site from Wyke Lane led along a narrow track past a block of farm buildings and two pigsties (separated from each other by an explosives magazine) to the yard at the heart of the site.
At the back of the site remained the reservoir – until recent times the water supply to the site was always poor and the collection and storage of adequate water supplies was an important priority. Most of the small buildings within the yard were devoted to the making of picric acid, but alongside this particular synthetic dye, Breaks was still producing natural dyes. There was a small indigo extract making room, as well as a large logwood store (logwood black was regarded as the best natural black dye) bounding Saucy Lane.
By now the technological leadership in synthetic dyes established by Britain in the 1850s had been surrendered to Germany.At the 1900 Paris Exhibition the jury would remark that ‘the English in the matter of dyestuffs are not only behind the Germans, but even the French’. This decline had begun as early as the mid-1860s when the British coal-tar distillers began exporting most of their production, mainly to Germany, giving encouragement to overseas dye manufacturers at the expense of the home trade. This trend was assisted by the lack of protection offered by British patent legislation to home industries, allowing the Germans to make use of British patents to establish their own dye making industry.
Nor were British dye makers well supported by British cotton and woollen companies. They wanted good quality dyestuffs but they wanted them at the lowest price available. As a consequence they imported most of their dyes from the developing German dye industry. And, when textile firms did buy dyes from British producers, they often acted in concert to keep prices depressed.
This left British dye firms with little money to invest in the production of more advanced dyestuffs and the quality of the simpler dyes they were making was often poor. Even if they had had the money to invest in new processes, they might not have had the expertise to do so. Many of the chemists who had pioneered the earlier breakthroughs in the British dye industry retired early upon the profits, leaving the industry bereft of technical knowledge as well as business leadership. Neither the textile industry nor the dyestuff industry were interested in establishing an independent, diversified British organic chemical industry, like that the Germans had succeeded in building up.The fortunes of the few successful British dye manufacturers were so tied up with those of the textile trade that there was little interest in any diversification.There were other factors which worked against the British industry: the bias of the education system against ‘trade’; the free trade ethos which rejected tariff barriers; a patent law which favoured foreign inventors; and a legal tradition which was antipathetic to trusts and cartels. By 1914 there were only a dozen dye manufacturers left in Britain and German dye makers controlled 88 per cent of the world dyestuffs trade.
A striking example of the way the German dye producers dominated the world dye trade thanks to their science and technology was their development of synthetic indigo at the same time Samson Breaks was still making extract of natural indigo. Plant-derived indigo was very important commercially in the nineteenth century.With madder, it was the main colorant for military uniforms in the days before khaki was introduced. But the world supply of indigo was controlled by traders in London and Liverpool in collaboration with the Indian indigo planters.This not only engendered complacency among British users and producers, it encouraged the Germans to develop synthetic indigo. The first commercial production process of the new dye, based upon naphthalene, took place in early 1897. By 1899, when the British consul in Frankfurt reported that ‘The struggle between artificial and natural indigo has already commenced’, prices were already on a par with the natural dye. In addition, it was easier to apply the synthetic dye, which gave a much brighter colour, and it guaranteed uniformity of colour from batch to batch. In Britain the success of the synthetic dye led to an energetic campaign to encourage dyers to give preference to the natural product, all to no avail. The 1.7 million acres of indigo grown in India in 1897 had shrunk to a mere 150,000 acres by 1914.
The writing was on the wall for the natural dyes Samson Breaks was still making in 1898. He must have realised this for most of his production was already devoted to picric acid. Breaks was familiar with this process from his years with James Sharp, since the Pickle Bridge works was apparently the first works in the West Riding of Yorkshire to make picric acid. Through this connection, the business, which was still making picric acid in the early years of the 21st century, can claim a direct line of descent back to the first West Riding picric acid manufacturer.
At Pickle Bridge in the 1860s James Sharp made picric acid for use as a dye in the textile industry. It seems likely that picric acid was made by Samson Breaks at Wyke Lane from the very beginning for the same purpose.
By the end of the century picric acid was being made at Wyke Lane for use in a very different way. There were two phases in the development of picric acid – the first as a synthetic dye; the second as an explosive. (A third use, apparently, was for the adulteration of beer, as the bitter taste of the acid was supposed to simulate the taste of the hops!) Attached to the 1898 site plan was a licence issued to S Breaks & Son on 18 October in that year for the production of picric acid as an explosive.
Although picric acid had been produced in London in the late eighteenth century, it was not until the 1840s that much serious interest was taken in it. Picric acid is obtained by the nitration of phenol.The latter was produced commercially from coal-tar for the first time in 1847 by Crace Calvert, professor of chemistry at Victoria College, Manchester, although until the early 1860s it was common for impure picric acid to be produced by nitrating the crude oil of coal-tar.The French firm of Guinon, Marnas & Co in Lyon had developed picric acid as a yellow dye for silk in 1845, manufacturing small quantities of it from 1849. Three years earlier Ernest Sell’s coal-tar distillery in Offenbach had begun marketing the acid. In Britain the first commercial producer was the Manchester firm of Roberts, Dale & Co in 1855, six years before James Sharp started production at Pickle Bridge.
As a substance, pure picric acid melts at 122.5 degrees C while the melting point for the commercial acid was 114-115 degrees C.The acid, crystallising in yellowish-white needles and granules, melts when strongly heated to form a brownish-yellow liquid which solidifies in a crystalline mass on cooling.When dissolved in water, picric acid has a deeper colour than when solid. It was not a pleasant substance to work with. Any unprotected parts of the skin, nails, teeth and hair were stained a deep yellow, which became such a characteristic of picric acid workers that they were often known as ‘canaries’. The acid produced a constant bitter taste in the mouth, and was liable to cause, amongst other things, loss of appetite, occasional vomiting and nausea, conjunctivitis, eczema, perforation of the nasal wall, and irritation of the mucous membranes and the upper parts of the respiratory and digestive tract. All these could be alleviated by adequate ventilation, protective clothing, frequent washing of the face and hands and rinsing of the mouth, and regular medical inspection.
The oldest method of making picric acid was one used at Wyke until the 1960s.This was known as the pot process. Molten phenol, the basic raw material, was sulphonated by pouring it into sulphuric acid contained in earthenware pots used for the nitration, which conserved the heat generated by the reaction. Using metal of any sort was out of the question since mixing picric acid with any metallic oxide produced highly explosive compounds known as picrates. The sulphonation process required 12 to 24 hours to complete, the pots usually being left to stand overnight, but it produced the finest quality picric acid, with an ash content of 0.02 per cent.A speedier, alternative method used lead- lined tanks with a steam heating coil and mechanical agitator, which took only two to three hours to complete.
Each pot, containing some 35 pounds of phenol and 65 pounds of sulphuric acid, was covered with several gallons of water. Late in the day the pot was stirred to dissolve the sulphonate.Then, over three and a half to five hours, depending upon the weather, dilute nitric acid was run off from a carboy into the middle of the pot.There was no control over temperature, so to insulate the pots and maintain the temperature, they were embedded in ashes or some other similar material. This was important to enable the nitration process to start at once since a delayed reaction was liable to be violent enough to crack the pot. The fumes from the nitric acid were extracted through absorption towers. Once again the pots were left overnight and the following morning picric acid had been formed. During the remainder of the third day the pots were stirred occasionally to aid cooling and complete the reaction. On the fourth morning the pots were emptied, the waste acid disposed of, and the picric acid shovelled into earthenware basins. It was crushed in a rolling mill, washed, and dried for the first time in centrifuges (or hydro- extractors, as they were commonly known).The acid was taken for final drying to drying rooms where it was laid out on glass topped tables heated by steam pipes and turned by wooden rakes over a period lasting from six to 24 hours.The dry acid was sifted, packed and stored. The whole process for one batch of picric acid lasted some six days and produced about 60 pounds of acid per 35 pounds of phenol.
Picric acid was a brilliant yellow dye, used both on silk and on woollen cloth, but faded badly when exposed to light. Once aniline dyes had become established in the early 1860s, its use as a dye declined, although it remained in common use in Lancashire until the mid- 1870s.
After this time it was generally used in combination with other dyes. But demand dwindled and for some years very little was produced.
More picric acid was probably produced for use as an explosive from the late nineteenth century than was ever made for the dye industry.As British dye making declined,the new nitro-explosives became the major consumers of nitric acid. Until the middle of the century black gunpowder remained, as it had been for hundreds of years, the only explosive in use. Then gun-cotton was discovered in 1845. Nitrate of cellulose, with its highly explosive qualities, was produced from the reaction of a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acids on cotton. Two years later nitro-glycerine, with even more explosive properties, was discovered from the action of nitric acid upon glycerine. It was only in 1867 that Alfred Nobel produced a more stable and practical form of the explosive which he called dynamite. Cordite followed in 1889, produced from mixing gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine with vaseline.
By the 1880s picric acid was being used for explosive purposes, mainly in the form of the metallic salts of picric acid or as a mixture of picrates and gunpowder. Its first major use as an explosive occurred in 1885 when the French used it under the name of melinite as a filling for shells, in combination with a powerful fulminate detonator. The French inventor,Turpin, offered melinite to the British government in 1888 when the explosive was introduced to the British armed services. In this country it was generally known as Lyddite, after Lydd in Kent, where early trials were carried out. In 1889 a licence was granted to a factory at Reddish, near Manchester, to make acid for the War Office but military needs were still small and the factory was little used for that purpose.
This changed when the Boer War began in 1898. The War Office recognised that picric acid was ‘a more powerful explosive than dynamite’ and issued tenders for considerable quantities. Among the licenses granted for the production of picric acid as an explosive was one for Samson Breaks & Son of Wyke.
The system of licensing the manufacture of explosives had been reformed in 1870s.The rise of the new more explosive range of nitro-explosives led to a review of existing safeguards and the passage of the 1875 Explosives Act. This extended the system of licensing and strengthened the numbers and powers of the Home Office explosives inspectorate. Picric acid only fell within the Act if it was ‘used or manufactured with a view to produce a practical effect by explosion or pyrotechnic effect’.This changed after an explosion in June 1887 explosion destroyed the factory of Roberts, Dale & Co in Cornbrook, Manchester. One man was killed, neighbouring properties were damaged, and the sound of the explosion was heard 20 miles away. Witnesses spoke of how they feared that ‘the world was coming to an end’. The inspector reporting on the accident believed that picric acid was the cause. One theory was that the brickwork had become soaked in acid, the lime in the mortar had turned to picrate of lime, caught fire and exploded. The report pointed out that while chemical theory held that picric acid was liable to explode when heated suddenly, all the manufacturers had testified that they had never experienced any instance of picric acid exploding after taking fire.
Typical of the evidence produced by the manufacturers to support their claim was the first reported accident involving picric acid at Reddish in 1861 when one hundredweight of picric acid had burnt away without explosion.
But the suspicions of the explosives inspector were heeded and the manufacturing of picric acid for any purpose was brought within the 1875 Act.The effect of this was rather diluted by the ease with which exemptions could be obtained. Exemptions were granted if the acid was wholly in solution, or if it was made in a building ‘wholly appropriated for the purpose’ and did not come into contact with any basic metallic oxide or any substance with which it could form an explosive mixture.As another inspector later reported,‘The conditions for this latter exemptions were so easily complied with that no application was made for a licence to manufacture picric acid for non-explosive purposes’.
The terms of the explosives licence were hardly burdensome. The licence granted to Breaks in October 1898 required that all buildings, which had to be ‘so constructed or so lined or covered as to prevent the exposure of lime or other metallic oxide, other than sulphate of lime’, were exempt from being deemed ‘danger buildings’. The restrictions upon the amount of picric acid held in each building were negligible. In the magazine and packing room there was no limit. In the processing rooms the licence simply limited the quantity to ‘what is necessary for the supply and work of the building(s)’.The only other restriction was that ‘Pockets shall not be worn in the clothing, whether over or underclothing, of the person employed in any part of the Factory’. But there was a stipulation about quality.The explosive produced on the site was to contain not more than half a per cent of mineral matter or ash.
The fortunes of the Wyke chemical works, as the site was becoming known, would rest largely upon the production of picric acid for use as an explosive for the next half century.