Chapter 3

1917-1955

From near collapse to a secure future
The transition from explosives to herbicides

Over the next few years A H Marks and Company Limited fought for its survival.The explosion put paid to the ambitious expansion plans that Augustus Henry Marks had initiated by buying the Roberttown Chemical Works. The business was old to the Roberttown Wireworks Company in 1920. Instead Marks channelled all his energies into saving the Wyke Lane business.

Debris had to be cleared away and rebuilding had to take place. During 1917-18 more than £51,000 was spent on replacement plant and buildings. It is impossible to compare what was built with what went before since there is no plan of the site in 1916. It seems likely it was comparable with the site as it was rebuilt for which plans do exist.These show that the site had expanded considerably since 1898, filling much of the land originally acquired by Samson Breaks.The old cottages at the entrance to the site had been turned into offices.At the southern edge, well away from most of the other buildings, was a series of magazines for the storage of explosives. Between these and the old pit hill eight drying rooms had been built in a straight line. A tramway linked these to the centre of the site where the laboratory, boiler house and a nitric acid plant were located. Five new pot rooms had been erected but between the pit hill and Saucy Lane on the northern boundary. With 80 pots in each room, this gave the company the capacity to produce 24,000 pounds of picric acid every day.The rebuilding was financed from the reserves accumulated by the company during the early years of the war.The problem was that a large part of these reserves had been set aside for the payment of excess profits duty.

What happened next is not very clear. It seems that there was a long drawn out wrangle between the company and the Ministry of Munitions, through the office of the Director- General of Explosives Supply, Lord Moulton, about compensation for the losses sustained as a result of the explosion. It seems likely that part of this would have been payments outstanding to the company from the ministry for picric acid already produced. At the same time, with the end of the war, there was no longer any need for picric acid and many factories closed down. Marks and his fellow shareholders found they had a brand new picric acid plant but no market for the acid. Sales collapsed. Between 1 March 1918 and 16 August 1919, turnover, at a little more than £13,000, was back to pre-war levels. Between August and November 1919 the company stopped trading and sales for the three years between 1920 and 1922 totalled a mere £1,922. By then, the brief post-war economic boom had burst and the economy was deep in recession.

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It is not surprising that shareholders felt desperate. At an extraordinary general meeting in December 1920 they demanded an urgent meeting with Lord Moulton to press for the settlement of accounts. The minutes recorded that ‘great uneasiness was felt at the position of the Company and .. unless an early settlement was made, it would be necessary forthwith to wind up the Company’.

Meanwhile the Wyke Lane premises were advertised for sale by private treaty at the sum of £30,000. Three shareholders, including Marks, were appointed by the meeting as an advisory committee to superintend the proposed sale. In January 1921 the committee attended a meeting at the company solicitors in Leeds ‘to discuss the position of the Company, there not having been any replies to the advertisements for Sale of the Real Estate by private treaty and no further communication received from Lord Moulton’. In the following month eight shareholders agreed to sell their shares to Marks but this transaction never went ahead. At last, after more than four years, an agreement was finally reached with the ministry and the Inland Revenue.

The three shareholders had also been given the authority to deal with ‘the settlement with the Inland Revenue’. Part of the settlement related to whether or not the company was liable for excess profits duty in the light of the losses it had sustained. Subsequently, as a paper exercise, accounts were prepared which firstly wrote off most of the expenditure incurred on replacement plant and buildings against repairs and renewals, resulting in a substantial loss of more than £28,000 for the period between March 1918 and August 1919. This must have been sufficient to demonstrate the validity of the company’s case to the relevant authorities for by the end of 1921 Marks was able to write off the remaining expenditure against the reserve accumulated for the payment of excess profits duty.

The company had been saved but it was in a very poor condition. From 1918 until 1929- 30 very little if any manufacturing took place on the site. One plan even shows part of the works was rented out to other businesses to bring in some extra income. In 1926 one of the surviving ledgers confirms the absence of manufacturing in recording ‘Cleaning bricks for sale, removing heads from tanks for sale, taking down hydro-extractors’. The only wages paid from the end of August 1919 until 1929 appear to have been those for the watchman employed to keep an eye on the site.The company’s total sales between the end of 1919 and the end of 1928 came to £13,313, only £500 more than it had earned in a single year in 1912. Income came from whatever merchanting business Augustus Henry Marks was able to obtain. Trading profits were minimal and the business made trading losses six times in 10 years. There were no dividends between 1918 and 1930. It is not surprising that most of the other shareholders wanted to get rid of their virtually worthless shares. Between 1922 and 1929 Marks increased his personal shareholding from 551 shares to 2,021 shares, or nearly 79 per cent of the company.

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Marks was also looking elsewhere for business opportunities.About the same time Samson Breaks was working at the Pickle Bridge dye works,William Cannan began business in Adolphus Street in Bradford as a manufacturing chemist.The business soon concentrated upon making soap and by the late 1920s was known as Cannan’s Soap Works Ltd. For one reason or another, the business, but not the premises, was acquired by Marks at about this time and transferred to Wyke Lane as New Cannans Ltd. It continued trading, presumably on a merchanting rather than manufacturing basis, until the Second World War and it seems that the two businesses together must have provided a reasonable income.

In 1929 the fortunes of the business at last began to look up. Manufacturing began again in a small way.The company recorded sales of £6,146 in 1929 and £9,647 in 1930.The stock list for December 1930 shows two out of the five pot rooms were in use for production with a third used for storage. As well as the intermediates supplied to the textile trade, such as Glaubers’ salts and Epsom salts, cream of tartar, tartaric acid, and ammonium sulphate, the company also had in stock nearly 37,000 pounds of picric acid. Unfortunately this encouraging recovery was taking place just as the first signs of the Great Depression began to show.The business struggled for the next two years, as sales fell to around £5,500, and profits slumped (a small loss was recorded in 1932).

In 1931 Augustus Marks took the decision to bring his two sons, Augustus James and Gerald, into the company. Gerald, who remained a director until 1950, was never very interested in the business, and it was his brother, Augustus James Marks, who would take charge of the firm after the death of his father in 1939.

The low point of the 1930s for the company was 1932. But after that under the guidance of A H Marks and his son,A J, the business made a solid recovery.They were given some limited financial assistance by William Collinson who acquired 300 £1 shares in A H Marks and Company Limited in 1934. Collinson was managing director, and later chairman, of Augustus Henry Marks’ former employer,William Blythe & Co Ltd. In the late 1930s much of the success of the firm was attributable to the rearmament campaign which effectively began in 1936. By then the firm had built up its annual sales to more than £20,000, a far cry from the heady days of the First World War, but still a considerable improvement upon any other period in its chequered history. From 1936 onwards A H Marks and Company was effectively the sole supplier of picric acid and picric powder to the government.The only surviving explosives contract book for the Ministry of Supply and its predecessor from 1936 to 1942 shows that, apart from a single contract for 8,000 pounds of picric acid awarded to ICI in June 1937, every other contract was awarded to Marks. Significant investment was made with new plant being installed in 1937 although much of the site as it had been rebuilt after the explosion still remained in disuse. By the end of 1939, with the Second World War now underway, this business had boosted the company’s turnover to nearly £45,000.

At Christmas 1939 Augustus Henry Marks died. He had never retired and had served the company for more than 33 years, ever since its formation.

Trade marks - Household dry soap and Ammonia Soap Powder.
Trade marks - Household dry soap and Ammonia Soap Powder.
A J Marks as a young man.
A J Marks as a young man.

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He had guided the business through the frenetic period of production during the First World War but more importantly he had been determined not to let the company perish after the catastrophic explosion of February 1917. For more than a decade the business had been in convalescence. It was a tribute to his persistence that the business survived not only the consequences of the explosion but also the economic recessions of the 1920s and 1930s. He lived to see the company which now bore his name reach a position of relative success which many others had been convinced it would never see again.

At the time of his father’s death, Augustus James Marks was serving with the Territorial Army and only reluctantly came back to Wyke Lane to take charge of a business once again classed as of national importance in its role as the sole supplier of picric acid to the government. At the age of 26, Marks wisely turned for advice to one of his father’s respected colleagues, William Collinson. Collinson was well-known and respected figure in the chemical industry and at a dinner in celebration of the remarkable service of 70 years he achieved between 1885 and 1955 Marks was among the guests. In the early years of the war it seemed to the government that the demand for picric acid for the armour- piercing shells used by the navy would outstrip the capacity of the Wyke Lane site.With that in mind, the government asked A H Marks and Company to run an agency factory for picric acid to be erected at Brighouse.

The origins of the agency factory system dated back to 1933 and the idea of a ‘shadow munitions industry’. It had been obvious from the First World War that, unless firms were able to earn substantial profits to pay back very quickly the cost of their investment, they would not invest heavily in the establishment of factories specialising in war-production because of the risk of substantial losses when peace returned. Instead it was decided that firms would be asked to prepare products to a government specification while the government would provide the plant and buildings (known in the late 1930s as ‘shadow factories’) which would be managed for a fee by the firms as government agents. For the management of the Brighouse factory, which began production in 1942, Marks received a fee which varied from £500 in 1942 to £1,150 in 1944.

At Wyke Lane further extensions and improvements were made during the war, thanks to the government’s capital assistance scheme. Under this the Ministry of Supply paid the company nearly £8,500 in 1943 for work carried out during the previous two years. Between 1939 and 1946 more than £11,700 was spent on new plant. Half of this went towards the pot rooms and effluent treatment plant. Effluent was creating more and more problems and there were regular claims against the company on this count from 1938 onwards. A canteen was built in 1941, a requirement introduced by the government during the war.

The canteen was one of the few new buildings on the site. Even at its busiest during the war, only two of the five pot rooms were used and four of the eight drying rooms were taken down.

A H MArks in later life.
A H MArks in later life.
Dedication of Bells
Dedication of Bells

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Turnover, which had been £48,640 at the end of 1940, reached more than £215,000 in 1942 when production started at the Brighouse factory.This was nowhere near the sales achieved during the First World War, an indication of how much less important picric acid had become as an explosive. After 1942 sales fell away rapidly, reaching only £123,000 in 1943 and collapsing to £30,000 in 1944.Aromatic materials such as benzene, toluene and the petroleum hydrocarbons were heavily in demand for motor fuels. This became a more important priority than their use in the manufacture of explosives. The search for new explosives led to the discovery that it was possible to make explosives, for example, PETN and cyclonite, from coke, water, air and electricity. The result was that the government no longer wanted as much picric acid. Production was cut back at Wyke Lane and picric acid was only dried and never made at the new factory at Brighouse.Workers were laid off and transferred to other work of national importance. For the company, the decline in sales between 1943 and 1944 was so abrupt that it made a trading loss of nearly £6,000.

The safety lessons learned as a result of the tragic experiences of the picric manufacturers in the First World War enabled the company to pass the years of the Second World War almost without incident. The acid it produced was sampled regularly by government officials. They travelled to Bradford by train from Manchester to collect samples of the explosive which travelled back to Manchester with them in special suitcases in the luggage racks above their heads. There were several small fires, in 1940, 1942, 1944 and 1945. The latter was the most serious when the company claimed nearly £2,500 from its insurers for the cost of the damage. It was set off by a spark in a picric acid pot room and travelled rapidly along the floor and up to the pitch-clad roof which was destroyed in minutes.

At the end of the war A H Marks and Company was not in an enviable position. The new lease of life given to the company by the rearmament programme of the 1930s and the Second World War had been short-lived. Although the company continued to supply picric acid to the textile industry and the British government after the war, particularly ammonium picrate for use as a rocket propellant, picric acid was generally in such little demand that the pot room at Wyke Lane was often shut down because the acid it produced could not be sold.The business was still small. Just 25 people were employed in August 1945 when John Walker joined as one of the company’s two works chemists. The office staff consisted of Augustus James Marks, his secretary, Miss Ford, and two office girls. All the products were still made by the pot process. Merchanting was carried on in intermediates for the textile industry and in nitric acid for the chemical industry in general but this too was small-scale and with little prospect of expansion. For the company to make progress in the post-war world, it needed to invest more in new plant, new processes and new products.

August James Marks recognised the company could survive only if it found alternative products to make at Wyke Lane. He began searching for products which could be manufactured by nitration, the process in which the company had accumulated many years’ experience.

From ‘The Church on the Hill’ - a history of St Mary’s Church,Wyke 1847-1997.
From ‘The Church on the Hill’ - a history of St Mary’s Church,Wyke 1847-1997.
Brighouse Factory.
Brighouse Factory.

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A crop-spraying company, J W Chafer of Doncaster, came to Marks with a request for the firm to make a new selective weedkiller, 4,6-dinitro-o-cresol or DNOC, which Chafer had seen mentioned in the trade press.This was the beginning of Marks’s long and fruitful involvement with agricultural herbicides and pesticides.

Significant strides were made during the war in the development of effective weedkillers and pestkillers. In the 1940s one of the main ways in which farmers controlled weeds was the eighteenth century system of crop rotation, using cleaning crops such as turnips and potatoes. Chemical weed control began in the mid nineteenth century when Grisoy, the gardener at Versailles, found a mixture of sulphur with lime to be effective against vine mildew. This was little used because it was difficult to prepare although it was revived in the early 1900s by several British firms when there was increasing interest in weed control from growers of high value crops.

In 1896, Bonnet in France, Schultz in Germany and Bolley in the United States discovered that copper salts in solution would kill broad-leaved weeds in cereals with little or no harm to the crop. In fact, this advance had already been made in Britain several years earlier. William Cooper, a Berkshire vet, was marketing his ‘vitriol dressing’ of iron and copper sulphate as early as 1868. By 1880 he was selling his dressing in sufficient quantities for the treatment of 150,000 acres. During the 1880s copper sulphate was also found to be effective against mildew and it remained in demand until the development of the more sophisticated products of the modern era.

Between 1901 and 1919 ferrous sulphate, sulphuric acid and sodium chlorate were widely used as herbicides in Europe and the United States. Sodium chlorate was probably the most effective of the non-selective weedkillers. Sulphuric acid was used as a contact weedkiller in the same way as copper sulphate and in Britain during the 1930s large acreages were sprayed with sulphuric acid but it was dangerous and difficult to use. Other weed and pest control agents in use in Britain included fungicidal copper dusts, derris dust, liquid pyrethrum and tar oil.

For many generations, in the words of one writer,‘only a human being with a hoe could select and remove all the weeds growing beside the crop plant’. Particularly after 1914, this became an increasingly costly method of weed control as labour costs rose sharply, producing an increasing interest in the development of pesticides and herbicides during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931 ICI became involved with the production of mercurial seed dressings and a fine copper dust for aerial crop-spraying (which had been done for the first time in 1922). In 1937 the chemical manufacturing expertise of ICI was combined with the agricultural experience and marketing expertise of Cooper McDougall and Robertson to create Plant Protection Ltd. In 1939 Pest Control Ltd, subsequently a subsidiary of Fison’s, was established.

During the 1930s the dinitro compounds were developed as herbicides. In 1932-33 DNOC, (4,6-dinitro-o-cresol) and Dinoseb, (4,6-dinitro-2-sec-butylphenol) were patented in France and used to control weeds in cereals.

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Two dinitro compounds, DNOC and Dinoseb, were particularly popular. Both were contact herbicides, more selective than sulphuric acid, and effective on annual weeds in cereals. During the Second World War and in the late 1940s, DNOC, ‘played a major role in increasing food production’ in the United Kingdom. Although DNOC and Dinoseb were broken down quickly in the soil and therefore had little effect upon the food chain, both had disadvantages. They were highly toxic by ingestion, inhalation and skin absorption and required protective clothing to be worn during application. Where this precaution was not taken, a number of deaths occurred.

The development of herbicides in their modern form derives from the discovery, also made in the 1930s, that plant growth was controlled by hormone substances, known as auxins, in the growing tip of the plant. Research was undertaken to produce organic chemicals with properties similar to the plant hormone, indole-3-acetic acid (IAA), which occurred naturally in plants and controlled many of their vital processes. In 1936, at ICI’s Jealotts Hill research station, solutions of a simple organic compound, naphthylacetic acid (NAA), were found to kill a wide range of weeds while leaving many cereals unharmed. NAA was an effective growth promoter but in increased dosages accelerated the growth process so much that some plants were unable to cope and died while others were left untouched.This process has been described as ‘a chaotic development of growth’.Another example, 4-chloro-2-methylphenoxyacetic acid (MCPA), was found to be one of the most effective compounds, killing many weeds at very low concentrations. (Another disadvantage of the dinitro compounds was the high concentration at which they had to be applied.) At the same time the Rothamsted experimental station reached the same conclusion by a different route.The application of IAA had had similar results and from related chemicals it was 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) that proved the most effective selective herbicide. In 1942 the properties of the two herbicides were reported to the Agricultural Research Council and extensive trials were carried out in Norfolk which proved the efficacy of both weedkillers.

Between 1940 and 1945 ICI developed large scale manufacturing processes for these compounds in Widnes. MCPA was found to give better control of the weed species predominant in Europe than 2,4-D and was marketed by ICI as Methoxone in 1945. Although an entirely new weedkiller ICI had not been able to register and patent the use of the compound in the USA because of the Second World War. In the meantime the action of 2,4-D had been described, patented and marketed in the United States by the American Chemical Paint Company. At the end of the war the two companies, ICI and ACP, who had discovered the herbicidal activity of the products at about the same time agreed to respect each other’s patent and agreed joint licensing and marketing arrangements in most countries throughout the world.

2,4-D was cheaper to make and because of its superior cost efficiency on the prevalent North American weeds was the dominant selective weedkiller in North America while MCPA had the same position in Europe where different weeds were found.

DNOC research summaries.
DNOC research summaries.

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There were other reasons for the relative popularity of 2,4-D in North America and MCPA in Britain and Europe. Ortho-cresol, as a product of coal-tar distillation, was plentiful in the UK and Europe for the manufacture of MCPA. In the United States such supplies were not as abundant but there were ample supplies of synthetic phenol, the starting chemical for 2,4-D.

Both MCPA and 2,4-D possessed several advantages. As well as being very efficient selective weedkillers, which neither sterilised the soil nor scorched the leaves of broad- leaved plants, they were also cheap to make, easily applied, and were among the least poisonous of known substances. Absorbed by both root and shoot, they moved rapidly through the plant, and it required only a few drops for them to be effective. In the first instance they were both applied in dust form since the only equipment commonly available for the application of herbicides on farms was the fertiliser distributor. In 1948 the low volume sprayer was introduced at a price of less than £100 which made application both cheap and easy. From 1950 to 1961 the number of ground crop sprayers in the United Kingdom rose from 4,200 to 57,500.The widespread use of the phenoxy herbicides coincided with the development of mechanical harvesting for cereals and peas, eliminating the need for much labour, which was already scarce, and the result was a remarkable increase in the production of these crops.

Locust swarms.
Locust swarms.
Product labels.
Product labels.

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Aerial crop spraying - South America 1950.
Aerial crop spraying - South America 1950.

Marks would eventually become deeply involved with the production of the phenoxy herbicides but it was with DNOC that the company entered the field of agrochemicals. With years of experience in the nitration of phenol for picric acid, the company had no difficulty in nitrating ortho-cresol for the production of DNOC. In tandem with DNOC, which the company manufactured for some ten years after the war ended, it also went on to make nitrate o-sec-butylphenol for DNBP from the late 1940s.

Both compounds were used as selective weedkillers and for locust control.The main use of DNOC was as a selective weedkiller in cereals. Although it was both cheap and efficient, it was also highly coloured and poisonous. Marks exported DNOC to the Argentine where impregnated on diatomaceous earth it was sprayed from the air for the control of locust swarms. DNBP was used as selective weedkiller in peas and beans and was exported to North America for some years. It was shipped to New Zealand for the first time in February 1951 and was also used by the International Locust Control Agency in the Middle East and Africa. Dissolved in oil, it was sprayed from aircraft but, although it too was very efficient, it was also poisonous to humans. DNOC and DNBP were superseded for locust control after a number of years by the less poisonous product DDT.

The company developed a considerable export business in these various products in the immediate post-war period. For a company essentially run by one man, Augustus James Marks, this was quite an achievement. There are references to his travels overseas, to Holland and to South America, and to the cost of cables sent to foreign customers in the late 1940s. Conducting export business in those days was more time-consuming than it is today. Most journeys overseas were still made by ship rather than plane and the road network remained elementary in most countries. Marks travelled widely and worked hard.

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It was not only the company’s future but his own which depended upon the new products and more extensive sales network he was building up. In his personal dealings with customers, he established a tradition which became an essential part of the Marks culture. Agents always had a minor role to play in handling Marks’s products. Direct discussions between the customer and senior executives from Marks became the preferred way the company conducted its agricultural chemicals business.

There is no information available to shed light on the volume of exports made by the company at this time and it is probable that most sales were still made at home.As well as many long-standing local customers, such as Brotherton & Co of Leeds, Leathers Chemical Co of Bradford, and L B Holliday of Huddersfield, who were supplied with many of the company’s traditional products, Marks also supplied the Crown Agents for the Colonies, J W Chafer, Shell, Plant Protection, and a host of smaller customers.

Hauling the business up from the parlous situation it had found itself in towards the end of the war was not an easy process. Certainly the addition of DNOC and DNBP to the company’s product list and the initiation of an export business helped to raise turnover but the pattern was at first somewhat erratic.The company achieved sales of nearly £297,000 in 1948, for instance, but in the following year these slumped to only £75,000. Left with twice as much stock as in the previous year, Marks made an overall loss of £3,700 in 1949. There is no evidence to suggest why this major collapse in sales should have occurred.The early 1950s saw a steady recovery with sales approaching £250,000 by 1955.

The demand for DNOC compelled the company, if nothing else did, to move away from the pot system, which was still being used to produce DNOC as well as picric acid, to more modern processes. In the late 1940s £20,000 was spent upon new plant, including the updating of the nitration plant, and the acquisition of several cast-iron mixing pans and stainless steel storage tanks. Glass-lined 500 gallon vessels replaced two of the pot rooms and plant was erected for the production of DNOC and DNBP. In 1951 the laboratory was extended and a covered way built to link the offices. This was a considerable investment for a small company with limited resources and much of the work was undertaken by the company itself, often involving second-hand equipment.

But resources were insufficient to tackle effectively problems which remained to hinder the business for several years to come.Although electricity was brought to the site in the late 1940s, the supply was so inadequate for many years that for one machine to be started up, it was often necessary to shut down another.The boiler house was prone to flooding from an exceptional prolonged downpour which put out fires in the boilers and cut off the steam supply.The supply of water to the site was poor.At the weekend and at night during the week storage tanks were filled up but it was difficult to keep up with demand and supplies often ran out by late Friday afternoon.The site was covered with a multitude of ancient drainage systems, none of which was suitable for a chemical works, and a beck ran straight through the middle of the site beneath the pot rooms.The site was prone to flooding and any amount of rain turned the ground into a muddy morass.

Chafers’ liquid fertiliser spreader 1961.
Chafers’ liquid fertiliser spreader 1961.
A H Marks ERF wagon with tank c1950s.
A H Marks ERF wagon with tank c1950s.
A H Marks ERF wagon showing picric acid carboys.
A H Marks ERF wagon showing picric acid carboys.

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The disposal of effluent was an growing problem for which there was no easy solution. For many years it was disposed of within the site because of the lack of suitable alternative outlets.

All these problems, but most particularly the difficulty of getting rid of effluent, prompted Augustus James Marks to scour the country for another more suitable site. He travelled thousands of miles from Scotland to St Ives in his search and even entered into negotiations with the government in 1947 for the Brighouse factory but all to no avail. The best had to be made of a less than perfect site at Wyke Lane.

One result of Marks’s extensive foreign travels was that he made many useful contacts in the industry. One firm to whom he was introduced was the American Chemical Paint Company, based at Ambler, Pennsylvania, in the United States, better known by its later name as Amchem Products Inc. At the same time as ICI had been developing the phenoxy herbicides in Britain, it was Amchem which had been doing the same thing in the United States. At the end of the war the two chemical companies had agreed to recognise each other’s patents and appoint licensees for their products in each country.

With the new phenoxy herbicides beginning to take over from DNOC, Amchem was searching for a suitable UK manufacturing licensee while Marks was looking for new products to replace DNOC and DNBP. Marks’s appointment as Amchem’s British manufacturing licensee, with the right to sell and manufacture Amchem’s products both in the United Kingdom and to Amchem licensees in other parts of the world, proved a turning point in the company’s fortunes.Although the first formal agreement between the two firms was not signed until 1 July 1962, Marks acted as Amchem’s de facto licensees from the early 1950s.A pilot plant for the production of MCPA was set up early in 1953 and a production plant followed later in the same year.

The first recorded mention of sales involving Amchem occurs in 1955. Marks, on behalf of Amchem, was the first company to supply MCPA to Canada where it was sent to Amchem’s Canadian licensee. The Canadian licensee wanted the product supplied in a dried form whereas Marks had been making it in its wet form. Marks did not have sufficient capacity to dry the entire quantity required by the Canadian firm and despatched some of it to be dried by a firm in Kent.The premises of the Kent driers were situated close by a large field of lettuces. During the drying process some of the chemical escaped and killed the entire lettuce crop.The lettuce grower sued the Kent firm and the Kent firm accused Marks of failing to provide sufficient information about the product’s herbicidal properties.This Marks denied and the case had to be settled in the High Court where Marks’s position was vindicated.

Amchem was a research and development company rather than a manufacturing business. It screened many products each year, patenting those which had development potential, and licensing companies to sell the products around the world.The development of A H Marks and Company Limited over the next 25 years was influenced significantly by the licensing agreement.

A J Marks.
A J Marks.
View of site - early 1950s.
View of site - early 1950s.

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It locked the company into the agricultural chemical business.With a captive customer base, there was no need for a large salesforce. On the other hand, there was little scope for expanding that customer base since Amchem products could be sold only to Amchem licensees. There was little impetus for the company to develop its own research and development programme.The seasonal nature of the herbicide business, with most crop-spraying carried out in the spring months, had a marked impact upon the company’s cashflow. Any investment decisions were low-risk and short-term, based upon what could be done quickly and cheaply.

In many respects this pattern was little different from the one which the company had followed throughout its existence. It had relied too much in the past upon one product, picric acid, made largely for one customer, the government, whose demand for it depended upon the prospects for war.The chemists it had employed had been used to ensure the correct quality of the products already being made rather than to develop alternatives.And it had never been sufficiently prosperous to follow any other policy apart from mend and make do.

On the other hand, as Amchem’s licensees, Marks, a small, under-resourced company, had access to Amchem’s constantly evolving range of products. Secondly, the licensing arrangement provided the company with a ready-made world-wide distribution and customer network. Many of these customers and licensees were themselves privately owned and managed businesses which had much in common with Marks. Thirdly, as acknowledged some years later by the company,‘this arrangement was very valuable to us, the profit margin on the patented products being much better than the ordinary run-of- the-mill herbicides’.Above all, considering the poor prospects for the business in 1945, the agreement with Amchem brought Marks stability for the foreseeable future.That was a not inconsiderable achievement of which A J Marks could feel justifiably proud.

Canadian Adverisement.
Canadian Adverisement.