The Birth of the Chemical Industry in Widnes

HES Case Study Professor David A. Kirby & Dr Inman El-Kaffass



At the beginning of the 19th century, Widnes, in the North West of England, was a rural village  nestling on the northern banks of the River Mersey. The 1063 inhabitants were engaged mainly in farming and fishing and the river was unpolluted and alive with fish.  By the end of the century, as a result of the endeavours of industrial  entrepreneurs such as  Henry Deacon (1822-76),  Holbrook Gaskell (1813-1909), William Gossage (1799-1877), John Hutchinson (1825-65),  Ludwig Mond (1830-1909), Frederick Muspratt ( 1825-72) and others, it had become a town of around 28,250 people that was the origin and heart of the modern chemical industry.

There can be no doubt that such entrepreneurial activity brought about change and created an industry that produced wealth for the owners, the investors, the region and the UK, but it did not result in improvement in environmental or human conditions. Publications of the time report that

“the foul gases that belched forth night and day from the many factories rot the clothes, the teeth and, in the end, the bodies of the workers, have killed every blade of grass and tree for miles around”.


This was despite the fact that by 1864, the UK Government had been so concerned about the atmospheric pollution, and the damage it was causing, that Parliament  had introduced a bill intended to control the  emission of noxious vapours. Clearly it was ineffective.

It was not just atmospheric  pollution that was the problem, however,  but the living and working conditions of the people. By the middle of the century, Widnes had been transformed from a  riverside hamlet into a settlement

“with dingy, unfinished streets of hastily constructed houses, with works that were belching  forth volumes of the most  deleterious gases and clouds of black smoke from chimneys of inadequate height…The air reeked with gas…and small and large heaps of stinking refuse began to accumulate.”

The homes had no proper sewerage and industrial disease and injury were rampant. The long hours worked in the chemical industry made matters worse. Exposure to acid and  chlorine gas created terrible problems and those who escaped death or disfigurement all too often ended the lives in poverty.

Additionally  the toxic waste produced by the factories created not just visual pollution but a local health hazard that persisted for decades. Known locally as “galligu”, by 1891 some 500 acres of land had been covered with toxic waste to a depth, according to the Government’s Akali Inspector,  of 12 feet -10 million tons, of which 15 per cent was sulphur. Not only did rainwater turn the waste into a serious health hazard, but the wind would heat it  up  and it would burst into flames.

While these problems had an immediate and local damaging impact on the environment and its people, the ramifications lasted longer and were more widespread. The fumes contributed to the incidence of the acid rain that polluted waterways and destroyed flora and fauna not just locally but in other parts of the country and  Northern Europe, and it  was not until 1985 that  an estimated £8 billion  campaign was embarked upon  to improve water quality in the Mersey river. Seventeen years later, in 2002,  oxygen levels in the river  were  capable of supporting fish once more but not until  2009, some 162 years after Hutchinson’s first chemical factory had been  opened,  was it  announced that   the river was cleaner than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution. Similarly with the toxic waste. This only began to be reclaimed in 2008 having been unusable and  a health hazard for over 100 years

© Professor David A. Kirby and (2020). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Professor David A. Kirby and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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