Soap and glory as companies cleaned up

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In 1837, Robert Blakey, then mayor of Morpeth, launched an attack on the way the town’s new board of guardians treated the poor.

 Using official returns, he calculated the average allowance as 1/9¼ per person per week. About 9¼d went on rent, leaving 1/-, saying: “Out of this, coals, clothes, candle, soap, and other household necessaries are to come (leaving) one penny per day to buy food with.”

 He clearly regarded soap as a necessity, yet the traditional washing liquid was home-made lye from the ashes of a wood fire.

 What had changed? Essentially, soap-making had been revolutionised, and the background to this revolution was coal.

 The great market for North East coal was London, and London would only take round coals, ie large pieces, so all pits were oversupplied with low-value small coal.

 Glass and soap-making both needed large quantities of energy, and they were drawn to Tyneside by what was in effect a waste product.

 Miners then used tallow candles for light. Candles can only be made using hard tallow, leaving soft tallow as another waste product. It is, however, ideal for making soap.

 In Morpeth, people had good access to coal after the Netherton Waggonway opened in 1828. You can’t make lye with coal ash, so they needed soap.

 The real revolution, however, was in alkali.

 To begin at the beginning, you make soap by boiling oil or fat with alkali. In the Middle Ages, scented toilet soap came from Marseilles, Genoa and Venice, as well as white Castile soap from Spain. Only the rich could afford it

 Soap was made at Bristol in the 12th centrury – slimy stuff used mainly for degreasing raw wool. Charles I gave a monopoly on soap to a London company, which killed off the provincial trade. Even after the monopoly ended, soap was heavily taxed, creating an obstacle to new entrants.

 In about 1770, Messrs Lamb and Waldie opened a factory at the Westgate in Newcastle, which was later taken over by the Quaker firm of Doubleday and Easterby. This marks the real beginning of soap-making on Tyneside.

 The industrial alkalis in use then were entirely vegetable – potashes, mostly from wood, and kelp and barilla from the plants of the same name. The active ingredient in potashes was potash (potassium carbonate, K2CO3), in barilla soda (sodium carbonate, Na2CO3), and in kelp, both.

 Potashes came from Russia, Poland and East Germany, and barilla, a seashore plant of the Mediterranean, from Spain and France.

 Kelp was burnt at Hartley in 1674, and later at Clifford’s Fort, Briardene and Coquet Island. In the 18th century, it was made around the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

 The ashes were ‘lixiviated’ (Latin lixivia, lye), that is, steeped in water. If desired, the resulting lye could be evaporated in iron pots to make an alkali of exceptional purity called pearl ashes.

 Vegetable ashes, however, are very low-yielding. Potashes contained about 1-2 per cent of alkali, kelp 1½-6 per cent, and barilla, a premium product, 25 per cent, so despite the international trade in alkali, there was never enough. Thomas Doubleday, a grocer at the head of the Side, had taken over the Westgate factory by 1778, and his son George and son-in-law Anthony Easterby moved it to the Close, roughly where the Copthorne Hotel is now.

 In the final stage of soap-making, known as salting-out, salt was thrown into the boiling mixture, making the soap rise to the top. This was skimmed off, leaving ley and glycerine, both waste products. But the brothers-in-law reprocessed the ley to extract unconsumed alkali, known as soaper’s salts.

 They also, finding that the soap-boilers of Leith, near Edinburgh, didn’t make soaper’s salts, bought the dross from the men of Leith and brought it to the Tyne to reprocess in the Close.

 A French physician, Nicolas Leblanc, invented a secret process for making mineral alkali which, much simplified, was: Salt (NaCl) + sulphuric acid (H2SO4) + chalk (CaCO3) => hydrochloric acid (HCl) + sodium sulphate (Na2SO4)

(Na2SO4 + charcoal (C) + chalk) (heated) => calcium sulphide (CaS) + soda (Na2CO3).

 Leblanc began production in 1789, but the revolutionary government confiscated his factory and his patent, and he killed himself in 1806.

 Meanwhile, on Tyneside, Lord Dundonald and John Losh invented their own process in the 1790s, and with Losh’s brother William, and backed by the bankers John and Aubone Surtees, began making mineral alkali at Walker. In 1802, William visited Paris and came back with drawings of Leblanc’s process.

 Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, and by 1823, Leblanc soda was the only alkali being made commercially on Tyneside.

 Using coal instead of charcoal, they heated it with chalk and sulphate of soda, giving a product known as black ash. It wasn’t ash but was lixiviated just like the plant ashes.

 Industrial alkali had hitherto been scarce, expensive and prone to interruptions of supply. Now, it was available in unlimited quantities, and that was how soap came to be a household necessity.

 There were drawbacks, however. One was the hydrochloric acid gas released in the first stage of the process.

 It emerged from the chimney as a harmless plume of white smoke, but in wet weather, the rain fell as hydrochloric acid, killing crops and plants.

 Even worse was the alkali waste left over from lixiviating the black ash. When moist, it stank of rotten eggs.

 The Mansion House stood in the Close, near to Doubleday and Easterby’s, and in 1828, Newcastle Corporation sued them for nuisance. Their defence counsel was James Losh, brother of William and John, who would therefore be conversant with the technical aspects of the case.

 Prosecution witnesses described the smell as being like coal gas, rotten eggs and onions. It gave people sick headaches, drove the mayor from the Mansion House and caused gentlemen to decline invitations to dine there.

 The last witness was Alderman Cookson, whose house in Hanover Square overlooked the Close. He later, in 1832, bought Meldon Park, still the family home.

 Mr Cookson testified to the danger the smell posed not only to his own health, but to his wife and children’s.

 Losh then allowed his witness’s attention to wander, so when the judge invited him to question Mr Cookson, the alderman was caught unawares:

 “Mr Cookson, how d’ye do, sir?”

 “Quite well, sir, thank you.”

 “And Mrs Cookson?”

 “In good health, I’m happy to say.”

 “And all the children?”

 “Charming, thank you.”

 “That will do. You can go down, Mr Cookson.”

 The case against Doubleday and Easterby collapsed. They didn’t deserve to win, but thanks to a clever barrister, they did.

l My thanks to Prof Paul Christensen for reading and commenting on this article.