England Occupations, Chemicals, Gas, Fuel (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Chemicals, Gas and Fuel[edit | edit source]

A good place to start is the survey of the chemical and soap industries by Ray Vickers (Old Occupations: Chemists. The Chemical Industry to 1914. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 9 #4, 1993). Formerly every household made necessary soaps, dyes, medicines and perfumes from natural ingredients, but gradually special trades developed in different chemicals. The chemical industry can be divided into the older fine chemical portion producing fairly pure chemicals in small quantities, although mass production came later, and the more recent heavy chemical industry which produced less pure materials in large quantities.

Dyes[edit | edit source]

The government of Elizabeth I grew concerned over the high prices of imported dyes in the 1570s and 1580s and so actively encouraged the cultivation of plants that produced the textile dyes including these major ones:

  • Woad or wad. The cultivation and harvest of woad employed large numbers of women and children for four months a year. When picked, the leaves were processed through a portable woadmill supplied by itinerant woadmen to produce the blue, black and purple dyes. Billington runs an index of woad people, those who grew and processed woad, primarily in the midlands.
  • Madder. This plant from India and Africa, whose roots produce red, maroon, chocolate and terracotta dyes, started to be grown around London in the 1620s. It was important worldwide and by 1886 the world production was 70,000 tons per annum. The synthetic constituent, alizarin, was discovered and produced in the 1930s from anthracene and this rapidly ousted the vegetable source. My father’s allergy to alizarin forced him to give up textile printing and choose another trade.
  • Saffron. The saffron crocus has been grown in East Anglia since the 16th century not only for its orange dye, but also as a condiment, medicine and perfume. Planted in midsummer for harvest in the autumn, typically before a barley planting, it was not used after about 1750.
  • Weld, or dyer’s weed, grown especially around Canterbury and Wye, Kent, produced a yellow dye.

Imported dye sources included:

  • Insects such as the cochineal beetle (red).
  • Ground wood of certain foreign trees, which took place in east Lancashire mills various dark colours).
  • Indigo, a plant from southern Asia (blue-purple).

Hundreds of synthetic, coal-based dyes were manufactured in south Lancashire from the 19th century. Many dyes required the use of another chemical mordant in order to make them fast (Arnold 1968). Dyes were produced by the dyers and sold by specialists called drysalters.

Explosives[edit | edit source]

The explosives industry is the subject of a Shire book by Crocker (The Gunpowder Industry. Shire Publications, 2002), and articles by Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982) and Percival (Explosives Factory Staff in Faversham. Kent Family History Society Journal. Vol 10 #3, page 156, 2002). Factories were at Faversham, (a major centre which commenced in the mid-16th century) and Dartford in Kent, Waltham Abbey in Essex, Hounslow and Bedfont in Middlesex as well as Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland. As in other specialized industries workers moved between these sites, handy knowledge to have when the trail goes cold in one area.

Gases[edit | edit source]

Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch, 1963) has a chapter on the early history of gas in Britain, ethylene (or olefiant gas) was a subject of discussion by Wood (Oil-forming Gas in Genealogical Miscellany. Family Tree Magazine Vol 18 #2, page 17, 2001), whilst Gledhill is the author of the Shire book on gas lighting. Mitchell has an index of over 200,000 persons associated with the gas industry in Great Britain, mainly from 1800-1949.

Industrial Chemicals[edit | edit source]

Products such as hydrochloric, sulphuric and nitric acids, ammonia, coal tar, alkalis for soap and glass, and potash and other fertilizers are included here. Acids were expensive to make until the 1740s invention of the lead-chamber process by Roebuck. The best soda and potash had been imported from the Mediterranean but this was curtailed during the Napoleonic Wars, so from 1780 vast quantities of seaweed (kelp) ash from Wales, Cornwall and Scotland was utilized, until the Leblanc process became usable in 1820 (Vickers, Old Occupations: Chemists. The Chemical Industry to 1914. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 9 #4, 1993). These heavy chemicals were made near the great rivers in the north west (the Mersey, especially at Runcorn, Warrington and Widnes), the north east (the Tyne) and on the Clyde in Scotland.

The Cheshire Record Office has particularly good records of the chemical industry in the huge Dickenson Collection, which includes wage books and accident reports. Collections for the other two areas are housed in the Lancashire and Tyne and Wear archives respectively. Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch, 1963) has written on the work of Ludwig and Alfred Mond in the development of the chemical industry. Pike (Copperas and the Castle. Friends of the Whitstable Museum and Gallery, 2000) and Walsh (Old Occupations: The Copperas Trade on the Thames Estuary. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #8, page 5) discuss copperas, also known as sulphate of iron or green vitriol, of vital importance as a mordant for dying and as a source of sulphur and sulphuric acid.

Oils and Paints[edit | edit source]

Many family historians have an oil and colour man in their family whom you went to before the advent of ready-mixed paint. They sold the colourings and the linseed oil and turpentine with which you mixed them, and they also sold oil for lamps, (see Meadows’ Discovering Oil Lamps. Shire Publications.), and a lot of other household chemicals and wares. They often turned their hands to associated trades such as painting and papering, plumbing and glazing as well.

Perfumes[edit | edit source]

Oils could also be used to extract chemicals from plants, and many perfumes were obtained this way. The most common fragrance in England was lavender and it was also used medicinally. The main growing area from the late 19th century has been northern Norfolk.

Plastics[edit | edit source]

Plastics are not 20th century inventions; a plastic is simply a material that can be shaped during processing and man has been using naturally occurring forms for thousands of years. Almost all of them contain organic polymers, long chain-like molecules based on carbon. Chemical modification of natural forms began in the mid-19th century, and synthetic plastics do belong to the last hundred years. Plenty of 19th-20th century urban ancestors will be found as workers in these industries supplying the needs of the emerging middle class. Early Plastics by Katz is the primary reference for the descriptions which follow.

Plastics derived from animals include:

  • ŸCasein from skim milk was marketed as Galalith, Erinoid, Tortoisene, Ivorine etc. moulded into candlesticks, spoons, gaming chips and dice, buttons, and beads.
  • ŸHorn and tortoiseshell.
  • ŸShellac comes from the secretion of a beetle found in India and Malaya. Anciently it was used for coating mummies, and much later as a stiffening for bowler hats, and compounded with a filler to produce sound records, photo and visiting card cases and other objects.

Plastics from the plant world include:

  • ŸAmber, a golden fossilized resin used for varnish and carved to make jewellery and crucifixes.
  • ŸBitumen, one of the earliest organic moulding materials and a product of prehistoric vegetation. Its insulation capacities were exploited in the electrical industry.
  • ŸCelluloid, Parkesine, Xylonite and Ivoride are semi-synthetic inventions based on cotton fibres. Most famously used in cine film, but hundreds of other celluloid products included dolls and other toys, haircombs, table tennis balls and imitation ivory for book covers, cutlery handles etc.
  • ŸCellulose Acetate, a modified cotton product used for waterproofing, rayon fibre and many moulded domestic articles.
  • ŸGutta Percha is similar to rubber and came from the bark of an Indonesian tree. It was used for a wide range of moulded products including tubing, soles for boots and shoes, drinking mugs, toys, mirrors, friezes and acid-proof bottles and buckets.
  • ŸLac is tapped from lacquer trees in east Asia and was mostly used as a varnish.
  • ŸHard rubber, vulcanite and ebonite are all varieties of naturally occurring latex, a product of Brazilian trees first brought to Europe in 1736. Latex rubber was used as an eraser, and as a waterproofing material, especially in raincoats. When vulcanized (compounded with sulphur) it formed the basis of the modern rubber industry. Soft rubber is used for everything from tires to rubber (elastic) bands, hoses, and boots. Another form known as vulcanite, ebonite or hard rubber was used for telephones, pumps, valves, buckets and as a comfortable base for dentures. Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch, 1963) has a chapter on the history of the rubber industry.
  • ŸPapier mâché, pulp ware and bois durci are not strictly plastics but based on the polymer cellulose and processed by heat moulding. Products from papier mâché included trays, spectacle cases, and tea caddies; pulp ware formed chairs, fancy platters, mining and pith helmets; bois durci inkwells, desk sets, plaques and picture frames are known.

Early synthetic plastics developed from coal, and now mainly from petroleum and natural gas, were:

  • ŸPhenol formaldehyde or phenolic is best known by one of its many tradenames, Bakelite, in the first handset telephone, early radio cases, deskware and containers always in dark colours.
  • ŸUrea formaldehyde offered a range of lighter colours for plastic tableware, for example the Beetleware and Bandalasta ranges, and much else,

Soaps and detergents[edit | edit source]

These were particularly needed for cleaning fleeces for the manufacture of woollens, as well as cotton and linen textiles, but there were a variety of other markets as well. The soap industry comprised two divisions, the one making soft soap for industry, the other producing hard soap for household uses. Various oils were available including fish, whale and seal, lard and beef and mutton tallow and were used as follows (Vickers):

  • ŸBest quality oils were used for cookery.
  • ŸSecond best oils used for making candles. A description of tallow-chandlering is given by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and Webb (London Apprentices Volume 31. Wax Chandlers’ Company 1666-1800; Brown Bakers’ Company 1615-1646. Society of Genealogists, 2000) has indexed the apprenticeships of the Wax Chandlers’ Company 1666-1800 but the full extant range is 1596-1979.
  • ŸPoorest quality oils were used for soaps and lubricants, particularly in towns like Norwich, London and Bristol where the necessary potash and tallow could be imported cheaply. A description of soap boiling is given by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), and by Vickers (Old Occupations: Soapmakers. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 9 #6, 1993). As there was a tax on soap from 1715-1853 soap makers can be found in tax records kept at county archives. There is a list of all licensed soap makers for 1833 in Appendix 13 of the 17th Report of the Excise Commissioners, Parliamentary Papers 1836 XXVI (Vickers). During the 19th century there were further refinements in making toilet soaps, and the industry settled into two areas. In the north, especially around the River Mersey, the cheap bulk soaps were made. The southern firms, particularly around London, produced high quality toilet soaps. Later developments by Levers in Port Sunlight are described by Vickers.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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