It was John Bennett Lawes, a landowner and farmer from Rothamsted, Herts. who was responsible for the mid-nineteenth century development of the chemical industry in Barking. His experiments on dissolving rock and organic phosphate with sulphuric acid led to the production of superphosphate, a valuable artificial manure which he realised was able to be manufactured on a large scale and sold at least half the price of the other artificial manure on the market, guano. Despite his friends telling him that he should not go into business, he set up Lawes Artificial Manure Company and had his first chemical manure works erected on the banks of the Thames at Deptford in 1843. Here, 120 to 150 ton ships discharged their cargoes of nitrate of soda brought all the way from Chile, guano from the Peruvian coast, animal bones from the continent and the newly discovered coprolites from just up the coast at Suffolk. (9)
These latter supplies were to be a major source of local phosphate during that century, his agents being able to purchase it in the early days at only 30 shillings a ton. Once processed, in 1852 he was able to sell his superphosphate at £5 a ton, considerably less than the £12 per ton of Peruvian Government guano. His success in marketing this product around the country led to competitors setting up manure works in ports around the coast. By 1854 his Deptford works were producing 30,000 tons of superphosphate annually. (10)
By 1857 the limitations of expansion of the Deptford site led him in 1857 to purchase a 100 acre site at Creekmouth, Barking and have a large factory erected with an extensive sulphuric acid acid plant. The map shown on page .., dated 1864, shows how isolated the works were although there had been a row of houses erected and a public house, The Crooked Billet. (11) Unfortunately, few records of the works before the 1870s have come to light except some old sketches of the plant which can be seen on page .. By 1869, the British Chemical and Agricultural Manure Company had similarly set up at Creekmouth but what Lawes involvement was with it is unknown. (12) The period 1869 - 1872 was one of dramatic growth with profits averaging 10% per annum. (13)
By 1872 however, such was the success of his venture that a group of businessmen made Lawes an offer of £300,000 for the manure company he had ran for almost 30 years. Given its equivalent value today of about £9 million, Lawes sold his interest in the company but his name was maintained to keep the existing trade with him acting as their consultant. The chairman, John Knowles, first report can be seen on page .. and it is of interest to note that Lawes allowed £150,000 to be kept in the company which he was to draw on over the years. The deputy chairman was William Colchester from Ipswich, the largest coprolite exporter in the Eastern Counties, who had been in competition with Lawes since they first started manure manufacture in the 1840s. This new company maintained his existing coprolite arrangements with landowners in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire and quite possibly Suffolk as well, and negotiated new leases, particularly in Ashwell, Cambs., and Barton-Le-Clay and Shillington, Beds. (14)
They maintained Lawes manager, Joseph Weston, in charge of their coprolite department, increasing his salary 50% after a year to £300. One of their first coprolite purchases was 800 tons of Cambridgeshire coprolites at a cost of 70/- a ton, more than double the rate paid for Suffolk coprolites thirty years earlier. It is interesting to note that they were from Colchesters own works. In comparison, 500 tons were purchased from another Suffolk manure manufacturer, Edward Packard, at only 52/6 per ton. Admittedly the phosphate content of the latter was lower. By December 1872, new sources of phosphate were beginning to be exploited but Packards offer of 1,000 tons of Charleston phosphate was refused, the company purchasing 1,100 tons of poorer quality Boulogne coprolites at only 35/- a ton.
The availability and quantity of the American supplies became more apparent in 1873 when they bought 1,500 tons of South Carolina River Phosphates but they were sold by the unit, probably sacks at 1s. per unit. Despite these imports coprolite was still a major raw material but not as profitable a business as it had been for Lawes. In the early 1870s there had been considerable labour unrest across the country and agricultural labour in particular gained higher wages as a result. Coprolite labourers had significantly better wages than farm labourers and the company records show that from July 2nd 1872 to April 4th 1874 the coprolite wage bill was £23,251 5s.9d. As coprolite sales only amounted to £29,789 14s.5d. they felt it not as remunerative as it had been in Lawes hands. (15) They gave the first refusal of the complete works to Weston but his salary could not have been enough to purchase it all so Lawes took it off their hands. The second annual report explained the situation to the shareholders but did not indicate who had purchased the business!
Your directors have not been satisfied with the working of the Coprolite business, and looking at the enormous advance in the price of labour, and the difficulty of exercising proper supervision over the works owing to their being situated at a considerable distance from London, and spread over a large area of the country, they have therefore availed themselves of a favourable opportunity of disposing of it. (16)
Having disposed of it they invested in new gas works, a tramway, pier and steam cranes at their works to increase production and reduce costs and this accounted for the rise in profits in 1875. By this time acid production was 400 - 500 tons a week. Greater purchases were made of the American phosphates and by spring of 1876 ships were bringing in 2,000 tons a month from Rock River, Carolina and coprolite purchases dropped accordingly. The company expanded its markets, both at home and abroad, growing, despite considerable competition from manure companies which had set up at the same time as them. Branches were established in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Channel Islands, and it went on to trade overseas in North and South America, India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East. (17)
The appendix on page .. shows the increased profits during the early 1870s but the end of that decade saw four years of heavy rains which led not only to deficient harvests across the country but also to a decline in demand for fertiliser. The introduction of free trade which had allowed their cheaper import of American phosphate also had a more serious effect. It allowed huge imports of cheaper meat and grain from the States which, coupled with the bad weather, led to much lower food prices. Along with severe floods in many areas, it resulted in a particularly unfavourable market for manures with farmers unwilling to grow what they could not sell. The chairmans 1877 report confirmed this depression which he said had prevailed for so long a time, but there was no sign of pessimism. The following year, although profits had risen again to their peak of £36,629, there were hopes for the future as it was stated:-
Owing to low prices of machinery and building materials the Directors have been enabled to make contracts upon the most favourable terms, and have at a comparatively small cost, carried out the extensions upon the most improved principle. The new plant consists of a high level Jetty, furnished with Hydraulic Cranes, and connected with Tramways with the Works, Ten Horizontal Mills; and all the ncessary Apparatus for Mixing; the whole being driven by a compound Horizontal Engine with two Galloway boilers. With these advantages it is confidently expected a considerable saving will be affected in the cost of landing and storing materials, and also in the cost of manufacture. (18)
The next year, 1879, more imports of rock phosphates flooded into the country and coprolite sales dropped to only 95 tons with prices down to only 49/- a ton. Competition was excessive. Profits fell almost 33% and there was hardly a market for super with farmers in such dire straits. This time the problem was acknowledged.
The depression which has affected every branch of industry during this past year, has, in consequence of bad crops and low prices, been so severely felt by all connected with Agriculture, that the Government have appointed a Royal Commission to look into the question. It will hardly, therefore, occasion surprise that the sales of the Companys Manures show a falling off as compared with previous years, for not only have Consumers, in consequence of the unfavourable season been compelled to reduce their purchases, but the Directors have in many cases, decreed it prudent to restrict business rather than incur too great risks at the present time. (19)
1880 was their worst year with profits falling to £13,821. William Colchester took over the chairmanship with the company still owing Lawes a considerable fortune. In a letter pleading with Lawes to defer his substantial claim he acknowledged profits had not been quite as expected; only 7% between 1872 - 8 and 5% between 1878 - 80.
...the great diminution in the profits are well known to you as they do from a succession of bad harvests and from the great competition caused by the new works which have come into existence of late years. (20)
Lawes eventually managed to gain access to part of his money and an agreement that it would all be paid over to his family on his death. Despite production of a million tons of superphosphate in 1881, competition was still so severe the directors had no alternative but to make considerable concessions. The Deptford factory was closed and sold for £960 and the freehold of the Barking site had to be bought. (21) With this background the 1880s were a quieter period of maintaining their market and improving facilities in spite of many unfavourable circumstances. The situation in 1881 was still intense caused by the,
...disastrous state of the farming interest, to the great difficulties they have in collecting accounts for manure for the last two seasons, and also the very severe competition they also have to contend against many of the other makers offering manures at prices varying from 5/- to 10/- per ton less than the Companys quotation. (22)
Interestingly demand for coprolite improved in 1881 but to what extent it was due to Colchester taking over is uncertain. He and his brother Edward still had agreements with landowners in Cambs. (23) There had been problems with their overseas suppliers which Colchester acknowledged.
In consequence of Messrs Wyllie, Teacher & Gordon being very much behind in their deliveries of Phosphate under contract he had been compelled to purchase 2,800 tons of coprolites at considerably increased prices and also to purchase 250 tons of superphosphate to enable him to fulfil contracts made last autumn. (24)
That year contracts were made for 4,750 tons of coprolites from Beds. Cambs. and Suffolk with prices varying from 72/- for finely ground Camb. coprolites, 45/- for clean Suffolk coprolites and 16/- per ton for Bedfordshire smalls. How many of these came from his or Lawes works was not revealed in the books but it would be interesting to be able to confirm whether the company maintained their business interests at this difficult time. Over 1,500 tons of Boulogne coprolites were also purchased at 30/- a ton making it the largest annual coprolite purchase.
In 1882 Lawes was given a baronetcy in recognition of his invaluable services in the cause of scientific and practical agriculture. (25) This added prestige to the company and successful attempts were made to win contracts overseas in New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Germany. A new coprolite crushing mill was purchased and a new sulphuric acid plant was started which by 1885 was one of the most complete in the country and in fact, it became the major job of the labourers that decade. The men were paid 22 shillings a week and the boys 10 shillings, similar wages paid to Colchesters coprolite diggers. Close scrutiny of all aspects of the company was kept after financial discrepancies in their Scotland office were discovered and inefficient milling practices. Every attempt was made to ensure lower costs to keep a competitive edge. Coprolite purchases continued but not at quite so high levels as 1881 but at lower prices. There was an increase in the cost of their overseas phosphates and more expense was required to get a finer ground powder from harder Cuacao phosphates. A drought reduced water levels in 1883 causing stoppages when it was impossible to build up steam to drive the machinery. Yet throughout the first half of the 1880s demand for Bedfordshire coprolites was maintained but at prices which gradually dropped from 30/- a ton in 1882 to 21/- in 1886 when only 600 tons were purchased. After a slight increase to 1,200 tons in 1887 at only 20/- a ton purchases halted. Many pits would have been exhausted by that time or too deep to continue to be economic. (26)
The engineering and chemical equipment of the entire works can only be described as the perfection of the plant outfit for such an establishment. The specialities of the house consist in the following: - Lawes Turnip Manure, Lawes Dissolved Bones,
Lawes Mangold Manure, Lawes Cereal Manure, Lawes Peruvian Guano, Lawes Potato Manure, Lawes Concentrated Manure, Lawes Corn and Grass Manure, and superphosphate of all grades. Each of these is the outcome of Sir John Lawes assiduous researches and investigations into the science of fertilizing by chemical influence, and each article has fulfilled its allotted mission with results that it is superfluous to say have been in hte highest degree satisfactory. In the preparation of the above the firm employ their manufacture of sulphuric acid, in conjunction with various products of the earth, viz; mineral phosphates, guano, bones, hoof and horns, dried blood, nitrate of soda, salt, potash, and sulphate of ammonia. The manures themselves are used not only by the principal agriculturalists of the United Kingdom, but large quantities are annually shipped to the colonies, the continent, and America, and the yearly sales now amount to close upon 50,000 tons.
The stores at the Barking works are enormous, and, in addition to these, stocks are kept at all railway depots in London, and at Newport, Swansea, Cardiff, Plymouth, Bridport, Weymouth, Bude, Southampton, Yarmouth, Hull, Exmouth, Teignmouth, Gloucester, Grimsby, Gainsboro', Stockton on Tees, Lynn, Cardigan, Saltney, Chester, Penzance, Douglas and Ramsey (Isle of Man), Berwick upon Tweed, Leith, Ardrossan, Grangemouth, Invergordon, Inverness, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Lossiemouth, Jersey and Guernsey, and nearly every railway station and canal wharf in the United Kingdom; also at Belfast, Cork, Dundalk, Derry, Galway, Limerick, Wexford, Westport and Waterford. Agents are established in each of these towns, as also elsewhere; and the head office for Ireland is at 22 Eden Quay, Dublin. The administration of the affairs of this distinguished and influential house is of the most capable and vigorous character; indeed, it could hardly be otherwise in such thoroughly efficient and experienced hands as those of Mr. Elborough, the general manager; Mr. J. Morgan, Secretary; Mr. Wilson, the works superintendent; and Mr. McAllister, the superintendent of the sulphuric acid department. That Sir John B. Lawes has won world-wide fame by the successful operation of the great concern he has founded and developed, goes without saying. That his great services to agriculturalists have been amply recognised and well appreciated is evidenced in his possession of that fame and renown, and is appropriately marked in two other notable and special ways - one his dignity as a baronet conferred upon him in recognition of those services; the other excellent working laboratory at Harpenden Common, near his residence, eqipped at a cost of £2,000, and presented to him as a testimonial from many prominent agriculturalists who owed much of their success to the outcome of his labours. In time, if there is today in this country as bona fide and well developed science of agriculture (which hardly anyone will honestly), it is not too much to say that its practical rise, progress present firm establishment, and bright future promise are largely, if not wholly, attributable to this eminent baronet and the notable concern which exists today as a monument to his indefatigable will and energy.
(Modern London, 1888)
In a valuation of the Companys plant and machinery in 1887 there was a note of £3,883 1s.7d. for Cambridge being the value of Coprolite Works which the Company gave up to Sir John Bennet Lawes some years ago. Whether this was the plant he bought in 1874 is unclear but it could have been some of Colchesters works. (27) A new mill for grinding the imported phosphate was constructed in 1887 and the chambers were replaced with six new ones in 1888 to enable an annual production of 20,000 tons.
In 1888 the Agricultural Gazette published a long description of his two factories and the editor, Mr Morton, in jocular vein about its noxious processes, commented that,
[The Manufacturer] is, indeed, not allowed to send to waste more than a certain weight of acid to every cubic foot of air; and there stands the ladder and the test-hole, for the use of Mr Inspector, whenever he may choose to look in and take his samples. (28)
It was noted that wages at that time were 22s per week for men and 10s for boys amounting to £24,000 in 1887, a 33% increase over 1880. Details of the more philanthropic work that the Company was doing and the social background of the area revealed there were,
...no fewer than fifty cottages with gardens, provided for some of the men engaged, the greater number having their houses or their lodgings a mile or more away, at Barking. There is a schoolroom here, in which also services are conducted on the Sundays, and where occasional entertainments are given on week-days; there is a general shop, and a public house, a drum-and-pipe band, and a fire-engine; the clergyman pays his visits weekly - even a bishop has been known to conduct the Sunday services - the doctor is at hand:- What more can a well equipped community desire? (29)
Also in 1888, an article in Modern London, based largely on Mortons account, gives us fascinating insight into Victorian attitudes on environmental health.
From all parts of the surrounding neighbourhood the position of these works can be accurately determined by the huge chimney stack that towers into the murky air of Barking to a height of 175 feet, and measures something like 28 feet in diameter. This great chimney, it is said, has played the role of general doctor and physician in ordinary to the district, and has done this in a peculiar manner. The manufacture of sulphuric acid is practically the basis of this industry, since the chemical product enters as an important ingredient into most of the preparations of the firm. In the production of this agent a small percentage of the acid fumes generated is allowed to escape by the lofty chimney referred to, and these fumes tend to purify the atmosphere of the neighbourhood from what was formerly a chronic tendency to the development of fevers and ague. The whole sanitary effect of the chimney upon the locality in which it stands appears, indeed, to have been remarkable; and even a case of small-pox was condemned to loneliness and isolation, and speedily died out itself for lack of a congenially infectious atmosphere. Thus the companys works are a distinct local benefit, as well as a source of universal agricultural profit.
With regard to the manufacture of sulphuric acid - it is produced from Spanish pyrites, of which 10,000 tons are imported annually, and theyearly output of acid amounts in all to about 23,000 tons. The immense size of the works, of which the sulphuric acid department is only one section, may be best understood from the fact that their structural parts alone - factories, warehouses, sheds and wharves - cover an area of nearly thirty-five acres. (30)
Despite intense competition from cheaper manures throughout the 1880s, profits ranged from £22,000 to £26,000, similar to the profits for the 1890s but there was a downward trend. More storage sheds were built in 1890 and with severe competition, they bought their local competitor, the London Manure Company and expanded into sheep dips and disinfectants. A fire hit in 1894 which did a lot of damage but a foreign move increased their agencies to include the continent, Argentina, New Zealand and the Cape. (31)
As far as coprolite supplies were concerned, most workings in the country had come to a halt by the early 1890s. The last coprolite purchase of 500 tons was from Potton, Beds. at only 19/6 per ton but by 1894 the Quarries Act had brought coprolite pits under its regulations once they were over 20 feet so the deeper seams being exploited were then considered by contractors as not worth continuing. The few remaining Suffolk coprolite pits closed at this time.
Foreign super from Scandinavia started being sold in the country at this time which further reduced demand. There are records of super actually being made using ground coprolites and sulphuric acid in huge wooden troughs in the farm yard but on such a small scale it would only have reduced demand negligibly. In the 1895 report Colchester pointed out that the winter had been both severe and protracted, which could also explain why most coprolite work ceased,
...followed as it was by a period of flood at the time of root sowing, affected very considerably the demand for artificial manures, and this, combined with the ruinously low prices of Agricultural produce of all kinds, which curtailed the purchasing power of the farmer, has had the effect of decreasing sales both at home and Export. (32)
Consequently, the prices of all manufactured manures fell, considerably more than any decrease in materials and production costs. Superphosphate was actually imported for the first time in 1894 and as overseas production increased, particularly in Scandinavia, it decreased the companys market and made this aspect of trade unremunerative. This situation continued through 1897,
...causing firms who have been doing an export business to endeavour to place their production on the home market, with the result that the competition already very severe, has been intensified to such an extent, that the prices of all kinds of manures have fallen lower during the past year than they have hitherto been. (33)
By the end of the century things had got worse. William Colchester died in 1898 and the chairmanship was taken over by T. Perkins of Hitchin. The venture into the brick manufacturing business at that time was a disaster. Poor prices, poor weather and poor prices for bricks in particular, led to the plant being closed and disposed of, leaving profits down at £15,892 by 1900. When the last coprolite pit, according to the records, closed about 1904, the fertiliser industry had changed dramatically from its boom years in the 1870s.
The increased competition had forced prices down and many manure companies were subsequently forced to amalgamate to survive. Few people realise the importance of the coprolite business to the development of the fertiliser business in this country or the role that people like Lawes and Colchester played in our nations industrial and agricultural history.
Lawes Artificial Manure Company
Annual Profits 1876-1902
1874 26,328 17 9
1875 31,263 17 10
1876 32,150 17 5
1877 34,887 14 7 1890 25,887 14 0
1878 36,629 16 9 1891 23,776 1 4
1879 24,190 17 0 1892 23,949 9 10
1880 13,821 0 0 1893 26,362 11 1
1881 22,154 17 6 1894 22,058 0 0
1882 26,623 9 5 1895 27,023 1 1
1883 24,237 16 8 1896 24,958 0 0
1884 24,937 7 2 1897 22,012 16 6
1885 25,482 16 8 1898 22,586 0 0
1886 25,041 0 0 1899 23,006 17 10
1887 24,953 6 10 1900 15,892 0 0
1888 23,183 15 5 1901 18,430 0 0
1889 25,557 3 0 1902 17,441 19 10
1. O.S. 6 inch Beds.23NE 1931
2. Clutterbuck, Rev. see Hinxworth
3. From documents in possession of Mr D. Smyth of Edworth
5. Beaver,G.s diaries,Hitchin Museum,p74a
6. Lawes Chem.Manure Co.Private Ledger,I,p98 (Valence House
7. Beaver, op.cit.,p117a.
8. See Arlesey, Hinxworth, Ashwell, Dunton, Guilden and
9. See Rothamsted, Felixstowe
10. OS.25 inch Essex 74.01; 82.01
11. Lawes Manure Company Records, Agricultural History Museum,
12. SuffRO.HC 434.8728.155
13. Lawes Chem. Manure Co. Minute Book II,p217-222, Valence House
14. Ibid. Co.Info.Sheet,
15. Lawes Chem.Manure Co.Private Ledger,I,pp8,172 (Valence House
16. Ibid. Co.Minutes,1874,pp144-5; Annual Report,1874
17. Ibid. Minute Books,1872-6; SuffRO.HC 434.8728.402
18. SuffRO.HC 434.8728.402d. Annual Report,1878
19. Co.Annual Report,1879
20. Co.Minute Book, 1880, II,pp217-222
22. Co. Minute Book,II,p236
23. See Abington Pigotts; Burwell, Great Shelford, Steeple Morden
25. Ibid. p338
26. Ibid. 1882-87; see Potton
27. Ibid. 1887 valuation
30. Modern London,1888
31. SuffRO.HC 434.8728.402d.
32. Ibid. Ann.Report 1895
33. Ibid. Ann.Report 1897
34. SuffRO.HC 434.8728. Annual Reports, 1876-1902; Lawes
Chem.Manure Co.Minute Books, 1872-1875 (Valence House Museum,