Saturday 31 January 2015

Things to go to

Docklands History Group are advertising their annual symposium on Thames Shipbuilding for 9th May. The programme is on their web site at:

there are still no instructions as to how you can book though (will be devastated if I miss it!)

The programme includes Chris Ellmers on the Dudman dockyard, Ian Friel on Royal Shipbuilding on the Thames, Richard Edsor on Charles II on Shipbuilding, Andrew Lambert on the Aaron Manby,  Alex Werner on an Indian shipwright in London, Des Pawson on tools for sailmaking, Stuart Rankin and Roger Owen on the King and Queen Foundry, Brendan O'Farrell on Dudgeons, and Roy Fenton on SS Robin.

See you all there.

Peter Luck writes about the Swanscombe Project
Exhibition at Blake Gallery, Gravesend
13 photographers: one post-industrial landscape.
10th  –- 22nd  February 2015
9.00am – 5.00pm Monday to Saturday; 10.00am – 2.00pm Sunday
Swanscombe marshes comprise a rough triangle of land bounded on two sides by the Thames and on the third, south, side by low hills cut into by quarrying for chalk for the cement industry.
Now that this industry is closed down and the cement works are gone, the quarry sites have been occupied by industries which have formed a barrier to the marshes and allow the area as a whole to be spoken of as an unattractive waste land.
This is not quite the truth. The area has certainly been formed in large part by its industrial past and bears the traces, some enigmatic, but it is now a landscape of very varied form and biological diversity, often of quiet beauty and it is a zone of leisure free of both charge and regulation. For these reasons it is a zone of the imagination and enquiry. Capturing this has been a main part of our purpose in nearly two years of photography on the marshes.
The proposals for the Paramount London Entertainment Resort, occupying the central landward parts of the marsh are now well known. At the edges some marsh areas will remain open including the Black Duck Marsh, the Botany Marsh, still used as summer grazing, and the foreland, were shipping sight-lines cross the bend in the river. This much is known but not yet details of land-modelling, architecture and the means to preserve industrial remains and ecological diversity, or the quiet which we have found valued by those who know the marshes,
Alongside our photography, we present a brief statement of the history of the marshes – how this edgeland is also  the site of a rich and significant industrial history. Swanscombe marshes can be read as a document of our recent past, one which has survived through neglect. Will it continue to be readable through the future developments? And will the unregulated imagination still have a territory?
Photographers: Lesley Brew, Chris Burke, Trevor Crone, Keith Ellis, Denis Galvin,
      John Levett, Peter Luck, Ingrid Newton, Anthony Palmer, Jennifer Roberts, Mike Seaborne,
     Sabes Sugunasabesan, John Whitfield.
The group is formed from members and associates of Crossing Lines, a photo-forum based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Sunday 25 January 2015

Soap and Syrup - Peter Luck


by Peter Luck

The paper describes the history of the riverside site on Blackwall Lane now occupied by the developer, Cathedral - but previously the Syrol/Tate and Lyle/Amylum/Tunnel Glucose works 


This paper is an adapted version of a talk given to GIHS in 2012 and is the latest and probably still provisional product of a fascination derived from two views of the east Greenwich glucose plant most recently operated by Syral who closed it in 2009 and had demolished it by the end of 2010. They showed the view into the crowded works from Blackwall Lane, drawing one in, and the formal interest of the silos on the river front.

The plant was located on the western shore of the Greenwich peninsula and had operated under different company names and constitutions since 1934 when it opened on a site previously occupied by the Greenwich Soap and Candle Works, itself founded by Wilkie & Soames in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Previous to that the land had been agricultural.

My intention is to tell the story of this site. I have had to simplify in places because I have more information than I can handle in the time, and in others skate over long periods because I still have too little. 



 As often, the beginning is elsewhere. The Wilkie and Soames soap works began operations in Wheler Street, Spitalfields in 1808.  I have found nothing more about them until 1821 when Mr Wilkie died. His name lived on in the company for another 109 years. In 1846 James and Louis Soames are recorded as holding the lease of 65 Wheler Street for a soap works, counting house, stabling etc,  and James Soames owned or held leases on three other scattered premises in Spitalfields. Two were sub-let to a tailor and a greengrocer, one was noted as having stables, warehousing, sheds etc adjoining, and no subtenant.  By 1853 Arthur Soames has joined the family  partnership and Louis Soames is recorded as leaving it in that year. Shortly after, the company moved to the Greenwich site. Probable reasons for the move were the need for expansion and perhaps also the extremely unhealthy conditions of Wheler Street. The one certain reason was the imminent destruction of their premises as the north end of Commercial Street was cut through Spitalfields.


The last record (that I have seen) of Soames in Spitalfields is in Kelly’s Post Office Directory for 1857 which is also the first year of their directory entry mentioning Greenwich. They seem to have been there a little earlier.

Morden College were the owners of the Greenwich land, which had been used largely by butchers for fattening cattle and, at the perimeter, by basket-makers tending osier beds. In the middle of the nineteenth century Morden began to sell leases on riverside land for industrial development. The first significant move was the sale of a lease of 95 years to Charles Holcombe in 1841, followed by another to him in 1845, together forming the site of Morden Wharf and Hollick’s Wharf. Holcombe and his executors sublet the land to various users and built an access road now known as Morden Wharf Road and the pub, the Sea Witch at the shore end of the road.

The Soames, James 2nd and Arthur took a lease on land immediately to the south in 1857 but it was back-dated to 1854 and there had been another drafted in 1855. In any event, by the time the 1857 lease was finalised, the factory was built and appears in the lease documents, together with a riverside enclave within the site occupied by an engineering works. Whether there had been an arrangement with previous leaseholders or the factory had been put up while haggling over the lease isn’t clear. The land taken was quite a large area and the factory occupied less than half of it. Much of it remained more-or-less empty into the twentieth century.

Before getting too involved in the history of the Soames in Greenwich (what little I can find) it would be as well to comment briefly on soap production. It was a smelly business. Soap is a salt of a fatty acid. It is produced by the interaction of the fatty material with a strong alkali. The fatty material may be of vegetable origin such as olive or palm oil, or animal fat including whale oil. Whether the process is the ‘hot’ or the ‘cold’, heat is needed either to boil fats and alkali together or to raise their temperature ‘just enough’ for saponification. Various other ingredients can be added for scent or scouring power. If the cold process is used , the soap must stand and mature before it is useable.

I have found no record of the materials used by Soames (though a Soames brother, Henry Aldwin, was a Russia merchant and may have imported Russian tallow) or which process, but I do have some knowledge of the products. An advertisement makes it clear that their soaps were generally of the heavy duty kind. Other brand names were Apron, Big Wilkie, Spry, Wonderful Washer and British Carbolic.

Besides soap, the works did, as its name states, produce candles: Stearafine (‘They give a better and steadier light than any other candle.’); Greenwich Sperm (‘.....suitable for the best establishments in the kingdom.’) (and surely based on whale oil); Pure Parafine; and also a device for holding candles steady as they burn to the very end – the Greenwich Fix.

I have little information on their clients. They exhibited candles at the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition, which suggests ambition and were soap maker ‘by appointment’ to the Poplar Union in 1906.

The detailed history of the site development is an almost-closed book. There was a serious fire in 1861 and an illustration is claimed to have been published in the Illustrated London News, but I failed to find it. The Ordnance map of 1867 shows the iron works still in place, various small sheds around the site, the stables at the back (if riverside is front), a short jetty with a crane and an internal tramway system. The 1894 edition shows a larger jetty and many more buildings whose purposes appear to be identified on an undated plan in the Morden archives. This shows departments for paraffin, soap boiling and candle-making, with supporting laboratory, stables, maintenance departments, separate messes for men and women, and housing for gate-keeper and foreman. The riverside ironworks has been absorbed into the Soames site. At peak more than 140 men and boys were employed there; later, women were employed in cutting and stamping toilet soap. A licence granted to the Soames by Morden in 1915 approves their building an engine house, gas fired, next to their saw mill, but on the Morden plan the saw mill is among a group of buildings labelled as demolished. It is not clear when this south part of the site was cleared.

Road access remained from the NE corner of the land past the paraffin refinery. Probably main deliveries were to the pier. These will have included the fats and also timber for the saw mill. I am guessing that this would have been simply cut to manageable lengths and burnt for ash as a source of the necessary alkali.

 There appears to have been no change to the site before the 1914 edition of the OS. This shows the buildings in the southern part of the site still there. If this suggests commercial stagnation, it might be the case. There was a slump in demand around 1906 which Lever Brothers attempted to counter by inviting other soap manufacturers into a combine, so saving on research and advertising costs. Soames declined to join after strong negative publicity. (Levers successfully sued the Daily Mail for libel.)

 More is known of the role of the Soames family in Greenwich society. Among peninsula industrialists, the Soames were untypical in staying in Greenwich and putting some of their considerable profit back into the area. The elder James Soames in 1849 moved into the Red House, a large establishment on Westcombe Park Road, high on the hillside, more-or-less next door to Vanbrugh Castle and with fine views north over the peninsula. A few years on he moved to Blackheath.  James Soames 2nd followed him in 1854, buying Maze Hill House, lower on the slopes and facing Greenwich Park. This tends to support 1854 as a start date for the Works.

 James Soames 2nd was a political liberal, supporter of various political, religious and social causes in Greenwich, a member of the Board of Guardians, chairman of the Greenwich Society for the Relief of Distress, and assisting at St Alphege where his brother was the vicar. In 1890 he funded a new church for Westcombe Park, St George, and installed another Soames, Werner Henry Kolle Soames,  as vicar. Other Soames joined the company, lived in the area and married local girls. Walter Soames took over the running of the factory and stayed until the take-over in 1920. He may have been the Walter Field Soames who became Mayor of Greenwich in 1910 and 1911. (Walter Kolle and Walter Field Soames – which was which?) WHK Soames worked hard to build up his flock but the area was slow developing and he retired ill, the church being completed only in 1926 by its third vicar.

 Lever Brothers’ interest in combines mutated into a desire to take over other manufacturers and in 1919-20 they went on a campaign of acquisitions including big companies such as Gossage, Gibbs, and Knights and a number of smaller ones including Soames. By 1925 their policy with regard to certain smaller companies was to allow them to close ‘on favourable terms’ if not wanted. Although the lease on the site remained with Wilkie and Soames until at least 1937, the Thames Soap and Candle Works closed in 1930.


 It is quite striking that the 1937 LCC/OS differs hardly at all from the 1914 OS in respect of the immediate surroundings of the site. Tunnel Avenue, the approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel had entailed the demolition of some housing which was replaced by the group of Idenden Cottages in 1896 and this still stood. Housing, school and church on the opposite side of Tunnel Avenue were unchanged apart from the appearance of new terraces on the old allotment areas. To the north, the warehouses, works and yards on Morden Wharf Road were in form the same though the cement works had passed its big shed on the riverside to a packaging manufacturer. Beyond them, the extremely smelly Molassine Meal Works was busy producing mollasses-based animal feeds. The Sea Witch catered for the workers, as did the Mitre on the main road, and perhaps the Terry Dining Rooms.



After the closure of the Soames factory, the site and buildings stood vacant for a few years gathering weeds and grime until taken over by the newly formed Tunnel Refineries in 1934. This was a newly formed company but with a parentage going back to 1873 and the founding of the company Callebaut Freres et Lejeune in Aalst, Belgium. The Callebauts had been supplying hops and sugar to some of Belgium’s 3000 or more brewers and founded their new company to manufacture glucose syrup from starch and so bypass the heavy taxation on sugar. With various changes of name and family members directing, the firm continued into the twentieth century, eventually merging with the Blieck Freres to form Glucoseries Reunies in 1926. Along the way, probably around 1880, they had instituted the first company retirement scheme in Belgium.

In the late 1920s this family firm formed a relationship with a London firm, A Hurst & Co Ltd, to ship starch and glucose to England. By 1932 it was thought better to import only the starch and convert it to glucose here. So a scheme was devised by the Calllebauts with Henry Risner of Hurst’s to form a new company which was duly named after its location. Risner became the first Managing Director of Tunnel Refineries with Edward Ummen as Factory Director. Mr Ummen seems to have been the conduit for this venture as the Callebaut family had sat out the First World War in England as guests of friends of the Ummens.

 The Callebaut family remained dominant (or at least influential) until the year 2000.

Having moved onto the site in 1934, apparently still as under-tenants of Wilkie and Soames, Tunnel cleared and cleaned the site and was up and running in 1935, producing its first batch of glucose syrup in August of that year. It is plain from the 1937 LCC/OS map that the premises were used more or less as found. An account by Albert Kershaw, one of the workers at that time, tells that ‘most of the work was done with a minimum of equipment and expense’. The tram lines were still in use for bringing coal ashore to the boilers but loading the trucks, moving them and fuelling the boilers was all done by manpower. The jetty and its not-very-adequate old crane was also used for off-loading starch imported from Aalst, consignments arriving irregularly and having to be man-handled ashore. A small work force meant production could cease for a few days while every hand turned to moving a shipload of 2cwt sacks. Initially the glucose produced was not particularly good but, as rare British produced glucose, it was ‘accepted on the market’.

The internal layout at this time is not clear. Small but significant improvements were made. These included constructing a pit and fitting a mechanism to enable easier emptying of the heavy sacks of starch, installing a third boiler and mechanical stokers and digging wells to supply water to vacuum pumps  Much later, redundant, these were filled in again. Maintenance was undertaken with very little machinery. It all seems very hand-to-mouth. Perhaps it was, but clients came from all over the country, including the South Shore Rock Co of Blackpool and Bassets Licorice Co. They nearly all collected their own, few received deliveries, the company vehicle fleet being very small. Even so by 1939 Tunnel Glucose was the third largest British producer.

The war set this back. Badly. Starch deliveries from Belgium ceased. Production objectives were set by government. Starch supplies were requisitioned. Tunnel had to take what it could get as raw material and this could be custard powder, peas, sago, tapioca, potato starch. When this was running  out, storage vats were built and liquid starch was bought from competitors. From these disparate sources a glucose was made. Mr Kershaw wrote, ‘Some horrible colours were produced, but still it was glucose.’ For a while malt was made from potatoes and barley but this closed down as supplies became unavailable.

A part of the premises was turned over to the firm Thermalloys for the smelting of Manganese from ore. This was a filthy process but it saw the premises in use. Improvisation ruled here, too. Men needed to bathe before leaving at the end of a shift, so barrels were acquired, sawn in half to give two tubs each, and these were the company baths.

In 1941, the company sales HQ in Trinity Square was destroyed by bombing and the glucose factory was shut down, its staff sent off to other local works such as Delta Metals, Stones, Deptford Power Station. The small skeleton staff remaining were turned by the ever-inventive Mr Ummen to producing tungsten powder used in the hardening of steel. This work was under Ministry direction. Various other work went on in various parts of the factory. The manganese production increased and took over more space; an ersatz starch was produced under the guidance of Mr Grobowski, a German Jewish refugee; the London Chain Company spent two years making bicycle chains; an unused starch building was turned over to general warehousing. Among the commodities stored were graphite, raw black chocolate and cane.

In 1943 Glenvilles -appeared (possibly displaced from Deptford) and began processing oils and fats but closed again at the end of the war. In 1944 a V1 flying bomb landed on the foreshore near to the Sea Witch. The pub was destroyed along with the company laboratory and offices and most of the riverside buildings of Morden Wharf.  The company was able to use lab facilities at the Molassine works, just north of Morden Wharf and carried on with plenty of minor blast damage to attend to.


The war ended with the landscape changed considerably as the 1953OS shows: the riverside was largely in ruins, the terrace of houses by the site entrance demolished and areas of spare land with road access given to prefab housing. Idenden Cottages were still standing. The ownership of land at the south of the site now appears from the map to be ambiguous. Was it still Tunnel’s? If so, had they sub-leased it to the Council. This is a question still to be answered. What had not changed was the basic internal layout of the Tunnel site. Molassine continued and the housing on the other side of Tunnel Avenue also remained for the time being unchanged. Two years later, in 1955, the brick warehouse on the south side of Morden Wharf Road was built, incorporating space for a barge repair yard (or, at least, its equipment and materials storage) at the river end where the riverside path cut through the building. Also around this time the warehouse on the north side of Morden Wharf Road was rebuilt.


With war over, the call for tungsten gone, the Ministry contract for Glenville’s fats lost, and workers coming home, there was an urgent need for the company to find something to do. The answer was to go back to producing glucose from starch. Aalst once again supplied but further supplies were needed and these were of doubtful quality, so the glucose too was of doubtful quality. The company was now in a very awkward situation with clients not accepting their quality and so leaving. Further to that the long hard winter of 1946-7 saw much frost damage to pipework. Improvisation was needed again to make good deteriorated and damaged equipment. One small modernisation was the extension of the gatekeeper’s cottage to include a bathroom.

A second hand boiler was bought, additional to those already in use and so power made more reliable, just in time for a new venture, dextrose production for medicinal purposes. More new  equipment was installed and 24hour production begun. The demand was great.

Then Edward Ummen died. After a brief period of senior staff filling in, Lucien Wigdor was appointed manager. His early message to the work force was bleak. Despite the success of the dextrose, the company was in a bad way and much effort was going to be needed to save it. The effort was made; Wigdor’s addresses to the company became slowly more cheerful.

I have little information on the 1950s except that in 1951 new offices were built at the riverside (these, with extensions survived to the last) and in 1957 there were two major events. First the company abandoned importing starch and equipped itself for milling its own from maize. Secondly, the Belgians formed a liaison with the American Company, A E Staley of Decatur, Illinois. I am not sure whether that was, at this stage, just a working arrangement or a full amalgamation, but Glucoseries Reunies was renamed Amylum and the Staley recipe for a high sugar content syrup, Sweetose, was granted to Tunnel Glucose as a subsidiary of Amylum. By 1973 the Tunnel directors were two each from UK, Belgium (both Callebauts) and the USA. At this time, 1950s, too, the Glenvilles company was revived and began producing custard powder.

At some point Lucien Wigdor rose from works manager to Managing Director and it is his time in the top job that defines the era best documented by the company magazines I have seen and the memories of Tunnel workers I have talked to.

What has been a fairly slow evolving story up to now, speeds up a lot and the shape of the works changes constantly. The 1957 turn to milling their own maize meant that silos had to be built to store it. These first silos were on land close to the jetty. By the mid 60s suction gear had been installed and American maize was offloaded either from coasters which had picked up a cargo from big bulk carriers at Rotterdam, or from lighters trans-shipping from smaller bulk carriers docking at Tilbury. The coasters moored across the end of the L-shaped jetty and the lighters snugged in at the side. A conveying system was installed carrying grain from the silo to the steeps, themselves renewed. I am not sure whether the preference for American grain reflected the influence of Staley or whether it simply was the best. Photos taken from the house magazine show that first silo and the delivery of a new vat in the mid 1960s.

In 1965 the site was briefly flooded. This was not due to particularly exceptional river conditions, though the tide was very high. It seems that the site had been un-troubled in 1928 and 1956 but this time building works for extending the office / laboratory block caused a weakness in the river wall and it gave way. All hands were necessarily turned to building sand bag walls, clearing up and chivalry (a photo in the house journal shows a woman being carried across the waters). The house cartoonist commented with a drawing showing an unpopular supervisor being submerged.

A liaison with a Dutch company, Avebe, began in 1967. They produced modified potato starch for textile and paper industries, something Tunnel had only edged into and so Tunnel Avebe was born. They were perhaps a little mysterious as one interviewee is convinced they were producing junk food. What effect their presence had on the layout of the works I don’t know, though developments in the late 1960s were particularly intense across the whole site.

It should, though be pointed out that in the late 60s the site entrance remained off Morden Wharf Road and between the works and Tunnel Avenue there remained a small enclave which may have been, earlier, the site of the manganese refinery and was now occupied by Williams, steel stock-holders. In 1969 the curved building which came to dominate the road end of the site was completed to designs by Dennis & Partners of Wimpole Street for Glenville’s. The curve which seemed so excitingly modernist was a straightforward response to the turning of lorries in at the entrance off Morden Wharf Road.     

The production process started at the top of the building with tanks of starch and filtered under gravity down through the stages of conversion. Temporary buildings were erected at the southern end of the site, next to the river, for Glenville’s production of instant milk. During the  1970s the Williams land and the site of the newly demolished Idenden Cottages were acquired and the administration and canteen block completed to designs by the Brunton Boobyer Partnership of Greenwich, with the car park occupying the Idenden site.

In 1970 a new Mill House was built but I am not sure where. What did have some effect was  entry into the Common Market in 1973 and the (almost certainly) consequent turn from American maize to French, which has been thought to be relatively inferior. With a new mill house and an ever-increasing number of products, the demand for maize was increasing so, at some time around now (and I still can’t get a definitive date) the great off-shore silos were built and with them new and extended suction gantries for faster off-loading. They could shift 100tons per hour. They had a dramatic effect on the wider scenery of the river frontage and the new gantries were not only effective but splendidly framed views across the river.

The next couple of years saw a further expansion of the maize grind and the construction of a new plant for producing Isosweet, a high fructose glucose syrup, which adds to the certainty that the silos were now in use.

At this period the plant employed around 400 people and there were nearly always additional contractors on site as there was always a new plant under construction or an old being pulled down. Despite this, the core of the old soap works survived to the end and the company retained, on the whole, a family character. There were a few small strikes at the end of the 60s both in the plant and among the grain gangs, probably due to rather clumsy management of redundancies, but these were rare. The Callebauts had, after all, pioneered works pensions in Belgium and Mr Wigdor had made good relations and mutual support an item of faith. The firm paid well, too. To some extent it probably needed to, to compensate for hostile working conditions; the heat in the plant could be ferocious, workers needing salt drinks and it being rumoured that diabetics were so at risk from atmospheric sugar that they could not be employed.

In 1982 dual processing of maize and wheat for starch was commenced. The plant was the first of its kind in the UK. Common Market guarantees on cereal prices and increased costs of American maize pushed the company towards wheat as a source. Eventually despite the lesser purity of wheat-derived starch, maize was no longer used and the silos fell out of use as wheat was brought in by lorry from the company’s own mill in Suffolk.

I am not sure when the company acquired a lease on the Molassine site to the north beyond Morden Wharf Road or began using the brick warehouses, which others had built in the 1950s, for their own storage, but the waste water treatment plant on the far northern edge of that site was put into operation  in 1988 and the production of grain neutral alcohol began at the new plant in the centre of that site in 1992. This was, initially, a joint venture with a Scottish distiller but became independent of them in 1994. This was the first all-new distillation plant in London since the Beefeater in 1908. Alcohol was sold on to drinks manufacturers including London’s last remaining gin distillers in Kennington. This brings the development of the site to its maximum extent, the south part being extremely crowded and the northern part more expansive. The history of land and leases acquired and their eventual clarification into one big lease for the whole operative site at its fullest extent is complex, only approaching a resolution in 1995.

From 1957, the works has undergone several changes of ownership with effects on the nature of the local company, as it became an ever smaller and less valued part of an ever larger whole. In 1976 Tate & Lyle bought in, taking a one-third share, leaving Amylum and Staley also with one-third shares. In 1988 Tate & Lyle bought Staley, so gaining a two-thirds share in the company, but having only 50% voting rights. Pierre Callebaut remained in charge of the Amylum factories. This may account for the continued good opinion of the company held by the people I have spoken to.  Latterly, a degree of corporate indifference may have crept into staff relations but nothing to compare with T & L’s union busting activities in Illinois which caused workers to protest, strike, and get locked out. The confrontation lasted from 1992 to 1995 and the workers lost.

In 2000 T&L took over Amylum. They seem to have been little interested in Tunnel or in the locality. Amylum had been keenly interested in the locality: in 1992 they were among the founders of the Greenwich Waterfront Development Partnership (a partnership of business and community interests for area regeneration) and undertook improvements along their boundary to the river. These included two garden areas and improvements to the Primrose Pier, opened as a public amenity.

In 2007 Syral, a subsidiary of a French conglomerate Tereos (itself with a history dating back to 1932) bought five T&L sites including both Tunnel and Aalst. In 2009 they closed Tunnel citing logistical problems associated with an inner London .location and an over-provision of starch and glucose production in the group.

 The layout of the factory at the close is given by an Amylum plan from five years earlier. Not everything is identified, only the major processing plants. From the walk round the site just before closure some other buildings could be identified particularly the admin/canteen building, laboratory and maintenance buildings and the warehouses. Buildings surviving from the soap works are heavily outlined. The oldest of them was redundant, unlit within, filled with props and with detritus scattered on the floor. It seemed advisable not to enter. For the rest the site appeared clean if a little run down in places. We were told that the effluent treatment plant had been malfunctioning for some time.


Now the site is cleared; only the administration block and the brick warehouses on Morden Wharf Road still stand together with one of the tanks of the effluent treatment plant. The rest is flattened and compacted ground. The riverside scene is now much quieter, the drama has gone and further de-industrialisation is very likely under the Core Strategy being devised by Greenwich Council planners. The developer Cathedral Group has now taken a lease on the site and the recently published master-plan for the area suggests the, to my mind somewhat improbable, location of an open air event arena on the northern part of it. Wait and watch.


There are relevant historic photos to be found in the Greenwich Heritage Centre and I have a number of my own taken in recent years and falling into three groups:

-          six dating from 2007 to 2009;

-          eleven of those taken on 24th September 2009 when, together with a small group of industrial historians and a photographer, I visited the site just before demolition commenced;

-          and nine images of the later stages in the disappearance of the works taken from April to September 2010.

A small selection from these is also with the Heritage Centre.

1.   2007/01/BW/35/19    January 2007    Syral shore from IoD: Grain silos & starch plant

2.   2008/20/BW/35/32    Sept      2008    Syral skyline from near dome

3.   2007/16/BW/35/28    August  2007    Alcohol and effluent plants

4.   2009/11/BW/35/28    July       2009    Grain gear and Maritime Greenwich

5.   2008/20/BW/35/19    Sept      2008    Site entrance from Tunnel Avenue

6.   2008/20/BW/35/22    Sept      2008    View into main site road

7.   2009/21/BW/35/4      Sept      2009    Main site road, starch dryer, grain silos

8.   2009/21/BW/35/17    Sept      2009    View back from starch dryer to Syrup refinery no1

9.   2009/21/BW/35/10    Sept      2009    Old steep tank bases (1960s)

10. 2009/24/BW/35/4      Sept      2009    South wall of ex-soap works building

11. 2009/20/BW/XP/12   Sept      2009    The ‘back road’

12. 2009/21/BW/35/31    Sept      2009    Open batch syrup tank

13  2009/20/BW/XP/13   Sept      2009    Tanks and grain silos

14. 2009/22/BW/35/15    Sept      2009    Alcohol distillation plant

15. 2009/22/BW/35/17    Sept      2009    Distillation plant detail

16. 2009/23/BW/XP/4     Sept      2009    Emptied enzyme tanks

17. 2009/20/BW/XP/17    Sept       2009    Clean-up vehicle seen from above

                                                                     syrup refinery no 1 

18. 2010/01/BW/XP/1     April     2010    Demolitions at entrance

19. 2010/05/BW/35/27    July       2010    Sheerlegs lifting a tank

20. 2010/05/BW/35/33    July       2010    Inspecting a tank

21. 2010/09/BW/35/14    July       2010    Demolition equipment at entrance

22. 2010/11/BW/35/10    August  2010    Silos from entrance

23. 2010/12/BW/XP/11   August  2010    Silos from river path

24. 2010/12/BW/XP/9     August  2010    Silos from foreshore

25. 2010/14/BW/35/7      August  2010    Silos from IoD

26. 2010/17/BW/35/26    Sept      2010    Flattening the site; Maritime Greenwich


Monday 12 January 2015


The following text is a note taken from a talk given to Blackheath Scientific Society - with thanks to them for allowing us to reproduce it.
Pipe Line Under the Ocean  
by  Mr A F Cantle

The Invasion of Normandy took place on June 6th 1944 but preparations for it started way back before then.

Early in 1942 during discussions between Lord Louis Mountbatten and Geoffrey Lloyd, who was Minister in Charge of Petroleum Warfare.  Lord Louis suggested that perhaps a pipeline could be laid across the English Channel.

Manufacture of PLUTO BICC Erith
This discussion was soon extended to various oil companies, and A C Hartley, Chief Engineer of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, suggested that it would be possible to manufacture a coreless lead sheath as used on power cables.  Hartley’s preliminary discussions were with Dr Wright of Siemens Brothers of Woolwich, and resulted in Siemens producing a sample length of 2² bore pipe externally armoured.  This was tested at Chatham Dockyard, and proved satisfactory.

This pipe was referred to as “cable” in order to preserve secrecy and reduce the risk of the cable companies being targeted for air raids, especially as all of those involved would be on coastal or Thameside locations.


It was given the name of HAIS Cable; H for Hartley, AI for Anglo Iranian, and S for Siemens.

Various cable companies were involved: Siemens, Johnson and Phillips, Callenders, Henley, Pirelli and others.  Plant limitations in headroom and craneage meant that they manufactured their lengths of tubing, and sent them to the Thames for jointing and armouring, then storing in riverside pits until required.

Sheds for the nanufacture of Pluto. BICC Erith
None of the existing cable laying ships had equipment big enough to handle the pipeline envisaged.  Three merchant ships, Latimer, Sandcroft and Algerian were fitted out with large storage tanks and laying gear for the main task.

Meanwhile another vessel, Holdfast, was converted to handle the first 35 mile long 2² bore HAIS pipe, which was laid as a full scale trial across thhhe Bristol Channel from Swansea on the Welsh coast to Ilfracombe on the North Devon coast in March 1943.  Many problems had to be overcome on this trial: connecting to the shore ends – tidal currents – joints bursting at the 750 lb/sq in internal pressure used to pump the fuel though the line.

It was decided that the final line would be a 3² bore pipe, with double steel tape round the lead tube, armoured with galvanised steel wire, and covered in tar impregnated hessian tape – making a total diameter of about 5½².  This would be manufactured in 35 mile lengths for laying between Dungeness and the Pas de Calais; and 70 mile lengths for laying between the Isle of Wight and Cherbourg.  The 3² bore pipe had twice the capacity of the 2² pipe.

It had been planned that pipe laying would take place about three weeks after “D” Day but the many and varied problems (the pipe wrapping itself around the ship’s propeller, etc) meant that it was not until 22nd September 1944 that fuel started to flow.  This was pumped at 750 lb/sq in and delivered 56000 gall/day.

Eventually eleven lines of HAIS were laid from Dungeness to the Pas de Calais; and two from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg.  Once laid these gave no problems, apart from the difficulties of coupling.

As a back up to the HAIS design a steel pipeline was also produced.  It was called HAMEL after its originators H A Hammick and B J Ellis, both of the Burmah Oil Company; and developed by J Dobbie of Stewart and Lloyds.  The pipe was manufactured in short lengths and jointed by welding into 4000 ft long sections.  These were stored beside Tilbury Docks.  Huge floating steel drums, like gigantic cotton reels, 40 ft in diameter were constructed to hold 30 mile lengths of pipe, with a total weight of 1600 tons.  These “Conundrums” were towed across the Channel by powerful tugs, unwinding the pipeline as they went.

Initially one tug was used, but it could only achieve a speed of four knots with this load, and with a tide strength of five knot progress was impossible.  Eventually a landlubber pointed out that the wake of the tug impinging on the drum was thrusting it back in proportion to the power employed.  By using two tugs spaced so that their wakes passed outside the drum the problem was overcome.

Six HAMEL pipelines were laid from Dungeness to the Pas de Calais; and two from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg, in addition to the HAIS pipelines mentioned above.

The HAMEL pipelines had a limited life.  The steel tubes were cut through by movement over rocks on the seabed, particularly at the reefs near Bassure de Baas.  They lasted no more than three months.

The major pipelines of the PLUTO project were:

Liverpool to Avonmouth, then the Isle of Wight – then links to: Cherbourg; St Lo; Alençon; Chalons-sur-Marne; Luxembourg; and the Rhine at Mainz.

Liverpool to the Midlands and down to Thames Haven, Isle of Grain - then links to: Boulogne; Ghent; Antwerp; Eindhoven; and the Rhine at Emmerich.

The pipelines across England ran through fields and villages, and were often a source of annoyance to the villagers, without them realising what the pipeline was for.

Pumping stations at the coast were built to look like bombed out seaside chalets.

The pumping pressure was gradually increased up to 1200 lb/sq in, and as much as a million gallons per day of various fuels were pumped through.  Over the whole project a total of 173 million gallons were supplied.

After the war the original 2² bore pipe laid across the Bristol Channel continued in use for more than a year, supplying Devon and Cornwall with petrol.  In Europe the pipelines remained in use until July 1945.  Then with the increase in shipping in the Channel the pipelines became a hazard.

The Royal Navy was given the task of recovering the shore ends and about three miles at each end of the pipelines.  Later, in August 1946, a private salvage operation started to lift the remainder of the HAIS pipelines and coil them back into the cable ships, a reverse operation to laying them.  This was very worthwhile, due to the value of the materials involved.

The recovery of the HAMEL pipelines was rather more difficult as the steel tube could not be coiled down but had to be cut into short lengths – which could be hazardous if any lingering petrol caught fire.


PS  - Way back in 2005 GIHS had a speaker on PLUTO.  This was Allan Green who contributed a recent article to this blog about gutta percha.    He subsequently sent us a list of references of information about Pluto which was reproduced in our web site -

PPS  When I was looking for illustrations for this I came across a picture of sheds where it is said the HAIS cable was made in Rainham, Essex.  It was said these sheds were still there in the 1980s and I have a vague memory of having them pointed out to me on a river trip.   I can find no mention of the existence of these anywhere other than the original reference and the picture.    Do they still exist?? and if so, where?? There are sheds very like this picture at the isolated Vioela site in Coldharbour Lane, Essex.

Monday 5 January 2015

The Dark Side of the 'Wonder' material for Submarine Cables

Porthurno Research Fellow (and Enderby Group member) Allan Greene looks at the discovery and history of cable's 19th century wonder stuff and the impact it had on both economy and the environment .
This article first appeared in Porthcurno PK News No. 26 April 2005
In the world of submarine telegraphy we know gutta percha as the material whose discovery provided the near perfect insulating material for underwater cable applications yet there are deeper and darker sides to the exploitation of this wonderful substance.
The felling of tens of millions of huge trees started 150 years ago in the Malay Peninsula to feed the needs of manufacturers, primarily in the UK, who were using the milky sap from the trees to make everything from ornamental and decorative goods to ear-trumpets and from shoe-soles to chamber utensils for use in mental homes.
Building at Enderby Wharf with decoration of gutta percha leaves over the door

This was Gutta Percha.
Today Gutta Percha is barely known and very little used yet it was the one and only material which permitted telegraph cables to leave dry land and cross the oceans. Without Gutta Percha it is likely that workable long haul submarine cables would not have been a reality before the 20th century.

Until around 1850 only a handful of people had heard of the tree, or rather family of trees that produced the sticky sap that became known as gutta percha. The two main species known as Isonandra Gutta and Palaquium Gutta grew only in the dense forests of, what was then known as Borneo, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.
Although usually credited to Dr Montgomerie, a surgeon working for the East India Company, the first specimens of gutta percha were brought to England in 1843 and presented to the Royal Asiatic Society by a Portuguese engineer named Jose d' Almeida.  

As well as some samples of the raw material he brought artefacts of Gutta Percha made by Malay natives including model animals, knives, hats, whips and piping as in the image above. Montgomerie’s samples arrived in London only a few months later and were exhibited at the Society of Arts. This was the start of several decades of 'gutta percha mania' when 1000s of tons were shipped into the UK and millions of trees were destroyed in the process. To better understand why this material generated such excitement it is necessary to look at things in more detail. The
sticky sap did not flow easily as the tree trunks were cut or 'tapped' and each tree yielded only a small quantity. However, it was slowly collected and then boiled with water, cleaned and eventually formed into cakes of raw gutta that hardened in the sun. It was in this form that the material was shipped to England in the cakes or balls each weighing around 30 pounds. In its pure form Gutta Percha is quite light and, as was discovered during the laying of the first Dover - Calais cable in 1850, it actually floats in seawater
When plunged into boiling water gutta percha softens into a putty-like consistency and can be moulded into any shape quite easily by hand, and when allowed to cool becomes again quite hard and durable. It was the first natural thermos plastic material and it is this characteristic that differentiates it from rubber. A number of people in Britain -were quick to appreciate the potential for this new material and within a few years an incredible range of products was being constructed. - Charles Mackintosh, the waterproof clothing manufacturer was already using rubber in his manufacturing processes and it was one of his business partners, Thomas Hancock, whose brother Charles was to be the key figure in the development of Gutta Percha business.

Portraits of Sir William Hooker and Werner Siemens
made from gutta percha

There are many testimonies to the hardwearing qualities of Gutta Percha, not least one that related to its application as soles for shoes and boots. The military in particular seem to have appreciated the qualities of Gutta Percha soles and Rear-Admiral Sir John Ross R.N. was said to have issued a memo "TO SAILORS-especially those proceeding to the Arctic Regions, Gutta Percha will prove a WARM FRIEND" The applications to which Gutta Percha was to be put seemed endless and some items continued being manufactured for many years after the main Gutta Percha craze subsided. The 1855 catalogue illustrated truncheons made from Gutta Percha with a whalebone centre and these were still being made in 1926 for the Canadian 'Mounties' who found them to be a comfort when they found themselves on peace-keeping duties during the General Strike. One particularly interesting industrial application took advantage of Gutta Percha's resistance to some corrosive fluids. Bottles made from Gutta Percha continued to be manufactured well into the 20th century particularly for the storage of very dangerous hydrofluoric acid that could not be held in glass bottles.
Gutta percha leaves
Other items offered in the catalogue included: sheets of various thicknesses, round bands for driving machinery, tubing, buckets and bottles, hats, combs, skates (with straps complete), lifebuoys and ear comets.

There is little or no evidence to indicate that anyone was concerned about the massive felling of trees in Malaysia to meet this incredible demand. The trees were there, the natives were willing and there was money to be made! The trees from which the sap was extracted were slow growing reaching 65 to 70 feet after around 30 years and very importantly only produced seed and worthwhile quantities of sap.
Images show trees being tapped (as the local rubber trees were tapped) and the sap flowing from the diagonal cuts in the bark. In reality this was quite a different story. I said earlier that the sap did not flow easily and local natives quickly learned that if the tree was felled, laid horizontal and circular grooves cut all around the trunk the sap was liberated far more quickly. The 20-30 year old tree was thus destroyed for a pint or two of sap
 According to contemporary records a fully-grown tree, 30 years old would have attained a girth of around 3.5 to 4 feet at the base and was expected to yield no more than one and one third pounds weight of clean gutta percha. This would seem to be a trifling quantity for the sacrifice of a 65-foot tree?

It's possible to get a better perspective on this devastation of the forests by looking at some larger scale statistics. In the year 1881 around 1250 tons of Gutta Percha were shipped from Borneo and a further 3600 tons from Singapore. That total of 4850 tons in the one- year represents the felling of no fewer than eight million trees and probably nearer 10 million.
The  gutta pecha core arrives at the Greenwich works
We can also examine the statistics relating to Gutta Percha required for cable manufacturing only and as an example the Gutta Percha used on the first two successful Atlantic telegraph cables of 1865 & 1866. The total quantity manufactured was 3960 nautical miles that were coated with 400 pounds weight of Gutta Percha per nautical mile. Using the same formulae as above this represents a minimum of 1.2 million trees, or 300 trees per nautical mile of manufactured cable.

The biggest of the submarine telegraph cable manufacturers, Telcon claim that during the century 1850 to 1950 they (and their predecessors) had manufactured 315,000 nautical miles of telegraph cable. If, very conservatively we estimate that this mileage was coated with 200 pounds weight of Gutta Percha per nautical mile we come up with around 47 million trees.
This was for one cable Manufacturer albeit the largest in the world, in one country, for one application only, the insulation of submarine cables. Without researching official import records of Gutta Percha resin entering in to UK ports we cannot easily estimate the TOTAL number of trees which might have been felled to support the TOTAL quantity of Gutta Percha consumed but it must certainly run into 100s of millions!

Covering the conductor with gutta percha
Greenwich Telcon works 1950s
Around 1915 Telcon as the major user of Gutta Percha for cable applications had recognised a need to take action to replenish the dwindling forest supply and set up a new company to cultivate the trees in Malaysia near the town of Kuala Lipis and this was named the Selbome Plantation Co Ltd (after the Telcon Chairman Lord Selborne).  Their plans were over ambitious and the company had heavy overheads resulting in an expensive end product and the situation became worse as the depression of the 1920s and early 30s hit the actual consumption of raw Gutta Percha. Production ran at around 100 tons of pure Gutta Percha per year. One very good thing did however come out of the Selborne Plantation venture. Applying a little more science than hitherto to the extraction of sap from the trees, together with investment in special machinery, it was discovered that the twigs, small branches and leaves of the trees could be pulverised and crushed to yield the sap without resorting to tapping the main trunk: or felling the tree. So seasonal and methodical plucking of leaves and pruning of new growth could permit extraction of around one ton of Gutta Percha per 30 tons of prunings. Alas it was all too little and too late!
After the war and into the 1950s new, mass produced (usually a by-product of the oil refining industry) and inexpensive, plastic materials were emerging to replace Gutta Percha for virtually all industrial applications. The leader was polyethylene that lCI branded 'Polythene' and which 50 years on is still the primary insulating material for submarine cables.

Gutta Percha was the first truly thermoplastic material which allowed the telegraph to pass under the oceans of the world and while we might shrink in horror at the terrible cost in terms of the utter destruction of so many mil- lions of trees perhaps there is yet another angle on this story. The wood of the Gutta Percha family of trees was soft, fibrous and spongy and of little use for construction and today at least one of the big areas where this ravage of nature took place is totally protected as part of the Malaysian National Park.

PS-  For the sporting ... 'Gutties' was the name given to golf balls made from gutta percha, which appeared around 1850. The Gutta Percha Company's   moulding room employed 16 men and boys in 1900 and was turning out no fewer than 100,000 balls,

Another picture of the building at Enderby's Wharf with moulded decoration of gutta percha and cable
This building has now been demolished as part of the new development.