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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The British Tar Company

Because of Dundonald's financial problems, the tar making operations were taken into a manufacturing and sales organisation - the British Tar Company. This organisation appears to have sold considerable quantities of tar although (despite the punning name) it seems to have sold to industry rather than to the navy. As time went by 'Dundonald revealed himself more and more as a potentially disastrous partner' and management of the company passed to other family members who made 'considerable fortunes'. Dundonald 'led the life of a perpetual fugitive.... suffering from a profound, if largely justified, persecution complex'.

In the British Tar Company's works, coal was burnt in the bottom of "stoves". Smoke from the coal went up into "proper horizontal tunnels" and then into a "capacious and close tunnel 100 yards or more in length" which was "covered on the top with a shallow pond of water". The reason for this pond was to condense the gases ‑"the chill of the water condensed the smoke” and the tar then "falls on the floor of the tunnel".

Tar was marketed by the company in grades that were each defined by a crown and number. It varied from rough tar, straight from the kiln, sent out only "if ordered", to distillates for high quality work.

Dundonald could easily have added gas lighting to his repertoire of manufactures. He simply seems not to have been interested in developing it. He certainly knew about coal gas ‑ it was included in the index to his unwritten book on the uses of tar. There is also some eyewitness evidence that he sometimes used gas for lighting in his house at Culross. He had no known connection with the gas industry itself, although he lived well into the era of gas lighting. He would also have had a good case for a challenge to the Chartered Company on priority of invention. Weston, Boulton and Watt's lawyer certainly thought the British Tar Company would issue such a challenge unless certain unspecified, clauses in the Chartered's Bill were dropped.

Dundonald had an unerring eye for not making his fortune. He was left with very little to show for his years of work. In the 1820s, when the gas industry was already very prosperous, he was reduced to writing to the Admiralty to ask for financial help and support. His long letters, heavily underlined in alternate red and green ink, stress his contribution to the navy and the nation.


In Northfleet, Kent, one of the roads running down downhill to the river is Burch Road. On either side the land falls sharply away to the old chalk workings with which the area is surrounded.

Despite the slightly different spelling a Mr. Birch was a key figure in tar sales before 1810. Burch Road once led to Crete Hall, built by Benjamin Burch. That Mr. Burch of Northfleet and Mr. Birch of Limehouse are one and the same can be confirmed by other comments about the marriage of his daughter to Jeremiah Rosher. Rosher was a limeburner after whom the surrounding area, Rosherville, is named.

In 1810 they are listed 'Birch, Rhode and Cleveley of Wallbrook and Limehouse'. Cleveley also had a Northfleet connection having built warships there until he 'found a better source of profit in limeburning'. At the Walbrook address they were also known as the 'British Colour Company' and ‑ of course ‑ the British Tar Company.

Birch ran a ship chandlers business who were licensed to sell, and probably make, tar on behalf of Dundonald's company. Birch's tar works had been opened in 1787 on the Limehouse Cut ‑ slightly south east of the point at which it crosses North Street on Bow Common. In the 1790s, Dundonald set up a chemical works there in association with a group of Newcastle financiers - close to, if not on the same site as, the Birch tar works. At that date it was an ideal place for such a works, on a newly built canal with excellent road links into the heart of the London shipbuilding area. In the location of their sites and in their families and partners, members of the Birch firm were well placed to take advantage of Thamesside shipbuilding and its associated industries.

Wigram, one of the biggest shipbuilders on the river in 1809, bought tar from Birch and there is no reason to believe they were the only ones to do so. Birch claimed that his works was the only tar works in England that also made oil, colour and varnishes.

His tar sold in 'large quantities'. Much of it would have gone to London shipbuilders. Tar was well known in London before the gas industry came

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