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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Earl of Dundonald

The Dudley Wood tar works was one of several opened as part of the pioneering work on the extraction and use of tar from coals which Dundonald had initiated.

The Earl's 'real' name was Archibald Cochrane - and it is worth noting that Cochrane was to become an important name in the Black Country where the Earl's brother was another emergent industrialist. Another famous Cochrane - Thomas the naval hero, revolutionary and future Admiral of Chile, Peru and Great Britain - was the ninth Earl's son and he too was to have an involvement in the early use of coal tar. In general it could be said, about the Cochranes, that originality - or eccentricity - was a family trait.

The Ninth Earl himself, had, in addition to eccentricity, ‘scientific capabilities'. He had inherited the earldom of Dundonald and the estate at Culross in 1778. Culross is an ancient industrial and mining town on the north side of the Forth between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Coal was mined there from the seventeenth century. In the 1990s Culross village is a showplace owned by the National Trust who show no signs of recognition of either Dundonald's pioneering tar works in the village or of his naval hero son.

The acquisition of an earldom might appear to be a way to get wealth and status. This was not so in the case of Dundonald and he set about trying to rebuild the family fortunes by means of new manufactures. As an ex-naval officer, he knew that there was a demand for tar in shipbuilding, and that it was important to find a supply. Tar and pitch were, he said, 'essential to a maritime power'. In 1781 he patented a tar making process and the next year opened a tar works in Culross itself.

Although it was later said that 'from a naval nation Lord Dundonald deserves a statue of gold' his tar sales to the navy were not successful, nor were ship's repairers grateful for his work which threatened to put them out of business. From the 1780s Dundonald promoted the use of coal tar to be put on ships' bottoms to prevent the ravages of Teredo worm and his publicity leaflets include glowing references from ships' owners.17 Discussions were undertaken with the Dutch navy but in Britain he had little success.

Another of his tar works was sited at Muirkirk where it was managed by his cousin, John Loudon Macadam. Macadam was the developer of a road building process but although 'macadamised' roads are known for their use of tar, this is in fact a later development and Macadam himself did not suggest it. Five Dundonald tar works were opened in the English Midlands - one at Dudley Wood, and another, better known one, at Calcutts in Shropshire. Despite his involvement in a wide range of other chemical projects with industrialists in Shropshire, Newcastle and elsewhere, Dundonald’s fortunes remained obstinately at a low ebb.

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