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Friday, 7 August 2009

Mr Angus Croll

"For ever in the gaseous war,
May Crollious General be
And when again he leads his men
May I be there to see"

This quotation comes from a poetic account of 'The Battle of Bow Bridge' - a pitched battle between workmen employed by two different east London gas companies. The leading figure in both battle and poem was 'Colonel' Alexander Angus Croll.

The gas trade press in the middle years of the nineteenth century is often far from dull. Like Mechanics Magazine, it exhibits a sharp Cockney humour. Frequently details appear about the more flamboyant of the gas engineers. None was more outrageous than Angus Croll. It is sometimes hard to remember that he was not a Londoner - in so many ways he typified 'Essex man'! Croll was a Scot and retained close Scottish links to the end of an extremely successful, if slightly ridiculous, life.

Croll is a very good example of a chemical manufacturer in a close relationship with the gas industry. He had energy and ideas which allowed him to diversify into all sorts of different fields which he thought would be useful and profitable. The basis from which he worked was always his knowledge of gas industry residuals. It seems apposite to insert a short account of his work here - since his main interest was in ammonia compounds (which precedes this chapter) and purification (which will come next). He was also poised in time and technological development between the earliest days of the gas industry, and the more sophisticated world of Franks Hills - whose rival he was for a short while. Croll was eventually to follow technological advance in a different field.

Gas works, as we have seen, produced ammonia as a waste product. Manufacturing chemists hoped to find ways to use it profitably. In this, Croll was in the forefront. He was one of the second generation in the gas industry. Expertise born out of youthful fanaticism is common in the late twentieth century when everyone knows young people unable to leave their computer screens. Gas manufacture was once no different and many of these lads grew up to be gas engineers.

Croll came from Perth, in Scotland, the youngest child of a septuagenarian father. He claimed, rather improbably, that he had had to make bird cages to pay for his schooling. He then became a weaver's reed maker apprenticed to an older brother. In his early twenties he came to London and set up as a chemical manufacturer on a site in Millwall. This seems a strange thing for a poor boy to do - the source of his capital was never explained. The Millwall site has not been traced, and he could, in fact, have been an employee in someone else's works.

In 1838 he patented a method of making 'gas for affording light' but then turned his attention to chemicals. In 1839 he patented a way of 'reconverting salts used in purifying gas and manufacture of ammoniacal salts' from an address in Greenwich. A career in ammonia salts was launched.

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