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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Tar sales and shipping

It must have seemed that there was an endless market for the new tar in the shipping industry on the banks of the Thames. The West India Dock was newly built and more docks were under construction and planned in Wapping and Shadwell. It was a time of experiment with new methods and new materials for ship building'. The powerful East India Company had a depot immediately adjacent to both Blackwall Yard and the new tar works. They had a potential worth as a customer second only to the Admiralty. In addition 'on both banks of the Thames, eastward to Blackwall and Woolwich there were thriving shipyards and dry‑docks'. All were potential customers.

What neither they, nor Dalton, could have foreseen was that Thames shipbuilding had reached a peak. Many yards were building their last warships and would soon close. When they reopened it was to build ships of iron

Not all the Chartered's tar sales were local. For instance, Messrs. Bayley, pitch tar and rosin merchants of Ford Street, Stonehouse, Devon, bought ‘70 barrels of prepared coal tar to be shipped via the 'London Captain Paul'. An agent was appointed at Ipswich for sale of tar and varnishes at 5% commission. Further afield Von Dadeltzen and Co., on behalf of Peltzer of Hamburg34 bought tar, as did a 'Mr. Tucker of Boston', Massachusetts, and the Company set up special arrangements for shipment to America. Tar went to New York in the ship, 'Marcus Drew'.

Sales were not always successful; 10 barrels of black varnish were returned from Havre de Grace 'for want of a market' and, in any case, as the gas industry grew the Chartered inevitably faced local competition outside London.

The relationship with the Navy Board continued. By 1819 naval shipbuilders were using coal tar as 'the best prevention against dry rot ... and every ship is now completely saturated with it by means of a forcing pump'.

By 1824 thirteen battleships had been injected but then the scheme was changed and linseed oil was used instead. The reason given by the Navy was the unacceptable smell of coal tar. The Navy had commissioned considerable research from Humphrey Davy on protecting ships' bottoms against gribble and other rot. He had hardly considered coal tar, and other strategies were now being adopted. Coal tar, despite Dundonald's years of lobbying, was no longer thought suitable.

In 1827 an offer by the gas company to sell 60,000 gallons of 'mineral tar' to the Navy Board was not accepted. By then the Chartered was not the only gas company in business. This meant that the Navy Board could now advertise for tenders for tar - the Chartered must face competition for its tar sales.

After repeated failures in getting orders for tar from the Navy, the Company Secretary took over the job from Dalton of replying to tenders. He succeeded in getting an order from the Navy Board Commissioners for 'mineral tar fit for making cordage. Rope making was a field which makers of gas tar could well expect to enter by providing a cheap substitute for Stockholm tar.

Within three months of their first sale for rope making it appears that the rope makers of Woolwich Dockyard did not like the smell of coal tar. G.Smith of the Navy Office wrote to say that 'the use of mineral tar in the manufacture of cordage is having a pernicious effect on the workmen'. He 'desired the Superintendent at Poplar to remove what is left at the ropeyard at Woolwich'. Peckston, writing in 1823, confirms that gas tar was disliked for rope making 'because of the rawness and destructive nature of the ammoniacal liquor'. The Gas Company quickly sent the Board '37,000 galls of tar that we feel confident will not be injurious to the health of the their workmen'.48 However the contract was cancelled and the Navy Board agreed to take the rest of the order under threat of legal action.

Once again tar had lost a market because of smell.

Although there are many references to tar sales in the Chartered's Minute Books, the Court decided that the tar works was not successful and that it should be disposed of. In 1823 the coal merchant, Davey (of Davey Sawyer, Bankside), had made 'a proposal about Poplar which we cannot entertain'50 but the works remained in business for several more years. In 1827 more discussions were held on disposal of the works, this time to a Mr. Bromley. In 1828 bad debts of £41 13s. 8d from tar customers were written off.

Five years later the Company commissioned a report on the tar works from a Mr. Hopwood, described as 'the chemist'. His remit was to report 'concerning the results of his experiments on oil of tar..... and his opinions of the Poplar Station'. It was decided that there was 'not much advantage in his proposals' ‑whatever they were. The Court of Governors thought that 'despite the volume of business the works failed to pay its way'.

By 1833 Dalton, who had put so much energy into the works, must have been in his sixties. It may be that he no longer felt able to continue. Closure marked the end of the hopes of the flourishing tar derivatives business so confidently envisaged in 1809. As we will see, however, this was not the end of the story ‑the marketing role, which the gas companies had not been able to fulfil, was to be taken up by others.

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