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Friday, 7 August 2009

Thomas Hills in Bromley by Bow

Mr. Beneke of Deptford has been referred to earlier as perhaps the largest buyer of ammoniacal liquor from the early gas industry. The second largest was probably Thomas Hills. He once refused to buy liquor from the South London Gas Company because he had 'got enough from a country works'
- which indicates that he was buying from a much wider source area than the London gasworks.

Thomas Hills appears to have moved to Bromley just before 1810. An account of his work written in 1827 mistakenly said that his factory was at 'Bromley, Kent' and this mistake has been repeated. Thomas Hills' address was at Bromley, as the St. Leonard, Bromley, Rate Books show. The confusion is easily made by those who know Bromley, Kent, as a town in the London outskirts but have never heard of the smaller industrial village of Bromley by Bow on the edge of metropolitan Middlesex.

In the early 1800s Bromley by Bow was a busy industrial area where Mr. Currie had the biggest alcohol distillery in the country. Bromley was, and is, full of mills - Three Mills still stand in the 1990s, while Four Mills has gone. They were tide mills but Thomas Hills's mill was 'Bromley Steam Mill'. An annotation in the Boulton and Watt Papers indicates that a steam engine had been erected for millers, C. & J. Milward, in Bromley by Bow. It was taken over by Thomas Hills in 1811. He used it for chemical manufacture as well as grinding corn. An 1827 inventory lists 'a kiln house with reverbatory furnace, tartaric acid and boiling house .. coke ovens, drying houses, colour mill and machinery, laboratory..' This may well describe the Bromley Steam Mill.

Philip Taylor, the chemist and inventor of oil gas, was also in Bromley in this period. He lived in rather more style at the local manor house,17 where the mulberry tree from his garden still survives. Philip was the brother of John Taylor who referred to himself as a 'chemist of Stratford' at this time despite his better known career as a mining engineer. The site of the Taylors' Stratford chemical works has not been identified - despite the numerous chemical works in the Stratford area and the considerable research done on the industry there. Taylor's experimental oil gas works were built only a short distance to the north, alongside Bow Bridge.

It has been suggested that Philip Taylor manufactured vitriol using imported pyrites before 1819 at his chemical works at Stratford. This is a process which was to be identified with Bromley through the work of Thomas Hills. On a contemporary map of the area Bromley are shown next to land holdings by Philip Taylor. The distance from Stratford at this point is only the width of the River Lea. No connection has been traced between Hills and Taylor but the use of a similar process twice in such a small geographical area seems remarkable. This is only one of a number of similarities in their work.

Thomas Hills' patent of 1818 on the manufacture of sulphuric acid was a joint one with a Uriah Haddock. The patent was submitted from an address at City Terrace, City Road, on the Islington borders. It is probably co-incidental that a Dr. Robert Hills lived there in the 1850s. This is another area where many chemical manufacturers had their works. It was also very near the site of Taylor & Martineau's Winsor Iron Works where their oil gas machinery was made.

Very little has been traced about Uriah Haddock. In 1816 he was described as a 'chemist of Holloway' who was considering the registration of a patent for paint. He registered another patent in 1819 for making 'inflammable gas from pit coal'- a patent described, by the gas engineer, Thomas Peckston as being of 'some importance'. Haddock's address on this occasion was given as Saville Place, Mile End - a terrace through which the Regents Canal was being built. Admiral Richard Haddock, of Trinity House, had lived in the Mile End Road in the early 1750s so there may have been a family connection with the area. Haddock notified his intention to register another patent of gas manufacture in 1824.24 He did not do so.

The Hills and Haddock patent of 1818 was the first which covered for the use of pyrites instead of brimstone to make sulphuric acid. It was so revolutionary and so important that it is described in almost every history of the chemical industry. At the time the exact nature of the process was the source of a great deal of speculation. Visitors came to Bromley to see how it was done. Eventually there was a court case for infringement of patent involving the Liverpool company of Thompson and Hill. A propensity to become involved in court cases about patents seems to have been inherited by Frank.

It must not be forgotten that Thomas Hills was using the gas industry as a source of raw materials for his chemical works. What he manufactured from the waste materials of the early gas industry that he bought is not known. He bought liquor in considerable quantities between 1824 and 1827 when he seems to have left Bromley by Bow, possibly because of bankruptcy.

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