Frank Hills and his business interests


 When Frank Hills died in May 1893 his death was not widely reported beyond notes of two or three lines in local papers. It was not until 29th July that The Times carried a report of his will, copied from Illustrated London News.  Frank Hills had left a personal fortune of £1,942,836, 11s. 11d.  Rubenstein has listed only 40 men who left over £2m in the period 1809 and 1914, Frank Hills clearly was very close to achieving a place in this list. Frank Hills’ personal fortune was actually slightly less than this. Three years after his death it was discovered that the East Greenwich property (valued at £1,583) was subject to a trust According to Rubenstein in the period of Frank’s death, 1880-99, 69 British millionaires died; three only of these were chemical manufacturers. He is not known to have inherited  wealth on this scale, but a will for his father, Thomas Hills, has not been traced. His elder brother who died, in comfortable circumstances, left only  £3,657; another brother left £ 20,909. Wealth accumulation on this scale would thus speak of some remarkable enterprise.

This article is an attempt to identify the means by which Frank Hills acquired his fortune. Rubenstein has described him as  and this has proved true. Despite rumours of a diary among his descendants, Frank Hills left few remains. There are  no records of his chemical works, even most of Thames Ironworks’ minute books have disappeared, although some editions of the company house magazine exist. This article has been researched from material in gas company archives and public records. His fortune seems to have come from an almost ‘parasitic’ relationship with the early gas industry from which he was able to take ‘waste’ products  and turn them to his advantage. To this was added a ruthless determination to use the patent system and go to law. His interests included mining, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Alongside him were a network of relations although  how much they worked with each other is not clear.  Frank Hills’ father, Thomas, was an industrial chemist based, by 1813, at the Bromley-by-Bow Steam Mills.  He also used gas industry wastes and manipulated patents. His past is not clear,

The family is said to have come from Kent, but Thomas’ elder children were born in Lyme Regis. There is the suspicion of an elder brother, Robert, who might have been a city broker with experience in the Mexican copper mines (R.Hills  Ray of Light  (1827). An attack on John Taylor. The writer’s address is ‘St.Michael’s Alley, Cornhill’. Although this is an area of accommodation addresses, it should be noted that it is the address on Thomas Hills, Jns’ 1833 patent and that which Frank used as his City office up to the 1880s.) Bromley Steam Mills was a corn mill to which a steam engine had been added by the previous owner. (Boulton and Watt Archive, Portfolio 378.4)  There Thomas Hills developed and patented, jointly with one Uriah  Haddock, (Uriah Haddock is also elusive. The patent was registered from an address at City Terrace, City Road. It is probably co-incidental that a Dr. Robert Hills lived there in the 1850s. It is close to John and Philip Taylor’s  Winsor Iron Works,.

The manufacture of sulphuric acid using pyrites in the chamber process. Patent No.4263.  is mentioned by most historians  of the chemical industry in terms of a milestone in sulphuric acid manufacture, (see  J.C.Gamble  “Remarks on the Hills and Haddock Patent” Repertory  Patent Inventions  , April 1826, Vol.X, pp. 236-241.,  It is perhaps co-incidental that Philip Taylor, who then lived in Bromley by Bow,  (P.M. Taylor,   Memorials of the Taylor family ,(1866).  may have developed, but not   patented, a similar     process before 1819.  ( Roger Burt,   John Taylor  , Moorland Publications, Buxton, 1977, p.21)

Frank Clark Hills

What Thomas Hills manufactured from the waste materials of the early gas industry which he purchased is not known. The earliest London gas works date from 1812, and by 1820 a number of works  operated in the area. Disposal of by products proved difficult despite early promises that a range of chemicals could be manufactured from them. One such by product was ammoniacal liquor, left after raw gas was passed through washing water which most gas companies sold to suitable tenderers.   Thomas Hills  bought liquor in considerable quantities between 1824 and 1827  when he seems to have left Bromley by Bow. His subsequent activities have not been traced.

In the mid-1830s several of the London gas companies began to minute approaches from Frank Hills who variously offered to sell acids, buy tar or ammoniacal liquor and to manufacture ammonia salts on their behalf.  The range of these offers perhaps indicates that he saw the gas industry as a fruitful source of exploitation. It may be that gas companies, immersed in the problems of manufacture and distribution, were happy to leave chemical investigation to others.  Frank Hills rented the Deptford Chemical Works from Frederick Beneke, whose family previously ran it and who had purchased  ammoniacal liquor in the 1820s. Johann Beneke had come from Hamburg in 1815 to found a verdigris factory in Deptford where, like Thomas Hills, he experimented with the manufacture of sulphuric acid using pyrites. In 1824 he had returned to the  Continent, where he had introduced these new processes.

The Benekes are probably the family with whom Felix Mendelssohn stayed, and into which his daughter married. Mendelssohn’s links with the German chemical industry, through his son, are well known. How far Frank Hills took over the business can be only be  speculated.  Beneke lived in Denmark Hill, it appears likely that Frank Hills too lived nearby.

In 1836 the London and Greenwich Railway was built and included a gas works alongside the line, adjacent to the Deptford Chemical  Works.  Frank Hills later said that it was there that he experimented on gas industry wastes. He had some claims over the railway gasworks having lent money so that it could become independent when the railway company ceased to use it.  By the early 1840s Frank Hills’ expanded his business to include a short lived chemical works at Battersea.  His marriage settlement in the early 1840s involved the purchase of a large tide mill on the East Greenwich peninsula, and it was there much of his chemical manufactures were concentrated.

From the 1820s onward the manufacture of chemicals from gas industry wastes was increasingly being taken over by independent industrial chemists who, like Frank Hills, came to arrangements with the gas companies. A legal action of the early 1840s between Frank Hills and a flamboyant Scots gas engineer/industrial chemist, Angus Croll illustrates some of the methods. Croll held patents on the manufacture of ammonia salts and he agreed to purchase the acids used in their manufacture from Frank Hills, solely. Croll would then sell the salts back to Hills. Licences were to be issued to any other parties who wanted to make the salts and they would also be required to buy acids from Hills at increased prices. The agreement seems quickly to have been modified leaving both parties feeling that the other had reneged on it. Injunctions were issued, dismissed by the court, and appeals were made. It was a pattern which was to become only too familiar.

Frank Hills did not confine his business interests to the chemical industry. In the early 1840s he became known for the  development of steam road vehicles. his work on steam vehicles Frank Hills should not be confused with John Hill.  The best known promoter of these was Stratford based Walter Hancock and in 1839 Frank Hills travelled on a Hancock vehicle to Cambridge ‘taking a lesson on  steam carriage construction during the journey’. He later patented gearing for steam vehicles and it may be that these were the patents exploited by Joshua Beale and the General Steam Carriage Co. at East Greenwich. Fletcher, , suggests that the gearing which was patented was not an original idea.  Frank Hills relationships with both Beale and Col. Francis Maceroni are discussed by Fletcher and in issues of   Mechanics Magazine , This seems to have been unsuccessful, despite some well publicised journeys by Frank Hills. Beale went on to specialise in the manufacture of gas  industry equipment. Frank Hills’ son, Arnold, was to take up road vehicle manufacture sixty years later.

Frank Hills pressed ahead with the gas industry and its chemical by products. He, together with other industrial chemists, was involved in the problems of gas purification. Raw coal gas straight from the retort was not fit to use for lighting purposes and needed to be cleaned. Early lime-based purification methods left a noxious residue and the industry was faced with how to clean gas without incurring legal action for pollution resulting from waste disposal. Industrial chemists began to search for a means of cleaning the gas which would also leave a residue which could profitably exploited.  Throughout the 1840s and early 1850s a number of manufacturing chemists approached the gas companies various purifying schemes. They offered deals with the companies and took legal action against each other. In an example taken at random, Angus Croll, having asked the patent office to decide that Frank Hills was infringing his patent, was quick to explain to the Phoenix Gas Company directors that that was the reason the Imperial Gas Company was no longer using Hills’ process and offered to indemnify them should Hills take legal action. A few days later Frank Hills told them the same story in reverse and  offering to indemnify the Board against legal action by Croll.

The visits, the threats and the offers went on for more than twenty years.  One particular process, using metallic oxides, seems to have been developed in France by an English doctor, Richard Laming. It involved the ‘revivification’ of the purifying mixture with air, and this part of the process was to become crucial during  successive legal challenges. Once ‘exhausted’ the mixture contained valuable substances which could be reclaimed.  An aggressive campaign to sell this process to the gas industry was pushed forward by Laming, Angus Croll and Frank Hills. The legal battle over patent rights to the process lasted almost twenty .  Any attempt to interpret reports of successive cases is to enter a bewildering morass of claims and injunctions, of complicated chemical arguments involving almost unheard of substances, and finely argued points of patent law  and legal procedures. If a decision went against Frank Hills, he appealed.  In 1848 Laming seems to have entered into a partnership with  Frank Hills to exploit the process which was offered to a  number of London gas companies.  Laming went to Paris in 1849. Laming had lived in France for some time before this. the partnership having broken up. It was the validity of this French patent, and whether or not ‘revivification’ was included in it, and others, that was to be the subject of successive legal actions. The Gas Light and Coke  Co. tested the new process later that year and various interested parties came to view. One of them, a chemist called Lewis Thompson warned Frederick Evans, the gas engineer in charge of the tests, not to tell Frank Hills about the process because `he will put it in his patent’.  Hills took out a patent in  November 1849, preparing certain substances for purifying the same’.  while Evans and Laming took out a joint patent  in April 1850. This story was repeated many times in the gas press and at various legal proceedings.

Claim and counter claim continued after 1849 as the gas companies began to use the process. Frank Hills insisted that his patent gave him the rights to the process and that gas companies must have a licence from him to use it. If not, he would sue.  A sequence from the South Metropolitan Gas Company Minutes demonstrates his way of working. In February 1852 Frank Hills asked South Met. for  £400 a year to use his method of purification; on discussion he raised the price to £425.  Laming offered it at £ 400 and the Directors chose this offer.  Three weeks later Hills complained that his patent was being infringed and said that South Met. must have a guarantee of no claims from him and in June they received a letter from his solicitor: `Shield and Co., about an inclination to take action for infringement of his patent’. In July they agreed to pay Hills’ price.

The financial arrangements for the use of this process were complicated and subject to much haggling. In addition to the licence fee gas companies had to pay for the purifying mixture per ton of coal carbonised.  The chemists removed the  exhausted purifying mixture to be processed in their chemical works. It has been said 2,180 tons of spent oxide were used in one year at a works at Barking Creek in order to make sulphuric acid.. The works referred to was Lawes which opened in 1857, the comment thus refers to amounts used after that date.  It was estimated that in 1861 10,000 tons of sulphur were contained in London gas  and that before the spent oxide was processed it was washed to remove  ammonia compounds, another source of profit for the chemists.

As the 1850s progressed, litigation increased between the chemists and the gas companies and each other. In 1858 for instance, in Frank Hills against the London Gas Company, a battery of lawyers heard a series of complicated statements on patent law and chemistry “arguments which were almost certainly beyond the understanding of the jury, and, one suspects, of  counsel and judge as well”. Deliberate obfuscation of the details probably suited all parties very well.  On one occasion, in a case which involved an agreement between Hills and Laming and claims for `liquidated damages’ the judge commented that the  matters were `monstrously absurd.’ Frank Hills finally established his rights to the patent `which the majority of  lawyers and chemists think he was most justly entitled to’. The gas companies began to co-operate, circulating information: `a letter was read from the directors of other companies with information at some degree of variance with statements made by  Mr. Hills before this Court’.  reported the Gas Light and Coke  Company.  As the time drew nearer for the 1849 patent to expire, Frank Hills announced that he was going to apply for an extension and began to include in his contracts a condition that the gas companies would not oppose his application for this. He also took ammoniacal liquor from them but imposed conditions relative to the freezing over of the canal. Underlining in the minute book clearly indicate the Chartered Directors’ attitude to this.  After more litigation, an appeal from a consortium of gas companies went to the Privy Council. Thomas Livesey reported to the South Metropolitan Gas Company Board: `..  he [Frank Hills] had received £107,377 0s. 9d. for sales and royalties. His expenses rated £16,942 only, but his other expenses included £ 6,450 for his own salary after paying the same sum to his brother, Thomas, and some large sums to some other brothers  As a comparison it should be noted that Thomas Livesey, a well respected and well paid manager, received a salary as South Metropolitan’s engineer and company secretary of  £1,000 a year.  Frank Hills was refused his extension.

Frank Hills’ elder brother, Thomas, worked closely with him as business manager throughout most his career. In 1846 he applied for the post of Deputy Superintendent at the Phoenix Gas Works, describing himself as ‘a good practical chemist and accustomed to the control of workmen’. Phoenix, currently embroiled in legal  action with Frank, replied that he was ‘too experienced’. A second brother George held a number of joint patents with  Frank, but otherwise has not been traced. A third brother, Arthur, may have been the lessee of a sulphuric acid and colour works at Millwall immediately across the river from East Greenwich. This Millwall works was also known as ‘Angelsea   and may thus provide a clue to interrelationships within the Hills family.

The Angelsey works

Anglesea was an important place for the fifth brother, Henry. It is far from clear how far his activities were independent of Frank’s although the indications are that they worked together. Henry was to end his days described as a ‘chemist of Deptford’. A contemporary noted that part of the purification process involved the by products of copper smelting.  This copper could have came from Henry who lived and worked in Amlwch, Anglesea, throughout the 1840s and 1850s and where his career as an industrial chemist was paralleled Frank’s. In 1840 he established a chemical works at Amlwch, a well established centre of copper mining and associated chemical industries. Henry manufactured  chemical manure and sulphuric acid on his own behalf, and later  calcined copper ores for the Mona Mine Company. In the 1870s Henry is still listed as an Angelsea manure manufacturer although he was living comfortably at Blackheath Paragon in south east  London. His son, Charles Henry Hills, is also listed as of the ‘Anglesea Copper Company’ but on the Tyne with a copper smelting works at Low Walker, on Tyneside, and a home address in Tynemouth.  It is this Newcastle connection which has proved most ‘elusive’. connected to Frank and Henry. It is quite possible that more family members were involved, there are a number of other Hills in both areas who appear to be connections although they cannot be definitely proved. If copper residues were shipped to London it would make sense for them to go from the Tyne, what then is the connection with Angelsea? Why were Hills’ works, on both Tyne and Thames, called ‘Angelsea’?   Frank Hills’ had other mining interests. He owned the Berwyn  phosphate mine at Llangynog in Wales. At Morfa Ddu on Angelsea he extracted bluestone which required `special careful chemical operations’ and yielded ‘copper, lead, zinc and silver as well as a small amount of sulphur, iron, antimony and manganese’.  Davies’ also managed the Berwyn mine and his relationship with Frank Hills may be more complex than it appears. A Thomas Davies, with whom D.C.Davies, had much in common was manager at East Greenwich.

There were also extensive mining interests in Spain where he owned the Ponderosa Copper Mine in Huelva, Spain, from 1876, in 1889 he acquired the Buitron Mines and in 1891 bought all the Buitron and Huelva Company’s assets, including a railway line.  These Spanish mines were run and directed by a James Bull and there were some ‘inconsistencies’ in they were run. By 1903 the complex was owned by United Alkali. The modern Hills family have been told that Frank Hills used waste slag from Bessemer’s steel works in his chemical processes.  Bessemer lived close to Frank Hills in Denmark Hill and visited Thames Ironworks. Although in the 1860s Bessemer opened a small steel works in Greenwich, near the Hills’ works,  Frank is not mentioned in Bessemer’s autobiography. Slag produced as scum in the Bessemer convertor could have been used in the oxide process; like so much else with Frank Hills, it is difficult to know the truth.

The profits of the chemical business appear to have been invested in heavy engineering. In 1871 Thames Ironworks was `the greatest  shipyard of all’. t had been established following the bankruptcy of C.J.Mare in 1856   and had been launched with a capital of £100,000 in  shares, all sold on the first day of issue to ‘local engineering companies’. Frank Hills joined the board sometime before 1864 and first appears in the list of board   members for a new share issue, at a time when he was the peak of activity with the gas companies. He acquired a controlling  interest in the company in 1871 and was Chairman of the Board until his death. Thames Ironworks is best known for the  Warrior – when built the largest warship in the world she is (1994) berthed as a ‘historic ship’ at Portsmouth.  but this was only one of many important, and often glamorous, ships built at the yard.  The ironworks also produced the structural ironwork for many   important civil engineering: Hammersmith Bridge, Menai Bridge, the roofs of Alexandra Palace and Fenchurch Street Station are only a few of the high profile projects in which they were involved.  In 1898, after Frank’s death, the company took over John Penn and Sons, engine builders of Greenwich, and went on to expand that business. It was this expansion which led to the manufacture of road vehicles at Greenwich and Vauxhall. The company appears to have embodied revolutionary methods of workplace management and, under Arnold, was to embrace Labour Co-partnership.. Arnold Hills was to become involved in the Labour Co-partnership movement of the early 1900s. His role in this has not been examined.

Frank Hills involvement with Thames Ironworks paralleled the period of their greatest success: `by the early 1870s they were pre-eminent. Perhaps their golden age was in the 1890s when they specialised in quality work. The impetus from this period of excellence carried them, alone, over into the next century’  Accounts of Frank, in old age, describe him excitedly exploring ironclads on their first voyage down London river to the  estuary. Frank Hills died in May 1892;  St. Lukes, Chiddingstone Causeway is dedicated to his memory, his two eldest sons died shortly after. The chemical business was sold. The East Greenwich chemical works was sold after Frank Hills death. Together with the cottages and the ‘Pilot’ for sale were two steam engines by  Joyce of Greenwich, an archimedean screw and a grinding mill The Spanish mines were in the possession of United Alkali by 1903

Information in the possession of Patrick Hills implies that Hills made a  purple  dye, the process for which was sold to Brunner Mond. No information on this has been found. It may be connected to the alum mauve’ mentioned in an undated press cutting.

Thames Ironworks was in the hands of his third son, Arnold. Successive volumes of   Thames Ironworks Gazette   chronicle Arnold’s favourite causes – vegetarianism, total abstinence, West Ham football club and labour co-partnership. In the next century his bravery in the face of ridicule and defeat can be seen as he addressed massed rallies in Trafalgar Square while paralysed from the neck down and supported in a specially made invalid basket. He argued the case for warship contracts to be continue to be placed with  London shipyards but on 21st December 1912 a notice was pinned to Thames Ironworks’ main gate – ‘Our extremity is God’s opportunity and I do not doubt there is still in store for us a  Happy New Year’. Thames Ironworks closed two years before the First World War which would have ensured their future and perhaps the survival of large scale shipbuilding on the Thames.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the difference between Frank and Arnold than family stories of how, after Frank’s death, Arnold  poured a cellarfull of prize claret down the drain.  Arnold, talented, honest, brave and idealistic, ultimately failed. ‘Elusive’ Frank had made the money.  It is very likely that much more of the enterprises of Frank Hills and his brothers remains to be discovered. Frank found a niche in the exploitation of gas industry wastes and was prepared to use the patent system to ruthlessly exploit what he could. His success rested on resourcefulness, tenacity, luck and relentless energy.

One result of this research has been to thrown the London chemical industry into sharp relief. It is an industry which has been neglected by historians, although much chemical research in the last century took place in London. It should be noted that in the story of gas purification all three of the main contenders lived and worked in east London. London shipbuilding was once well known but even the size and glamorous image of Thames Ironworks is rapidly being forgotten and   Warrior   is described as ‘at home’ in Portsmouth.  The gas industry is also important. Too often its role is  described merely in the terms of a provider of light.  Gas manufacture was part of the chemical industry; it was a provider of chemical raw materials and expertise to other industries. In all some ways the early gas industry can be described as one of agents of industrial change in the early part of the last century.

Gas company directors, in minuting their dealings with Frank Hills, sometimes allow what seems very much like exasperation to creep into the records.  ‘Mr.Hills’letters are so ambiguous the Court cannot tell what he is offering’.‚  Frank seems to have been very difficult to pin down, and he has been equally difficult to research. It is understandable that, in a world full of rivals, secrecy was advisable on chemical processes, patents should refer only obliquely to what they were really about, and huge warships not be talked about.  How was it, however, that someone so successful should be so ignored at his death?  Even the gas industry, from which he had taken so much money, never gave him an obituary. Perhaps secrecy had grown to be a habit with him, perhaps he was hated. He was devoted to his family, he always looks cheerful in his portraits, and, until the day of his death, he could recite the whole of   Paradise Lost  from memory.

Since this articlel was written various other activities of Frank’s have emerged – including ownership of much of the Cheshire salt industry.

Return to Hills Chemical Works


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