Chapter 17 Coal and Chemicals

As the nineteenth century progressed so the chemical industry began to come into its own. Many of these chemicals were derived from coal and were the direct result of its increasing use as a source of power. The new gas works set up throughout London from 1811 were, in effect, chemical factories re-processing coal for fuel. One result of this was a vast and increasing pile of waste products – mostly main tar and ammonia – which the gas industry was unable or reluctant to use itself. This role was filled by entrepreneurs who were able to use this waste as a raw material for chemical products. All around East London such works were set up to make unattractive but useful substances. A lot of money was made by some of these industrialists – and East Greenwich was an area to which several of them came. (This was the subject of my PhD OU 1991)


The Hills family. This piece condenses an enormous amount of material about the Hills family and their activities at East Greenwich. More detail is given in my ‘Early East London Gas Industry’   – the link here is to one of several chapters on marysgasbook web site – and in my article The Hills Family, Bygone Kent, 18/3, March 1997, pp 169-172. I have to thank the late Patrick Hills for  support and information – otherwise there are too many sources to list out in detail but notes on specific items are given below.  This material is my original research and word for word material in books relating to the family’s later activities is taken from my work..

Frank Hills. Thanks to Patrick Hills

Frank Hills bought the tide mill in 1842. (Hills family papers on ownership are confirmed by items in the Greenwich Commission of Sewers (LMA).)  He was a member of an enterprise that involved his father, numerous brothers and their sons. His father, Thomas Hills, was at the Bromley-by-Bow Steam Mills on the River Lea – north of the River -in 1811. (Bromley by Bow St.Leonard rate books and local directories. London Borough of Tower Hamlets Local History Library also holds some MS material by an unknown author).  There he had taken out a patent for a revolutionary process for making sulphuric acid, or vitriol, using a locally available natural product, pyrites, rather than traditional brimstone. This was an important developments in the chemical industry of the early nineteenth century. Sulphuric acid is a key product in the development of an industrial nation.(The Hills and Haddock patent is mentioned in most histories of the chemical industry which cover the relevant period.  Details of experiments undertaken by Thomas Hills were published in the contemporary scientific press)

Thomas had several sons – most of whom had found chemical works of their own. Arthur, for instance, was at Nine Elms, Wandsworth and on the Isle of Dogs – opposite Greenwich. (see
ratebook, court book and deed information for All Saints Poplar, plus B.H. Cowper
Description Historical & Statistical of Millwall, commonly called the Isle of Dogs, London, 1853. For Nine Elms see similar records at London Borough of Wandsworth Local History Library, and Henry S. Simmonds,  All about Battersea, London, 1880. Some additional information from Tim Smith)
. Henry, managed to live in Blackheath Paragon while his chemical works was in the strange industrial village of Amlwch on the furthermost tip of Anglesey. (For detailed information on Henry see Bryan D. Hope, A Curious Place, 1994 and additional information from Bryan Hope,  and thanks to him for a guided tour of Hills’ sites on Anglesey) and his son, Henry Charles, managed the Anglesey Copper Works on the banks of the Tyne in Newcastle. (Charles Henry – some scant information
in Newcastle ratebooks and plans (Tyne and Wear Archive)).  There is every reason to believe that this family network worked closely together as one unit. In the early 1830s Frank Hills rented a chemical works in Deptford from a German chemist, Wilhelm Beneke who had been working on substances to be obtained from gas works ammonia. Frank Hills took both works and ideas over and soon he was looking to expand. (Beneke see my ‘Heavy Chemicals on Deptford Creek’  Trans. Greenwich Historical Society and ‘Early East London Gas Industry’ )

In the 1840s East Greenwich provided large ‘greenfield’ sites. Both Arthur and Edwin Hills had approached Morden College for a lease in the area, and been refused. (Morden College Trustees Minutes. I know nothing very much about Edwin Hills – despite enormous efforts to find out)  It was Frank who eventually moved to the area, buying the old tide mill – ‘dilapidated, really just a stack of materials’ in 1845. (Greenwich Commission of Sewers Minutes)

By the 1850s the water wheel at the tide mill had been was replaced by a 25-horse power steam engine made by William Joyce whose factory was near Deptford Creek. (This comes from an estate agent’s assessment drawn up when the mill was for sale in the 1890s – with thanks to Patrick Hills).  In the 1840s Frank had made two steam driven road vehicles – but henceforth he was to confine himself to chemicals. (that statement is not true – when I wrote it I had no idea of the extent Frank’s involvement from the early 1870s in building battleships as Chair of Thames Ironworks.  I also knew nothing of his involvement in the salt industry – and I guess there is yet more to be discovered)


Frank Hills, backed by his brothers, built a large chemical works on the riverside to the north of the old tide mill. He bought tar and ammonia in large quantities from the various gas works in London and beyond. There is every indication that his brothers were doing the same at their various works. Frank worked assiduously at Deptford and Greenwich to perfect a chemical process with which he was to make a great deal of money. He won several prizes at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace for his ammonia salts and ‘gas tar’. (Exhibition catalogue)

Frank also patented a process for the ‘purification’ of newly made coal gas’.  (See my ‘Early East London Gas Industry’  – this is on line at There is a vast amount of information about Frank Hills to be found in the records of the nineteenth century gas industry – and although my research was based in the London records (at LMA), there is every indication of far more outside.  The gas press too published a great deal about the affair – when I wrote this I referred readers to copies of 19th century gas industry periodicals in the National Gas Archive, Institution of Gas Engineers, British Library, Science Museum Library – these institutions still exist but the journals are now all outside London and most in locations only accessible by car.  There are no copies left within a days train ride to a main line station outside London that I know of. Hence my research has completely stalled).  Coal gas, as everyone knows, has a bad smell and in order to make it fit to be burnt for lighting in the home it had to be cleaned up. There was a lot of competition among chemists to perfect a workable process and Frank defended his patent vigorously in interminable court cases. There was always the whiff of someone else’s ideas about Frank’s patents and this, in particular, was seriously challenged. Using this patent he made a great deal of money through issuing licences to gas companies who used his method – at the same time he sold them the necessary raw materials, and then bought back the waste products with which he made other chemicals. At Greenwich Frank Hills also made a range of acids and dyes. Like many other industrial chemists in the area he made artificial manure – for this he had two 30-ft long steam boilers as well as an ‘Archimedean screw’ and a bone crusher. This manure was made from ‘shoddy – waste leather, dry bones, and bone ash and refuse from sugar bakers’ – and whatever other organic rubbish could be bought cheaply. The whole was then mixed with sulphuric acid and the smell can be imagined (perhaps better if it is not!). (During the 1870s a number of studies were carried out on industrial ‘effluvia’ and smells by Edward Ballard, at that time Medical Officer of Health in Islington.  Some of these reports are in the Metropolitan Board of Works archive at LMA, and ‘Effluvium Nuisance’ also at LMA.  Greenwich Heritage Centre holds one copy of a Ballard study of 1871 from which these quotations are taken)

In 1871 Mr. Pink, the Medical Officer of Health for Greenwich, gave ‘advice’ designed for ‘abatement of the nuisance which these works could scarcely have failed to occasion’ (his
opinions are quoted by Ballard).

tide mill equipment llist
List of equipment in the tide mill. Estate agent’s assesment late 1890s. Thanks to Patrick Hills

The wharf alongside the Greenwich works at the end of Riverway was kept very busy. Ships delivered materials from Frank Hills’ mines in Spain and Wales. (see my ‘Early East London Gas Industry’.  The Hills mines were bought by United Alkali and are now part of the area of Rio Tinto Mines promoted for tourism in Spain). He was a ruthless and unscrupulous businessman but the chemicals he made in his dirty factory were used all over the world. Some of the money he made was invested in heavy engineering.

Across the river from East Greenwich is Bow Creek where the vast engineering and ship building complex of Thames Ironworks turned out liners and flagships for the world’s navies – the ship yard where Warrior was built. Frank Hills controlled that, too and it was handed over in due course to his desperately eccentric son, Arnold. (Copies of Thames Ironworks Gazette can be  found in Newham Local History Library and the British Library.  This is such a vast subject that I could not possibly begin to describe it here.  However it is worth commenting that Frank Hills close involvement in this extremely important company has not really been noted by ship building historians –  his son, Arnold, is better known, although he drove the company to bankruptcy while Frank built up its world status.  It is also noticeable that one difficulty in writing a history of Thames Ironworks has been the absence of the company minute books and records – specifically for the period when Frank was Chair.  Warrior was built before Frank became Chair and I suspect he had very little to do with it. A history of West Ham Football Club – founded by Arnold – quotes much of my work on the family)


Frank Hills died in the 1890s and his two eldest sons also died within a year of him. The Greenwich works, semi-derelict, was sold to the South Metropolitan Gas Co. It was duly modernised and became part of the great East Greenwich Gas Works, having been renamed ‘Phoenix Wharf’. Gas works waste products had been the staple raw material of Frank Hills’ works for fifty years and now the new gas works incorporated it and made it part of their establishment. (Although I have copies of some sale material I am not really clear how the works got into the hands of South Met. gas and what they then did with it.  See my Bad Smells on Greenwich Marsh, Bygone Kent, 17/7 July 1996)

sulphate house 3
The sulphate house 1980s

The last memory of chemicals at East Greenwich was an amazing 1950s parabolic building used for the storage of sulphate of ammonia. It was demolished in the late 1980s, while under consideration for listing, because, the owners said, illicit ‘rave parties’ were being held there. You can still see it used as a stage or a backdrop in ‘pop’ videos and plays of the period – film makers loved it! (I know of no study of this building – except that most people who saw it were suitably impressed.  I would recommend episodes of Dempsey and Makepeace on cable TV for good shots of it!  and some episodes of Dr.Who).

Frank Hills had developed chemicals based on gas works ammonia and a gas purification processes. The most bulky waste product from the gas industry was coal tar and there were many attempts in the early nineteenth century to find an economic use for it. One of the most successful processes was that pioneered in the 1830s by John Bethell. He was a barrister from Bristol and the brother of Lord Chancellor, Richard Bethell. He was to exploit his process on a Morden College owned site on the west bank of Greenwich Peninsula. (Once again see my ‘Early East London Gas Industry’ (see above).  Details taken from Georg Lunge, ‘Coal Tar and Ammonia’, 1881)

In 1848 Bethell patented a way of ‘preserving animal and vegetable substances from decay’. There was a great need to find a way of preserving wood from rot and the Earl of Dundonald had suggested the usefulness of coal tar for this in the 1780s. Other inventors had used other preservatives and other methods; Bethell was to take some elements of each to achieve his object.

One particular need was for a cheap way of preserving wooden ships. The eventual success of Bethell’s process was to lead to the world wide use of wood for such things as railway sleepers and telegraph poles. At Greenwich the works eventually specialised in the manufacture of tar soaked wood block paving.

The process which Bethell developed involved an apparatus first designed in Paris. The dried timber was put on iron bogey frames, run into a strong iron cylinder, and the air pumped out. The preservative solution was then forced in. Although a number of preservatives were specified coal tar was the cheapest and easier to obtain. It was also far safer to use than some of the other recommendations – Kyan‘s sublimate was poisonous and particularly dangerous. Bethell seems to have either sold his patent to others or licensed them to use it.

There were soon a number of works in East London area which preserved wood using Bethell’s methods. The most successful and best known were Burt, Boulton and Haywood whose enormous tar processing plant was based in Silvertown on the Essex bank of the Thames. (This is now the site of Thames Barrier Park)

Bethell himself set up in business with a tar distillery in Battersea in 1845 (Battersea Rate Books). He soon expanded with a chemical works at Bow Common, (All Saints Rate Books)  and another near Blackwall Point on a site leased from Morden College. His first approach to Morden College had been as early as 1839 when he asked for the use of a piece of rough ground. He gave his address as Mecklenberg Square – built by the Greenwich Hospital Estates surveyor, Joseph Kaye. (Morden College Deed Collection) ,and His Greenwich works was soon underway and coal tar was purchased in bulk from the Imperial Gas Company works at St. Pancras and Haggerston. (records in the North Thames Gas Collection (LMA).)  improved wood paving ad

Other chemicals were made at Greenwich – both sulphuric acid and alum were made on site. Like Frank Hills Bethell took an interest in gas purification methods.

The Greenwich works remained in operation for many years. After Bethell’s death in the 1870s his wife Louisa retained ownership – although she lived in Bath while professional managers ran the company from an address in King William Street, City of London. In the 1880s the works was transferred to the Improved Wood Pavement Company in which the Bethell family remained involved. (Morden College Deed Collection).


Frank Hills and John Bethell represent two sides of the chemical industry based on gas works waste products. There were several other works at East Greenwich involved in this trade. There were others who ran manure works – some used the same sort of waste materials as Frank Hills and others were involved in the South American guano trade. (I suspected that an earlier generation of Hills were involved in the sleazy Georgian world of South American mining – but was unable to prove anything definite).

imrpoved wood paving sign
Photo Tim Smith. with thanks

Many of these industries had links both with government and with the banking and finance sectors of the City of London. The guano trade is a clear case where financiers linked with interests in South America. There is considerable evidence of some South American interests in the Hills’ industrial empire.


view of the lennard still
View of the Lennard Still. Thanks to Faye Gould

James Forbes and John Abbott were specialists in ammonia based products – sulphate of ammonia was also used as an agricultural fertiliser – James Forbes had patented a number of such ammonia based products. Like several others the firm specialised in buying waste ammonia from the gas industry. Forbes and Abbott had previously been based at Iceland Wharf, Old Ford, in Hackney. In 1889 they moved from their site on Ordnance Wharf to Sussex Wharf – between the tar paving factory and the old Ransome stone works – and for some years operated from both sites. For a while the partnership included John Hare Lennard, from the Wills Tobacco family. They later became the Standard Ammonia Co. (Once again see my ‘Early East London Gas Industry’.  I now think that the comment that John Hare Lennard was involved in Forbes Abbott is a mistake.  Thanks to Faye Gould I have been given some pictures and research undertaken by her late husband on the Lennard Still which was installed at what became South Met’s Ordnance Wharf by Forbes Abbott.  A considerable amount of research on my part has thrown no light at all on Frederick Lennard – except that he was not a relation of John Hare.  Thanks to Neil Rhind for trying to help)


At Ordnance Wharf was the Biphosphated Manure Co. It seems to have been owned by Christopher Weguelin, a banker and Trustee of Morden College and a waiver was issued by the College in this instance.

It was not unknown for bankers to be involved in the South American guano trade – Anthony Gibbs is a well-known example. Biphosphated Guano seems to have closed when the gas works opened.

Mockford ‘Ordnance’ Manure Works moved to Ordnance Wharf in 1873. They had come from the City of London, via Deptford, where they had been in the ‘artificial manure’ trade since at least the 1860s. They used South American guano, ‘shoddy’ – waste from fabric manufacture along with sulphate of ammonia. (These companies using guano and shoddy are an area I did not have time to research.  However, the manufacture of ‘artificial’ manure in the area is a very important local industry.  The main source for what I know is various Ballard reports)

The sulphate was probably bought from local gas works. Mockford also used ‘mineral phosphates’ – a trade on the fringe of the extractive industries. At Ordnance Wharf these materials were turned into fertiliser with the aid of sulphuric acid, also made on-site. The process of manufacture led to ‘corrosive vapours’ and Edward Ballard, who inspected the site for the Local Government Board, said ‘the stench when these mixings are going on is simply intolerable’.

ballard map of chemical works 1871
Extract from map in Ballard’s 1871 report on chemical works to the Local Government Board

Manufacture of ‘artificial’ manure was an important industry on Thameside in the last century. There were other such works on Greenwich Marsh. In Deptford a most important breakthrough had been made with the development of superphosphates by John Bennett Lawes, and Frank Hills used a similar process at his works in Riverway. All of these processes used up waste materials from other industries- a useful task but one which meant that a lot of smelly items were stored in the area. (some information from the John Bennet Lawes archive held by London Borough of Barking.  I have also seen a paper kept in the Lawes archive at Rothampstead which shows that Lawes worked with Henry Hills)


The manufacture of cheap fuel from mixtures of broken coal and dust together with tar was common in the nineteenth century. Although it was not really a chemical industry it was a way of using up gas works waste tar and coal dust from anyone who had any – and stands between chemicals and coal based fuel systems. One such on the Greenwich Peninsula was the Wylam Steam (or Patent) Fuel Co. Although it might be assumed that the name ‘Wylam’ related to the coal mining district in the North East of England, in fact it seems to be the name of the factory owner – William Wylam who had taken out three patents in the early 1840s for machinery with which to make artificial fuel. (Another under-researched trade. Details on Wylam from Greenwich Rate Books, local directories and the Minutes of the Gas Light and Coke Co. (LMA).)

Wylam’s firm had previously been in Thames Street, Greenwich, and in 1847 obtained a lease from Morden College for a site on the Marsh. It must be said that a year later they had their supplies of coal tar cut off by their suppliers, the Gas Light and Coke Co., for non payment of bills so they were probably not very prosperous. Despite this setback they were in a position to expand to a larger site in the mid-1860s – and the cause of complaint when they blocked the barge roads outside their wharf.


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One thought on “Chapter 17 Coal and Chemicals”

  1. The videos for “War Song” – Culture Club, “Heartland” – The The, “Rage Hard” – Frankie Goes To Hollywood were filmed in and around the sulphate house. It was also used for many fight scenes in “Full Metal Jacket”

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