An Odourless Hazard
Not all hazardous pollutants and toxic atmospheric elements had a strong smell. Asbestos was unknown to be harmful for many years and was commonly worked with by many Barking people. It is an odourless substance yet it is an important part of the story to share when we look at air pollution and industry’s effects on Barking’s public health.
The effects of asbestos on Barking and Dagenham’s local community of workers and residents is still very much felt today. Many people we spoke to at reminiscence sessions and interviewed to collect their oral histories shared stories of personal health issues linked to asbestosis, breathing issues or the impact on loved ones due to asbestosis.
There are stories of children playing with asbestos as if it were snow in their school playgrounds in Barking, making ‘snowballs’ from it as it drifted in the air. It has been called the ‘silent killer’ in Barking and Dagenham.
Mike Kelly shared with us how asbestos was one of the favoured cargoes of his father, a lighterman, as it was light to carry and odourless. He reports that sometimes his father would even use sacks of asbestos as pillows and have naps on it. Unthinkable now but the dangers of the substance simply weren’t known.
Eric Feasey, who worked in the timber industries in Barking, shared his own health issues and the impact of working with asbestos on fellow workers:
“I want to emphasise, when we say smells, it wasn’t necessarily the smells. Sometimes it was how hazardous these industries was that the working class had to do. A lot of the people die of asbestosis. I have traces of asbestosis in my lungs too. So that's why I don’t like people knocking the working class.”
“But, you know, the asbestos wasn’t very good. And some of that got – the ash and everything got spread over the land where that new estate is being built now at the back, and they had to bring in fresh from outside. Have you noticed some of the houses are quite high, ‘cos they had to build it up. They said it wasn’t contaminated, but it was, otherwise they wouldn’t have built it up. So, they’re all higher than everything else, and I think that’s one of the reasons the power station had to go, because there was just too much contamination in it. Plus, that smell as well, when it was burning, you know, all the smoke and – that they used to have, it was – all the coal dust and that’s not healthy either. Although we all had coal fires to start with. When I moved into my house on Thames View, there was – you had a fire in the front room and that was it, nothing else. The windows used to get ice on the insides, those acrylic iron type windows, single-glazed. You know, in the winter I was scraping the ice off from the inside and all we had was that fire downstairs which was smoky and smelly and – but that’s how it was. We didn’t have anything else at that time [laughs]. Apart from the Calor Gas I suppose, when you get one of those, put it on the top of the stairs. But again, it was smelly again, everything is – that they used to have, had a pretty nasty odour going to it, you know? But there we go, that was life.”
“Asbestos. And I must bring that in where we talk about Barking ‘cos they had the biggest asbestos, called Cape Asbestos. A lot of the people would die of asbestosis. And one of the things they found out, I did have traces of asbestosis which okay, it’ll take a bit long – but being I’m seventy-odd, you know. I want to emphasise when we say smells, it wasn’t necessarily the smells sometimes, it was how hazardous these industries was.”
“My dad he worked until he was sixty-nine and a half, ‘cos he went to Cape Asbestos as well, and he worked ‘til he was sixty-nine and a half. He wanted to make it to seventy, so to get that little bit of extra pension, but he didn’t quite make it. He was taken ill, so he had to pack up work and then –
That damned asbestos.The asbestos from Cape got to him. So, he was hoping, you know, he would get to seventy and he’d get, I think it was a lot more benefits from the government, and of course, he totally missed out on all of it.”
Avril Miller and Maria Williams on their father’s work at Cape Asbestos.
“Thank goodness the power station isn’t really there anymore because, you know, a lot of people died of the asbestos diseases from there, so it’s a good job that it’s actually gone. The same with Cape Asbestos, that – I mean, it was a good product, Cape Asbestos, it did its job, but they didn’t realise how dangerous it was once you sort of broke it up. And other people didn’t either, so a good product gone bad you might say, as a lot of things are from then. You think they’re good at the time, but then that’s it [laughs], they end up doing the dead opposite. There wasn’t much about clean air in them days. Whatever had to go out, went out, you know, whether it was the power station, whether it was the glue factory, the smells just went up the chimney and into the atmosphere that spread around the neighbourhood. It wasn’t very pleasant.”
Avril Miller on asbestos and air pollution from factories
“The thing about Northbury School was the – there were times when you went over there where you thought these kids are really lucky because they’ve got snow, and what the children were able to do sometimes, was pick up this white material and they could throw snowballs at each other and this kind of thing. Of course, they weren’t – it wasn’t snow at all, it was asbestos, because the Cape Asbestos factory was adjacent to the school, and from time to time the emissions from the factory must have blown into the school, and probably more widely into the atmosphere. So, insofar as asbestos was a problem, I don’t think anyone then imagined it was the kind of problem we now understand it to be. The – it wasn’t that asbestos was used in the building, in fact I doubt that St Joseph’s or even Northbury School had asbestos at all in them, it wouldn’t have been put in as a fire retardant when the places were built, given when they were built in the middle of the 1850s. But it was this floating stuff in the air that caught one’s attention.”
Barking Jute Mills
Amongst declining industries of fishing and market gardening, threatened by the railways, the Abbey Works (Barking Jute Works) opened as one of the largest jute factories in Britain. A three storey fire-proof mill occupying over 12 acres, 220 foot long and 54 foot wide designed to bring industry back to Barking. The Jute works were opened in 1866 at the foot of Fisher Street (now Abbey Road) in what were then rather fine premises including the first large fire-proof mill in Essex (only demolished by William Warne in the 1980s). From the start, the jute works offered work to more than 1600 people. Most of these jobs were for women and boys. Moreover, since the skills required were unfamiliar to local workers, weavers had to be imported at the outset from Dundee, the home of the industry.
The jute works had 1,600 workers, almost a quarter of Barking’s population at the time. Because the skills were unfamiliar to Barking people, large numbers of workers came down from Dundee in Scotland, the other main centre of jute production in the UK.
Unusually, most of the workforce were young women and children, giving Barking an unusually strong female workforce.
With 207 looms clattering away, the factory would have been unpleasantly hot and very noisy. Whale oil was used to soften the jute and this gave the factory its strongest smell.
A local resident, Miss Steane, wrote a rich portrait of the jute women:
“I recall the tramp of clogs over cobbled stones as they were marching to work. They wore flounced and highly coloured dresses, braided and coiled their hair, and were hatless and shawled. Usually single and away from the control of their families, they determined to enjoy themselves.”
Later the Jute works changed hands and Indian competition and sporadic strikes led to poorly paid Irish spinners being brought in. Over a hundred more girls arrived straight from Cork in June 1882.
What is Jute?
Jute fibre came from the inner bark trees grown mainly in India, and Dundee had become the major spinning centre from the 1830s. Presumably the jute trade’s expansion to London was to exploit the market for ropes and sacks. Abbey Mill of Barking made every type of rope from ships’ cables to ordinary household string.
The Barking Jute Works was established at the Southern end of Fisher Street by Mr Thomas Duff in 1866. Thomas Duff came originally from Dundee. He brought with him experienced Dundee spinners and weavers. Managers and overseers all came from Scotland. From the opening, the jute mill offered around 1600 jobs. This increased to 1800, with approx 300 outworkers too who sewed bags and sacks. In 1869 a Mr Levy took over the factory and ran it until it stopped as a jute factory in 1891.
Outwork was provided for local Barking workers in the form of sack sewing - to women and children locally. The cloth was cut to size in the factory and carried home along with hanks of tarred twine. The sacks were sewn at home and then returned to the factory for payment. The Barking factory finally closed its doors in 1891, it then became William Warne and Co rubber factory.
The Role of Children in Jute Work
The Essex Times in 1873 described the operations of the Jute mill. The mill was steam powered and the workforce worked 12 hour shifts from 6am to 6pm. On the ground floor was the highly mechanized twisting process. The whole of the second floor was dedicated to spinning on frames. The fibre was attached to the frame by children:
“Troops of children, boys and girls, of aged 10 to 12 or 13 years of age, flitted in and out, from one side of each spinning machine to the other, stood watching with intense eagerness the bobbins as they became covered with the threads, or were busy placing on the large reels and taking off the smaller ones...The room is airy, clean, light and cheerful and these little operatives appeared to enter into their work with as much zest and cheerfulness almost as they would have exhibited at a romp.”
Somebody called Joseph Priestley Roe has found in the census and family archive research that his great grandmother, Elizabeth Bailey, was recorded as being a jute worker in Barking aged only 8 and continued in this employment until aged 17. Perhaps a home worker sewing sacks.
Somewhat idealised view of the jute work conditions, perhaps,by the press? Verdant Works testimonies give impressions of rather different factory conditions - of very hot factories where fires to occur where common place and hard working conditions.
There were 207 looms at work, The top floor of the mill was devoted to spinning, reeling and warping. Weaving took place in another building. The factory had a dining room with steam apparatus to heat whatever food and drink the operatives brought in. The mill was also equipped with a library including volumes such as the classics. There was a coal club allowing employees cheap fuel. The factories did not provide housing, however.
Most workers lived in the immediate area of Fisher Street. There was an unusually large number of single parent families headed by women in Barking, mostly jute workers.
By the 1881 census, 50 per cent of women who gave jute worker as their profession were under the age of 21. Married women accounted for only 4% of female jute workers. The Jute works meant a large influx of largely single women into Barking, changing the population somewhat and creating an unusual position within Barking of a strong female young women workforce.
Fred J Brand, Barking in 1866 and All What:
“The smell of the indispensable and delicious vegetable gave way to that of tarry twine and hessian, which to some had its advantages. During the palmy days of the Jute Factory a large influx of working girls from Scotland; they were more accustomed to the work of the factory. Barking streets were crowded with ‘bonny lassies’, with unfamiliar brogue and costume. Thus the Jute factory quite altered the ‘atmosphere’ of the town for a time.”
A rich portrait of the jute worker women, by Miss Steane reminiscing of late 19th century Barking. Miss Steane was the daughter of Barking soap manufacturer Edward Steane:
“Well do I recall the tramp of women in their clogs over cobbled stones as they were marching to their work. Many of the weavers came from Dundee. The spinners were mostly local or Irish. The roughest lot and the poorest paid were the sack sewers. The weavers were by far the best paid. They wore white shawls and covered their heads with tiny clad shawls.. The greater number of women, when at liberty wore flounced and highly coloured dresses, braid and coiled hair, and were hatless and shawled...the wages earned varied between 6s a week for such sack sewers as were not on piece work and 24s and extra for overtime, such averaging 36s in all earned by weavers. It was said of them that they took in wages as much as many of the men, and it is quite easy to credit this...!”
The Scots weavers with their paisley shawls, who ate herrings for lunch, constituted an elite workforce with a national identity marked by the annual workers’ parade, which was led by a Scottish piper.
Barking Power Station
“The largest power station in the whole of Europe”
Barking “A” Power Station was built in 1925 to replace the older Barking Power Station which had been in operation since 1897. The new coal-fired power station “A” was opened by King George and Queen Mary on 19 May 1925. It provided electricity for large parts of Essex, London and Kent. By the time it was completed, it was the largest power station in the whole of Europe with a total output of 100 megawatts of electricity. It was joined by Station “B” in 1939. A third station “C” was built in 1954 and closed in 1981.
The power station was built at Creekmouth. This position afforded easy access to the coal ships bringing deliveries continuously throughout the day to the station from the northern coalfields. Plus good access to space for expansion, good communications by rail and river, and an abundant water-supply.
The power station was originally designed to supply electricity to the whole of London, but as electricity demand increased so did the scale of this ambition. It was one of the largest steam generating stations in Europe.
The power station created so much black smoke, making the surrounding air thick with black smoke. It is said that the black smoke in fact assisted the surrounding areas and other factories to not be bombed during the war, as they created a screen and made flying visibility for enemy pilots too difficult. The thick smoke from the chimneys helped to protect the nearby Ford car factory.
Work at the Power Station was heavy, dirty and dangerous and did not employ women workers because of this.
“The power station, thank goodness, isn't really there anymore because, you know a lot of people died of the asbestos diseases from there, so it's a good job that it's actually gone. The same with Cape Asbestos that--, I mean it was a good product, Cape Asbestos, it did it's job, but they didn’t realise how dangerous it was once you sort of broke it up, and other people didn’t either. So, as I say, a good product gone bad, you might say, as a lot of things are from then. You think they're good at the time, but then that's it, they end up doing the dead opposite.”
Avril Miller, whose father worked at Beckton Gas Works and Cape Asbestos. His health was affected by asbestos and chest problems.
The power station was decommissioned in the 1970s when a redundancy program began. It finally closed in 1981 and has since been almost completely demolished. The site now hosts the Dagenham Sunday Market a popular site for bargain hunters and shoppers. Barking Riverside Development is currently transforming the site again with housing plans and schools already opened in the area. The new Barking Power Station is situated further down river at Chequers Road, Dagenham.
Avril Miller remembers the smell of her husband after a shift spent working at Barking Power Station as a cleaner:
“The main smell he would have was a bit of coal. And of course, man sweat for working, but yeah, straight in the bath as they come home because they didn’t like the smells either. But I must admit when my dad came home from work at Beckton Gas Works, I do remember he had what I call a man’s smell from the day. And when I smell that now it really, I think, oh it's just like my dad. Really comforting you might say, even though it's a sweaty smell, But it was nice. It reminds me of my dad when he used to come home. But they just went straight and washed it all off and, you know, yeah a weird thing to have as a memory but its true.”
Avril Miller, oral history interview
She also recalls that life working at Barking Power Station didn’t seem to be as sociable or create community for the workers and their families, as previous industries like Lawes Chemicals or Beckton Gas Works, a generation prior to that had:
“My husband worked at the power station, my dad was at Lawes, and the difference between the two was quite a lot. It wasn’t very sociable at the Power Station, although my husband made friends where he worked, it wasn’t very, sociable. Whereas my dad was a bit of a shy man, but he had lots of friends and well respected, you know. They’d organise trips for the workers and their families.”
Beckton Gas Works
The gas works played an important role in East End industry between 1870 and 1969.
In 1870, the Gas Light and Coke Company, under the leadership of Simon Adams Beck, decided to open a gasworks in the area. The site and the surrounding area got the Beckton name from Simon Adams Beck himself. The Victorians had discovered a way to produce gas from coal and this was the main activity at Beckton. Lots of industries also used the by-products of this process to manufacture other products such as coal-tar, dyes, disinfectants, ammonia and sulphuric acid.
The great Beckton gas plant was opened in 1870 on what, prior to 1868, had been only 500 acres of open marshland. Even the name was a new invention derived from the surname of the Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company, Simon Adam Beck. It was built on the Barking-North Woolwich-East Hamd boundary alongside the Thames so that the huge quantities of coal consumed by the retort furnaces could be unloaded direct from the colliers, and it was serviced by its own internal railway system.
It provided employment for well over 1000 Barking men; but for many years they could get to work only by walking a good mile and a half ‘over the Gates’ beside the Mill Pool to West Bank and down Jenkins Lane, originally a poor unlit track across the marshes.
Most of the work at Beckton gas was classed and paid as unskilled labour though much of it demanded a degree of practical skill and much strength and endurance. The stokers in the retort-houses fed the furnaces with shovels in 12 hour shift days and night in temperatures of 130 fahrenheit.
“The retorts glare and roar, like hungry monsters that are never appeased; and feeding time never ceases.”
Herbert Hope-Lockwood, Barking 100 Years Ago
Mechanical aids were in their infancy and whilst it is true that only about half of the 12 hours were hard manual labour (since the men could relax between charging and drawing the retorts), long periods of absence from home were a grievance, and the Sunday shifts were especially disliked. Moreover, “Serious injury and hazards of the job in a very real degree and there was as yet no Workman’s Compensation Act.
Work at the gas works was dirty, smelly and physically demanding. Workers would often return home at the end of a shift black with soot, as Jim Albert who we interviewed remembered clearly of his dad who worked there:
“I remember like how dirty my dad was when he came home from work, ‘cos he was what’s called a stoker and he used to rake all the coke out the kilns. And when he used to come home he used to be black like – he actually got – his fingers – ‘cos he got a lump of coke stuck in his finger and it got infected, so his finger ended up actually crossing over, and he’s now had it amputated and just say his fingers are not crossed. And when we used to play pool with him in The Fishing Smack pub, someone would just try and loop a cue ball in the middle of the table ‘cos he couldn’t balance on his one finger. Yeah, but I mean, he had it pretty tough at the gas works. And as I say, when that closed, he was obviously made redundant now. It seems all the old industries along there, like they’re all closed down like, you know, apart from Beckton Sewage Works.”
Jim Albert, oral history interview remembering his dad’s job at Beckton Gas Works
Bones, Skin & Hooves
Other factories that we have discovered reports of terrible fumes coming from include those using animal products in their processes. From the ‘Bone and Hoof’ factory to even the imagined-sweeter smelling confectionery manufacturers that used animal products to create liquorice smelling foul.
The banks of the river by Barking’s factories became known as a ‘Nuisance District’ with the layers of strong smells from so many different factories. There were reports of dead animals and abattoir refuse frequently being dumped at Barking Town Quay and into the river, including dead cats, dogs and pigs.
There were two factories along Barking’s riverside that made use of the refuse from London tanneries - with scrapings of animal hides and skins were converted into manure by boiling it. As you can imagine, the vapours and fumes this emitted were very offensive.
There were also glue factories that created glue from trimmings of animal refuse. Works also distilled ‘bone-oil’, a very stinky product produced in the carbonization of bones.
Chemicals & Fertilisers
Noxious Fumes & Offensive Trades
From Ajax Chemical Works to Lawes Chemicals, various paint manufacturers and even embalming fluid, Barking’s riverside industries were a toxic cocktail of fumes across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Within these industries, workers would be handling highly potent and noxious substances. Reports and reminiscence reveal there was little protection provided for the workers, as people remember handling ammonia, formaldehyde, sulphates and acids.
Very large and offensive operations are carried on in the neighbourhood of both the northern and southern metropolitan outfall sewers, the putrid and other vapours emitted from such works being diffused into the atmosphere, to be wafted over wide areas as the prevailing wind for the time may carry them.
A report from 1865 conducted into air pollution in Barking’s riverside stated:
“No special precautions are used to deodorise, prevent, or to regulate escape of these noxious vapours as they are evolved from the materials, but they are permitted to escape during all stages of manufacture.”
Several chemicals and gas factories were located nearby to each other on the riverside. In 1865 a report stated:
“Mr Lawes, are works of Mr Crew, where gas-liquor and gas-tar are subjected to distillation; the gas-liquor being converted into sulphate of ammonia, and the gas-tar into naphate, creosote, and pitch. In the manufacture large volumes of sulphurated hydrogen are set free and as this escapes into the air it becomes a cause of great offence.”
A Community for Lawes Workers
Lawes built the cottages for the factory workers and their families in Creekmouth Village, by River Roding in Barking. The middle three cottages, facing the river, were knocked into one and used as a school, which was closed in 1892. About 50 years later (dated back from 1850s), when the Barking School Board built a new school in the village, Mr Bennet Lawes consented to the local vicar’s request to use the empty schoolroom for the Creekmouth Mission Church. To travel to Barking (2 miles away) from the village, the villages often travelled by boat along the muddy track, rowing with tide up to the Town Quay and waiting for the tide to turn to row home again.
“I was born at 4 Creekmouth Cottages in Barking. My dad worked in Lawes. If we looked out our back yard we could see the corner of the Lawes chemicals factory it was so close. And the actual village of Creekmouth was built by Lawes for its workers. So he just went to work with everybody else, and came back and had a nice tin bath by the fire, to clean off the chemicals.My dad was the type he would strip off his work clothes outside. He was very considerate. He was one of the very considerate people. And having worked with smelly fertilisers and things, he’d take his work clothes off outside, straight in the tin bath, which my mum always had ready, of course.”
Avril Glyne-Miller, interviewed for The Barking Stink
To learn more about the heritage and history of this unique Barking community, you can explore Creekmouth Village Preservation Society for more photos and stories.
Heavy industries are usually located downwind of the capital city and for a hundred years or so they gathered in ever greater numbers around Barking Creek: bitumen and asphalt producers, paint and chemical works, fertilizer and asbestos factories, iron foundries and rubber works. Barking Power Station became the biggest of its type in the world; Beckton Gas Works supplied gas for street lamps and houses, shops and factories over a vast area. Barking boomed into a thriving industrial town, but with that success came potent whiffy smells and thick black smoke.
Raw materials were brought in on the River Thames and finished articles conveniently shipped out the same way. There were railways and roads leading to London, and Barking Creek running through the heart of town. Homes, small businesses and local shops were demolished to make way for these industries and, as they were, the Creek’s waters get ever more polluted. Soon it was cut off from the town itself.
“The factories that were closest to my home were the engineering ones and the paint factory, which was a pretty smelly sort of environment too. At the top of the road you had the extraordinary named place, ‘the Self Opening Tin Box Company’. As a child you ask, “what is a self-opening tin box?” Well actually it means one with a lid, it’s not one that opens itself, but it was called the Self Opening Tin Box Company at the top of the road. It was a metalworking industry, and just over the bridge Crowe, the oil company that was on the river there. And then just further along Masters Matches. So the industries, if you were coming up the Gascoigne Road, the smell of the William Warne Rubber works was unmistakeable.”
Mike Kelly, oral history interview
“The rise of Barking to its present position is one of the romances of Industry. In a comparatively short space of time it has grown from a fishing village to a thriving industrial town. Not only was there the natural waterway of the Thames, along which raw material could be brought one way, with finished articles shipped out the other, but there were railways and roads leading to London, and the navigable river Roding running through the heart of town. From a quiet village, from which Barking’s fleet of three hundred ship used to put out for fishing in the North Sea, it has grown until it is a veritable hive of industry, the home of nearly a hundred trades, spreading along the river bank and the land adjoining. Each year new industries established themselves, and the town continues to advance and play a prominent part in the world’s commercial output.”
Charter Celebrations of Barking booklet, Valence House Museum and Local Studies Archive
Fights & Strikes
Miss Steane also recalled that in Pritchards Court, near to the River Thames and heavily infested with rats, lived the “Wild Irish”...
“The women would strip to their waist and stand up and fight, dragging each other by the hair of the head about until one of them gave in. There was much drinking.”
Jute workers in Barking were involved in strikes. The phenomenon of the ‘Barking Ladies’ established itself in local legend by 1880. Staged fights by women were reported in the courts and in the newspapers during and after the era when jute dominated Barking’s economy. Hart Street, near the mill and the Jute Worker girls’ hostel dwellings, became known locally as a battleground.
Later the Jute works changed hands and Indian competition and sporadic strikes led to poorly paid Irish spinners being brought in. Over a hundred more girls arrived straight from Cork in June 1882.
“The girls in their clogs, with shawls wrapped tightly around head and shoulders and pressed together with the hand that carried their large scissors point to shoulder, were a familiar sight as they hurried to work in the morning. This started at 6am and went on until 6pm with breaks for breakfast and lunch; the latter lasted only from 1.30 to 1.50, when the whistle summoned the girls in again. Skilled weavers were well paid and the Scots girls liked herring for lunch; local girls more often had wads of bread and jam.”
Herbert Hope-Lockwood memoirs
The Jute Factory closed down from May 1886 to March 1888 and the distress may be imagined, relieved only by soup-kitchens and other forms of charity such as Fisher Street Mission.
As unemployment took place, the brewers were amongst the first to benefit. Drunkenness and violence were commonplace; street fights often involving both men and women could be seen almost any Saturday night beneath the gas lamps of the pubs with which Barking was so well endowed.
Lawes Chemical Company was founded by an entrepreneur Sir John Bennett Lawes. He set up a factory for manufacture of super-phosphates at Deptford Creek, London, in 1843, and bought 100 acres at Barking Creek on which the main factory and workers’ cottages were built in 1857. The business was purchased from John Bennet Lawes by a group of business people in 1872 and incorporated with limited liability as Lawes Chemical Manure Co Ltd to manufacture artificial fertilisers, sulphuric acid and other chemical fertilisers.
The company became known as Lawes Chemical Co Ltd in 1935 and went into liquidation in 1969, the business continuing to trade under the name of Seabright Chemicals Ltd.
“Lawes Chemical is not one of the giants in the fertiliser business, but it is probably one of the oldest. The business has certainly been in existence for more than ninety years- it was founded by John Bennett Lawes, a farmer at Rothamsted. Lawes, a man with an insatiable curiosity, became interested in the work being done by a chemist called Gilbert and it was not long before Lawes had his own laboratory in one of his barns. Soon he was trying out his new phosphate on his own crops, and so remarkable were the results that he patented his process and opened up the first factory”
The Investors Guardian 29 Aug 1958
“It must be remembered”, said Mr Perkins, “that a flourishing and sound farming industry is essential to this country, so that no matter how small, everything must be done to cut the costs of the agricultural industry. It is with these thoughts in our mind that we at Lawes today face the second hundred years at Barking with the same confidence in the future of our industry as did John Bennett Lawes so many years ago.”
The Investors Guardian 29 Aug 1958
One worker from Lawes Factory, Ronald Freeman, remembers the different materials he handled as part of his job creating fertilisers. He recalls bones being used alongside sulphuric acid. Workers would trample on the bones, adding cow dung and imported potassium, nitrogen and phosphates to create soil-enriching fertiliser products.
Sherwood Paints, Silixene Paints & Barford Oils
Various paint factories in Barking meant a pungent cocktails of strong fumes and smells. Factories included Sherwood Paints, Silixene Paints and Barford Oils, all located along River Road and Abbey Road next to Barking’s River Roding.
“And the smell of paint as you came into River Road off the A30. It was so awful. When you used to come into Barking, there was a smell, that particular smell because of those factories.”
Ruth, reminiscence session
Jim Albert remembers vividly first person the smells involved and hazards of working with paint and chemicals:
“I was a paint maker. Messy, dusty, smelly, but it was good. I actually made the gloss emulsions and the exterior paints, like stone paint and sandcoat. We used to make them in like 1,000-gallon batches. It was tiring, heavy work, but it was enjoyable at the end like, you know, you just see all these bags of powder and like, you know, kind of chutes of sand going into this thing like, you know, and it comes out and you’ve got this tin of paint like, you know? Yeah, there’s a lot of satisfaction in it. It was only about twenty people, thirty people working at Silixene Paints, so it was really – it was more like a family working there.
I mean, there was – like, I think back now like, you know, with the health and safety we’ve got now, I mean, we used to make lead-based paint and there’s like bags of lead powder and they’d give us a little face mask and a pint of milk, and I don’t drink milk, so my mate used to have that. And that’s all it was, it was just this little paper mask to stop the dust going down like, you know. I mean, it was a forty-five gallon barrel of Formaldehyde and you used to have to get something like about three grams of this to put in a 100 gallon batch of paint as one of the driers, and you imagine, you had a little sample pot right, and you’ve got a forty-five gallon drum, and you’ve got to get it out of that forty-five gallon drum into a little sample pot. Nine times out of ten it split everywhere, and I remember the smell of it like, you know, it just really turned your stomach, couldn’t eat anything after that. I didn’t think anything of it like, you know, it’s only in later years, like you checked up on Formaldehyde and I think how dangerous it was. Ammonia, again, forty-five gallon drums of that and again, you’ve got to get a little sample out of it to put in the paint. No protection."
Paint factory worker, Silixene Paints, oral history interview
“The smell depended on the paint. It’s so long ago, I can’t remember the exact paint, but it had a right pungent, sickly smell to it and it was okay when you was making it. All the raw ingredients. It was once it was made and then you got to pour it out and get it into the tins, and you’d just get a whiff of it and – I mean, again it’s one of them lot, and when it come to dinner break you’d still got this smell inside you like, you know, and you just couldn’t eat anything. It was just certain paints. We had a littlekind of shed out the back and we used to make oils and varnishes in there, and some of them, they smelt a bit like, you know. Plus, there was a chemical factory next door to us, Barford Oils, and they used to do a lot of oils. They really stank”
Jim Albert, Silixene Paints worker
You can hear more about a paint maker’s experiences and the scents of the factories here, with our interview with Jim Albert who worked at Silixene Paints.
Pounce & the Smell of Rubber
What did the Rubber Factory smell like? What were the smells associated with Warnes? People we interviewed recall the distinctive odours of burning rubber coming from the Abbey Road factory into the 20th century. The processing of rubber would have involved a lot of fuel and power and coal, creating smoke and fumes from the factory chimneys. GOAD maps (pictured) show the different stages and roles involved across the factory site in the processing and manufacture of products. Including the identified risk of fires associated with this industry. Factories such as Warnes often had their own fire services, indicating the hazardous nature of the processes and we can imagine the smells of burning rubber, coal and oil.
“I worked there when I first left school in the 1950s. I didn’t like the smell!”
Eileen, via facebook
"My nan worked at Warnes and always smelled of pounce. I really can’t describe it. It had a smell of it’s own. Wasn’t a terrible smell but not perfume.”
Susan, via facebook
“My mum worked at the rubber factory and she always smelt of pounce. I think that’s what the white powder she worked with was called.”
Shirley, via facebook
Through speaking to local people, we discovered that ‘pounce’ was a distinctive smell associated with working at William Warnes. Pounce is a chalk-like white powder that was used to remove excess oils from the processing of the rubber products such as tyres, rubber bands or hosing. Several people described the not-unpleasant smell of pounce that clung to their family members’ clothes, skin and hair when they came home from working at the factory. We included this smell in the Barking Stink exhibition, using talcum powder to suggest the described smell present on Warnes workers.
William Warne & Co.
“When we went with my mother to view our new house, we got off the bus in River Road and there was the most awful smell from the nearby rubber factory. Fortunately, my fears that we were going to live with that smell every day were unfounded, but I’ve never forgotten that smell.”
Jeannine, via facebook
Lots of people who we interviewed and met in Barking and Dagenham remembered friends and family who worked ‘down the Rubber’. The Rubber Factory was officially known as Warnes, or William Warne and Co in full. From 1907 to 2002, William Warne was based at India Rubber Mill located on Abbey Road next to Barking’s riverside, to allow products and materials to be transported by barges along River Roding. Warnes operated between 1870,moving to premises by Barking riverside taking over the site of the previous Abbey Jute Mills. It provided jobs for many local people, including introducing immigrant workers in the 1960s and 1970s to the factory.
What did Warnes make? William Warnes produced a whole variety of rubber products, developing between the years it operated. These include tyres, rubber bands of all shapes and sizes, valves, medical and surgical supplies, flooring, hosing and piping, and later even equipment for jet fighter pilots.
William Warne played a very active part in the early development of the Rubber Industry and were patentees of Red Mineralized Rubber - used to manufacture surgical goods, bedpans, air and water beds, syringes, hospital sheeting and cushions etc. The Company’s catheters, tubes and bougies are known the world over. The surgical world looks to Warne’s to provide surgical goods with a finer and more accurate finish than any other.
Warne’s also creates rubber thread, used since 1863 in clothing, corsets, suspenders and for knitting into close fitting garments. The rubber thread is also used in engineering and makers of dolls, tous and model aircraft also use it. Food sealing discs and rings to pack perishable food is also a great product of Warne’s. Industrial Hoses, washers, valves are also produced.
Rubber bands of every size and colour on a large scale (apart from when production was restricted during wartime period). Sports goods include the outstanding item produced - the famous Warne’s Football Bladder! The leading bladder in all parts of the world.
The Smell of Jute
What did the jute mills smell of? Speaking to people in Dundee, the smell of the jute products has been described as historically different to the chemical based jute products we may smell today. The unique smell has been attributed to some to the animal fats that were used in the manufacturing process, including whale fat in the past. However the most well remembered smells were the frequent fires reported, and the smell of burning jute is said to have been quite repulsive and choking.
We interviewed Lily Thomson, a retired jute mill weaver in Dundee, to ask about her first-hand experience of the mills. She reported the role involved a lot of deafening noise, affecting her hearing to this day, with much ‘stour’ (dust), few breaks and frequent accidents:
“The buildings were all miserable, all miserable. I mean, I live in a jute mill converted, and all the windows are in the roof, and it’s dark and dull, and it’s just--, so much dust, and the smell, and oil, oh it was unbelievable. Yes, it was nae--, you’d have all the dust everywhere. It was on your hair, in your eyes, and if you put a cup--, if they give you a cup of tea and if you put it down, you could nae drink it ‘cause its top was covered in dust.
Everything had to be oiled, the machines were all oiled and the oil on spindles and that. So, you had oil on your hands. And the jute had oil in it as well. sometimes machines would go up and then you had the smell of burning jute, and then all the smoke, and that was really horrible. You’ve never experienced anything--, the smell of burning jute. And then you had the smoke, and if the windows opened they opened, if they didn’t they didn’t, and that was just the way you were. You just accepted it all.”
For an in depth history of the jute industries across the UK, you can look at Verdant Works.
Thames Plywood, Blumsoms & Austin’s Timber
Several timber factories were located along the riverside of Barking Creek and the Roding. Locals we interviewed recalled the sight of barges carrying large logs travelling along the river to be unloaded at wharves. We interviewed ex-timber workers including carpenters and joiners about the smells and hazards related to these trades in Barking.
Companies working with timber in Barking included Thames Plywood, Austin’s Joinery and Blumsoms Timber Centre. Smells reported include the heat of bark being unpeeled from logs, varnishes, oils, sawdust and the scent of different types of wood.
Jim Albert remembers vividly of his childhood in Barking:
“There used to be a big woodyard down there and odd bits of wood would be floating about, so we’d grab them and make them as our boats, and sail them down the river. I remember the boats used to come along and bring the great big tree chunks for the match factory and we used to wave at the tug drivers like, you know, and a lot of them waved back, a few of them like, you know, “Get your arses out of here,” like. The times we fell in with the mud and everything, and clip round the ear from the mother, “Don’t you ever go up there again,” “Yeah, alright,” next day we’re up there again.”
We interviewed women, now in their eighties, who worked at Thames Plywood. They shared memories of factory life by the riverside with us. Alice recalled to us:
“Well we used to see the boats used to come, when I went to another part of the factory, when they brought the royal logs in off the river, and then they used to go on these roller things and it used to roll the bark off. Sometimes the wood, when it came off, because it was peeled by heat, the rollers were heated, and the smell used to come off there was dreadful and sometimes you’d burn your hands, that wasn’t a good job. But yeah, that’s going back. I was eighteen then, now I’m bloody eighty-eight, my god!”
Blumsoms & Shipbuilding
Blumsoms opened their site in River Road in the 1950s. It was the last remaining hardwood importer in London, still operating in 2019 and located on the banks of the River Roding. Blumsoms built ships including Western Lady II.
The hazards of working with wood are captured in film here. Take a look at Pathe News footage, of a large inferno at the Austin’s Timber yard in Barking in 1960. We can imagine the smells of smoke from this fire.
We recorded an interview with an ex-joiner Eric from Austin’s Timber, where he shares experience of the working conditions, hazards and women workers at the factory. You can listen to this interview to find out more here.