The history of the raincoat

The Macintosh Factory in Manchester - Outline history

We know that in 1819 Charles Macintosh, a manufacturing chemist with premises in Glasgow, contracted with the Glasgow Gas Works to receive some of their waste products which he used to dissolve rubber and so manufacture the 'double-textured' waterproof cloth (Hancock's Narrative, p.v) to which he was to give his name (almost). See Rubber-proofing cloth.

'Ammoniacal water': sometimes the word 'ammonia' is used to refer to what is understood chemically, strictly speaking, to be ammonia dissolved in water. At ordinary temperatures and pressures ammonia, NH3, is a gas.

Besides the usability of the new cloth there was the cost of producing it, and this might have been the decisive factor in launching affordable rubberised articles into the world. Undoubtedly the use of what would otherwise be a waste product made production of rubberised cloth dramatically cheaper.

Macintosh obtained a patent for the use of coal tar derivative naphtha as a solvent in 1823. It seems that Macintosh made the first of these articles in Glasgow. It is stated in George Macintosh's Memoire that Charles "set up a manufactory of waterproof articles, which was, in the first instance, carried on at Glasgow..." (George Macintosh, Memoire, as quoted in Hancock's Narrative, p. vi) and this has been interpreted to mean that there must have been premises in Glasgow acquired by Charles and equipped for such production. The difficulty then is that no trace of such premises can be found in the Directories and other records of the time of the time. (As Woodruff makes clear, Woodruff, p. 4, footnote 1). But what is known is that at one time Charles was involved in the management of the firm his father founded - George Macintosh and Company - which was the leading Scottish manufacturer of cudbear, the purple lichen-derived dye. So one possibility surely must be that the waterproof articles manufactory was not a separate business and not carried on in separate premises but was launched in a corner of the dye works.

Another possibility is this. A firm of 'Charles Macintosh & Co' is listed in the Post Office Directory for Glasgow for the 1830s and 40s: but with its business stated as that of a 'Tar Works', located on Hill Street (Woodruff, p.4, footnote 1).

When Town Gas began to be produced in the first decades of the 19th Century (the Glasgow Gas Light Company was formed in 1817 according to Bouncing Balls) the method was to heat coal. A gaseous complex of substances was given off, which was to an extent 'purified' before the resultant material - itself a mixture of (mainly) methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide - was collected in the gas-holder ready for distribution along the pipes.

In the gas works proper [of the first Glasgow type at any rate) you have four products: the coke, left in the oven when the coal has burned; ammoniacal water resulting from sluicing the gas given off with water to take ammonia out of it; the town gas itself, stored in the gasholder; and a heavy oily liquid known as tar oil. (Town gas is what is left when (a) sluicing water has removed ammonia from the gas as it comes off the coal and (b) tar oil has condensed as a liquid out of it.)

Charles Macintosh's contract with the Glasgow Gas Light Company was to take away both ammoniacal water and tar oil.

We know that his purpose in contracting with the Gas Works was in part to supply ammoniacal water for the use of his father's cudbear works. (Ammonia in aqueous solution was used to extract the dye stuff from the lichen in which it naturally occurred.)

The other part was to experiment with the tar oil as the basis for a cheap solvent for rubber. It was known already that material of this sort would act in this way.

What exactly do I mean by 'material of this sort'?

It's difficult to say exactly what the different 'materials' I might be meaning are! Tar oil is a complex of hydrocarbons. So is a material called 'naphtha'. So is a material called 'benzol' (as used in its UK sense, as the name of a mix of hydrocarbons in which benzene and toluene predominate; in Germany 'benzol' is used to refer to pure benzene).

When you distill a mix of hydrocarbons you can separate out the various different hydrocarbons in the mix. Charles Macintosh is said by Hancock to have used 'coal naphtha' as his solvent for rubber, and also that coal naphtha is something Charles 'manufactured' in Glasgow (Hancock, p.22).

Hancock's putting it this way rules out the idea that the tar oil was itself the 'naphtha' used by Charles as the solvent. One has the conclusion then that in the Tar Works Charles was distilling tar oil and taking the 'naphtha' off as a distillation 'fraction'.

The trouble with this way of putting it is that 'fractional distillation' is properly said to have been devised by Charles Mansfield in the 1850s, when it was used (together with fractional freezing) to split coal tar into as many as twenty different substances (Brock, p.295). I suppose therefore we must speak of Macintosh distilling naphtha out of tar oil, without thinking of him as regarding it as a 'fraction'.

All this prepares the way for me to suggest: it could be that the site of the manufactory of waterproof articles referred to by George in the Memoire was in fact the Tar Works on Hill Street.

In any event, 'eventually' (the word used by his son in his Memoire, as quoted in Hancock's Narrative, p. v) Charles moved his manufactory (suggesting incientally what was meant was an operation not a distinct premises) to Manchester.

(According to Miller this was in 1924, but I can't see where he gets this from - George Macintosh's Memoire doesn't give this detail and Woodruff implies we don't know exactly when the move took place (Woodruff p.3,4).)

The move to Manchester was based on his entering into a partnership. Two members of the highly influential Birley family - the brothers Hugh Hornby and Joseph Birley - at least were involved. They undertook to build a mill for the production of his waterproof cloth alongside their existing premises in Chorlton-in-Medlock in Manchester (the area adjacent to what is now Oxford Road Station - or, if you prefer, the Corner House). (Woodruff, p.5, footnote 2, relying on an undated note among the Birley papers.)

How Charles came to approach the Birley concern is not known, so far as I am aware, but one of the leading cotton manufacturers in Manchester (the Birleys) could quite conceivably have been known to one of the leading industrialists in Glasgow (by which I mean in the first place Charles' father, and in the second Charles himself). One list on which both the Birleys and George Macintosh (Charles' father) figure is that of subscribers to a volume of poetry edited by nnn and published by nnn in 18nn. This does no more than show both parties belonged to the great and the good of the land (The King is also listed), but since both also belonged to the North - North England and Scotland - maybe establishing that connection is enough to show that they are likley to have been known to each other.

(Captain) Hugh (Hornby) Birley had the distinction of taking a key role in the 'Peterloo massacre' in 1819, in which 11 people were killed by the militia and 400 injured. Capt Birley was the person who made the arrests of those on the hustings ordered by his commanding officer, Major Trafford. Macintosh's patent was granted in 1823, so the two will have negotiated their partnership, involving Charles' moving to Manchester, in the few years following this traumatic incident.

Woodruff unearthed a note in the Birley papers, unfortunately undated, which throws light on the formation of the partnership that took shape:

"Wishing to extend his business [begun in Glasgow] he [Charles Macintosh] looked out for someone to join him with capital, and was introduced to Mr Hugh Hornby Birley and his brother Mr Joseph Birley. They were cotton spinners and manufacturers in Manchester, and owned premises on the East side of Cambridge Street, from the river to the further end of the block of buildings known as the 'New Mill', all of which were then employed in spinning and weaving. These three gentlemen, Mr Macintosh and Messrs. Hugh and Joseph Birley, together with a Mr R.W. Barton, formed the firm of Chas. Macintosh & Co., in 1824, and, for the purpose of carrying on the waterproof business, erected on the West side of Cambridge Street the building now known as the 'Old Mill'. They built it so that, should the waterproof business prove a failure, it might be added to and converted into a cotton mill. The new business did not turn out a failure, and the building remains with an unfinished side to this day."

Woodruff adds: "It appears to have been the belief of the Birley family, passed on from one generation to the next, that Macintosh could not get financial support for his patent in Scotland. By the end of the 'sixties [ie Eighteen-sixties] both 'Old' and 'New' mills were engaged in rubber manufacture..."

 

Construction of the Macintosh Mill began in 1824, and it was completed by mid-1825, says Miller.

We know that 13 years later (taking Miller's dates) what was now (in 1838) referred to as a factory was burnt down:

"Messrs Macintosh and Co.'s patent cloth factory, Chorlton-upon-Medlock, was destroyed by fire, August 25, when three lives were lost." News item dated 1838, from The Annals of Manchester.

But it must have been quickly rebuilt, since Miller continues the story:

"...[B]y 1850 the works comprised three mills, a warehouse, a vulcan house, calender sheds, and gas holders. Ironically, during the 1860s, there was a decline in cotton spinning in the area, and some of Birley’s mills were converted to rubber production as this was more profitable. The complete works appear on a contemporary engraving of the site, which was first published in 1889 [reproduced here:]"

Miller concludes:

"The works was taken over by the Dunlop Company in 1923, and the manufacture of rubber products continued on the site until February 2000, although the original mill [not presumably the one burnt out in 1838) was destroyed in 1940 as a result of bombing raids."

(Ian Miller webpages Macintosh Mill)

(Hancock's Personal Narrative doesn't give the dates of the opening of the Manchester venture, but what he does say fits the ones given above - Hancock, p.22.)

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Hazel

 

 

An archaelogical study of the foundations of the Macintosh and Co factory was carried out by OxfordArcheaology in 2004. It was in this connection that Ian Miller constructed the Web Page referred to above.

 

 

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