Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Cowpen Alkali Works

I was browsing the map made in 1828 of Northumberland by Christopher and John Greenwood and noticed something that I hadn't picked up on previously: an alkali works at Cowpen near Blyth.

Google Earth Image of site (click to enlarge)

Link to location on Google Maps http://goo.gl/maps/IyJ5h

Overlaying Greenwood's map onto modern satellite imagery it is found to be located at the site of what is now a boatyard on the River Blyth. This can be discovered by travelling North on a path directly opposite Cowpen Road Cemetery to the river near the old Bates colliery.

Greenwood's 1828 map of Northumberland

It is often mentioned in brief histories of Blyth that the river was a small centre of salt manufacture, coal mining, shipping and ship building. The alkali works are much less often mentioned.

The local historian John Wallace published a history of Blyth in 1863 and had this to say on the alkali works:
About thirty years ago Blyth seemed in a fair way of getting a large and important manufacture permanently established. An enterprising firm, with capital at command, began the manufacture of alkali. Their first factory was erected at the low quay, the concern was under the management of Mr. Leighton, an eminent manufacturing chemist; they afterwards built what was termed the high factory, at Camboise point, where they made the vitriol, which they used in immense quantities in producing the chemicals they sent to market. Unfortunately the concern which promised to be so great a benefit to the town, failed to remunerate the spirited proprietors, who, after losing a great amount of capital, had to abandon the enterprise. After this, Mr. Richard Wilson got a patent for making chimneypieces, &c., out of clay, in imitation of marble; buildings were erected in which to conduct the manufacture, but after a trial the project did not succeed.
From the Wikipedia article on Alkali I learned that soda ash (sodium carbonate) and potash (potassium carbonate), collectively termed alkali, are vital chemicals in the glass, textile, soap, and paper industries. The process uses salt, coal and lots of energy which are available in abundance at this site. The river estuary, of course, provides the means to transport the product.

Wallace does not give the detail as to why the venture failed. To summarise Norman McCord's North East England : The Region's Development 1760-1960, p141, Tyneside had become a large centre of chemical works in the early 19th century making alkali by the wasteful Leblanc process. The competitive position of the Tyneside plants was eroded rapidly by chemical works works on Teesside and overseas who had adopted the much more efficient Solvay process. The Tyneside manufactories had been reluctant to do so. This, however, was from the 1870s.

The Ordnance Survey mapping 1st and 2nd edition, from c.1859 and c.1897 respectively both show the site as "Old Alkali Works" with what looks to be abandonded buildings in situ. By the time of the 3rd and 4th edition Ordnance Survey maps the site is being used as a remote part of a nearby infectious diseases hospital. From 1966 to the present day Ordnance Survey label the promontory as "Factory Point" on their maps. The 1993 map shows that a boatyard has been established.