1894 - 1926: The British
Cyanides Company Limited
the years, BIP’s directors and employees have
taken pride in recording the history of the company.
Most recently, past Managing Director Ivor
Thompson compiled a history of BIP Engineering, serialised in ‘The
Plastiquarian’ published by the Plastics Historical
Society. 65 years earlier Kenneth
Chance, then Chairman
of the company, produced a detailed history of British
Cyanides. It is from the latter, a quarter of a century
later, that the then Managing Director Charles
Glassey compiled his history ‘Growth
of a Group’ and
from which we now freely but briefly quote.
As his introduction, Charles
Glassey wrote: “Not
far from the centre of the Midland town of Oldbury,
home of chemical manufacturers and metal workers, stand
two works at extreme ends of a wedge-shaped plot of
land, 17 acres (8 Hectares) in extent, intersected
by canal and flanked by a network of rails. These factories,
complete with fine office buildings, are the home of
BIP; their site, with access by rail, road and canal,
has been described as the finest in the Midlands.”
Following difficulties and successes, fortune, disaster
and neglect, this description - but for a few details
- is not so far from being apt today.
About 1880, a process for extracting gold from low-grade
ore excited the neighbouring firms of Albright & Wilson
and Chance & Hunt. Engaged in the same quest – the
economical production of cyanide - they decided to
join forces. A small subsidiary, The British Cyanides
Company Limited, was formed under the chairmanship
of Alexander Chance and plant was laid down on a piece
of land adjacent to both companies. They experienced
difficulties in converting sulpho-cyanide into cyanide
and, when the South African War broke out in 1900,
the largest market for cyanide disappeared.
Plant was therefore laid down to convert sulpho-cyanide
into ferro-cyanide, but the market price then fell
below the cost of production. In 1901 Kenneth
Chance was elected to the Board of British Cyanides and it
was his suggestion to pay off the bank overdraft by
selling its stock of 200 tonnes of prussiate of soda
(now at an elevated value) which saved the company.
In 1904, British Cyanides developed an economic method
of producing cyanide from prussiate of soda. In 1911
the company, searching for cheaper raw materials, turned
its attention to what became known as the Barium process
for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. It built
a furnace large enough to yield production quantities
of cyanogen from which it could make sodium cyanide.
The project came to a disastrous end in 1914 with the
overheating and cracking of the furnace, made worse
by the outbreak of World War I.
With the aim of producing whatever was required by
the Ministry of Munitions, British Cyanides laid down
plant, in 1915, for small-scale production of sodium
manganate for use in gas masks. By 1918 output had
increased to 40 tons per week but, when the question
arose of payment for the installation, the Government
raised objections but in a costly lawsuit, the company
won a judgement.
In 1917, in conjunction with the Ministry of Munitions,
British Cyanides built a factory at Rood End capable
of manufacturing large quantities of potash needed
for producing high quality lenses for the Royal Navy.
The source had been Alsace, now occupied by Germany.
Ridiculous red tape resulted in the Government refusing
to implement its undertaking to make a loan to the
company and the Potash Company, set up to produce the
product, went into liquidation and the plant destroyed.
Reconstruction of the old potash factory as a new
resins plant 25 years later “stands as a tribute
to the Board’s resolution and determination”,
wrote Charles Glassey.
In the years to follow the company produced yellow
prussiates of soda and potash but a sudden US import
tariff in the middle of 1922 shook British Cyanides
badly. The Tat Bank factory had to be closed down and
the plant moved to Popes Lane, the Barium process was
finally abandoned and energy concentrated on converting
sulpho-cyanide into other, more saleable compounds.
Manufacture of red prussiate by electrolysis, in plant
designed by Edmund Rossiter, provided a small but regular
It was a visit to the USA by Kenneth
Chance, who brought
back the idea of converting sulpho-cyanide into thiourea
for use in vulcanizing rubber and weighting silk, which
really turned the tide for British Cyanides. From this,
as taffeta and weighted silk went out of fashion and
cheaper methods of vulcanizing appeared, Edmund
Rossiter conceived the idea of condensing thiourea with formaldehyde
to produce water-white resins.
This resin, displayed at the 1925 Wembley Exhibition,
proved a real success. In spite of the encouraging
interest shown by french polishers and manufacturers
of wall plugs, for instance, what was wanted was a
quick and profitable return.
“It was decided” concluded Charles
concentrate on the production of moulding powders and,
in 1926, the world’s first water-white commercial
moulding powder was produced at Oldbury” thereby
providing British Cyanides, and subsequently BIP, with
stability and international standing.