BIP (Oldbury) Limited
Tat Bank Road
Oldbury
West Midlands
B69 4NH
United Kingdom

Registered No. 5262589

VAT No. GB851675310

T: +44 0121 544 2333
F: +44 0121 552 6148
W: www.bip.co.uk

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1894 - 1926: The British Cyanides Company Limited

Over 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 business.

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 Glassey, “to 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.