13. Downstream innovation - chemical and zinc production at Avonmouth.

Another technologically advanced industry with its roots in the nineteenth century is chemicals. Crew's Hole, an area to the east of Temple Meads, which in the 1830s lay outside the Bristol conurbation, was the original location of the Bristol tar works. In the early days, under the name Roberts & Daines, the principal product was creosote, sold as a preservative for the wooden sleepers of the Great Western Railway. The raw material was coal-tar, the residue from gas production. Later, under the name of William Butler & Co., the firm diversified into the production of all kinds of oil-based chemicals, ranging from the relatively primitive (lamp black) to the highly sophisticated (ingredients for plastics). Its tar distilling interests were sold out to the gas boards in 1962, and it was later relocated at Avonmouth, producing disinfectants, antiseptics and preservatives. It is now a subsidiary of an American company, Tenneco Organics.#35

Crew's Hole must have been a place to avoid in the nineteenth century. The tar distillery was just one of several chemical factories emitting unpleasant fumes into the atmosphere. Most notable was the Netham Alkali works, originally opened in the 1840s, which produced sulphuric acid, and other chemicals such as sal ammoniac, washing soda and super-phosphates. By the late nineteenth century it had between 406 and 500 men on its payroll. The firm provides yet another example of the interlocking interests so typical of business in Bristol; its chairman was the soap manufacturer Charles Thomas, and the board included Joseph Wethered, a leading coal-owner. The company was eventually taken over by I.C.I., which closed the factory after the Second World War. I.C.I. remains the most important manufacturer of chemicals in the region, with an enormous complex at Severnside for the production of ethyleneoxide, glycol, ammonia and fertilisers. Work began on the 1,000 acre site in 1960. This, as in the case of the Imperial Smelting Corporation's Avonmouth Works, is best seen as a development quite independent of older industries, now defunct, in Bristol itself.#36 The building of the vast Avonmouth zinc complex between 1917 and 1923, at a cost of more than 800,000, was a result of the exigencies of war. Before 1914, a large part of the zinc concentrates produced in Australia were sent to Germany for refining. Britain in turn imported a large part of the refined metal needed by industry. When war broke out with Germany, government initiatives led to the formation of the National Smelting Co. and the decision to build a massive smelting works and sulphuric acid complex at Avonmouth. It is not clear why the Avonmouth site was chosen, though it seems certain that the availability of cheap land close to the government munitions factory and the advantage of a deepwater port were important factors. After the war, demand plummeted and National Smelting ran into difficulties. The business was rescued by a team of eminent British industrialists with interests in metals and chemicals, and it progressed steadily in the 1920s before being taken over by the newly formed Imperial Smelting Corporation in 1929. Imperial was from the first controlled by the Zinc Corporation of Australia, and that connection remains down to the present, although it should be borne in mind that the Australian owners themselves are controlled by yet more powerful British interests. Over the years, smaller British zinc plants have been closed down by Imperial in order to concentrate production at Avonmouth. It is here that the famous Imperial Smelting Process was developed. From 1967, the Avonmouth Works was home to the largest and most efficient zinc blast furnace in the world.#37