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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Mr. Dalton and Poplar Tar Works

The Chartered, the first gas company, had been set up with a remit to manufacture tar and sell it profitably. They had before them the example of Lord Dundonald and the British Tar Company. It was known that the navy wanted a means to protect ships from rot.

They were fortunate enough to find someone who knew about both shipbuilding and tar to do make and sell it for them. It may have seemed that tar was going to be as easy as coke to sell ‑ all that had to be done was to prove its' worth.

In August 1816 a Thomas Dalton wrote to the Chartered Co. 'about tar.' He was foreman caulker at Wells, Wigram and Green's shipbuilding business at Blackwall Yard ‑the 'oldest private business in Britain' - and a working shipyard until 1988. The yard had gone through a number of changes over the years. The site had been laid out in 1587 and it had later, in 1614, been Perry's Yard'. In 1784 it was described as 'the most capacious private dockyard in the Kingdom and probably the world'. Later George Green had bought the yard, and a statue of one of his descendants still stands in the East India Dock Road. Robert Wigram and William Wells became partners in the yard around 1810. Wigram and Wells went on to become investors in the early gas industry. Dalton had been at the yard for 31 years in 1816 and must have witnessed the building of a dry dock still preserved on site today.

Dalton wrote to the Chartered Company from Strongs Buildings, in the recently completed East India Dock Road. He lived in Naval Row, next to the East India Dock itself and on the road to Wigram's shipyard. The area was still semi-rural and he had a large garden plot attached to his house. Like other Poplar residents of the time he kept a pig (which the Poplar Health Committee in 1833 recorded to be a 'clean' pig).

Leaving his domestic arrangements aside, Dalton was an expert on the use of coal tar in shipbuilding. Wigram had bought coal tar from Birch. It had been used in the shipyard, intermittently, for many years. In his employment in the shipyard Dalton had worked with this and other tars. He was a caulker - a profession commemorated by the 'Jolly Caulkers' pub in Rotherhithe. Caulkers made sure that ships were watertight and Dalton described, to the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry, how paper dipped into tar was used for the purpose.

The exact relationship between Dalton and the Chartered Company is not clear. He seems, initially, to have been employed to sell tar for them on some sort of agency basis. To start with he wrote, on their behalf, to the Navy Board - the civilian body in charge of naval purchasing. The Board agreed to let him undertake 'experiments' - in fact demonstrations - at Deptford Dockyard.

The two inner London Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich had, begun to concentrate on repair work during the preceding century. Deptford, because of its proximity to the Navy Board offices in Seething Lane was used for experimental or new work10 and it was there that officers would make an assessment and then decide whether to place an order for the Chartered's coal tar.

In 1809 lobbyists working on behalf of the Chartered had pointed out that 15,000 tons of tar were bought from abroad every year for naval use. There was considerable interest in ways of preventing rot of various kinds in shipbuilding. Within the Chartered Gas Company itself some subscribers had a specialist interest in the subject - the interest of the Duke of Athol has already been noted.

The discussion on rot proofing was not new and the navy must have known a great deal about coal tar and its potential. Dundonald had tried to sell his tar to the Navy thirty years earlier and claimed that tests on it had been undertaken at Sheerness Dockyard. He had tried to sell coal tar as a preservative against gribble ‑teredo worm - which was a great scourge to wooden shops in tropical seas. On the other hand Dalton also hoped to sell tar for use in caulking.

There were other contemporary developments in the applications for coal tar being made by Naval architects - although this information would not have been widely available outside naval circles and was probably unknown to either Dundonald or Dalton. From around 1810 designers of warships considered the use of a coating of coal tar on ships for sophisticated structural reasons - to turn them into a 'solid body'.

It is to be assumed, therefore, that the use of coal tar was not completely unknown to the Navy when Dalton drew attention to the use of tar for caulking. He pointed out to them possible savings of '8/6d. per barrel in dipping paper beside oil and fuel'. He followed by suggesting that they might like to take 100 tons 'for use on ships' bottoms'. He later suggested tar for rope making and offered to demonstrate by making up some rope using Chartered's tar.

Dalton's persistence gained some success. In September 1817 the Navy Board officers discussed with him the purchase of coal tar 'in barrels similar to those in which [wood] tar is imported from Russia and Sweden'. It was, however, nearly a year before they placed an actual order for '10,000 tons of coal tar at Woolwich'.

Tar had, at last, begun to sell to the market for which the Chartered Company and their backers intended it.

It was at this time, in 1817, that the Chartered took the decision to open its own tar works. Dalton was to be in charge and he set about preparing estimates setting up the new works. Premises at Poplar 'for one year certain at a rent of £×61' were obtained from Wigram who also agreed to build a wall dividing the site up.

The place chosen was in Orchard Place, on one of the convolutions of the River Lea as it nears the Thames. It was on the southeast side of the northern spur of Orchard Place, and had a frontage on the Lea ‑ in the 1990s it is part of the Pura Food complex.

Thomas Dalton bought a 'crane and pans' and other equipment and a special committee was appointed to oversee the works. They duly visited Poplar and reported to the main Court of Governors on the buildings and the products, which Dalton was considering for manufacture. So that future meetings could be held in the sort of accommodation to which they were accustomed 'a committee table, a Pembroke table, and 8 mahogany chairs' were bought.

The works expanded and over the next ten years more equipment was bought - in 1820 a grinder for colouring material and, four years later, a deal plank to make a tub for washing spirits.

Dalton worked hard to promote his products. He prepared information about the use of tar on ships, producing samples 'of felt dipped in first mineral tar and the other with Stockholm or Archangel tar' with which to show the difference. He wrote to the Board of Ordnance asking them 'to try the black varnish on gun carriages'. He contacted the King's Buoy Warden of Trinity House, whose wharf was next to Wigram and Wells’s shipyard, asking them to try his tar on a buoy. The Chartered Court of Governors minuted its obligation to him for his 'perseverance'.

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