The 50 tons of gutta percha landed from the Isabella in November 1845 were bought by the Gutta Percha Company. The purchase shows how well the firm was doing, prospects having been enhanced by the appointment of Henry Statham, a very competent factory manager. This was just as well because neither Bewley nor any other director of the company spent much time overseeing the day to day running of the business.

Given Stratford had good rail and waterway links, it might seem surprising the enterprise moved so quickly to a new base a few miles away on the Regents Canal. Yet the new site, where a factory was purpose built, offered better access both to the midland canal network and to the London market than its initial home could provide. The new focus of production was accessed from both the canal and Wharf Road, which separated the City Road and Wenlock basins. Wenlock basin, which was the destination of equipment moved from Stratford, was a privately owned facility. It had had been scheduled to open in 1826 but filled with water somewhat earlier than planned when the dam at the entrance to the Regents collapsed. So much water flooded into the excavations that traffic on the canal had to be halted although, fortunately, it was a rainy August and the proper water level was reached again fairly soon.

The map, from which an extract is shown on the right, was published in 1835 by E. Ruff and Co. of Fleet Street. As you may see City Road basin is called the Regents Canal basin and only two buildings have been built by Wenlock basin. This may be because the original surveys on which the map was based were done in the 1820s and had not been updated by the time the map was printed. Note Wharf Road (which is not named) runs from City Road to the Regents. No bridge is shown over the canal but I think this was an error.  The road predated the canal and was sliced in two as the line was dug. The word River, as in River Lane, which is what the road was called some distance beyond the canal, would have referred to the New River, an artificial waterway that brought fresh water into London from as far away as Hertfordshire. Great care had to be taken when the Islington tunnel was built that water from the New River, which was to run over the canal, did not leak away. A terrace of fine houses faced west over the course of this important water supply, close to the point where River Lane met Colebrooke Row. During the 1820s Charles Lamb occupied a cottage on the opposite side of Colebrooke Row and perhaps several of his friends, including Keats, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, stopped to admire the newly cut canal when visiting.

The Gutta Percha Company’s move to Wenlock basin proved to be wise as the Hertford Union Canal (sometimes shown on maps as the Lea Union), which had been built as a link from the Lea to the Regents proved to be a commercial failure. Even in 1845, when the company was initially established in Stratford, the Hertford Union was carrying a only a very limited amount of traffic and that mostly from Bishops Stortford, so the writing was already on the wall. The canal was sometimes referred to as Duckett’s Cut, as it had been built by Sir George Duckett, but he was forced into bankruptcy only a couple of years after completion. In the 1840s, after growing tension with the Regents, a stank was installed on the cut so no boats could pass. Unlike the the Wenlock basin dam, this held firm so there could be no surreptitious use of the short cut.

Although the Gutta Percha Company moved production to Wharf Road it maintained offices in Leadenhall Street in the City of London, but the factory benefited from being adjacent to City Road basin, which was really the heart of the Regents Canal. This was where, on August 1st 1820, a procession to mark the opening of the canal stopped on its way from Maiden Lane to Limehouse to allow boats from Manchester to unload their first cargoes. The canal probably never saw a boat as grand as the one that led the procession that day for it was a borrowed City state barge, probably the finest vessel that London could provide. But the canal was not dug for luxury or show, it was built, as King George 1V (who had been the regent after whom the canal had been named) had said, to give so much commercial advantage to the metropolis and such facility to the general commerce of the Empire.

A quarter of a century later City Road had become the most important basin on the Regents Canal. It was more or less equidistant from Paddington and Limehouse and was probably better known to many investors in the company than any other spot as it was the venue of the half-yearly shareholders meetings. At these assemblies there would have been many attendees who could remember the grim days of 1819 when, with collapse appearing imminent, Colonel Drinkwater saved the day with his energy, tenacity and negotiating skills. By 1845 the colonel had passed away but perhaps Mr Statham occasionally saw his son, John Drinkwater Bethune, now Chairman of the Regents Canal company, when he visited the basin. Statham would certainly have made the acquaintance of Edmund Snee, the company secretary, who must have been on site almost daily. Probably no-one knew more about the canal than Mr Snee who had already chalked up more than 30 years service and still had almost 20 more to go.

The threat of disruption caused by the possibility of a railway take over did not disrupt the move from Stratford to Wenlock basin, for there was no threat to accessibility. Pickfords, a major transport company, withdrew from long distance canal carrying work at almost the same time as the new factory opened, but it maintained a presence at two wharves on the City Road basin where goods were accepted for forwarding on the expanding rail network. However, there was no shortage of competitors offering canal carrier services and blocks continued to be brought from the docks by boat. Transport issues aside, any local objections to the building of a new factory so close to City Road may have been placated with the assurance that the manufacture of gutta percha products did not generate the kind of noxious smells associated with a gas or chemical works and that power was to be provided by steam engines, which were to be sited in the factory basement, consumed their own smoke.

Several years after the Gutta Percha Company arrived at Wenlock basin, David W. Bartlett, a well heeled young American spending time in London, recorded his impressions of a visit to the Wharf Road factory. He was not the only visitor to publish an explanation of the manufacture of gutta percha products, a similar review appears in Green’s publication and also in a book published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.) entitled Caoutchouc and Gutta Percha. The author of this work was anonymous but it is notable that in all three accounts, although the stages of production are outlined, there is little comment about the working conditions in the factory. These must, in some parts at least, have been very taxing and sometimes dangerous. However, together the three sources give a good insight into the Wharf Road factory in the years soon after the move from Stratford.

Bartlett appears to have visited a number of businesses in London before his trip to Wenlock basin and was not much impressed with the qualities of those running them. However, he was pleasantly surprised by the manager of the Gutta Percha Company, who must have been Mr Statham, commenting he was a man of politeness and urbanity.  

First stop when being shown round was the cutting room where imported blocks of gutta percha were stacked ready for the first stage of the refining process. This was needed because the raw gutta percha had usually been adulterated with bark and wood chippings as the gum had been collected and not all had been removed by the immediate kneading process. The main part of the cutting machine, driven via a gutta percha belt, was a large cast iron wheel, which had a thickened rim so momentum would be maintained as it began to spin. Three blades were attached to the central part of the wheel and as they turned an operator would place solid blocks on an inclined feeding table. These blocks, which were often a reddish colour, could be of all shapes and sizes and it was not unknown for models of, for example, lizards, crocodiles or serpents to arrive at the factory looking much the same as when created by the gum collectors. But there was no sentiment in the cutting room and all would be reduced to wafers on the floor at the rate of 600 slices a minute.

Given the blocks were not transparent the operator would need to be on his guard for any in which a stone had been secreted. If a blade struck the stone the blade might be damaged but the stone could splinter and the pieces fly out in all directions. I have seen two illustrations of the cutting wheel and in neither does the operative appear to be wearing any kind of protective gear but no doubt Mr Statham took care that young Bartlett kept a safe distance from the revolving wheel. Green’s author, who, I suspect, was indirectly paid by the Gutta Percha Company, seemed more concerned about damage to the blades rather than the operator but thought any stone in a block had almost certainly been put there deliberately. The commentator concluded this would make the block weigh more heavily and be paid for accordingly. He called this subterfuge petty knavery but obviously had suspicions as to who might have egged on the collectors, hoping the Malays had not learnt the trick from Englishmen!

After the slices were collected they would be taken to another room and dumped in vats filled with hot water. The room must have been a difficult place in which to work, always humid and full of noise and clatter, but immersion in the vats helped soften the slices and they would then be transferred to a teaser or develling machine set over another water tank. This machine comprised of iron toothed cylinders revolving at some 800 rpm through which the slices would pass and be ripped to shreds. These shreds would fall into the cold water below where the floating gum would separate from heavier, extraneous matter, which would sink to the bottom. When enough gutta percha accumulated on the surface it was scooped out using shovels with drain holes and taken to another tank for further heating and softening. Then came the mastication process, in a machine based on Thomas Hancock’s ‘pickle’. The gutta percha, by now showing a pinkish hue, would be fed into an iron box in which a revolving drum, kept warm by steam and with a cogged surface, would exert pressure on what increasingly became a spongy mass. This would be kneaded until all air bubbles were expelled so the material, when removed, would have a uniform consistency. Although Bartlett did not note this, the well squeezed mass would then be carried to another machine and fed between steel rollers, the distance between these being set according to the required thickness of a finished sheet. Once through the rollers the sheet would gradually cool, sometimes assisted by a fan, and after passing along the length of the machine, would be wound around a drum. However, prior to ending the transit, a sheet might be cut into bands by being passed over protruding blades in the bed. The sheets or bands produced at the end of the rolling and cutting process would subsequently be taken to one of the different on-site departments that were producing goods for sale.

In one department soles for boots and shoes were made using a Wilson’s Patent Paper Cutting machine that would cut bands into squares. These would be piled on top of each other, six at a time, so they could be trimmed by the downward pressure of a sharp edged frame, into the shape of a sole blank. Presumably this frame could be set to cut different sizes so a variety could be offered to shoemakers, who were encouraged to see the benefits of this kind of sole over those made of leather. Those inclined to do the work themselves were given confidence too for, according to enthusiasts, it was a simple matter to heat the edges of a gutta percha sole before placing it under the upper of a boot undergoing repair and from which the leather sole had been removed. As the gutta percha cooled it would adhere to the upper, ensuring the owner had permanently dry feet, cool in summer and warm in winter. Many testimonials were advanced in support of gutta percha soles including nineteen members of the Liverpool Constabulary who said they were well satisfied, having tested them on their daily duties in all weathers. It would be ironic if the soles of the Liverpudlian boots had been manufactured from the gutta percha in the barrel left on the side of Liverpool docks. Had it been found sooner then maybe the policemen would have had warmer winter feet as they pounded Waterloo Road or Chapel Street.

It was the room where products for the home, and particularly the home of a rising middle class family, were made that impressed Bartlett most of all for he saw gutta percha being pressed into moulds to make all kinds of decorative items. Here was the head of a deer with slender horns, there the impressions of several distinguished Americans whilst a number of delicate looking flower vases also caught the visitor’s eye. Perhaps Mr Statham always ensured items like this were strategically placed so he could use them to emphasise the durability of articles his company made. Taking several he dashed them to the ground. No doubt many visitors recoiled in alarm at this show of vandalism but instead of shattering the vases bounced back, completely undamaged.

There were probably far too many items being manufactured at the time of Bartlett’s visit to be recorded in an article mainly about production methods at Wharf Road and yet, as the advert on the right shows, even by 1846 the company was posing a challenge to companies using traditional materials in many fields. Newspaper columns were one way of bringing the innovative material to the attention of the public but talks and lectures were important too and it was clearly advantageous that in one city of the United Kingdom, reached over a turbulent stretch of water, a key figure in developing the gutta percha was already well known the local commercial community.

Back to Chapter 5           On to Chapter 7

Return to introduction

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 6   Full swing at Wenlock basin

Commanders and clippers

The iron slicing wheel

The teaser

Liverpool constables patrol on gutta percha soles.

City Road and Wenlock basins shown on 1835 map