Making Soap in Plymouth

Dr James Gregory, University of Plymouth, May 2020

Plymouth University | Drake Circus | Plymouth PL4 8AA Email

James is Associate Professor in modern British History at the University of Plymouth, where he leads the MA programme. The following is the opening section to “Making Soap in Plymouth”, with a link to the full essay, including references, for download.

That the consumption of Soap in England does not increase with population, wealth, commerce, or civilisation of the nation.
That the people of England, high and low, consume a less average quality of Soap per head than they allow the convicts in the prisons, or the paupers in the workhouses.

Who can deny my claim? Health’s truest friend, 
I cleanse the skin of rich and poor alike: 
Disease flies from me, as from mortal foe, 
From kingly palace down to cottage hearth, 
Are constant records of my service found. 
Each garment worn, by king, queen, knight, or peasant, 
Bears witness of my power, my wondrous power.

As these two quotations indicate, soap stimulated some controversy in England in the first half of the nineteenth century, before the tax which had long been imposed on this important commodity was removed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, in 1853. This meant that English manufacturers were in competition with Irish soap-makers who did not have the tax.

Into the early 1840s, soap makers were subject to regulations which controlled the shape and size of soap bars, the ingredients, the methods of boiling, and the specific gravities of the constituents. At the same time, the Excise was defrauded by industries using alternatives to soap in their processes, such as washing powders. The soap tax, unsurprisingly, was presented by lobbying English soap makers as a ‘tax on cleanliness’ for the poor, whose soap was taxed at a higher rate than the scented soap for the rich: 70% upon the cost of the raw materials for yellow soap, compared with 14% on ‘fancy soap,’ it was claimed. The manufacturers complained that they were prevented from making improvements in the manufacturing process. 

Plymouth was a centre for soap making in this period, indeed, as part of an optimistic account of the development of Plymouth as a port in the conservative Western Courier in 1852, the journalist claimed along side sugar refiners, lead works, ‘manufacturies for starch and soap are constantly springing up’. While Plymouth soap making was never one of the major centres (London, Liverpool and Glasgow were the centres), there was a sustained history of soap manufacture over a century.

Mill Bay Soap advert dating from the 1880s

This essay, written for the Plymouth History Festival, briefly surveys the local history of soap in the Victorian era. Some of the details have been offered before in standard histories of Plymouth from Thomas Moore and Llewellynn Jewitt, through to Crispin Gill; the information here also needs to be supplemented by archival work which, given the current ‘lockdown’ and postponement of the opening of The Box, has not been possible.  My reason for focusing on soap, apart from its significance as a noted and expanding industry in the locality, and its place in a university course I have developed on environmental history, is the renewed awareness of the power of soap to make the world cleaner. Readers will be aware of the significant role that soap continues to play against diseases caused by bacteria and viruses.

Until Thomas Gill (1788 – 1861) established his factory in 1818, Plymouth inhabitants had obtained their soap from Bristol or London. Gill came from a Tavistock family of bankers, and as well as making hard and soft soap, owned a limestone and marble quarry, and built houses, a 500 feet pier (at a cost of £27,000) and canal at Millbay after acquiring the land at a low price. He played a significant role in connecting Plymouth to the metropolis through Millbay Pier (inspected by the queen and Prince Albert when they visited Plymouth in 1846), the Great Western Docks, and the railway. When he died, he was magistrate and deputy-lieutenant of Devon. In his ancestral town (where he died), he owned Tavistock Iron Works. A Liberal, he was MP for Plymouth 1841 – 1847, speaking ‘on commercial questions’.

In 1848 the Plymouth soap makers were reported as producing 4,117,170lbs of hard soap. Gill’s Soap and Alkali Works Gill was only partially powered, despite his early ambition, by steam. The waste product of ashes from Gill’s works was recycled as agricultural fertilizer. Moore’s history of Devonshire in the late 1820s recorded that it produced ‘many thousands of tons of ashes yearly’ … at present they meet with a ready sale’. Gill and his son John Edgecumbe Gill also patented a process to make fertilizer from bones, a patent was signed in October 1848, although a partnership between them in soap making was also dissolved in October 1848.

A glimpse into the local networks for Gill’s business in this decade is provided by a press report concerning a representative for the firm in Devonport, Thomas Luscombe, who received a snuff box from local grocers and tallow chandlers in 1840. Thomas Gill then joined with Thomas Duncan Newton, to become ‘Thomas Gill and Co.’ The company was advertised as a registered company in 1855 with capital of £50, 000, hoping to sell 2000 £25 shares for a company which had secured a ‘valuable connection throughout’ the West of England: this action was stimulated by a rival soap firm attempting to take advantage of the new Limited Liability Act of 1855, and sell shares. 

The firm became styled the Millbay Soap, Alkali and Soda Company as a joint stock company in 1856, though Gill remained the manager until health forced him to retire in 1860, when the manager became Richard Rundle. It produced yellow and mottled soap, and also cold water soap, and best pale yellow (sold as primrose).

The only ‘best’ household soap of the district was the motto, with a registered trademark of a rectangle quartered with castles in each quarter (the arms of Plymouth) stamped on the bar of soap ‘twice … No other Stamp, nor a similar Stamp with other words added, is genuine’. Yellow soap was relatively cheap because of the use of resin with the tallow. In the mid-century, enclosed in a stone wall, the firm had about an acre of land. Much of the Millbay area was taken up by the factory, from the barracks and line of railway to the Great Western docks: the railway being used for loading and taking away the manufactured goods.

Bar of soap stamped with Millbay and the Plymouth coat of arms © The Box, Plymouth

Jewitt’s history of Plymouth described the firm: They are the most extensive and important works of the kind in the West of England, and indeed are among the largest in the kingdom, and the machinery and general business arrangements are of the most modern and complete description, and enable, by a skilful arrangement, about twenty tons of soap per hour to be run into the frames. Household soaps of every kind, are produced in large quantities as are also those for manufacturing purposes, for silk throwsters and other trades. Toilet soaps, in all sizes and shapes of tablets, etc., are also produced in every variety and of high quality.

The factory comprised the various buildings devoted to the making of and storing of soda, the store room for the raw materials for soda and soap making such as salt and resin, and various chemicals, and the rooms or sheds for the manufacture of soap. These included rooms for the melting and refining of tallow and oils, which were then pumped into ‘coppers’ (made of steel) in the boiling rooms, heated by steam from the 30 feet by 6 feet boiler. Due to the steamy atmosphere, the boiling room had an open roof. The soap manufactured here, and cooled in frames and coolers in the cooling room before cutting into bars in the cutting and drying rooms, and packing, ranged in price from 1 penny to 1 shilling per pound. 

In 1855 it was claimed the firm produced 60 tons of soap and 50 tons of soda crystals. From having been a small-scale artisan activity in the eighteenth century, Gill’s Millbay plant exemplified the application of science and technology: as the Western Daily Mercury’s reporter said in November 1862, ‘we had no idea it was so strictly a scientific pursuit, and so little of a trade. It is amazing to notify how much soap demands from science’.

At that point, the company was making a ‘peculiar coloured soap’ for the Victualling Yard. The Ordnance Survey map in this period shows the location of the works, which included all the sheds and shops necessary for supplying the business with fuel, wooden boxes, the storing of timber, smithying, and stabling. The manager was John Rice in the 1870s, with Philip K. Truscott the secretary. In the 1880s the firm reputedly produced 20 tons of soap an hour. The factory chimney was something of a local landmark, being used by pilots in navigating Plymouth Sound.

and see this blog post for more of James Gregory’s work relating to soap.

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