Return to index page

Coal Tar Distillers


Coal tar distillers process the oily tar recovered from charcoal plants, gas works and coke plants, they are often marked as 'Chemical works' on maps. From a railway modelling perspective these are similar in many ways to oil refineries, involving the use of rail tank wagons serving depots equipped with storage tanks. There were marked visual differences however, whereas the oil refineries tended to feature light coloured tanks and shiny pipes the tar distillers were generally black. Wood distillation is considered separately below.

When coal gas was widely introduced there was some public concern about the oily black by-product 'coal tar' that was simply dumped into the local rivers. People tried various applications for the tar, with the water content reduced it was found suitable as a protective 'paint' on buildings (rammed earth cottages had a black strip of tar around the base of their whitewashed walls where the rain might cause most damage). In the tar distillery itself a lot of the buildings were black with a coating of this material. It could not be used on boats and ships however (wood tar, discussed below, being a much more suitable material for this application). By the early nineteenth century someone had developed a method of producing 'roofing felt', essentially a woolen fabric coated in tar and then covered by sand. Roofing felt was popular in Germany and the USA throughout the nineteenth century but was less common in Britain other than on smaller flat roofed buildings.

Coal gas tar consists on a range of materials, basically divided into 'Naphtha' (valuable) and 'Pitch' (less valuable) with the once valuable creosote falling somewhere between the two. In the early days creosote and pitch were the only saleable products, the remainder of the distillates were burnt in a restricted airflow to make lampblack. The solid but fusible coal-tar pitch found a market as a binder for unusable small coal or 'duff' and anthracite dust, producing a first-class fuel briquette (by the early 20th century Britain was exporting large quantities of pitch to Germany for this purpose).

At first the tar distillers main objective was simply to obtain naphtha, which was used to make rubberised goods (the naphtha dissolves raw rubber), as a fuel for 'oil lamps' or simply to be burned in special chambers to recover 'lamp black' better known as soot (or carbon). Lamp black was used for making electric carbons, printing inks, shoe-blacking, patent leather and other goods but its most important use after the 1930's was in motor car tyres. Rubber tyres are actually about one third carbon, which makes the rubber much more hard wearing and accounts for the black colour. By the 1860's the lighter fractions were being further distilled to obtain benzene, toluene naphthalene & etc.

Naphtha is a generic term used for the assorted light distillates of coal tar, wood and petroleum. A ton of coal produced about seven and a half gallons of tar, of which about 60% ends up as 'pitch' and only about 5% constitutes the most valuable elements in the naphtha. The residual pitch ranged from a rather thick liquid to a solid material depending on the source of the tar and the processes used at the distillery (the solid type would soften at about 100 degrees centigrade).

One of the first valuable by-products from coal distillation was creosote, developed by a John Bethel of Bristol in 1838, this was adopted by Brunel as a preservative for railway sleepers on the GWR and became the standard wood preservative until it was phased out in the early years of the 21st century. Creosote is inflammable and for his timber fan viaducts Brunel had to resort to the older preservatives based on soluble salts (Kyan used mercuric chloride and Margary used copper sulphate, both of which leached out in rain water and required regular re-applications).

Products of coal tar have a staggering range of applications, the summary below is based on a wall chart distributed by the National Coal Board.

The ammoniacal liquor provides liquid ammonia, sulphate of ammonia, sulphur and ingredients for wool scouring, soap, detergents and explosives Sulphuric acid is produced which is used in galvanising and for motor car battery acid.
Carbolic oil contains phenols and cresols, the former are used in adhesives and aspirin the latter in sheep dips, tanning fluids and weed killers. This oil also contains Xylenols used in antiseptics and disinfectants.
Benzole (also known as Benzol) is made up of a range of fractions, mainly benzene and toluene, it is used in perfumes and provides benzene used in petrol and for making nylon. Toluene used for food sweeteners and TNT as well as the all important aniline dyes, and xylene, used in printing inks, paints and varnishes.
Naphthaline oil is used in mothballs and also contains naphthaline used for disinfectants, antiseptics, fire lighters and dyes as well as phthalic anhydride used in disinfectants, antiseptics and plastics. The lighter oils in the naphtha's are used for brake linings, lubricants, photo chemicals and lino.
Creosote oil is used as a wood preservative (until the early 21st century at least) and in aviation fuel and fuel oil.
Anthracene oil is used as a spray for fruit trees, in the manufacture of dyes and as an additive for road tar and the residual pitch is used for making road tar, briquetted fuels, rust preventative coatings and for roofing felt.

The various products of the works comprised both liquids and solids, the former shipped out in barrels, drums and road or rail tanks, the latter in sacks or steel drums. The tar for use on roads was shipped out in barrels (large wooden 'hogsheads' were used for this into the 1940s and possibly beyond) but in larger works a small fleet of tar lorries might be seen, these are discussed and illustrated in Appendix One - Roads and Road Works.

The loading facilities for the tanker lorries would (typically) comprise a set of cylindrical steam-heated storage tanks (either vertical or horizontal), so you need to add the supply pipe from the rest of the works and steam heating pipes as well as the outlet pipe feeding the loading bay. The lorry loading system might consist of a simple elevated pipe on a metal gantry, it seems it was standard practice to simply have a light gantry to carry the loading pipe and hose, access being via the ladder on the tanker itself. The loading bay was typically in the open but might be covered with a simple corrugated iron roof but the structure would be open and would not require sides. For a gantry in the open a model railway signal gantry would serve, although the height would be reduced. There would be three or four pipes and hoses, the unused hoses simply laid back over the top of the gantry so they did not hit the lorry moving underneath. The livery shown below was taken from a photograph of a 1950s tanker but would apply to earlier vehicles.

Fig ___ Typical road tanker from about 1930

Sketch of Typical road tanker from about 1930

When gas works started using carburrated water gas to heat their retorts, in about 1900 (achieving a higher temperature and great economies for the gas works), this drove off more of the valuable fractions and reduced the quality of the tar passed to the distillers. The gas works then installed more plant to recover (amongst other things) Benzole.

When the country switched to North Sea Gas in the 1970s the tar distillers continued working, obtaining their raw material from the coke plants, both independent firms and those at steel works, several tar distillers (some of which had been owned by the local gas boards) were purchased by British Steel in the 1970s. I believe the industry, in decline by the mid 1970s, finally wound up in the later 1980s although there may be a few still operating as there are still a couple of coke and smokeless fuel works in operation (in the 1990s). As far as I am aware railway involvement in the coal tar business ended in the early 1980s (although they still supported the coke works).

Brief description of the process

Larger gas works and coke plants would often process the coal tar on-site to some degree, selling the easily recovered products themselves. The degree of processing at these works varied considerably and a lot of unrefined coal tar was passed directly to the distillers for processing as a dark red (almost black) liquid.

The tar from gas works or coke works includes a proportion of water (typically 5-10 percent), it was therefore necessary to put the tar in a tank to settle out (the water would eventually separate out and rise to the top). To facilitate this process the tank is heated slightly.

At tar distillers the tars are separated into fractions by heating the tar, different temperatures giving different 'cuts' of constituents. These 'cuts' are then processed to further break down the products. Typically the still produces three 'cuts'; light oil, middle oil (also called tar acid oil or crude naphthalene oil), and heavy oil (sometimes called anthracene oil.

The stuff that is left is called pitch. The nature of the pitch depends on what the plant wants to produce, if they want the lighter fractions the pitch is pretty rough, and may even be a form of coke. If they are after flavours of pitch for making coal briquets (briquetting pitch), or roofing pitch the distillation removes only a proportion of the lighter fractions.

The lighter fractions, lumped together, can be sold as creosote oil, at larger plants this is made from further refined fractions.

The next step is the extraction of tar acids (phenolic compounds), these are recovered using caustic soda. The light oil and medium oil are dealt with separately, each being washed with caustic soda diluted in water. The result is that the desired compounds react with the soda and then dissolve in the water. The remaining oils float on top of the caustic soda water mix and are recovered. To get the oils out of the caustic soda solution they used sulphuric acid or carbon dioxide and these oils are then subjected to further fractional distillation (usually in a vacuum). The heavy oil also contains some tar acids, these are sometimes recovered although seldom refined, being sold for use in powerful disinfectants.

The more modern plants would also recover the 'bases' in the light and medium distillates, using a bath of watered down sulphuric acid to turn them into sulphur salts which dissolve in the water. The (now neutral) oils float and can be removed, The bases are then recovered by treating the dilute sulphuric acid with caustic soda or lime slurry and they are then further refined by fractional distillation. Few plants bother recovering bases from the heavy fraction, although these are useful in pickling steel as they protect the steel but not the scale, which can be removed using acid.

Next the residual 'middle' oil is distilled at the naphthalene plant to produce naphtha and naphthalene, the latter being run into pans where it crystalises. The naphthalene plant heats the oil to 200-250 degrees centigrade, producing the naphthalene as a white flaky powder and heavier oils including carbolic oil.

The naphthalene solid is then crushed and mixed with oil to produce a slurry, then separated again using a centrifuge. The crude naphthalene is then often sold without further refining. If pure naphthalene is required it is treated with sulphuric acid then distilled, again ending up as a solid which is crushed.

At still higher temperatures (up to 400 degrees centigrade) you can extract creosote oil, a yellowish to dark green-brown liquid (also known as tar oil and occasionally as liquid pitch oil). This was used (mixed with other ingredients) to make creosote wood preservative, which was the standard preservative in use until the early 21st century (when it was banned as it contains traces of cancer causing chemicals).

The middle oil also contain resins which can be recovered again using sulphuric acid, these resins are recovered as a polymerised solid.

The heavy oil or anthracene oil is placed in a tank to stand for several days during which it partly solidifies. The desirable solids are recovered using a centrifuge, the more fusible fractions are removed using hot water and the residue is hot-pressed into a cake. The cake is then purified using lighter fractions recovered elsewhere in the works. This purification takes place in large steam heated boilers in which everything turns to liquid and the anthracene then crystalises out on cooling and is again recovered using the centrifuge. This process of purification is repeated and then the final purification is by sublimation. Anthracene is useful stuff and since the gas works and coke plants have gone there is more interest in synthesising it, although this does require a fair bit of chemistry to achieve.

Meanwhile the light oil, which contains benzene toluene and various xylenes can be further processed to recover these, however most (90 percent) of the lighter fractions had boiled off at the gas works or coke plant and had been recovered from the gas at those plants. Refining light oils at the tar distillers mainly involved a washing technique using sulphuric acid solutions, which can again recover the three fractions mentioned above, but is seldom worthwhile as only 10 percent remains in the oil leaving the gas works or coke plant.

During the 1930s experiments were made with introducing hydrogen into the lighter coal tar products to produce something akin to fuel oil (the process was called 'gasification') but this was expensive and was only of interest during wartime (ICI built a plant for doing this in the mid 1930s, see also Lineside Industries - Petrol & LPG'). More recently there has been a resurgence of interest in this process, but this is mainly based in the USA.

To make road tar they first distilled the tar to produce a heavy 'road tar base', this then had lighter fractions added to make it softer and give it the required characteristics. The tars used on road were defined by several standards which evolved over time, the tar used had to have certain distinct characteristics, which differed for coating chippings prior to laying and for adding the final top coating or dressing, hence by the 1940s the pitch required a degree of processing on site to obtain the correct properties.

If road tar was not needed they could distil the tar to extract more of the valuable fractions, leaving behind something very like coke, which they sold as a fuel.

Sulphuric acid would arrive in tank wagons or in glass carboys, de-mountable tanks were used for this stuff from the 1930s (up to the 1920s you may have seen acid jar wagons as well, but I think they may have been used mainly for other acids as sulphuric can be conveniently carried in iron tanks).

Caustic Soda (sodium hydroxide, sometimes called Lye) was produced as a by-product of the Leblanc soda process and after that from salt water by electrolysis. Caustic soda was and is commonly supplied mixed with water and delivered in tank wagons to larger users, I believe some of these tank wagons were also of the 'hutched' type mentioned above. It is also supplied as white pellets in 10 lb cans. It falls outside the Class A and B system so the tanks could be any colour but red oxide or black would be likely. In the UK the most likely supplier would have been ICI.




Modelling a tar distillers


The sign outside the works might mention (as well as the company name and contact details) 'liquid fuels, certified road tars, pelleted foundry pitch, naphthas, solvents, pyridine, creosote, coal tar chemicals, protective coatings, disinfectant fluids and pressure creosoting of timber'. This gives some idea of the importance of the industry.

Coal tar distilleries had several distinctive features, not least being a large number of wooden barrels or (from about the First World War) steel drums for shipping out their products. The wooden barrels came in various sizes including very large 'hogsheads' used for (amongst other things) shipping road tar (see also Appendix One - Roads and Road Works) but they had almost all gone by the later 1950s and the standard 45 gallon steel drum was the norm.

The main feature was of course the still where the tar was initially distilled, the original type were 'pot stills', a metal container set in a brick structure with a fire grate in the base. The flue from the fire grate was lead out to a single common chimney for a bank of stills. By the 1860s this method had been developed to divide the distillate into different receivers for different grades by slowly heating up the tar, the distillates from each temperature range being collected in turn. The pot had to be emptied of pitch after each batch had been processed and the resulting stop-go process was rather labour intensive. The size of the still was variable, typical sizes ranged from about 5 tons charge to 50 tons but most seem to have favoured the 10 ton sized pots as these could be processed in a single day.

Typical pot still for a tar distillers
Sketch showing typical pot still for a tar distillers

Several photographs of older works show a large building with no walls (the Ratio corrugated iron roof on Plastruct H section supports would serve in N). This covered a number of the pot stills with a walkway arranged near the top and a collection of receiving tanks on the ground level. Adjacent to this structure would be a chimney for the flue gasses from the pots and (as superheated steam was used in part of the process) there would be a boiler house with its associated chimney close by. In OO the standard 'party popper' would serve well for this type of still, in N, although rather large, they can be reduced in height and used, with florists iron wire for the associated pipework. You need five separate receiving tanks at the base of the still, one rather larger than the others for the residual tar. The outlet pipe from the still fed into a manifold so each grade could be diverted into a different tank as the process progressed. The sketch below is based (loosely) on a few rather poor quality photographs and although possibly inaccurate in detail makes a fair and recognisable representation of the prototype. Note that hand rails (wooden) where fitted would be on one side of the walkway only. There would be quite a lot of pipework, feeding crude tar in from heated storage tanks, the pipes at the top carried the distillate to a manifold (one for each pot) and thence into a series of storage tanks, the residual pitch would then be tapped off at the bottom of the iron pot and taken via a pipe to its own storage tank (at a number of sites this latter was just a hole in the ground but a large tank is easier to model)

Typical pot still building for an older tar distillers
Sketch showing typical pot still building for an older tar distillers

In the later 1890s the 'Lennard's patent continuous pipe still' was introduced, although many works stuck with the older pot stills into the 1930s as these required less technical expertise to run the plant. When the newer 'pipe stills' were introduced the old buildings with the pot stills would have been left standing, continuing to work whilst the new still was being commissioned and only demolished if the land was required for other duties.

A pipe still works by passing the tar through a series of compartments, each at a higher temperature, from which the distillates are drawn and the pitch emerges at the far end in a continuous process. The Lennard still was usually enclosed in a tall structure (D).

Close by or attached to the still would be a furnace house (with a chimney about as tall as the still building which could be brick (round or square) or (by the later 1930s) metal). The still building shown below, sketched from photographs, has been reduced in size somewhat from the prototype to make it more manageable on a model although the general proportions have been retained. The prototypes were between sixty and eighty feet (18-24m) tall so modelled to full size it would tend to dominate the scene.

Lennard's patent continuous pipe still building
Sketch showing Lennard's patent continuous pipe still building

The still building was a light metal framework clad in corrugated iron, the internal diagonal frames could be seen crossing the inside of the windows, and roof lights were also provided as shown in the sketch. Timber cladding would be less suitable in such a works given the risk of fire. The building was either black (or a very dark colour) or painted a fairly light colour (stone seems to have been a popular colour for metal structures), but it would not be pristine and some degree of weathering is required.

There were other designs of still, and the Lennard design was itself modified over the years as the technology was developed. The example below shows a continuous tar still built at a larger works in the very early 1950s but suitable for layouts set from the later 1930s on. The upper tower section being bigger than the earlier type, still clad in corrugated sheeting (probably metal but possibly corrugated asbestos sheet), and housing a battery of four separate stills. In both cases the lower brick-built part of the building houses the reception tanks and control gear.

A 1950s enclosed continuous pipe still building
Sketch showing a 1950s enclosed continuous pipe still building

Some later stills lacked the building surrounding the still itself although this makes for a more challenging model. The still consisted of a tall frame with a large central pipe and smaller pipes arranged to either side, the early enclosed type lasted into the 1960s, the more modern enclosed type lasted into the 1970s (at least) and both those are easier to model. For those wishing to have a go the sketch below shows what I believe was the arrangement at one plant in the early 1960s. The L shaped frame was made up of H section vertical girders with i section cross members. Not shown are diagonal strips forming X shapes between the verticals although I believe the prototype had these. There was a lot of pipework down the central cylinder and at the base there were numerous tanks and a lot more pipework.

Open framed pipe still
Sketch showing open framed pipe still

There was a lot of elevated pipework on the site, as much of the product was hot this kept it clear of the men working. Each set of storage tanks would have loading and discharge pipes (florists iron wire is about right in N) and also steam heating pipes (for which I have used the finer florists steel 'rose wire' coated in 'Tip Ex' typewriter correction fluid to represent asbestos lagging). Up to the 1950s most works used steam pumps, supplied from a central boiler, which required heavy gauge pipes of about three inch diameter with large flanges at the curves and at about ten foot intervals on the straight runs. Florists iron wire serves, you can add the flanges by winding a length of cotton thread once round the 'pipe', supergluing it and trimming off the ends.

Somewhere on the site (until the later 1960s and least) would be the boiler house, for which one of the commercial models can be used (the chimney tended to be rather tall on these), and beside it would be a coal pile (often with a railway line for the coal wagons) and an ash pit (generally enclosed in a low brick wall to stop the ash blowing about the site). Many works switched to electric power in the 1960s but unless the land was needed the boiler house and chimney would be left standing.

On site the products seem to have been stored mainly in tall cylindrical tanks (A) and a smaller number of horizontal tanks of slightly smaller diameter (B), one standard size for the vertical storage tanks was nine feet by thirty feet (2.74m x 9.14m). These tanks were referred to as 'boilers', in some cases they were heated with steam coils to keep the more viscous materials liquid but some were used in the recovery of the anthracene from the heavier grade of oil. The vertical tanks often had a small 'lean-to' building at the base, presumably housing the valves controlling the steam and discharge pipes. These tanks could be up to sixty feet high, for the purposes of modelling the illustration shows rather shorter tanks which will not overwhelm the general scene. The horizontal tanks were associated with loading products onto barrels and with assorted processes such as washing the oils in various solutions, the former had the steam pipes run to the top of the tanks with a walkway to access the valves. The examples shown are the storage tanks, the horizontal 'process' tanks could be smaller than the storage tanks.

Tanks for tar distillery
Sketch showing tanks for tar distillery

Some smaller tanks were covered by a simple shelter, typically with one side missing and by the 1950s a lot of tar works appear to have had two or pressurised tanks (with distinctly domed ends), similar in size to the vertical tanks but laid horizontally side by side in a row.

All tar works seem to have had tall 'water towers' (I assume they contained water), many of these were mounted very high (about fifty feet up to the base of the tank) and in two examples they appeared to consist of a series of iron tanks similar to those used for railway water tanks (the old Hornby Minitrix water tank would serve well), supported on a wooden or (more likely) metal trestle (C). Some of these water tanks were not so large however, and some were mounted on a brick plinth, so model railway water tanks can be pressed into service.

Tall (water) tank for tar distillery
Sketch showing tall water tank for tar distillery

The remainder of the buildings associated with the working of the plant would comprise an assortment of odd structures, some in brick, others clad in corrugated metal, a few clad in wood, some large and a few rather small. Several would have a chimney attached, although most of these were small, brick chimneys might be perhaps twice the height of the roof, metal 'stove pipes' rather shorter. I would suggest you need at least three tall brick chimneys, a mix of cylindrical and square section, for a post 1950s model add a couple of plain metal ones as well.

You would need an 'office' building, about the size of a small house (for which a house kit would serve, add a stair up the outside and an upper door to make it more 'office like'). There would probably be a small gate house where the lorry drivers would report and a mess room or canteen for the workers.

With any industry involving tall structures it is best to arrange these at the rear, leaving the area where your hand may need to go clear. Note that factory buildings were seldom neatly arranged on the site, and the site was seldom square, especially in this sort of industry where growth had been organic.

Add as much pipework as you have the patience for, much of it elevated, some lagged, connecting the various parts of the site but remember to leave space for lorries to access the yard spaces where they would be loaded with barrels, and (if included) road access to the tar sprayer loading bays.

Minimal tar distillery on corner of a layout
Sketch showing tar distillery on corner of a layout

A likely customer for the products of the distillery would be Tarmac, formed in 1903 and for many years using coal tar for their tar-coated chippings business. Tarmac tanks were all black with a yellow logo and number. In 1964 a new '7 t's' logo was introduced, but this was not (as far as I know) put onto the older rail tanks.

Fig ___ Tarmac tank and post 1964 logo for lorries

 Sketch of a Tarmac tank and post 1964 logo for lorries

In the 1920s and 30s there were several firms who used rail transport for the tarred stone chippings, however to date I have only seen reference to Tarmac branded tank wagons.

A large tar distillers might further refine the naphtha to recover the small amount of benzole not removed at the gas works or coke plant (Butler's did so but not all tar distillers bothered with this stuff). For details of a benzole plant see also Lineside Industries - Gas Works Coke and Smokeless Fuels'




Notable British Tar Distillers

It is impractical to cover the details of all companies trading in coal tar products, a good start for anyone interested in these areas is Mr. R. Tourret's book 'Petroleum tank wagons of Britain' (see bibliography for details) which includes a number of tank wagons of common design employed in this trade. There were also tar distillers in many of the larger gas works, a fleet of rail tanks operated in the rather plain livery of 'Benzole Producers Ltd from the gas works sites, their Class A tanks had either BENZOLE or BENZINE written in large lettering on the sides with the company name and 'home' depot details in the lower left of the tank in small lettering. At the peak of the industry in the later 1920s there were about 400 tar distilleries in the UK, the number falling rapidly in the 1960s as gas works switched to using petroleum oil to make their gas and many steel works closed down. There were certainly a few still operating at the turn of the century, using the tar from coke plants associated with the remaining steel works and those making 'smokeless fuels', but the importance of coal tar for organic chemical supplies has been eclipsed by the oil refining industry (most of it abroad).

British Tar Products and Lancashire Tar Distillers
Both based at Cadishead (Irlam near Manchester), these firms were operating tar tank wagons in the 1930s. I believe the works was still operating into the 1970s although the last photo I have seen of the British Tar Products wagons dates from the 1960s. Lancashire Tar Distillers was still operating in the 1990s, although I am not sure what their trade was it involved importing 'hazardous waste', by the later part of that decade the sidings were being described as 'former' and 'defunct', but I am not sure when rail traffic ceased. These sites were very close to the Manchester Ship Canal and in the 1960s a ship loading benzene managed to spill some into the canal, this washed down to the nearby ferry where it was ignited by something (probably a discarded cigarette) and the 'canal caught fire', seriously burning one of the ferry passengers.

Crews Hole Tar Works was set up by Isambard Kingdom Brunel about three miles from Bristol city centre to produce creosote for the GWR. Following a fire the works was sold in 1863 and became Wm Butler Tar Distillers. Butlers operated works in Bristol and also at locations in Gloucester and Gloucestershire. They were (I am told) a big user of rectangular railway tar tank wagons, some of which were lagged (unusual on this type of wagon) and hence had a very 'square' body with no rounded corners.

Butler's tar tank
Sketch showing a Butler's tar tank

They hived off their tar business in 1952, setting up the Bristol & West Tar Distillers (partly owned by the gas board), who also operated tank wagons in their livery at least into the 1950s. When North Sea Gas replaced coal gas Bristol & West Tar Distillers was bought by British Steel in 1970 and continued to operate until 1981.

Midland Tar Distillers, based at Oldbury in Birmingham. The company merged with Yorkshire Tar Distillers at some point in the 1950s or 1960s to form Yorkshire Midland Tar Distillers, the joint company was purchased by Croda (see below) in 1975.

Yorkshire Tar Distillers (also based at Oldbury near Birmingham) was formed by a merger of various gas companies and tar distillers in 1926 and traded at least into the mid 1970s. The company merged with Midland Tar Distillers at some point in the 1950s or 1960s to form Yorkshire Midland Tar Distillers, the joint company was purchased by Croda in 1975. Yorkshire Tar Distillers had a fleet of 463 wagons at 1961 reducing to 420 in 1967.

William Briggs & Sons Ltd (based in Dundee) dealt in fuel oil and bitumen. Their original refinery was built on the Dundee site in 1931 adjacent to Dundee Gas Works, to process the coal tar produced at the gas works. Typical throughput was in the region of 100,000 tons per year and the plant produced a range of distillates including gas oil, marine diesel, lubricating oil base stocks and fuel oils are also produced. The company operated tar tank wagons, some supplied as late as the 1950s. In the 1920s the tanks as built had William Briggs & Sons Ltd in capitals along the side, with the wagon number below, by the post war era this had changed to the livery shown below, but I do not know when that change occurred.

Fig ___ Briggs tank

Sketch of post war Briggs tank branding

Briggs Dundee works was sold to Tarmac in 1968 and In 1992, the bitumen interests of Tarmac were acquired by the specialist Swedish refiner Nynas Petroleum Group.

Joseph Turner and Co. operated from Queensferry Chemical Works (became part of Midland Tar Distillers Ltd in 1933), the works closed in 1947

Croda Ltd was founded in 1925 at Goole, for the extraction of wool-grease from seed-cake produced by the Bradford wool-scouring mills, and soon after lanolin was produced from this source. By the early 1960s Croda was well known as producers of emulsifiers, lanolin, lanolin alcohols, plasticisers, and anti-rust and protective preparations a vast range of paints, finishes and oils for all purposes, and for hydraulic and de-icing fluids. At about this time they started buying into the tar distilleries and this developed into the Croda Organisation covering a wide range of by-product related chemicals.

Peterborough and District Tar Distillers. Operated tank wagons in the mid 1930s.

South Eastern Tar Distillers. Based at Tonbridge in Kent, operated tank wagons (rectangular) in the 1930s

South Western Tar Distilleries. Southampton, operated tar tanks in the 1940s.

Tar Residuals Ltd. Had an office at 27 Albemarle St London W1 and operated some tank wagons.

Brotherton & Co. Ltd.
Quite a large firm, they were definitely operating between the early 1920s and the mid 1950s and operated a number of railway tank wagons carrying sulphuric acid and ammonia, I think the latter was dissolved in water, not liquefied under pressure. In the post world war two era ICI considered them to be one of their principal competitor in the supply of ammoniacal liquor (along with Scottish Tar Distillers and Yorkshire Tar Distillers). They were then taken over by ICI Mond Division (I think this was in the mid 1950s). They had a large plant at Stourton (Leeds, next door to a large site run by Yorkshire Tar Distillers), after the merger in 1958 between the Metals Division of ICI and Yorkshire (formerly Leeds) Copperworks Ltd to form Yorkshire Imperial Metals Ltd, the site was partly occupied by this new company. The sketch below shows what I believe was the livery for their acid (red) and ammonia (blue) tanks.

Brotherton's tanks
Sketch showing Brotherton's acid and ammonia tanks



Newton, Chambers and Co
Newton, Chambers and Co was founded in 1789 and operated a range of interests including coal mines, iron works, coal tar distillers and their Izal brand disinfectant business (utilising the coal-tar by-products). Izal was formed some time before the First World War and made extensive use of rail transport (Bachmann offer a coal wagon in OO). Shortly before that war Izal built some tank wagons (at least 6). I am unsure what these were for as Izal would obtain the distillates from the adjoining works of their parent companies coke and tar distillation plant, they may have been for bulk delivery but they may also have been used to bring in additional chemicals for producing their range of antibacterial polishes.

Fig ___ Izal tank and coal wagon liveries
Izal tank wagon livery   Izal coal wagon livery

The coke plant at Newton Chambers iron works at Thorncliffe was the base for their coal tar distilling interests (they may have owned others, this was a seriously big firm). The Izal factory was right next door (discussed in more detail in 'Lineside Industries - Chemicals and Plastics'). In the post war era (possibly earlier) Newton Chambers owned 'Ransomes and Rapier' (the people who invented the 'self sharpening plough' and made most of the lawnmowers in the UK as well as supplying a lot of railway cranes). In both Sheffield and Birmingham there are roads named after Newton Chambers, their engineering division built many of the largest gas holders in the world and they also built the enclosed motor car-carrying coach bodies for BR's sleeper services. Newton Chambers and Co were taken over by industrial holding company Central and Sheerwood in 1972.



^
Go to top of page