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ARCHIVE: Brunner Mond, Soda Ash Works, Wallerscote Island – Nov ‘09
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Arrow ARCHIVE: Brunner Mond, Soda Ash Works, Wallerscote Island – Nov ‘09 - 03-12-2009, 23:00

Walking through the chemical snow, with Havoc.


1 – Brunner and Mond


2 – Wallerscote in 1973

Much of the former “Mond” division of what was the world’s biggest chemical company lies on the banks of the River Weaver in Cheshire – the soda ash works on Wallerscote Island was just one part of it. The remaining silos and sheds are only a small part of the former ammonia-soda plant: its huge steel skeleton was demolished a couple of years ago, after two decades of dereliction. What remains on the island is an active site, yet some parts are more decayed than most derelict factories.


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As we approached, we spotted an artic sitting on the unloading pad with its trailer tipped up; a short while later another one came onto the site. The pipe bridge which spans the Weaver Navigation used to transfer the soda ash from the factory on the “mainland” to storage silos on the island, from where it typically travelled by coaster or barge down to Merseyside. Today, soda ash is trucked in from Brunner Mond’s nearby Winnington and Lostock works and blown up into the silos using compressed air – then loaded into road tankers for onward distribution. From the outside, the buildings are a tangle of weathered steel and haphazard extensions – but with the tractor unit sitting outside, we moved swiftly on.


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The fact that Wallerscote Island is live made this explore a roll of the dice. Yet each step over a soft carpet of soda ash powder opens up a new panorama, unfolding like an Escher drawing or one of Piranesi’s etchings. You’re confronted with criss-crossing girders, stairways and pipes. The farts, hisses and burps are air being released from the system, and the squeals and rending noises appear to come from screw conveyors. Everything is coated in a layer of chemical snow. It looks like Wallerscote uses vintage equipment, maybe half a century old, some perhaps even dating back to its construction 80 years ago? Certainly, today’s Brunner Mond company is a different beast to the one formed by Ludwig Mond and John Brunner to make soda ash using the “new and improved” Solvay process.


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Brunner and Mond were industrial chemists, who first met in 1862 whilst working for John Hutchinson, whose company made soda ash using a primitive method. They met again a few years later and in 1873 decided to set up in partnership, using a license they bought from Ernest Solvay to make soda ash in a novel fashion. This used brine solution, ammonia and limestone to produce sodium carbonate in pure form, and with fewer by-products. Having scoured the area around Northwich for a suitable site, they chose Winnington because it sits on a bed of salt 600 feet thick; it’s fairly close to the Buxton limestone quarries, and to nearby coalfields, plus it has good transport links since Wallerscote sits on the Barnton Cut, a canalised portion of the River Weaver.


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During the first few years, while the partnership struggled with the technology, Mond literally slept above the shop. He had a bed made up next to the works engines that compressed gases for the Solvay process; occasionally something exploded and an iron plate shot into the air, or a union burst and gas spewed everywhere. By 1881, the partnership was well established and it became a limited company, producing 200,000 tons of soda ash each year. Demand increased, so Brunner Mond built a new soda crystal factory at Winnington in 1888, to sit alongside the existing soda ash one. By buying up their competitors, Brunner Mond established themselves as the country’s biggest soda ash producer – and they continued to expand. In time, Brunner Mond & Co. provided virtually all of Britain’s soda ash, and became the world’s largest alkali exporter.


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After WW1, plans were made to build another soda ash plant, this time across the road from Winnington, at Wallerscote. At that time, the island was a muddy eyot sitting midstream. The factory produced its first soda ash on Christmas Day 1926 – brick red in colour, and 99% pure. Just in time for the Great Depression, as it happens. The four plated steel silos on Wallerscote Island were an integral part of the plant, and the core of the buildings we explored date back to that time. Meantime, Brunner Mond became part of Imperial Chemical Industries, ICI, on New Year’s Day 1927, and the Wallerscote factory was one of its showpieces. It took ICI a long time to integrate its disparate founding companies – so Brunner Mond retained its own identity for years, forming the Alkali Division of ICI until 1964, after which it became the “Mond” Division.


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Today the island deals exclusively in soda ash: sodium carbonate 90% and 100%, and its 15 minutes of fame among explorers relates to the white stuff … but its place in history is actually due to polythene. The world’s first polythene factory was built at Wallerscote in 1939, following experiments at ICI’s Winnington labs in 1933 which were successful if dangerous (the pressure vessels used to explode – just like Mond’s first soda ash plant did). In June 1937, the newly-formed Plastics division took over development and the first polythene was produced on the day that the Germans invaded Poland … By the 1940’s, Wallerscote had scarred the surrounding landscape, its giant lime beds filling up with the muddy by-products of ammonia recovery. By the 1960’s, ICI concentrated soda ash production at Wallerscote and Lostock, whilst Winnington was devoted to caustic soda.


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Later, ICI began to crumble under its own weight, and the structure of the industrial giant began to change. Cost-cutting managers were brought in. The Wallerscote soda-ash works closed in 1984, a couple of years after John Harvey-Jones (best known as “Troubleshooter” on TV) took over at the helm of ICI, but the silos on the island continued in use. The soda ash business was hived off in 1991, as an independent company which was named … Brunner Mond. Quite fitting, really – but then it was bought in 2006 by Mr Tata, who also owns what remains of the British steel and motor industries. Today, the plan is to build houses on the Wallerscote site – so the warehousing and despatch facility on the island will be relocated, and the silos demolished. Meantime, like ICI, Wallerscote island’s buildings crumble under their own weight …


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Shot on digital with external stuff on expired Velvia …
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