ICI Plastics

The Story of the Welwyn Garden City Site

By Robert Gill

Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd
ICI Plastics Site Entrance
Welwyn Hatfield Museum
ICI Plastics in the 1930s
Aero Pictures Ltd
ICI Plastics in the 1970s
Welwyn Hatfield Museum
Analytical Laboratory - ICI Plastics
Campus West Library - Welwyn Garden City
Injection Moulding Shop ICI Plastics
Campus West Library - Welwyn Garden City
Moulding Powder Test Presses - ICI Plastics
Campus West Library - Welwyn Garden City
Ladies Keep Fit Team - ICI Plastics
Campus West Library - Welwyn Garden City

When Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd was formed in 1926, the newly created company attempted to enter into Plastics based on activities already existing in the founder companies. This early attempt was not successful so a concerted effort was made to buy into the market. Initially, two companies were taken over:

  • Mouldrite, a small phenol-formaldehyde factory in Croydon. This was originally a company called Rissick Fraser Spink and Co manufacturers of Vulcanite and Ebonite dust used in the manufacture of auto-mobile batteries.

  • Kelacoma, an early plastics factory in Broadwater Road, Welwyn Garden City manufacturers of urea-formaldehyde products.

Both companies were purchased by William Somerfield’s Rubber Company, a subsidiary of B F Goodrich. ICI purchased a controlling interest in the two in 1933 and owned all the shares by 1936.

At the same time, ICI developed new plastic processes which created Perspex, Diakon, Kallodent and Polythene.

In 1938 ICI took the next major step by deciding to bring together all their plastic interests on to a single manufacturing site under the name ICI (Plastics) Ltd and they chose a new 10 acre plot in Welwyn Garden City which had growth potential of a further 10 acres if the business prospered. A manufacturing factory was created at Billingham-on-Tees in the North of England.

World War II

When WW2 broke out, only the Broadwater Road part of the business had been transferred to the new site. With the rapid growth of the demand for plastics during the war, all manufacturing eventually took place in the North of England or Scotland, the site at WGC housing the headquarters of the Plastics departments.

In 1938, there appeared to be only a small market for acrylics and a very small market for Polythene but the development of aircraft with enclosed cockpits and shaped canopies gave Perspex the boost that it needed. With the loss of Malaysian rubber supplies due to Japanese invasion, there was recognition by rubber chemists of molten polythene’s similarity to gutta percha which gave it the start that it needed in electrical cable insulation and its excellent dielectric properties made airborne Radar feasible.

After the war coloured Perspex found a good market in shop facias, large advertising signs and domestic baths and wash-hand basins; polythene was an immediate success as pipe for gas, water and as film.

Also during the war Kallodent packaging was located on the site as was development of Terylene fibre though this was eventually hived off as Fibres Division.

New residents

To meet the urgent requirements of the war, there was a significant increase in the labour force at the Welwyn Site. This quickly absorbed the available accommodation in the town much to the annoyance of the existing population due to the way the company took over so much by having to establish hostel accommodation. In addition, the town had never before had such large numbers of highly qualified scientific staff in its midst.

POST WAR

During and after the war, with the expansion of the Division, manufacturing sites were acquired at Darwen, Rawtenstall, Hillhouse (near Blackpool), Dumfries and Wilton.

Welwyn, as the headquarters, peaked in the 1960s when some 4000 people worked on the site which by then covered 65 acres. At the time, Welwyn had the Chairman of Plastics Division and the Board of Directors along with 10 Departments running the business and a further 20 Departments or so providing support services as well as Medical, Restaurant and Sports facilities. The Technical Services laboratories were among the largest laboratories devoted to work of this kind on plastics in the world covering some 10,000 square metres. The research laboratories were even more extensive and included plants for research into plastics production processes.

A shrinking division

In the 1970s, the Division began to shrink, and in the early 80s most of the facilities then at Welwyn were transferred to the factories in the north of England and the site was scheduled for redevelopment. By 1991, two new buildings had been completed ready for the occupation by ICI Pensions, ICI Films and various Service Departments who all intended to remain at Welwyn. Following these moves, the rest of the original ICI buildings were demolished with the exception of the Recreation Club (now Shire Park Club). This latter building had originally been the rehearsal room for Sir Henry Wood but was initially acquired as a Finished Products Store.

By 1998 ICI had left the site completely. The Pensions Department had moved to an office in the town centre; ICI Films was sold partly to a Belgium company and partly to Du Pont; the two new buildings becoming the property of Tesco and the land known as Shire Park.

After 50 years occupation, the only bits of evidence of the Company ever having been there are the old recreation club and their perimeter fence which is typical ICI.

The loss of the Welwyn Garden City site

The collapse of the Welwyn Garden City site was pure economics.

Originally, plastics had been derived from coal and the economics were fairly stable. In the early days of the industry when plastics were becoming popular and were expanding into all sorts of applications, three technical departments could be justified to advance ICI’s business. These were:

  • Research – inventing new products and improving existing ones

  • Development – getting new materials produced and marketed

  • Technical Services – providing customers with technical literature, advice and assistance.

In those early days there was sufficient profit from the sales to finance all three departments. Later when oil had become the preferred source, the industry began to find itself somewhat at the mercy of the oil producers who, until North Sea Oil was available, had no hesitation in raising prices whenever it suited them.

When the world production of plastics increased and their prices fell, the level of expenditure to support sales could no longer be sustained and the point came when the Welwyn Site itself was too great an overhead.

Plastics abandoned by ICI

The economic factors which eventually pushed ICI out of plastics altogether were:

  • The availability of low cost feedstock to the oil producers who by then were engaged in plastics production themselves.

  • Foreign countries refusing to cut back manufacture when there was world over-production and subsidising their loss making state run industries to keep workers employed.

Under these conditions ICI decided that there was no long term future for them in plastics.

Eric Balley

With acknowledgement to Eric Balley, an ex ICI Plastics employee, who provided the material for this article.

Eric joined ICI Plastics as a teenager in the 1930s and retired in the 1970s not long before ICI Plastics left the site. Since his retirement, Eric has been closely involved with researching the wider local history of Welwyn Garden City as well as ICI.

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This page was added on 22/03/2011.

Comments about this page

  • I was a fitter / turner apprentice at ICI in WGC from 1966 – 1970. Many happy memories and learnt stuff i still use now. On finishing my apprenticeship i went to work in the Main Machine Shop (Tom PIke was the foreman) until l left to join the Fleet Air Arm in 1971. My ICI apprenticeship cut 2 years off my apprenticeship to be an Aircraft Artificer.

    There are a number of posts by former ICI employees on the Facebook – History and Memories of Welwyn Garden City site.

    My father-in-law, Reg Barker, was a chauffeur for ICI in the 1960s. He died in June 2019 aged 95.

    By Roland Merry (11/09/2019)
  • I used to have a friend when I was about 10 in 1960 who’s Dad, a Mr Solly worked at ICI. I never really knew what he did there, but they lived at no. 1 The Reddings. Wonder if anyone remembers him.

    By Rick Avern (06/03/2019)
  • I worked in the research lab in the early 1960’s.
    Very happy times with great friends. I toured Ireland with Mike Ashworth and Ray in an old Morris Minor and camping.

    By Derek Cooke (23/02/2019)
  • In early 1983 I was seconded from Billingham Eng. Dept.to work in the Welwyn Engineering dept to produce Inst. and Elec.drawings and data to enable the research Melinex film line to be re-located and simultaneously up-graded to the new Semi Tech building at the ICI Wilton Site. I remember a few names from that era Tony Dumont, Malcolm Phillips,Chris Edwards ,Lloyd Evans, John Richardson Alan Matthews, David Eccles,Brian Threadingham, Dr Wells ,Dr John ? and Dave Oysten
    Happy days with many memories. Took about 6 months.

    By Doug Macklam (27/01/2019)
  • Reading these comments brings back many memories. I joined ICI straight from school with A level chemistry in 1960 and worked in the Analytical Labs run by Dr Haslam. First 2 years in the Standards lab with Cyril Folds, then with Tony Jelfs doing GLC and then in the Microanalytical lab with John Hamilton.
    I also did part time study for ONC, HNC and finally Grad RIC at Hatfield College.

    By Chris Popplestone (16/04/2018)
  • What a lot of interesting memories! I joined ICI Plastics as a lab assistant in 1956 straight from school with A level Chemistry. My interview with Cliff Oakley included an chat walking round the sports field and ended with a visit to the Rec Club. I worked in TS&D for Bill Fergusson’s department on polythene extrusion – film, cable and paper coating. My TO was Ken Sherrard Smith on cable work and my tutor for tubular fim extrusion was the famous John Cann. TS&D was brand new and had to be kept spotless for the many visitors and customers. Every Friday night, we had to clean and polish the lab benches. A large tin of Ronuk was kept under on the sinks. Maldwyn Jones, TS&D Director would then make a tour of inspection.

    Like many of my contemporaries, we were encouraged to continue our studies and were given one day a week at college to do so. Along with other TS&D lab lads, Del Renfrew. Nobby Clarke, Robin Boston, Bill Orme, Phil Roberts, Jon Raxworthy, I went to the Borough Polytechnic (now University of the South Bank) to qualify for our diplomas in Plastics Technology and Engineering.

    I spent a blissful three years in TS&D. We were given an amazing amount of what is now often denigrated as ‘corporate paternalism’, but also job responsibilities which were considerable in their freedom to act and take decisions about day to day work. Facilities for what is now ‘work/life balance’ were superb. We had County standard quality cricket pitch and a coach (often driven by one of the chaffeurs, Stan) for the cricket team to away matches. An on site barber who used a wee room in the Bowls Pavilion gave a free haircut I think. Meals were subsidised as were the Christmas parties.

    But best of all in 1959, I married an ICI girl, Leonora Fisher, who was Paul Smith the Publicity Manager’s PA. We had earlier been introduced at a cricket match by friends Janet and Bob Slater. And for us, the rest as they say, is history!

    By Colin MInton (10/03/2018)
  • my late dad worked at ici as a design engineer at welyn from the mid sixtys into the early eightys I was a kid but I remember the Perspex the kemetal polyethylene etc and the constant trips up to wilton and the talk of crackers etc etc ! he was on his way to wilton when he was involved in a train crash would be the early sixtys .very sad to see the site in wgc these days .

    By david knox (09/09/2017)
  • I was an ICI Mond Division chemist and we used to visit Welwyn to do trials in the flame free semi tech where the small autoclaves used to be for R&D into PVC and PVDC products Corvic and Viclan. We were made very welcome as ‘Northerners’ and I can recall some of the people we ran into , Bob Slater, Mike Meitner, Rob Saxby and a host of others. I’d also been there in the early 1970’s doing trials on a pilot PVC spreading line with the Euromatic foaming machine when we lost a piece of it and ended up on Stevenage rubbish tip looking for this unique fitting which we failed to find and had to return to Runcorn in shame ! What happy days and such a nice bunch of people there.

    By David Cornwell (02/07/2017)
  • Did anyone know a Mr Kubicki worked with my dad  Eric later 50’s at Mond ICI and moved to WGC! If he’s still around tell him Eric’s kids are ok! 

    By Sue (12/11/2016)
  • My Dad, Owen Cope was Dr. Sissons chauffer at ICI, W.G.C in the early 1960′ - Dr. Sissons & his wife lived in Old Welwyn & were always very kind especially to me. My dad often talked of the jolly japes he got into with Dr. Sissons – I used to go their Christmas parties & remember the presents given to us were truly extravagant.

    By KAREN WILSON (16/09/2016)
  • My father joined ICI just after I was born in 1963 in Stevenage.  He worked as a machinist operating the machines that made the actual plastic itself. Mum worked in the Typing Pool first as a shorthand typist, then as an audio typist before leaving to raise me and my two sisters. ICI transferred my dad to the works in Darwen Lancashire in 1976 so off we went.

    My paternal grandmother worked as a cleaning assistant at ICI for  a few months in the late 1930s before she had her three children. She returned as a cleaner to ICI in the 1950s and she left about 1964.   Her husband never worked for ICI.                                  

    My aunt started in the ICI Secretarial School fresh out of school in 1951, and she was assigned numerous roles I the secretarial line before she left to have her eldest.  I’m aware she returned to work in the Development Department from 1971 to 1972 before the department subsiadiared itself.   Her husband did 9 years at ICI 1954 to 1963.

    By Darren London (on behalf of his family) (26/02/2016)
  • I was at welwyn from 1976 to 81 firstly in polythene research then TS. It was a real privilage to work with great scientists and have my education sponsored.Among others I worked with Ken Whitely who introduced me to gliding.My fondest memory of the company is of the care shown to me following a serious road accident. I was ferried to the QE11 on a regular basis in the chairman’s Daimler for physio. Try that today!

    By Richard Rose (28/10/2015)
  • I worked at Imperial Chemical Plastics (ICI) from November 1958 to June 1967 in the Engineering Department, where I worked alongside two other men in their late 40s/early 50s.

    Eric, I do remember you and a few of the other men you listed! I have e-mailed you at the above address.

    By George Boston (18/08/2015)
  • I did my apprenticeship with ICI from 1964 to 1969 one of the last true 5 yr apprenticeships and worked there after as a fitter/turner until 1973 when I moved to the Bahamas for 5 yrs and then to the US where I now live.It was a really good place to work at that time.Does any one remember me or David Simonds.Roland Merry,Mick Clark,Michael Andrewarthur or anyone of that period?Get in touch at alissanick101@yahoo.com

    By Eric Goodwin (13/06/2015)
  • As Susy Zimmermann I  joined Ici in Budapest and had worked there inbetween 1970-78

     

    I only had positive memories

    I plan to come to the UK and visit places and hopefully people too

    Is there any possibility to search old friends?

    Thanks for your reply

    Susy/ZsuzsiKJY

    By Zsuzsi Rajki (28/04/2015)
  • My father Eric Watson worked for ICI for about 20 years until we emigrated to Australia in 1983.  His employment there provided us with many happy childhood memories.  Is there anyone out there that remembers him?

    By Diane Watson (07/02/2015)
  • My father, John Harvey, worked for the company from 1941 until his death in 1973,my sister & I still have photo’s of his taken of Broadwater Rd & “The new site” upto the mid 60’s. He worked in the Technical & Reseach dep. upto the early 60’s, then in Sales & Development. I remember at home, in Howlands WGC, having all the trail products we had to use, New Vymura wallpaper, we were as kids of 8 allowed to draw, paint bash this new product, just to see to my father & ICI if it was “kid proof” I thought everyone had new telly’s, phones, kettles, & everything you need for the home made out of plastic. Some worked & are now “the norm”, others were a disaster & are still metal etc. In 1966 he was part of the ICI team that went to Peking with the British Government Trade Exhibition, the first in China, and was introduced to Chairman Moa, the ICI team sold the Chinese a copy of “The New Billingham” plastic’s plant which I believe was built in Shanghi, but upset The USSR. Father & The ICI team then went to Moscow, meeting President Kosegin, and selling them the same style plant, this was built on the East German/Polish boarder, and because of the staff of the plant not caring or knowing about its operation, is now one of the most polluted places on the planet. Happy Child hood memories Thank You ICI Staff & company

    By Patrick Harvey (09/11/2014)
  • A very interesting and helpful article. I had been searching on the Internet for reference to a polymer and ICI came into view. I worked at the WGC site for 20 years from 1964 (seems a popular year) but then went to lecture in a universities. The tremendous experience I got from working with some really clever and generous engineers and scientist gave me basis for further successful careers. Unfortunately many of these ICI colleagues are no longer living but are fondly remembered. I have some old photographs somewhere and I’ll try to dig them out.

    By Dr Robin Stephenson (06/10/2014)
  • I joined ICI as a lab assistant in research department in 1951,working in Tewin Road. Moved into the new research block,with its innovative use of various plastics when it was completed.Spent several very happy years working under Katie Small. During the war the company worked for the government, and a large store of chemicals was left in a large building nicknamed The Cathedral. By the early 1950’s all signs of identification were lost from the containers and bottles, and a number of us were given the task of disposing of these items. The method used was to open the containers and toss them into a static water tank that remained from WWII! we had everything from sodium and potassium metals through to various acids, and interestingly titanium tetra chloride, which when liberated into the water totally blocked out WGC with dense white smoke.

     

    By Brian Sneddon (31/05/2014)
  • I am so pleased to have stumbled upon this article. Every now and then I tried to find out what became of the company I had my first job with and never reached anywhere until today. I did my industrial training at ICI Plastics Division in 1973, having just completed my first year of College in Chemistry. I worked under Brian Hendy, aka Bendy Hendy and Ian Smith (my supervisor). I learnt a lot in laboratory methods and procedure while working on the polymerization of atroponitrile and its properties. I remember George Patterson and a few ladies that we travel to London together on the train. I eventually went into a career in the beauty and skin care industry becoming my own boss in the past 30 years. Thank you for your article. I hope it will be possible to provide a link to this article from a website I am preparing for my life story.

    By Catherine Abogunrin (22/04/2014)
  • Another who joined in 1964 – this time as a Technical Apprentice. Still have the Apprentice Book and my logbook and a photo of thei total intake somewhere. Spent first year at Welwyn College then periods at Hillhouse and Luton College. Moved to Technical Service as an Experimental Engineer at the end of the apprenticeship – the first to do so. I do remember the craft apprentices having a formal ceremony at the end of their apprenticeship to receive their papers for a Technical Apprentice they came in the internal mail. I too remember the famous tea trolley in Tech Services – gosh those ladies knew every bit of gossip. Was heavily involved with the Motor Club – remember the Auto Shos – still have the programmes. Left in 1972 when ICI lost the licence to sell Kemetal

    By George Wilder (03/02/2014)
  • The reasons given for ICI’s exit from plastics (and much else) may in part be true – costs, but at least as important was lack of foresight. I worked for ICI for 17 years until the 90’s and a couple of other big, now largely extinct, British manufacturing businesses. The problem was mostly that the British companies made very high class products, many of the world firsts. They did not realaise that they became commodities that had to be made ever faster, and cheaper. For instance – when Dupont bought the Dumfries site they were astonished at Melinex extruders running at one- and two-up (around 4 and 8 feet) widths. Running far wider webs costs not much more than the extra raw material – running costs for the process would increase very little.

    By CG (20/01/2014)
  • I joined the plastics industry in 1969 and was told, ‘There’s only one telephone number you need to know, it’s the password to get any technical information on plastics – 07073 23400‘ . NOw I have a question, does anyone recall ICI doing trials in 1961 with the Royal Mint on plastic coins ? any info or samples gratefully received c.j.w@zen.co.uk

    By colin williamson (18/12/2013)
  • Hi and thank you for posting this article! My grandfather worked at Welwyn and researched the occupational health aspects of working with vinyl chloride. He and my fathers family lived in the ‘plastic house’ for a while. I have some photos in my collection of the house and site but I am searching for more! If anyone has anything they wish to share please feel free to email me: steuart.stafford@btinternet.com. Many thanks

    By Steuart Stafford (11/08/2013)
  • I joined ICI Plastics in 1978, in the PVC Research dept. Moved to Runcorn in Cheshire in 1983. I’m still in the same job, but employer name on my paychit has changed (4 times). I loved my few years at Welwyn, the place had a character of it’s own.

    By Ray Harvey (05/07/2013)
  • Coincidentally I also joined in 1964 and worked in Research 3. Best 6 years of my life – before emigrating to Australia with my best mate Peter Robinson.

    By Chris Murray (02/09/2012)
  • How wonderful to find this article. I joined ICI in 1964 in the Secretarial Training School and then worked in Technical Services (Fluon) until 1972 when we moved away from WGC. I met my husband at ICI as he was in Research Department. So many happy memories. I loved every minute of it.

    By Pat Thomas (20/08/2012)
  • In 2009 the Pensions Department had a small office on the Bessemer Road site – So all is not lost!

    By john smith (04/04/2011)

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