The Story of the Welwyn Garden City Site
By Robert Gill
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.
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.
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.
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.