Library acquires major ICI Dyestuffs Division archive

Dr James Peters writes:

The Library has recently acquired the archive of the former ICI Dyestuffs Division, and its predecessor companies.

ICI was one of the largest and most influential British firms of the twentieth century. Its Dyestuffs Division was a major part of the chemical industry, with close links to the domestic textile industry.

With the acquisition of this archive, the Library can provide access to a key industrial history source for practically the first time: although the archive has been used by ICI-sponsored historians, it has not been available to general researchers. One particularly exciting feature of the archive is that it includes the records of the Victorian predecessors of ICI. Overall, the archive offers researchers the opportunity to cast fresh light on the development of the British chemical industry.

The synthetics dyestuffs industry was one of the most innovative of the Victorian age. Its emergence was unexpected; in 1856, a young chemical researcher, William Perkin, managed to create the first genuinely synthetic dye, a purple dye named mauveine, popularised as ‘mauve’ following its successful commercial exploitation. As a result, a new industry was born, and one which had an immediate impact on the textile industries of northern England. Until then, dyeing had been a small-scale industry based on age-old methods and skills of fixing vegetable dyes to textiles. With synthetic dyes, the focus moved instead to the laboratory and to factory production.

Notable firms included Levinsteins at Blackley, Manchester (where dyeing was long-established), Read Holliday and Sons of Huddersfield, Scottish Dyes Ltd, and the British Alizarine Company, originally of London, but latterly located at Trafford Park, Manchester. Records for all these firms are present in the archive.

These firms remained relatively small concerns. They were soon overtaken by their German competitors, which included the firms of BASF, Bayer, Hoechst and Agfa. The Germans dominated the international dyestuffs market through a combination of skilful marketing, aggressive use of patents and major investment in laboratory-based research and development.

This threatened British dye makers (although British dye users were usually less concerned), and  Ivan Levinstein (1845-1916) became the de facto spokesman for the industry, arguing forcefully for more university-level research, reform of patent laws and most controversially for  economic protection of the industry,  a view which set him apart from the free trade-supporting textiles industry. The First World War raised further concerns about the industry, as many dyestuff chemicals were also used in explosives and chemical warfare agents, and at this point government acknowledged the wider strategic importance of the industry.

Ivan Levinstein, 1845-1915

In 1920, the government introduced the Dyestuffs (Import Regulation) Act, which restricted most imports of dyes for a period of ten years, and also tentatively encouraged consolidation of the industry. The main stimulus to combination, however, came in 1925 with the creation of the industrial conglomerate IG Farben, which amalgamated the major German chemical firms, and seemed likely to dominate the global chemicals market for the foreseeable future. The British response was swift, and four leading chemical firms, including the British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd (itself a union of Levinsteins and Read Holliday) came together to form Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Ltd in 1926.

For much of the twentieth century ICI was a household name, exemplifying a modern type of enterprise, based on professional management, a complex, horizontally-integrated organisation, and a global customer base. As ICI’s name suggested, the British Empire was initially very important to the company, as it exploited largely protected markets to source and sell its goods. The archive includes some colourful books of labels, which were used to sell dye products in the important Indian market.

Dyestuffs labels, ICI (India) Ltd

ICI’s Dyestuffs Division had its headquarters at Blackley in north Manchester, in a complex known as the Hexagon, which included its main R & D labs, and an experimental manufacturing plant. There were also major production plants at Huddersfield, Ellesmere Port and Grangemouth in Scotland.

The Hexagon, Blackley, c.1950

Dyestuffs were complex and diverse products, requiring major investment in research and development.  An army of research chemists was employed at Blackley, where they successfully developed new products such as the phthalocyanine blue  dyes and Procion dyes. ICI’s paints division (Dulux)  provided demand for pigments, and dyes were required for ICI’s expanding interests in synthetic fibres.

There was also growing diversification into areas such as pharmaceuticals, rubber products, synthetic resins and detergents.  As dyes became relatively less important to the Division,  its name changed to the Organics Division in 1972, and latterly to ICI Specialties. Diversification eventually led to the break-up of ICI; its pharmaceuticals division became an independent company, Zeneca, (now AstraZeneca), and other interests were divested. The remaining part of the firm was acquired by AkzoNobel in 2008.

The archive is very wide-ranging. Reference has been made to the records of ICI’s Victorian predecessors, which include minute books and financial records. There are a number of publications relating to the marketing of ICI dyes, and other types of company promotional literature.  There is also good coverage of ICI’s internal manual, reports and subject files. Certain areas including the role of the dyestuffs industry in both world wars is well-covered, as are the negotiations leading to the consolidation of the dyestuffs industry in the 1920s.  Of the ICI sites, Blackley is best represented in the archive, and there is a wealth of photographic material particularly of the Blackley site and its  employees.

We hope that cataloguing of the archive can commence next year to ensure that its potential can be realised for a range of different projects.

5 comments on “Library acquires major ICI Dyestuffs Division archive

  1. Pingback: Edward Schunck and the history of dyeing | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

  2. Charlie Wilde

    Are these dye labels collectible and valuable ?

    • John Hodgson

      Thanks for your comment, Charlie. They labels are very attractive and probably are collectible. We have no idea about their financial value, but searching on ebay and other online auction sites might enlighten you. Regards, John

  3. Aileen Reid

    Very interested to read that you have acquired the Dyestuffs Division archive… my father, Bill Reid, went to work there straight from university (well after National Service to be exact) in 1953 and worked there till he transfered to the ICI Belfast office in 1961. I wondered if you had any plans to put any of the photos online? I know my Dad would be interested to see them. Best wishes, Aileen

    • John Hodgson

      Dear Aileen,
      Thank you for your interest in our ICI archives. The archives relate primarily to the Blackley site (where, incidentally, my uncle Dr Colin Greenhalgh was a research chemist from 1951 until 1981). The photographs aren’t yet catalogued or digitised. We’d be interested to hear from former ICI employees who could assist with the identification and cataloguing of the photos.
      Best wishes
      John Hodgson

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