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James Muspratt – Pollution in Vauxhall – 1838

Air pollution in the Vauxhall area is nothing new. In 1838 James Muspratt was brought to trial in Liverpool for ‘causing a nuisance’. And what exactly was that ‘nuisance’ ? Thick white smoke containing hydrochloric acid, belching from factory chimneys. Muspratt’s factory, which employed about 200 people - mostly Irish - was on the banks of the Leeds Liverpool canal, near Sylvester Street. He had come over from Dublin to build his factory in Liverpool. It was an ideal site, close to the port, the canal and the exciting new development of the railways. He used salt from Cheshire to produce soda ash, which was used in the glass, soap, paper and textile industries. So there was huge demand. The problem was that a bi-product of the process was the lethal hydrochloric acid, which, as we all know, can burn a hole in your shirt with just a small drop. Muspratt began pumping it out into the local atmosphere. The resulting illness and damage to crops - the area still had many market gardens - caused an outcry.

Muspratt tried to solve the problem by building a taller chimney. It was 150 feet high. It is said that it became an aid to navigation, as it was the first sign of Liverpool sailors would see as they approached the mouth of the Mersey. Predictably the big chimney did not solve the problem. It simply moved it a little further away.

The 1838 court case, before judge and jury, continued for four days. Many locals were called as witnesses. The case was closely followed by the public and widely reported in the newspapers. Here are some extracts from the evidence taken from the Liverpool Mercury.
Mr James Bradshaw, local cow keeper, stated that,

‘I have a field for cows near Everton, to which I regularly drive my cows. I have seen the smoke from Mr Muspratt’s chimney settle on the ground. It made the grass neither grass nor hay, but turned it quite brown, so that cows would not eat it. The cows have fallen off in the quality of the milk that they give. And last summer I was obliged to purchase sixteen gallons a day from other cowmen to supply my customers. I Pay £5 a year for his field and would be glad to be rid of it, but I cannot.’
Another witness was a Mr William McGregor.

‘I have been a gardener at Everton for ten years. I can remember the establishment of Muspratt’s works, but cannot remember the exact year. Since the establishment of the works I have seen the vapour issuing from the chimneys. It has carried as far as Everton Hill and over it. It was not much felt before the tall chimney was built. But since then I have observed the vapour coming out and its effects on trees. The leaves were turned black, curled and fell off, if the wind continued in their direction for two or three days. About seven years ago the wind blew for a fortnight in that direction and the vapour affected a number of fine healthy elm trees in Mr Tattersalls garden so much that they never recovered, passed gradually away and the last of them died twelve months ago.’

In those days the area was full of market gardens, supplying fresh food to the nearby city, which was rapidly encroaching. Several other gardeners were called, and spoke of the effects not only on forest and fruit trees, but also on kitchen vegetables, some stating that they could not produce vegetables at all in fields exposed to the action of the vapour. Others stated that when the greens were picked it was necessary to wash them in spring water before they could be used. Some stated that they had known Everton for twenty years and that, ‘formerly vegetation flourished there exceedingly well.’ These witnesses were cross examined at length on the subject of whether the blight on their crops was caused by factors other than the vapour from the alkali works.

"I have a field for cows near Everton, to which I regularly drive my cows. I have seen the smoke from Mr Muspratt’s chimney settle on the ground. It made the grass neither grass nor hay, but turned it quite brown, so that cows would not eat it. The cows have fallen off in the quality of the milk that they give. And last summer I was obliged to purchase sixteen gallons a day from other cowmen to supply my customers. I Pay £5 a year for his field and would be glad to be rid of it, but I cannot."

Mr Samuel Price, was the clerk at St Martins Church in Sylvester Street, which once stood where the VNC building is now. He stated that,
‘I have observed, sir, that cattle would very seldom drink at the pits in the neighbourhood of the works. There was a sort of scum on the water, and when the cattle went there to drink, they would put it aside with their noses. I have frequently seen them do it.’
He stated that St Martin’s church was almost opposite the defendants works.

‘The church exterior stonework is quite black. Many people said it is from the vapour from the alkali works, but I do not know. There are an immense number of smokes in the neighbourhood.’

Local builder Samuel Holmes was another witness. ‘I know Mr .Muspratt’s works very well, and have often seen and felt the effects of the white vapour. It has made me cough very much and I am exceedingly glad when I can get out of it. The value of property in the area has been much reduced since the establishment of the alkali works. One particular house, a construction of my own, has been reduced in value to the extent of £5 and £10 per year as a consequence.’

Holmes was asked by the court to compile a list of the large factory chimneys in the area producing smoke, which would be submitted to the jury. He came back with a total of 126!

James Muspratt

Of course there were witnesses for the defence, called by Muspratt’s barrister. One was James Blezard, who had a pub on the corner of Burlington St and Vauxhall Road. He testified under oath that,

‘My doors and windows are a good deal open. I have found no inconvenience from Mr Muspratt’s works. If there was anything offensive I would have noticed it’.

Mr James McIvor, a haberdasher, testified that, ‘In the vicinity of Muspratt’s works I have a garden about 50 yds by 60, and I do not find the trees or plants affected in any way. I also have 24 houses in Eldon Street, close to Mr Muspratts works, and had no difficulty in letting them.’

Another was Philip Mawdesley.
‘I keep the Vauxhall tea gardens at the top of Vauxhall Road, from 1200 yards to 15000 yards from Mr Muspratt’s. I have had the gardens there for 30 years. The plants and trees in the gardens have not been injured. The gardens are well attended in the summer time. I have never had any complaints from the customers. I pass Mr Muspratt’s works two or three times a day.’

At the conclusion of the four day trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty before a packed courthouse. Of course, people locally were delighted, Unfortunately the law did not provide for effective punishment. Muspratt was guilty, but was fined just a few pennies. However public pressure did eventually force him to close his operation in Vauxhall, moving out to other sites in the region, such as Flint and Runcorn. He worked for a time with another Dublin chemist, James Gamble, who went on to found the famous company Proctor and Gamble. Muspratt’s companies would eventually become the foundation of the international chemical giant ICI. So we can say that ICI had its beginnings here on Vauxhall Road.

Muspratt married fellow Dubliner Julie Connor and had a large family. They built a mansion in the sandhills at Seaforth, north of Bootle. The family continued to play a part in the business and cultural life of Liverpool for generations. But that’s another story.
In Vauxhall, the eventual departure of Muspratt didn’t bring an end to the problem of industrial pollution. With his chimney gone there were nevertheless 125, and the campaign for clean air continued.

Of course there were witnesses for the defence, called by Muspratt’s barrister. One was James Blezard, who had a pub on the corner of Burlington St and Vauxhall Road. He testified under oath that,

‘My doors and windows are a good deal open. I have found no inconvenience from Mr Muspratt’s works. If there was anything offensive I would have noticed it’.

Mr James McIvor, a haberdasher, testified that, ‘In the vicinity of Muspratt’s works I have a garden about 50 yds by 60, and I do not find the trees or plants affected in any way. I also have 24 houses in Eldon Street, close to Mr Muspratts works, and had no difficulty in letting them.’

Another was Philip Mawdesley.
‘I keep the Vauxhall tea gardens at the top of Vauxhall Road, from 1200 yards to 15000 yards from Mr Muspratt’s. I have had the gardens there for 30 years. The plants and trees in the gardens have not been injured. The gardens are well attended in the summer time. I have never had any complaints from the customers. I pass Mr Muspratt’s works two or three times a day.’

At the conclusion of the four day trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty before a packed courthouse. Of course, people locally were delighted, Unfortunately the law did not provide for effective punishment. Muspratt was guilty, but was fined just a few pennies. However public pressure did eventually force him to close his operation in Vauxhall, moving out to other sites in the region, such as Flint and Runcorn. He worked for a time with another Dublin chemist, James Gamble, who went on to found the famous company Proctor and Gamble. Muspratt’s companies would eventually become the foundation of the international chemical giant ICI. So we can say that ICI had its beginnings here on Vauxhall Road.

Muspratt married fellow Dubliner Julie Connor and had a large family. They built a mansion in the sandhills at Seaforth, north of Bootle. The family continued to play a part in the business and cultural life of Liverpool for generations. But that’s another story.
In Vauxhall, the eventual departure of Muspratt didn’t bring an end to the problem of industrial pollution. With his chimney gone there were nevertheless 125, and the campaign for clean air continued.