Runcorn Chemical Industry walk

Rocksavage chemical plant
Rocksavage by night – photo by Tarboat – Flickr

Hello again people and pooches. Joe the Cocker here to report on a walk around the Chemical Industry in Runcorn. Our local town is located in the north west corner of the county of Cheshire. During the pandemic me and my human have been confined for most of the time to exercising locally. We have been attempting to learn a bit about our town as we walk. Runcorn has had a varied past and this time we would investigate the history of the Chemical Industry in the area. Prior to the growth in this type of industry, Runcorn was initially an agricultural area. Later, shipbuilding and tanneries were the major industries. With the building of the canal system, initially in the Widnes and Runcorn areas, in the late 1700’s, and subsequently all across the country, Runcorn had an opportunity to grow a new industry. Soap and alkali manufacture became the dominant new industry.

The road through Wigg Island nowadays

Our walk was to take in the main industrial areas involved in the growth of the local chemical industry. My human said that we should start from Wigg Island and to walk to Rocksavage. This would not provide a chronological history of the industry but, rather than ‘flip-flop’, we chose this option. My dad said that this will be snippets of the history of the area and by no means a thorough investigation. So, by him saying that, I hope that he doesn’t bore you all as he does me, rabbiting on and on!

From Wigg Island towards Runcorn
Wigg Island 1928
Wigg Island 1947

Wigg Island, our starting point, is currently a Community Park with scenic walks. It’s history is a bit more sinister. We will come to that shortly. We walked around the island which was named after Charles Wigg, who built an alkali works there in the 1860’s. The United Alkali Company bought Wigg Works in 1890. Cyanide was manufactured on the island in 1898. In 1926, the expanding chemical giant, bought the business and demolished the plant to build a larger factory on the site. Another factory, Chemical and Metalurgical Corp. was built in 1933, and was also taken over by ICI.

The sinister side of the manufacturing at Wigg Works East, occurred during the Second World War when mustard gas was made at Randles. The storage capacity on Wigg was 500 tons, 100 x 5 ton underground containers, spread around the island in case the Germans decided to bomb the factory. Storage capacity on Wigg became an issue and the gas was transported to Rhydymwyn, in North Wales for storage in tunnels. Chemical weapons were said to not exist but, production and stockpiling continued through the war. Chemicals were produced on the island by ICI until the 1960’s. The area was very highly polluted with a mixture of chemicals and dumping continued for a number of years. In 1973 the island was closed. The buildings used in the chemical industry have now been demolished and the chemical waste either removed or covered. I decided not to do any digging while we were there as I didn’t want to find anything suspicious!

The Camden Buildings – the former site of Hazlehurst Soapery
1947 Wigg Island industry
Left – Johnsons Soapery – Right – Hazlehurst Soapery – copyright unknown

We left Wigg Island by crossing the Old Quay Swingbridge. After a short walk through the terraced streets we came to the Bridgewater Canal and walked along the towpath towards Runcorn town. It was time for me to chase the ducks back into the water but, I decided to avoid the swans, they were hissing at me. As we passed the Brindley Arts Centre we came to the area of the car park and the buildings next to High Street is the site of the 1816 built, Hazlehurst Soap Factory. Built in 1803 on the opposite bank of the canal is the site of John Johnson’s Soapery, where the Crosville car park is now. The two factories utilised the ever expanding canal system to transport their goods all over the country. In 1865 Johnson lost a fortune when his ships were attempting to break the blockade in Charleston, South Carolina, in the American Civil War. The factory was renamed the Runcorn Soap and Alkali factory. An incident occurred at the factory in 1884 when two children were killed by a chlorine gas leak. In 1914 the Hazlehurst Soapery was closed and by 1923 the Runcorn Soapery was also closed.

Monday Morning Salt
1996 Salt Union Weston Point – Terry Callaghan – Flickr

We moved on along the Bridgewater towpath towards Waterloo Bridge. We skirted the Railway Station and its regeneration area, before the long trudge along Picow Farm Road. Then we passed the huge Incinerator before turning right, to walk into Weston Point. We turned into South Road which becomes Mersey View and in front of us was the Salt Union Factory, formed in 1888. Salt was produced from brine that was pumped from Northwich and stored in the brine reservoir in Clifton Road. The Salt Union merged with ICI in 1937 and is nowadays part of the INEOS group.

Another Soapery existed in Weston Point, originally owned by Kennedy and Maguire and was sold to Johnson’s in 1836.

Old ICI Office complex
The former ICI Heath offices

We turned back to walk along South Parade. On our right was the office complex of the largest chemical works in the area. The three story red brick building originally contained all of the Runcorn area offices until the opening of the Heath office site on Heath Road South. The site housed offices and a research establishment.

INEOS from Weston Road
Runcorn chemical works
INEOS – Photo – Simon Oliver – Flickr
Rocksavage

United Alkali and Castner Kellner were early companies utilising the site. Castner Kellner merged with Brunner Mond in 1916 as the chemical works expanded on the bank on the Weaver Navigation and Manchester Ship Canal. In 1926 the giant company, ICI was formed and as mentioned earlier, merged with Salt Union in 1937. ICI then owned the massive chemical works that nowadays dominate the skyline when travelling along the M56. In 2001 ICI sold Castners and Rocksavage sites to INEOS.

Inovyn main gate
1948 Castner Kellner

ICI employed more than 6,000 people on the site in the early 1960’s and was the biggest employer in the Runcorn and Widnes area. The main products manufactured in the Weston Point site were Chlorine and Caustic Soda. At Rocksavage, the adjacent site, chemicals and products based on chlorine were manufactured, such as dry cleaning fluids and degreasing agents. During World War II, Phosgene gas was produced here, another gas for use in chemical warfare. It is claimed to have not been used as a weapon in this war. It was, however used extensively in the first world war.

The new office complex

We plodded on along the South Parade as we passed vast areas of tanks, pipework and manufacturing buildings on our right. On our left was the brand new INEOS and INOVYN offices that were almost ready for occupation.

Rocksavage works

From Weston Point we headed towards Rocksavage, where the continuation of the chemical complex can be accessed by another gate. To the left of the gate we followed a footpath that skirted the perimeter fence and overlooked the Rocksavage plant and the power station that supplies electricity to the complex. On leaving the footpath we were in Clifton Village and the end of our walk. It hadn’t been the prettiest of journeys but, at least nowadays the pollution levels are lower than they have been in the past. Till next time!

Just a photo of me looking cool !!!

9 thoughts on “Runcorn Chemical Industry walk

  1. Another great foray into Runcorn history! I lived in Weston Village and had a great view of Rocksavage works – as well as the flare at Costner Kellner for a few years. I remember the sirens marking times for the workers ( start/ stop/lunch) and the odd emergency notification (!). Thanks for another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting piece of history. My dad worked at the Wigg works in the 50s and 60s. Many years previously my grandad worked at Castener Kellener.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting my Grandpa worked in the Mustard Gas plant , also Central Lab in Widnes he was a Master Plumber.i had his security pass and official secrets pass for the Lab

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My Grandfather came from Yorkshire to work at Wigg.. My Dad worked there from leaving school until retirement. My Brother in Law worked at Rockavage and Castners and I worked at Rockavage and then the Heath. I was also born not far from the Camden Building you mention. Thanks for your article, great memories for our family. X

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