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Dangerous Exposures: Visualizing Work and Waste in the Victorian Chemical Trades

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 July 2019

Jennifer Tucker
Wesleyan University


Cheshire, Britain, and the towns of Widnes and St. Helens, where many of the world's first chemical factories and towns were created in the nineteenth century, is an especially important place to study historical responses to industrial pollution and its social costs. This paper, based on newly recovered archival sources about the Victorian alkali industry, explores the role of visual imagery, particularly drawings and lantern slides, in materializing the connection between labor in chemical trades, the disposal of waste, and poor health outcomes for diverse communities in the late nineteenth century. The paper will focus on the writer Robert Sherard's article “White Slaves of England” (1897), a work that, more than many of its time, drew national attention to the plight of nineteenth-century chemical workers by pictorializing the ways that work in heavy chemical industries, many of them involving waste and its disposal, affected individual workers and their lives. The paper concludes with critical reflections on the current state of scholarship on images, waste, and labor, areas for more needed work, and paths forward.

Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2019 

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1. The census of 1841 reported just over two thousand people. Hardie, D.W. F., A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes (Birmingham, United Kingdom, 1950), 3Google Scholar.

2. From historical accounts of the borough we know that the current area of Halton has been home to a very wide range of products (Edwards and Stevens, 1991; Halton Borough Council, 2001). Major products with polluting potential made in Halton since the nineteenth century included acids, alkalis, alloys, alum asbestos, cement, caustic soda, chlorine, copper cngineering, inorganic chemicals, leather, lime, organic chemicals, petrochemicals, phosphate fertiliser, shipbuilding, and soap, among others. See Halton Report, Table 6.1. The history of the process is discussed in Gillespie, G.C., “The discovery of the Leblanc process,” Isis 48 (1957)Google Scholar. See, esp., Reed, Peter, Entrepreneurial Ventures in Chemistry: The Muspratts of Liverpool, 1793–1924 (London, 2014)Google Scholar and Reed, “Galligu: An Environmental Legacy of the Leblanc Alkali Industry, 1814–1920,” Bulletin of the Royal Society of Chemistry (Feb. 2013), 22–26, based on a presentation by Peter Reed at the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Meeting: “Where there's muck there's brass,” held at the Chemistry Centre, Burlington House, London, March 23, 2012. As Peter Reed has noted in his writings on the history of British chemistry, the Leblanc alkali process was introduced into Britain in 1814 and it was to survive as a major industry until the early decades of the twentieth century, by which time the technology had become obsolete. The importance of the Leblanc process was its use of salt to produce soda (sodium carbonate), replacing a reliance on natural sources, such a barilla and kelp, that were unable to meet the rapidly increasing demand for soda in the textile and soap industries.

3. On the history of the town and its local industries, see, esp., Jean and John Bradburn, Widnes at Work: People and Industries Through the Years (Gloucestershire, 2017). For an excellent early modern history of waste and landscape, see, esp., Di Palma, Vittoria, Wasteland: A History (New Haven, CT, 2014)Google Scholar. On the early years of the chemical industry in Widnes, see Allen, J. Fenwick, Some Founders of the Chemical Industry (London, 1906)Google Scholar. For the wider literature on chemistry and environmental history, see Nash, Linda, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley, CA, 2007)Google Scholar; Mitman, Gregg, Murphy, Michelle, and Sellers, Christopher, Osiris, Volume 19: “Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments” (Chicago, 2004)Google Scholar; Langston, Nancy, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES (New Haven, CT, 2011)Google Scholar; Brown, Kate, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015)Google Scholar; Sellers, Chris, Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science (Durham, NC, 1999)Google Scholar; Warren, Christian, Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning (Baltimore, MD, 2001)Google Scholar; Markowitz, Gerald and Rosner, David, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (Berkeley, CA, 2013)Google Scholar; Sellers, Christopher and Melling, Joseph, Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World (Philadelphia, PA, 2011)Google Scholar; Tomory, Leslie, “The Environmental History of the Early British Gas Industry, 1812–1830,” Environmental History, 17, 1 (2012): 2954CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Murphy, Michelle, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Durham, NC, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. The heavy chemical industries hired men exclusively for the manufacture of chemicals, according to contemporary testimony supplied by companies and workers, although occasionally a firm hired a woman on site (although not clarified, possibly she would have worked as a cleaner or record keeper). For the breakdown by company see especially the Report of the Royal Commission on Labour, Minutes of evidence, indexes, answers…Group C Minutes, v. 1, 1892: Group C, Replies from Employers.

5. F.J. Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry, 1847–1871: A Case of Occupational Mobility in the Industrial Revolution, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 131 (1984): 89–104. For a contemporary account, see Kingzett, Charles Thomas, The History, Products, and Processes of the Alkali Trade, including the Most Recent Improvements (London, 1877)Google Scholar.”

6. See, for example, Halton Report, 103.

7. Howes, David and Constance Classen's book, Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (Abingdon, 2014)Google Scholar is relevant here, opening up new ways of exploring the cultural, historical, and political dimensions of the world of the senses. On the historical meanings of work in nineteenth-century Britain, see Joyce, Patrick, ed., The Historical Meanings of Work (Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1987)Google Scholar.

8. Malone, Caroline, Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England, 1880–1914 (Boydell, United Kingdom, 2003): 90, 9394Google Scholar. Women were not completely absent from the trades that depended on the manufacture of soda and bleach, however, they were employed downstream in industries that depended on both. (For example, in Glasgow, chemical works, women were chiefly employed in sewing “fertilizer” bags.) See Royal Commission on Labour, 1892, Volume 1, Group C Minutes, 510. Women also packed huge quantities of soap for distribution in other towns that were in relatively close proximity to the chemical works. Martin A. Danahay, in “The Work of Gender in Nineteenth-Century British Culture” (pp. v-xv), notes, building on Mary Poovey's Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England, that representations of gender are one of “the sites at which ideological systems were simultaneously constructed and contested” (Poovey, 2). While more attention is being paid both to the effects of the “separation of spheres” on the representation of labor and to the social construction of gender roles, Danahay notes that “the intersection of these roles with the representation of work has only recently become a recognizable area of analysis within the wider question of the ideological impact of the ‘separation of spheres.” (Danahay, v-vi). See also Lesjak's, Carolyn Working Fictions: A Geneaology of the Victorian Novel (Durham, NC, 2007)Google Scholar; Zakreski, Patricia, Representing Female Artistic Labour, 1848–1890 (London, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Timothy Barringer, Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (London, 2005); and Louttit, Chris, Dickens's Secular Gospel: Work, Gender and Personality (London, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

Portions of this paper have been presented earlier. I would like to thank the faculty and students of the Department of Art History and Communication at McGill University; The Centre for Humanities Research at The University of Western Cape, South Africa; The History Department at the University of Warwick and the Humanities Research Centre at The Australian National University; and two anonymous reviewers and the editors for helpful comments on earlier presentations of this material. This discussion is part of ongoing research for a book that I'm completing about the role of photographic evidence in nineteenth-century environmental law and the legal efforts to curb industrial pollution in the 1870s. Among the research questions are: How did English law change beyond notions of “nuisance” to accommodate for the creation of new toxic pollution? Were they considered “toxic” at the time? On what grounds were legal claims made to cease industrial activity? What was the role of scientific evidence in the courts when cases reached were heard by the jury?

9. The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre was born out of the centenary exhibition that the Liverpool section of the Society of Chemical Industry held in 1982. The local council, with help from the Manpower Services Commission, put up the original cash to turn it into a permanent tribute to the industry.

10. Although it is still true that the cultural work that visual images are made to do in the world are often overlooked in mainstream histories, recent scholarship is paying increasing attention to how photographs, news illustrations, and other popular images circulated and created cultural meanings in history, society, and culture. See Hill, Jason and Schwartz, Vanessa R., eds., Getting the Picture: The Visual Culture of the News (London, 2017)Google Scholar; Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching With Visual Materials, third edition (Los Angeles, 2012)Google Scholar; Tucker, Jennifer, “Visual and Material Studies,” in McWilliam, Rohan, Noakes, Lucy, and Wood, Andy (eds.) New Directions in Social and Cultural History (London, 2018), 129–42Google Scholar; Tucker, Jennifer, ed., “Photography and Historical Interpretation,” History and Theory 48 (2009)Google Scholar; and Mitman, Gregg and Wilder, Kelley, eds., Documenting the World: Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record (Chicago, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In relation to environmental history see, esp., Dunaway, Finis, Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images (Chicago, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Mitman, Gregg, Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film (Seattle, 2009)Google Scholar. Important works on art and the Industrial Revolution include: Francis D. Klingender's classic book Art and the Industrial Revolution (New York, 1968)Google Scholar; Nichols, Kate, Wade, Rebecca, and Williams, Gabriel, eds., Art versus Industry? New Perspectives on Visual and Industrial Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Manchester, United Kingdom 2016)Google Scholar; and Schulman, Work Sights, among others.

11. See Letter to James Muspratt from John Clow, dated August 4, 1836. (Ref: 920/MUS/2-37, Muspratt Papers, Liverpool Record Office). Some sulfur waste from Tyneside works was dumped at sea.

12. It is crucial to make distinctions between the Mersey Basin, Mersey River, and Merseyside as the historian define the scope of a history of Industrial waste in the “Mersey River.” The “Mersey Basin” refers to the drainage basin or “catchment area” that collects all of the surface water, snowmelt, and groundwater within the basin. A historian attempting to write a history of industrial waste in the Mersey River bBasin must also consider industrial activity occurring at the rivers emptying into Mersey River. The “Mersey River,” on the other hand, begins in Stockholmes, at the convergence of the River Tame and the River Goyt. The history of industrial waste in the Mersey River must survey various forms of “industrial activity” from the headwater to the mouth of the river. Such a project would include, for instance, proto-industrial that occurred in regions such as Lanchesire. Finally, Merseyside, which was established as an area in 1958, is composed of the two regions divided by the Mersey estuary. Merseyside has an area of 249 sq. miles divided into five separate counties: the city of Liverpool, Sefton, Knowsley, St. Helens, and Wirral. See Jarvis, A. E. & Reed, P. N.Where there's brass there's muck: the impact of industry in the Mersey Basin ca. 1700–1900,” in Ecology and Landscape Development: A History of the Mersey Basin, ed. Greenwood, E. F. (Liverpool, 1999), 5764Google Scholar.

13. On the history of pollution in Britain since 1800, specifically, see Mosley, Stephen, The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester (Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2001)Google Scholar; Thorsheim, Peter, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 (Athens, OH, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Ritvo, Harriet, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Environmentalism (Chicago, IL, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the Mersey Basin see, among others, Holland, D.G., Moss, B., and Nolan, P., “Liverpool Bay and the estuaries human impact, recent recovery and restoration,” in Ecology and Landscape Development: A History of the Mersey Basin, ed. Greenwood, E. F. (Liverpool, 1999), 155–66Google Scholar.

14. Sherard, Robert Harborough, The White Slaves of England, Being True Pictures of Certain Social Conditions in the Kingdom of England in the Year 1897 (London, 1898)Google Scholar, 58 and 61.

15. These are physically identified on the map in Ordinance Survey for Widnes, 1905.

16. Discussed in Hunt, J.R., “The Widnes Local Board of Health, 1865–1892,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 119 (1967): 213–24Google Scholar; 214. See also On the Sulfur Trade of Sicily and the Commercial Relations with that Country and Great Britain,” Journal of the Statistical Society of London 2 (1839): 449Google Scholar.

17. Anne McClintock's decodings of soap advertising show how Victorian soap and its commodification through racialized and gendered spectacles traversed the allegedly separate spaces of private life and imperial markets. McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York, 1995)Google Scholar.

18. “The Industrial North: The Chemical Industry,” The Times (April 13, 1898): 10.

19. See al., Miller et, “Impact of alkalization on the antioxidant and flavanol content of commercial cocoa powders, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry 56 (2008): 8527–33Google Scholar.”

20. Simmonds, Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances, 398.

21. P.I. Simmonds, in his book, explained: “Great Britain was the first to carry out this utilization on an extensive scale, and her example is now being followed largely on the Continent, in Australia, the United States, and even in the River Plate States, where numerous substances, formerly wasted, have now become profitable articles of commerce.” He declared that “It is one of the most important duties of manufacturing industry to find useful applications for waste materials.” Simmonds, P.I., Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: A Synopsis of Progress (London, 1873), iiiGoogle Scholar.

22. Simmonds, Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances, 401–02.

23. On the problem of waste in the Widnes alkali industry, see The Struggle for Supremacy: Being a Series of Chapters in the History of the Leblanc Alkali Industry in Great Britain (Liverpool, 1907), esp. the chapter “Wealth from Waste”; Alexander M. Chance, “The Recovery of Sulphur from Alkali Waste by Means of Lime Kiln Gases,” Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry (1931); Haber, L.F., The Chemical Industry during the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1958)Google Scholar; Kingzett, C. T., The History, Products and Processes of the Alkali Trade (London, 1877)Google Scholar; Barker, T.C., Dickinson, R., and Hardie, D.W.F., “The Origins of the Synthetic Alkali Industry in Britain,” Economica 23 (1956): 158–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hardie, D.W.F. and Pratt, James Davidson, A History of the Modern British Chemical Industry (London, 1966)Google Scholar.

24. For one well-known example, see The Pendleton Alum Works, Regina v. Spence,” Report of the Trial of the Indictment for Nuisance, at The Liverpool Summer Assizes, 2124 August, 1857 (Manchester, United Kingdom, 1858).

25. Major products with polluting potential made in the region since the nineteenth century include alkalis, acids, cuastic soda, phosphate fertilizer, copper, and alum, among many others. See “Environmental Factors and Health in Halton” (Table 6.1) in Halton Report, 95–110, for a full discussion.

26. Reed, Peter, Acid Rain and the Rise of the Environmental Chemist in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Work of Robert Angus Smith (London, 2014)Google Scholar; Hamlin, Christopher, A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Bristol, United Kingdom, 1900)Google Scholar; and Rosenthal, Leslie, The River Pollution Dilemma in Victorian England: Nuisance Law versus Economic Efficiency (Farnham, United Kingdom, 2014)Google Scholar. An excellent review of the different approaches to environmental law in this period are examined by Peter Thorsheim in a review of new books published on Victorian environmental regulatory policies in Victorian Studies 58 (2016): 779–82.

27. Sherard, White Slaves of England, 47.

28. Galligu was produced during the third stage, when the black ash (the product after heating salt cake, coal, and limestone to high temperatures in the revolving furnace) was agitated with water (or lixiviated as it was known in the alkali trade). The sodium carbonate dissolved in the water, and the remaining residue was galligu. See Reed, “Galligu: An environmental legacy of the Leblanc alkali industry, 1814–1920.” As Reed points out, much has been written about pollution caused by acid gas (hydrogen chloride) and the associated court cases, but relatively little is known about galligu and the challenges it presented. This article considers the origin of galligu, its nature and chemical composition, its damage to the environment, the economic loss of sulfur in the waste, attempts to treat the waste, its removal in the 1970s and 1980s, and its environmental impact today.

29. Oliver Clay, “37-Acre toxic waste dump discovered beneath Runcorn,” Liverpool Echo (23 December 2015), accessed April 22, 2019:; Contaminated Land Strategy, 2008–13, Halton Borough Council, 2014; Royal Society of Chemistry – Environmental Chemistry Group, “Galligu: An environmental legacy of the Leblanc alkali industry, 1814–1920,” Royal Society of Chemistry-Environmental Chemistry Group Bulletin (February 2013), 22–26; Department of Geography and Institute for Health Research, Lancaster University, Understanding the Factors Affecting Health in Halton Final Report (31 August 2003): Accessed April 22, 2019,; Sven Erik Jørgensen, ed. “Industrial Waste Water Management,” Studies in Environmental Science 5 (1979), Chapter 16: “The Alkali Industry,” pp. 235–41: “The wastewater from the chlor-alkali industry causes more problems than the wastewater from the manufacture of sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide because it contains mercury. Mercury is highly toxic and causes the so-called Minamata diseases” (p. 235). According to Hird, Myra J. and Zahara, Alexander, “waste constitutes perhaps the most abundant and enduring trace of the human for epochs to come.” “The Arctic Wastes,” in Grusin, R. (ed.) Anthropocene Feminism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 121145Google Scholar; 121.

30. Laurie, “The Chemical Trades,” 591.

31. Ibid., 582.


32. Ibid., 582.


33. Ibid., 582.


34. Halton, Report, 5 and 103.

35. Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry, 1847–1871,” 90.

36. Ibid., 92.


37. Laurie, “The Chemical Trades,” 584.

38. Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry,”100.

39. For more discussion, see Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry,” 101. According to J.R. Hunt in “Widnes Board of Health,” 215, the outcome skewed toward manufacturers was the direct result of the voting rules that were used. (The pattern was borrowed from the Poor Law Act of 1834, rather than from the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835; the former privileged voters according to their property and wealth.)

40. First Yearly Report of the Chemical and Copper Workers’ Union, issued by P.J. King, President (St. Helens, United Kingdom, 1891). Viewed at historical archives of the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre, Widnes, England. Thanks to Paul Meara, Senior Curator, for assistance.

41. Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry,” 103. See also Williams, F.J., “The Emergence of Supervisory Elites in the Nineteenth-Century Chemical industry in Widnes,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 141 (1992): 289307Google Scholar.

42. Royal Commission on Labour, Minutes of evidence, indexes, answers…Group C Minutes, v. 1, 1892, Group C, Replies from Employers, xxviii.

43. Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry,” 102–2013.

44. See Laurie, “The Chemical Trades,” 596: “The next point of interest to notice is the number of deaths from diseases of the respiratory system. If the fumes and deleterious gases breathed by the chemical workers are injurious to health, it is in pulmonary diseases that we should expect to find an increase; consequently we find that while the number of deaths from disease of the respiratory system stand in the case of the manufacturing chemist at 502, there are only two industries in which higher figures are given—the cutlers, who are exposed to the dust from the grindstones, and the earthenware manufacturers, who are exposed to the deadly dust from the ground flints.” Laurie pointed out that “While the number for all males stands at 56, the number for the chemical trades stands at 98, and the only industry which approaches it is that of shipwrights, with a death-rate from accident of 63.”

45. Laurie, “The Chemical Trades,” 597. Laurie generally felt that producing even the most dangerous chemicals didn't necessarily present dangers to the workman if reasonable precautions were made.

46. Laurie, “The Chemical Trades,” 571.

47. Ibid., 584.


48. Oliver stated that it was in its infancy; that it owned its origin “mainly to the rush of people into the large towns.” Sir Oliver, Thomas, ed., Dangerous Trades: The Historical, Social, and Legal Aspects of Industrial Occupations As Affecting Health, by a Number of Experts (London, 1902), 22Google Scholar.

49. Oliver, ed., Dangerous Trades, 14.

50. Ibid.,, vii; 15–16. Oliver was a medical expert on the white lead, dangerous trades, pottery, and lucifer match committees of the Home Office: Professor of Physiology, University of Durham; Physician to the Royal Infirmary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Nearly forty authors contributed to the book, including an informative essay providing an overview of the history of protective legislation by Adelaide M. Anderson, titled “Historical Sketch of the Development of Legislation for Injurious and Dangerous Industries in England.” Increasing public interest in the conditions of working men and women was cited as one reason for research on the dangerous trades by the 1900s.


51. See Adelaide M. Anderson, “Historical Sketch of the Development of Legislation for Injurious and Dangerous Industries in England,” 35, in Oliver, ed., Dangerous Trades. The Act of 1864 was important which is where we “first find the idea of ventilation applied in order to render harmless ‘gases, dust, or other impurities generated in the course of manufacture that may be injurious to health,” according to one contemporary public health worker. But owners were able to introduce “special ties” to bind workers to conditions. Two changes occurred in the 1860s which profoundly affected the workers in Widnes. First, the establishment of the Companies Act in 1862 allowed companies to be run by managers rather than by the owners and their families. This had the twofold effect, Williams shows, first of polarising the entrepreneur from his workforce and, second, of substituting a manager, “often foreign to the neighborhood and unsympathetic to the problems of the workforce.” See Williams, “Widnes and the Early Chemical Industry,” 100.

52. Anderson, “Historical Sketch…” in Oliver, Dangerous Trades, 37.

53. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 51.

54. Ibid., 49.


55. Ibid., 50.


56. First Yearly Report of the Chemical and Copper Workers’ Union, issued by P.J. King, President (St. Helens, United Kingdom, 1891).

57. The Home Office Committee on Chemical Works were “impressed by the long hours of work which prevailed in some alkali works. They strongly advise the adoption of eight-hour shifts, which have already been successfully tried in some departments at some of the works of the United Alkali Company, whilst at the works of Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Company, eight-hour shifts prevail throughout.” Sir John Eldon Gorst et al., Great Britain, Royal Commission on Labour, Report(s) Minutes of Evidence etc., Fifth and Final Report (London, 1892–94), 132. The Commission on the part of the Home Secretary issued a recommendation in autumn 1892 to include the formation of committees of inspectors assisted by medical, chemical, and other experts, “to investigate the evils incidental to labour in lead works, chemical and alkali works, lucifer match factories, potteries and quarries, and to suggest remedies and preventives.” These steps were followed in 1893 by an expansion to the staff of factory inspectors; the bulk of which were now at work in London. Gorst et al., 22. Yet the Home Office also admitted that improvements were unlikely without legislation, which was not forthcoming. See Sir Thomas Oliver's Dangerous Trades: The Historical, Social, and Legal Aspects of Industrial Occupations, for more detail on what was being discussed by 1902.

58. First Yearly Report of the Chemical and Copper Workers’ Union, 13.

59. Ibid., 14.


60. Ibid., 18.


61. Ibid., 20.


62. Ibid., 21.


63. Ibid., 23.


64. Ibid., 30.


65. Ibid., 31.


66. Ibid., 27.


67. Ibid., 31.


68. Ibid., 29.


69. Ibid., 34.


70. The three men were Patrick Fahey, aged forty-four; Luke Farrell, aged forty-two; and Thomas Atheront, aged fifty. See “The Terrible Sewer Fatality at Widnes – Inquest and Verdict,” Widnes Weekly News (February 8, 1896). The manager of the works was Mr. John Hedley. A question of this ongoing research is whether workers had to furnish their own “muzzles” to keep out the toxic gas? How was responsibility for their health managed? There is a problem of historical sources here, but it appears from the record that respirators were sometimes supplied by managers—and sometimes were the burden of the worker to furnish. Protective outerwear, such as masks, were used by quicksilversmiths earlier but it is not known exactly in how many other trades they were being adopted by the middle of the nineteenth century. Thanks to Jessica Balls, PhD student at the University of East Anglia, for sharing examples of early historical precedents for respirators from her research on eighteenth-century workers in London.

71. “Terrible Accident at Widnes Alkali Works: Fall of a Chimney,” Widnes Weekly News (January 16, 1897).

72. First Yearly Report of the Chemical and Copper Workers’ Union, 34.

73. T. Mann, What a Compulsory Eight Hour Day Means to the Workers (1886).

74. Copelman, Dina M., “The gendered metropolis: Fin-de-Siècle London,” Radical History Review 60 (1994): 3956CrossRefGoogle Scholar; 45; Malone, Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England, 18801914, 91; Walkowitz, Judith R., City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This development substantiates James Vernon's point about the centrality of print culture in late nineteenth-century politics. See Vernon, James, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815–1867 (Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1993)Google Scholar.

75. Sherard published over thirty-three works in total including: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1902), The Life of Oscar Wilde (1906), The Real Oscar Wilde (1917), Emile Zola (1893), Alphonese Daudet (1894), and Guy DeMaupassant (1926). His other non-fiction work besides The White Slaves of England (1897) (originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine) included The Cry of the Poor (1901); The Closed Door (1902); The Child Slaves of Britain (1905); and Modern Paris: Some Sidelights on Its Inner Life (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1912).

76. Quoted in Sherard, The White Slaves of England, “No. 1 – The Alkali Workers,” 55; 48.

77. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 58. In the same passage, Sherard describes Widnes as “the very nightmare of industrialism,” invoking a sense of horror: “Squalid cottages, large areas of muddy waste, with a pigsty here and there, and perhaps a gipsy's van in a desert of puddles and mud; black alleys, intricate gangways over an intricate network of railways, high chimneys on every side, and below these such grotesque shapes of tower and bubbling cauldrons, and tanks and wheels, as seem the very nightmare of industrialism.”

78. Quoted in Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 111.

79. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 25.

80. Ibid., 53.


81. Ibid., 53.


82. Ibid., 54.


83. Cobden blamed church and state, the laws of entail, and primonogeniture for the “frightful abuses,” “a system of wrong and outrage” that was “abhorrent to justice, civilization and humanity.” He added that the “oligarchy which owns Great Britain…is the best friend of human slavery, and that its system is most barbarous and destructive. Those feudal institutions which reduced to slavery the strange-minded race of whites, are perpetuated in Great Britain, to the detriment of freedom wherever the British sway extends.” See Cobden, John C., The White Slaves of England, compiled from official documents, with twelve spirited illustrations (Auburn, NY, 1853)Google Scholar quoted in 1857 edition, 2. Louis Filler in The Crusade Against Slavery, 18301860 writes that it is a “curious product of proslavery opinion.” First issued in Auburn, NY, in 1853, it went through at least six editions, the last being in 1860. Its 498 pages offered no reason for its publication, though the timing coincided with the publication in Britain of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853). The work, abstracted from Parliamentary hearings, gave evidence of brutal treatment of workers in English mines and factories, as well as in cottage industries. Cobden argued that slavery proceeded “from the existence of the British aristocracy,” and the work covered the topics of “Slavery in the British mines,” “Slaves of the Needle,” and “Seamstress Slavery.” See Cobden, The White Slaves of England, 82–83. Later, the term was picked up and circulated as part of the campaign in 1880s London against the traffic in women, discussed by the historian Judith Walkowitz. See, esp., Walkowitz, Judith, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Reynolds, George W.M., The Seamstress; or, The White Slave of England, etc., with Twelve Illustrations by Anelay, H. (London, 1853)Google Scholar. More research is needed, and ongoing, on this topic and esp. its intersection of racial, class, and gender politics.

84. In Seth Rockman's work on early 1800s Baltimore, he discusses coerced and marginal men and women workers, the poor and destitute forced to horrible work due to poverty or debtors prison—and they are invisible in the national narrative because they are neither slave nor free guild/industrial labor. See Rockman, Seth, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2009)Google Scholar. Thanks to Aimee Loiselle for the reference.

85. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 64. See reference to the “toothless living skeletons” of Widnes in “Among the Chemical Workers,” Widnes Weekly News (Feb. 27, 1897).

86. See A.P. Laurie, “The Chemical Trades,” in Sir Oliver, Thomas, Dangerous Trades: The Historical, Social, and Legal Aspects of Industrial Occupations as Affecting Health (London, 1902), 596Google Scholar: “Any one who is familiar with chemical works has been gassed occasionally, and yet has had found no permanent harm come from it.”

87. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 56–57.

88. Ibid., 75.


89. Ibid., 61.


90. McClintock, Imperial Leather.

91. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 62.

92. Ibid., 34.


93. See “Among the Chemical Workers at Widnes,” Widnes Weekly News (February 27, 1897).

94. For a contemporary discussion of these trends, see esp. Thomas Oliver, “Introduction,” in Oliver, ed., Dangerous Trades, 5–6.

95. Private collection.

96. Reproduced in Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 71.

97. On this theme, see, esp., Maidment, Brian, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780–1870 (Manchester, United Kingdom, 2007)Google Scholar; Strange, K.H., The Climbing Boys: A Study of Sweeps’ Apprentices, 1773–1875 (London, 1982)Google Scholar; Barringer, Timothy, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (New Haven, CT, 2005)Google Scholar; Schulman, Vanessa Meikle, Work Sights: The Visual Culture of Industry in Nineteenth-Century America (Amherst, MA, 2015)Google Scholar;

98. Emanuela Ettorre, “A ‘pestilent congregation of vapours’: Unhealthy Environment and ‘headachy air’ in the Dysphoric Visions of George Gissing.” Paper delivered in the “Cultural Histories of Air and Illness” conference, University of Warwick, June 9, 2018. George Gissing's novels highlighted the connection between pollution and psychology, making clear how pervasive was “day darkness.”

99. Mill, John Stuart, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (reprint from 1848). (New York, 1961)Google Scholar, 22.

100. Barringer, Men At Work, 2–3.

101. Ibid., 29–30.


102. For example, the English painter, Godfrey Sykes (1824–1866) focused his artistic inquiries in to the bodies of workers, as in his famous sixty-foot frieze for the Sheffield Mechanics’ Institute, which allegorized the arts and crafts.

103. Sherard, The White Slaves of England, 58.

104. Widnes Weekly News (January 4, 1896). On the formation of the United Alkali Company, see United Alkali Company, The Struggle for Supremacy: Being a Series of Chapters in the History of the Leblanc Alkali Industry in Great Britain (Liverpool, 1907); Hardie, D.W.F. and Pratt, J. Davidson, History of the Modern British Chemical Industry (Amsterdam, 1966)Google Scholar, and others.

105. The environmental consequences of galligu in Widnes are vividly described by Robert Angus Smith in his Report to the 1876 Royal Commission on Noxious Vapours: “The town of Widnes is very frequently, if not at all times, subjected to the influence of sulfuretted hydrogen [hydrogen sulfide] … The tank waste, composed of sulfur and lime in various states of oxidation, is used for raising up the low lands on the Mersey and forming a foundation for future buildings. The drainage of lands thus treated is offensive: it has a yellow colour, and on exposure to air gives out the gas complained of. At certain spots the streams meet with acid streams, and the gas is then given out in enormous quantities. I have observed one spot, but I believe there must be others underground, perhaps also over-ground.” Quoted in Smith, Robert Angus, Intermediate Report of the Chief Inspector, 1863 and 1874 Parliamentary Paper (London, 1876)Google Scholar, 3. See also Greenwood, E.F., ed., Ecology and Landscape Development: The Mersey Basin (Liverpool, 1999)Google Scholar.

106. For a fuller discussion about the lasting environmental effects of Victorian chemical industry in Widnes (and Halton more generally), see Oliver Clay, “37-Acre Toxic Waste Dump Discovered Beneath Runcorn,” Liverpool Echo (2015); Reed, “Galligu: An Environmetnal Legacy of the Leblanc alkali industry, 1814–1920”; “Contaminated Land Strategy” (2008–2013), submitted by Halton Borough Council; and The Alkali Industry,” Studies in Environmental Science 5 (1979): 235–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which notes that wastewater from chlor-alkali industry causes most problems because it contains mercury. The article is about removing mercury from waste water.

107. Understanding the Factors Affecting Health in Halton.

108. Robert Weible, “They Once Were the Future, Then the Lowell, Massachusetts Textile Mills Went Out of Business,” History News Network (2018). For excellent discussion of recent scholarship on heritage as a cultural process and the role of museums, memory and landscape, including industrial and labor museums, see, esp., Smith, Laurajane, Uses of Heritage (London, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Agnew, Vanessa, “History's affective turn: Historical reenactment and its work in the present,” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 11, 3 (2007): 299312CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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