The Thames Soapworks of Brentford

By Ted Crouchman

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal No 5 (1996)

The Thames Soap Works (not to be confused with the Brentford Soap Company of Catherine Wheel Road) existed on the west side of Ferry Lane, Old Brentford, from 1799 to 1934, trading under the name T B Rowe and Co on land formerly known as Tile Kiln Close.

T B Rowe and Company was founded by Laurence Rowe who was born in 1756 in Crediton, Devon. He initially formed his soap works circa 1787 in Acton, renting an existing soap works from Henry Briggs (confirmed by the Acton rate books). Rowe married Anna Berry in 1788 and had two sons, Thomas Berry Rowe, baptised in Crediton in 1789 and Laurence Rowe born in Acton 1792 and baptised at the newly-built chapel (1782) of the Society of Dissenting Protestants in Half Acre, Brentford with which the Rowes became closely associated. This was their first direct connection with Brentford. A daughter, Anna, followed later.

The business grows

Expanding business necessitated larger premises for the soap works and in 1799 the house and garden on the corner of Town Meadow, now known as 60 Brentford High Street, was purchased. This house included a piece of garden ground bounded on the north by the rear brick wall of High Street premises (which still exists), on the west by Burgess Walk and on the east by Ferry Lane. Another brick wall formed the southern boundary (now gone) leaving Ferry Lane House, wharfage and shedding in the occupation of Ambrose Burgess. Rowe split his initial plot, using one half as a kitchen garden (this remained until early this century) and his new soap works adjacent to Ferry Lane.

All the land in this part of Brentford was manorial until enfranchisement to the Bishop of London. Any change of title had to be entered in the Ealing Manorial Court Books (now held at the Guildhall Library under the series reference MS13465/) and subject to a small annual quit rent. Otherwise the land was held in a manner similar to a freehold.

The site was no doubt attractive to an up and coming businessman. There was room for expansion; there was a wharf – Parker Wharf, later renamed Soaphouse Creek; a main road – Brentford Town Road was part of the Brentford Turnpike – and the Grand Junction Canal had opened in 1794.

In 1806 the soap works site doubled in size with the purchase of Parker Wharf (by then known as Burgess Wharf after its most recent occupier) and the house in Ferry Lane. This house was originally a ‘messuage or tenement’ consisting of two semi-detached houses on land obtained by Robert and Margaret Parker in 1721 when it was described as waste. At the death of Parker’s widow in 1733, the house had one access directly into Ferry Lane with the other at the opposite side. The houses were completely separate with a solid dividing wall from attic to cellars which was not breached until 1952 when the building was occupied by Varley Pumps. The northern extension of the house was added later. The Rowe family and later owners lived in the part of the house fronting onto Ferry Lane, the factory facing half was used for factory offices. The title to Ferry Lane went with the title of the house.

A further extension of the soap works land took place in 1809 with a triangular portion on the west side of Burgess Walk as houses for factory workers (the plot now occupied by Great West Electrics). This completed the Rowe factory site. Other properties were acquired later, including houses and shops in Brentford High Street on both sides of the Town Meadow. These were mostly rented out.

When the Rowe family and the factory sales office moved to Ferry Lane, 60 Brentford High Street became vacant. It was leased to Mrs Montgomery until 1826; then to the Metropolitan Police to become the first Brentford Police Station until, in 1865, it was converted into a shop.

Laurence Rowe died in 1824 and all his Brentford Manorial holdings, including the soap factory, passed to his two sons as half shares. The brothers ran the company until the death of the younger brother in 1846. Company tradition has it that Charles Dickens based the Brothers Cheeryble in Nicholas Nickleby on the Rowe brothers!

Under new legislation the company name was officially registered as T. B. Rowe and, after the death of the younger brother, control was taken by two salesmen, John Cunnington and Salem Cross. In 1851 all the Brentford property was sold for a nominal sum of 10 shillings (50p) to a tripartite holding comprising two trustees of the first part, the two salesmen mentioned above of the second part with the Rowe family retaining the third part. Thomas Berry Rowe died the following year, and as neither he nor his brother had married, the remaining members of the Rowe family were Anna, who had married Thomas Fisher at St Mary’s Ealing in 1826, and her son Edward Rowe Fisher (who later changed his name to Edward Rowe Fisher-Rowe).

The managers were replaced by their sons, Thomas Cunnington and Charles James Cross; William Merriman also became a manager (the company was often referred to as Cunnington, Merriman and Cross). In 1888 the company paid the Church Commissioners of England £450 to receive Enfranchisement and obtain the full freehold of the property and relief from further quit rent. The Enfranchisement tabulates property holdings which included numbers 57, 58, 59, 60, and 61 Brentford High Street, plus seven cottages in Burgess Walk, one in Town Meadow, three on the west side of Ferry Lane and others in Ferry Square. These were external to the factory premises being either on lease or occupied by employees.

The CunningtonMerrimanCross partnership lasted until July 1898 when, in return for a share issue, the company passed to Winifred Potter, widow of Samuel Potter an earlier trustee of the company.

The Soapworks recorded on a map to accompany the conveyance of the site in July 1898. The large shaded building to the left of Ferry Lane was the soap manufactory itself while that to the right of the District Council Yard was shedding and stabling. The house with a conservatory (shaded in a crisscross) looked out over a lawn to the Creek while a large kitchen garden lay between the soap manufactory and the stabling.

The making of soap

From about 1700 soap makers were subject to a monopoly rights tax, granted by James I. Initially, it was set at 1 penny (½p) per pound, increased to 3 pence in 1816, reduced to 1½ pence in 1833 and abolished in 1853. This required an Excise Officer to be stationed on the premises, padlocking the vats at night and measuring all production output. Tax being payable whether the soap was good or bad, soap makers periodically campaigned for tax removal which, when achieved, permitted many new competitors to start up resulting in an acute fall in price and in overproduction. Many of these small companies failed while older companies had to modernise to reduce costs. This had a marked effect on the selling price of soap. Best quality soap sold in 1806 at 86 shillings (£4.30p) per cwt after peaking at 113 shillings (£5.65p) per cwt. After removal of the tax it fell to around 13 shillings (65p) per cwt, rising to 26 shillings (£1.30p) by 1910.

Soap is made in coppers now heated by means of steam coils. The oils and fats are first put in and boiled. Then caustic soda in solution is run in and, by a chemical reaction, soap is formed. Following procedures to purify the soap, the steam is turned off and the soap is allowed to settle for several days to cool.

The pure soap is forced to the top and liquid containing glycerine falls to the bottom. While still liquid, the soap is pumped from the copper to iron frames where it remains until it solidifies. The iron frames are then dismantled leaving a large block of solid soap to be cut by wires into the required size (most soap is now tabletted by means of a stamping press).

Messrs T B Rowe had from the early days 11 coppers some dating 1767, ranging in size and holding from 2 to 25 tons each. They were made of cast iron sections bolted together, joints being made good with cement mixed with beer (it is surprising how long this jointing material stood up to the action of salt and caustic soda). The fatty raw materials were dug out of their containers into the copper and, as the copper was filled up, extra height was obtained by fixing further cast iron sections around the sides, the joints being caulked with sacking.

To remove spent liquors from the pan a long pump was hoisted by means of a pulley block into the pan and the liquor pumped out by a man working a handle up and down. The finished soap was taken out of the hopper by means of a long ladle on a long pole, poured into a vessel on wheels, in which it was taken to the framing alleys and ladled into the frames by two men, one on either side of the vessel. This method, although crude and extravagant on manpower, produced excellent soap.

Rowe’s Blue Mottled Soap

T B Rowe and Co were renowned for their Blue Mottled Soap which had to be made by the old methods. Factory records are very sparse. However, there is a record of a consignment to Mr Cresswell of Andover, dated 20 February 1806. It comprised 2cwt 3qrs 14lbs (146kg) of Best Mottled Blue Soap costing £12 7s 3d (£12.36p) plus a similar amount of yellow soap valued at £11 3s 3d (£11.16p) shipped via the River Thames and along the Basingstoke Canal. Soap manufacture has always been associated with strong smells and when the Brentford District Council was formed in 1894 much council time was taken up with the subject of the Ferry Lane smells. The melting of tallow was particularly nauseous. Since ‘legal nuisance’ at this time was limited to black smoke to which both the gas works and the local breweries contributed, smoke of other colour and smell was not classified as a nuisance. The worst of the annoyance was reduced by blower fans installed to direct the smell up the chimney and agreed methods of firing and stoking boilers, but the ever-prevailing smell of soap-making was always present in Ferry Lane. (The author is indebted to a paper entitled The History and Manufacture of Soap in Brentford 1767-1962 by the Chief Chemist of T. B. Rowe, deposited in Chiswick Library for soap manufacturing data.)

Thames Soap Works in the 20th century

Soapworks, river view. Edwardian postcard

T B Rowe and Co was in serious financial trouble. In 1905 it was almost broke when two elderly gentlemen from Sussex came to the rescue – Messrs Divie Knighton Robertson of Hove and Francis Barchard, a retired colonel of Uckfield. For technical reasons, the old company was closed down on 28 December 1905 and restarted the following day under the same trading name with the new company taking on all the liabilities. The properties in Brentford High Street were retained separately by the Rowe trustees (Fisher-Rowe family) until sold c 1989 to Broadwall Engineering.

Following a Trust Deed of 3 February 1906, Messrs Robertson and Barchard provided the company with sufficient funds to remain in business. However money appears to have become a problem again by 1915 and a second Trust Deed was raised. In 1914 Divie Knighton Robertson had died and his family wanted some money back.

In 1916, Brentford Gas purchased three pieces of land from the soap company for £6000. This comprised land to the south of the creek, formerly an osier bed; a triangular strip with five cottages (nos 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 Town Meadow) and another piece of land bounded by Town Meadow.

Lever Brothers now enter the picture. In 1916 they became the major partner with an undertaking to make good any lack of income and to clear outstanding mortgages and interest payments. It took Lever Bros until 1933 to do this by which time the company was effectively closed down by removal to Silvertown.

The General Manager of T B Rowe, Mr A H Charlton, together with Mr Loveday and Mr Allen, started a new company, the Brentford Soap Company Limited, which produced its first soap in June 1934 at the old Gomm’s Brewery in Catherine Wheel Road.

The vacated premises in Ferry Lane were filled from top to bottom with old deeds, indentures and other records which were all destroyed – it took a week to burn them. The premises remained empty until 21 June 1935 when they were purchased by Alfred Lockharts (Boatbuilders) which demolished all the soap factory buildings with the exception of the old house. This continued to be used as a sales office and caretaker’s flat.

Two large sheds replaced the original factory, built on a large concrete raft which covers numerous waterways at the south west corner. In 1952 the premises were first leased and a year later sold to Varley Pumps and Engineering Ltd, which went through a number of name changes, finishing up as Peerless Pumps. It closed in 1989 and was sold to Broadwall Engineering who later went into liquidation.

The 1995 development plan, exhibited at Brentford Library, proposed removing the two sheds and raft and returning the Ferry Lane house to its previous Georgian layout with a Thames-side garden (as shown in the photograph of the rear cover of Brentford As it Was) and the removal of the northern extension. Development could provide an opportunity for excavating the underground waterways and result in a better understanding of the early history of the site.

Ted Crouchman’s research into the history of T B Rowe began when he worked for Varley (later Peerless) Pumps which acquired the old house from T. B. Rowe. After 35 years’ service Ted retired in 1992. He is a member of the Acton, Brentford and Chiswick, Hounslow and Southall local history societies.

Ted Crouchman has since died, but much of his substantial and meticulous archives of notes and transcriptions of documents and mapis have found a home in the Hounslow Local Studies Collection.

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