LAST week we began the story of the Patent Borax Company, a Birminghambased manufacturer of cleaning products and soaps which later transferred its business to Tipton.
The company was founded in the 1870s by Arthur Robottom, a Birmingham prospector who discovered a rich source of the raw material in the Californian badlands, and Jesse Ascough, the astute businessman who set the company on a firm footing that saw it remain in business for 120 years.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Patent Borax rapidly grow from humble beginnings in a Birmingham back street to global dominance.
In 1893 the company took over the former works of the Credenda Seamless Tube Company in Ledsam Street, Ladywood. The works had a frontage of 198 feet on Ledsam Street, 98 feet on Monument Lane and 210 feet on the Birmingham-Wolverhampton canal. From these impressive works its products were sent all over the world, gaining the company royal warrants and international awards.
A booklet published in 1893 lists the company’s products:
“Californian, the Household Treasure, Pure Borax ‘Queen of Antiseptics’, in penny packets, 3d packets and family packets, 6d each. This borax is specially prepared for personal and domestic uses, in the household, in the laundry, for washing, toilet uses, in the greenhouse, with domestic animals, for removing taint from meat, etc.
“Borax, the ‘New’ Patent, specially prepared for household and toilet uses, in the greenhouse and toilet uses. In Borax Glazed Household Stock Jars, 1/- each, and inBorax Glazed Toilet Jars, 6d each.
“Borax Extract of Soap, perfection of fine powder soap in packets, for washing at home, and for home laundries. In 1lb, ½lb, and ¼lb packets. Sells for 4d per lb.
“Borax Dry Soap, the best and most convenient soap for daily use. In 1lb, ½lb, and ¼lb packets/ Sells for 3d per lb.
“Borax Starch Glaze, in 1d and 3d packets, and 6d boxes. Converts the starch into white and bright flexible enamel.
“Boraxaline Perfumed Borax Parisienne, specialty for bath. In boxes of six packets, 1/- per box.
“Borax Queen of Beauty Tooth Powder, attar rose perfume, faultless in composition, matchless in use. In Borax Glazed Jars, 1/- each.
“Borax Beauty Toilet Powder, special preparation for the skin. Suitable for nursery as well as toilet uses. In Borax Glazed Jars, 1/- each.
“Borax Sponge and Brush Powder, prevents danger from infection. In boxes of three packets, 6d per box.
“Borax Electric Voice Crystals, excellent for public speakers and singers. In Borax Glazed Jars, 1/- each.
“Borax Beauty New Toilet Soap, pale rose tinted, delicately scented, soft as velvet in use. Three circular tablets in fancy boxes, 1/- per box.
“Borax Cold Cream Soap, specialité. Made of purest materials, extra cream, extra milled, and exquisitely perfumed. Three tablets in fancy boxes, 2/- per box.
“Borax Glycerine Soap, pure in composition, agreeable perfume. Three circular tablets in fancy boxes, 1/- per box.
“Borax Special Shaving Soap, extra cream, milled, perfumed. In Borax Glazed Jars, 1/- each.
“Borax Household Treasure Soap, special quality scented white curd, in 4d tablets.
“Borax Sweet Home Soap, special quality, palm yellow, ‘sweet as new-mown hay’. For home uses, in 3d tablets.”
The company was also adept at advertising, commissioning works of art for its posters. The same 1893 booklet boasted:
“Since the company commenced in 1874, more than 175,000,000 (one hundred and seventy five millions) of illustrated circulars, borax books, borax uses, recipes, wrappers, show cards, handbills, etc., have been distributed; and these, including newspaper, periodical, and other advertisements, up to the present time have cost £125,000.”
We were first put on to this story after a picture of some Patent Borax Company packaging appeared in Bugle 1063. We were contacted by Martin Adams who introduced us to his friend Graham Foulkes, the last managing director of the Patent Borax Company. Graham has provided the Bugle with a wealth of information about the business.
Following the First World War the Patent Borax Company sought to consolidate and acquired new premises.
The following extract is taken from a booklet produced to mark the company’s 50th anniversary in 1924:
“The year 1919 marked an important development in the acquisition of Soap Works at Tipton for the manufacture, primarily, of the base used in soap powders. The capacity of the plant was speedily enlarged, and the variety of soaps now made at Tipton constitutes a goodly proportion of the total production. Adjoining land for development has been added, and the future should show a great extension of this side of the business. In Mr J. Foulkes, the Tipton Works Manager, the Company have a Soap specialist second to none in ability, who is satisfied with nothing short of excellence.”
The soap works acquired were the former Hackwood and Company works in Albion Street, Tipton, and the Joseph Foulkes who managed them was Graham Foulkes’ father. He had previously been manager of the James Mellis and Company soap works in Prestonpans, East Lothian.
In 1938/39 the Patent Borax Company went into voluntary liquidation and it was bought by Joseph Foulkes and Henry Fiddian, who had first joined the company in 1888. They planned to close down the Ladywood works and move all production to Tipton. A buyer was found, but before they could move in the works were bombed by the Luftwaffe and largely destroyed, although parts survive to this day.
At Tipton, Patent Borax had two works on opposite sides of Albion Street, the main works produced soap and also contained the offices, while the other building produced soap powder and packaged the goods.
Tipton folk may remember the Second World War bomb shelter beneath the works. There were extensive cellars underneath the packaging department and theses were requisitioned by the local council and converted into a public air raid shelter with heavy steel doors.
Graham Foulkes joined the business in 1950, when he was almost 17, to learn how to make soap. At that time the firm employed around 25 people and produced around 10 tons of soap a week. Graham remembers that there were three large vats, which each held around 10 tons, and two smaller vats of around 4- 5 tons. They made bar and tablet soap, a carbolic soap called “Borolic”, “White Windsor” soap, and a variety of soap flakes and powders.
Soap production continued until the early 1970s when the company changed to concentrate on industrial and household cleaning products and de-greasers. Products included detergents “Spree” and “Borasan” and the disinfectant “Borapine”.
Henry Fiddian died in the 1950s and Joseph Foulkes passed away in 1968. Graham Foulkes then became managing director while his brother Keith, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at Wulfrun College, Wolverhampton, became chairman and secretary.
When Keith died in 1988 Graham took on both roles.
The business was finally wound up in 1994, by which time it employed around 10 staff. Graham donated some of the soap making equipment and steam engines tothe Black Country Living Museum and the works were later demolished, with the site converted to a car park.
Do readers have their own memories of the Tipton works to share? Perhaps you remember your mother or grandmother using some of the Patent Borax Company’s products, such as “Ispo” soap powder or “Chipso” soap flakes?