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Remembering the Patent Borax Company — Part One

By dan shaw  |  Posted: March 16, 2013

  • 1893 illustration of the worksʼ grand frontage on Ledsam Street, Ladywood

  • The Patent Borax works on the Birmingham-Wolverhampton Canal, Ladywood

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IN January, in Bugle 1063, we printed a picture of some items from the collection of Raymond Franks of Stourport-on-Severn. They were examples of old packaging and among them were cleaning products by the Patent Borax Company of Tipton; and we asked readers for more information on the firm. A few weeks later we were contacted by Martin Adams who told us that his friend Graham Foulkes was the last managing director of the company.

We met up with them both, and Graham has provided us with a wealth of information and pictures about this old Black Country firm that was once a household name across Britain.

Although Patent Borax had two factories on opposite sides of Albion Street, Tipton, for 75 years, the company’s origins lie just beyond the Black Country, in Birmingham.

Graham has provided the Bugle with a copy of a lavishly illustrated promotional booklet Patent Borax produced in 1893, which outlines how the company began: “About nineteen years ago, that is to say ’73-74, Mr Arthur Robottom, a native of Birmingham, and one of those restless, untiring Englishmen whose adventurous genius has made the English name a commercial talisman the world over, was prospecting round the southern confines of the Western Wonderland when he stumbled across a long, deep valley whose indented surface shone like a vast expanse of snow-crystals under a sun that blazed unclouded out of a tropical sky. Millions of shining facets reflected the almost vertical rays with such brilliancy that the dazzled eye could only admire them for a moment before their brightness overpowered it. And this beautiful tropic wilderness was as lifeless and silent as the polar solitudes of eternal ice. The air was so dry that to breathe was painful, and to walk more than a few strides at a time impossible.

“Weary, thirsty, and half-stifled by the heat, the lonely explorer looked around for a resting place, and saw a hundred paces or so distant a little mound breaking the even slope of the valley.

“He made towards it and with a deep sigh of relief sat down upon it. After a few moments of rest he began to examine his seat, and to his intense astonishment found that he was sitting on the crystallised carcase of a dead horse. Very naturally surprised to find no offensive smell proceeding from the corpse which must have been lying for some time under the fierce heat of a tropical sun, he cut down into the flesh with his knife and was astonished to find that it was as fresh and sweet as if the animal had only just been killed.

“Later on, he learned that the horse had dropped dead out of an emigrant train seven months before he had sat on its carcase, and meanwhile he had discovered that the crystalline floor of the valley was composed of salts of boron, and that their marvellous powers of arresting decay had kept the horse flesh sweet all that time under the most unfavourable conditions that could possibly be conceived.

“Such a discovery made by such a man meant – in one all-descriptive word – money, and plenty of it, as the event has most amply proved. Mr Robottom saw at a glance that he had stumbled on to the finest preservative that man could wish for, and there it lay in tons to be had for the picking up and taking away.

“It was in accordance with the eternal fitness of things that this splendid find should be made a by a native of a town that was already glorified by the memories of Watt, Boulton, Murdock, and Priestly, and that the benefits should be given to the world by Birmingham men.

“The moment the explorer got back into touch with civilisation, he sent advices to the capital of the Midlands, which resulted in the formation of the Patent Borax Company, and the purchase of the Borate Valley from the Californian State Government for £5,000.

“Not many investments have borne a better interest than the buying of that 120 square miles of barren western land. If it had been covered with golden coin of the British realm its face value would not have been as great as its natural worth has proved to be.” Further details of how the company was founded are in another booklet Patent Borax produced for their 50th anniversary in 1924: “The industry was originally started in the year 1874 by Mr Arthur Robottom in premises at 34 Ludgate Hill, Birmingham, to manufacture the new discovery ‘Robottom’s Pure Californian Borax’ and in 1876 The Borax Company Ltd was registered to purchase such business as a going concern, and to acquire certain Patents for Improvements in the manufacture of Soap, Soap Powders, Antiseptic, Preserving, and Disinfecting Compounds. The familiar Borax Crystal Trade Mark was first introduced and copyrighted on a variety labels, which included Borax (Patent) Dry Soap in January, 1875.

“In June, 1876, the Company removed to larger premises in Newmarket Street, Birmingham, and between the years 1876-1878 various products were manufactured and brought beforethe public under distinctive titles and labels which were duly copyrighted. It is interesting to recall that in these early days the work of milling, packing, and dispatch was performed largely by one family – an old-school general utility man, his wife, sons and son-in-law.

“In July, 1878, the Borax Company Ltd was voluntarily liquidated, and the effects, with Patent and all other rights, came into the hands of Mr Jesse Ascough of Handsworth (September 3rd, 1878). The copyrights, trade marks, and other rights were transferred to Mr J. Ascough by Mr A. Robottom on 26th August, 1879, and from this time, under the title of The Patent Borax Company, the record of the business is one of continuous development.” The rapid growth of the business meant that Patent Borax soon had to move from the cramped surroundings of Newmarket Street and in 1893 it 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.

Every aspect of production was carried out at the Ladywood works, with the raw materials arriving from California, then being processed into pure borax and then into a variety of products. All packaging and labelling was produced on site too and the works employed around 300 people. The pictures of the Ladywood works show that men tended to do the heavy manual work, such as grinding, processing and box-making, while women did the packaging and labelling.

The company received royal warrants from Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V and many medals and awards at international industry shows.

Patent Borax strongly promoted their products with a variety of advertising and we have reproduced some of the original artwork. These paintings once hung in the company’s offices but were adapted for posters, postcards and advertisements.

Next week we shall look at how the Patent Borax Company moved from Ladywood to Tipton.

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