H.M. Factory, Heath Town, later occupied by Mander Brothers

By the late 19th century, many uses had been found for phosphorus, including munitions, matchsticks, fertilizers, and for the manufacture of saccharine. It had originally been produced in retorts, heated in a coal furnace, and later in a gas-fired furnace. Production was labour-intensive, and relatively expensive, but this all changed with the development of a purpose-built, electrically-powered furnace, which revolutionised production, and turned it into a continuous process.

The first phosphorus factory using the new process was built at Wednesfield in 1890 by the Electric Construction Corporation, which later became the Electric Construction Company (E.C.C.). In 1888 Dr. Readman of Edinburgh took out a patent for producing white phosphorus by the use of an electrically-powered furnace. In 1890 the E.C.C. bought Readman's patent, and Mr. Thomas Parker (E.C.C.'s Works Manager) and Mr. A. E. Robinson, F.C.S. (E.E.C.'s chemist) began experimenting with a revised process, and took out a patent for the application of heat by an electric current through phosphatic materials in a closed furnace. The new process worked extremely well, and resulted in the formation of The Phosphorus Company, and the building of a new purpose-built factory at Wednesfield by the side of the Birmingham canal, near to the railway station.

The process operated on a small scale using several electric furnaces, which were driven by a triple-expansion marine steam engine, delivering 700 horse power. Steam was fed from three Babcock and Wilcock’s boilers, which were fed with heated water to reduce the cost of producing steam. The engine drove an alternator that was 8ft in diameter and produced 400 units of electricity from a single phase supply. Intense heat for the furnaces was produced by powerful carbon arcs, a technique invented by Thomas Parker to create a small and compact design.

The furnaces, built of firebricks inside a framework of cast iron plates, with a capacity of six cubic feet, were 8ft. square and fitted with a hopper at the top that allowed phosphates and coke to be poured-in without any heat vapour escaping. They were air-tight, so that no smoke was generated, and the whole of the ingredients, except for a little slag, produced the phosphorus.

A cross-section of one of the furnaces.

The resulting liquid was drawn from the furnace using a tapping principle, similar to that used in a blast furnace, then passed through pipes and condensers to form a deposit of extremely pure phosphorus. It required a minimal amount of refining before being formed into circular cakes.

The charge for the furnace was carried in buckets and tipped into the hopper at the top. It consisted of coke and an already calcined mixture of Redonda stone and tar. The horizontal carbon electrodes were 12" square and received 80KW through iron connection forks.

They were tamped everywhere with carbon strip, ground coke and pitch. Care had to be taken to ensure that there was always enough material between the carbons to maintain electrical contact.

A circular furnace was also built which performed better and was more reliable. The firebrick hearth was replaced by a gas carbon retort strip. The hopper was moved to one side to make way for a vertical electrode. This became the standard design and remained unchanged for some time.

The production costs were far less than with any other system, and the process was so successful that after several month’s production, plans were made to enlarge the works. The patents and the factory were acquired by the Phosphorus Company Limited. It was hoped that they would be able to produce 1,000 tons a year, which amounted to half the world’s production. The phosphorus furnace became known as "The Wednesfield Furnace" and appeared in many school textbooks. The new process was inherently safer than the old process in which phosphorus was distilled in earthenware retorts, which were dangerous to handle because of a fire hazard. The phosphorus was transported from the factory in 50lb. blocks which were placed in a tank of water.

The later type of furnace.

Another view of the later, circular furnace.

The patents and the buildings were later sold to Albright and Wilson of Oldbury for £16,000. Certain conditions were applied to the sale including a guaranteed consumption of not more than 8 units of electricity for every pound of phosphorus produced, and a minimum yield of 75 per cent.

At that time the measurement of electric current was in its infancy and so it was difficult to verify the consumption of the furnaces. Sir Alexander Kennedy, an eminent engineer, was appointed as assessor.

He brought-in the greatest electrical engineer of the day, Lord Kelvin, who had developed the most accurate instrument at the time for measuring electric current, the Kelvin balance. Lord Kelvin applied his apparatus to the task in hand and proved that the consumption was within the specified limit. The sale conditions were duly met and the sale went ahead.

The condensers developed at Wednesfield.

The Wednesfield factory continued in operation for a further two years until a new factory, along the same lines, was built at Oldbury, which opened in 1893. After transferring production to Oldbury, the Wednesfield factory was gradually shut down, and soon closed.
The H.M. Factory at Heath Town

The closure of the Wednesfield factory was not the end of phosphorus production in the area.

In Oldbury, Albright and Wilson Limited had gone from strength to strength using improved versions of the Wednesfield furnace. In the early years of the First World War the company developed a range of munitions for the army including phosphorus-filled shells, hand and rifle grenades, and 'Chinese tumblers', and 'plum puddings' for trench warfare. On detonation they liberated phosphorus which produced phosphorus pentoxide, a non-poisonous gas that acted as an extremely efficient smoke screen to mask the enemy's fire.

The army initially thought that phosphorus-based munitions were far too dangerous for troops to handle, and so little interest was shown. After much persuasion the devices were accepted, and in a short space of time large numbers were being produced. The other armed services also used phosphorus devices. The Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine frequently used phosphorus smoke screens, and the Royal Flying Corps used wind-direction indicators called candles, which continuously burned phosphorus. They also used 'toffee' bombs which contained a mixture of white phosphorus and amorphous phosphorus against Zeppelins and kite balloons.

Phosphorus for smoke screens was needed in large quantities, which Albright and Wilson Limited could not hope to manufacture. The furnaces were already working beyond their safe limits producing large amounts of phosphorus for shells. To overcome the supply problem the Trench Warfare Supply Department under Sir Alexander Roger, decided, with Government assistance, to build a new factory for the production of phosphorus on a six and a half acre site at Heath Town, which had been purchased towards the end of 1915 from Lord Barnard.

Wilson Lovatt & Company of Wolverhampton were given the contract to build the factory, and work got underway in January 1916. Extra plots of land covering around six acres were also purchased, mainly from the adjacent London and North Western Railway. The factory had twelve 500kW, single electrode furnaces and condensers, with wooden tops that were lifted by mechanical gear, and filters in a separate building, similar to the ones in use at Oldbury. There were also four resistance mud furnaces, a fitting shop, carbon shop, electrician's shop, a time office, and a bungalow for the foreman. Power was purchased from the Wolverhampton Electricity Department, and production got underway in May 1917.

During the first year of operation, a further twelve furnaces and condensers were built, along with filters and four more mud furnaces. A railway siding and mixing house were added because the quantity of furnace mixture required for the plant was too great for Oldbury to supply. Initially it had been brought from Oldbury, shovelled out of the boats and put on conveyors which loaded the bins above the furnaces.

The phosphorus was moulded into 50lb. blocks which were put into open tanks on wheels, and carried to the Oldbury works by canal boat.

A plan of the phosphorus works.
1. The Offices. A single storey building of brick and slate, consisting of four offices with toilets.
2. Furnace House 1. Brick-built with a roof in two spans on steel principals with a slate roof, and 7 blocks of concrete tanks.
3. Mixing House. Brick walls, 3ft. thick at the base, and a Belfast roof covered with ruberoid.
4. Fitters' Shop. Brick walls and Belfast roof, with 2 test rooms and a toilet.
5. Filter House. Brick walls at the ends, open sides with brick piers, and a ruberoid-covered Belfast roof.
6. Bleacher House. Brick walls at the ends, open sides with brick piers, a ruberoid-covered Belfast roof, and concrete tanks.
7. Mud Furnaces. Brick walls at the ends, open sides with brick piers, a ruberoid-covered Belfast roof, concrete tanks, and transformer houses.
8. Boiler House. Bricked-in boilers with a flue and chimney stack.
9. Furnace House 2. Brick-built with a roof in two spans on steel principals with a slate roof, and 4 blocks of concrete tanks.
10. Transformer Houses. Brick-built with a slate roof.
11. Anthracite and Chip Stores. Brick walls, a double-span Belfast roof, and adjoining loading shed.
12. Mixing House. Brick walls, 3ft. thick at the base, and a Belfast roof.
13. Pump House. Brick walls, a ruberoid-covered Belfast roof, and a well for the pumps.
14. Four Store Tanks. 40ft. by 18ft. concrete tanks. One never completed.
15. Canal Loading Deck. Covered span roof with open sides.
16. Canteen and Kitchen. Wood and galvanised iron structure, 3 rooms and a toilet.
17. Store. Wood and galvanised iron structure with a lean-to, 2 stall stable.
18. Bath House and Toilets. Brick and slate built with a wash house, dressing room, 4 bath rooms, and 6 toilets.
19. Foreman's Bungalow. Single story, brick and slate with an entrance hall, two bedrooms, a sitting room, a combined kitchen and scullery, a pantry, a coalplace, an outside toilet and a paved yard.
20. Concrete Gantry. 12ft. wide.

After the war had ended, and the orders for munitions ceased, the factory was of no further use to Albright and Wilson, and so in 1920 the plant was sold for £6,000 and scrapped. The land and buildings remained derelict until the mid 1920s when the site was sold by order of the Surplus Stores of the Liquidation Department of H.M. Treasury. The site, along with some adjacent land was acquired by Mander Brothers, for the building of a new factory.

Mander Brothers

The new Heath Town factory in 1932.

In the 1920s, Mander Brothers Limited was set up by Charles Mander's son, Charles Tertius Mander Bart., his son Sir Charles Arthur Mander, Bart., Gerald Poynton Mander, Sir Geoffrey Le Mesurier Mander and Howard Vivian Mander. 

The new factory was soon built for the production of Mander's paints and printing inks, and became a large local employer, and a great success.

Read George Cox's memories of the Heath Town Factory
Left: A tin of Koreol motor enamel.

Right:  A leaflet advertising Mander's Koreol Varnish, "a practical alternative" to cellulose varnishes (undated). 


Manders also produced Manderlac cellulose motor finishes which were quick drying and resistant to fading.


Charles Tertius Mander Bart.
Photograph courtesy of Jennings 

In 1927 Manders became paint and wallpaper merchants, when the company acquired some 50 depots through the purchase of W. S. Low Limited's long established distribution chain.

In 1937 the printing ink interests merged with John Kidd & Company Limited to become one of the largest printing ink manufacturers in the U.K. 

In the same year the public company Manders (Holdings) Limited was formed, gathering together in one major grouping, all the specialised companies, now operating successfully at home and abroad.

In 1945 the factory at Wednesfield Works was sold to Griffiths Paints.

Left: A tin of Matsine, a transparent flat drying colour which could be used as a wood stain, a scumble, or a glaze.
In 1961 the company produced its 500,000th gallon of paint. The photograph shows the tin being filled.
In the 1960s the company's original factory in Wolverhampton town centre closed, and the site was redeveloped into the Mander Centre, a shopping centre covering 5 acres.

The company set up a property division to control the project, in which retail and office properties were leased.  The Mander Centre opened on 6th March 1968 and contained 134 outlets.

It was designed by James A. Roberts who designed the Rotunda in Birmingham. The new venture formed a secure base for the company's future activities.

An advert from the 1920s.

An advert from the 1970s.

By the 1970's Heath Town works had expanded to cover an area of over 20 acres and the company employed over 1,000 people. Mander's products were distributed through 50 U.K. service centres and agencies throughout the world.

In 1972, Philip Fitzgerald Mander, who had been Chairman of the public company, died, and the family took a less active role in the business. The company continued to be as successful as ever, and following the success of its decorative paints, it acquired other manufacturing companies, whose products would compliment its own.

Left: One of Manders' better known customers was 10 Downing Street.

The famous front door used to be painted with Manders paint.

In 1971 Manders produced their one millionth gallon of paint. The photograph shows part of the celebrations.

Another photograph showing the one millionth gallon of paint.
Right: A paper label of unknown date.
In 1973 British Domolac Limited, an industrial paint company, was purchased, and Manders' Industrial Paints Division added to it. The company then started to trade as Mander-Domolac Limited. 

In the 1980s Manders acquired QC Colours and Johnson and Bloy, and integrated them into the company by forming a new division in 1989 called Manders Liquid Ink Division. It was headed by Managing Director, John Mackenzie, formerly of QC Colours.

A photograph of the factory from a 1970's advertisement.

Heath Town Works in 1984.

A new decorating centre was opened at Heath Town in 1990 and the new headquarters of Mander-Deval Wallcoverings was built on land adjacent to the factory.

In 1992 an unsuccessful takeover bid from a rival company, Kalon, led to Manders reviewing its long-term strategy.

The decision was taken to concentrate on the manufacture of the highly successful printing ink, and so during late 1993 and early 1994, the decorative paints part of the business, and the Mander Centre, were sold. 

The factory in July 1988 after the completion of a new 450,000 cubic ft. tin store.

This was part of a two million pound investment at the factory which saw the installation of modern production equipment, and improved storage facilities.

The photograph shows staff and volunteers at the Springburn Museum in Glasgow. The museum acquired the North British built steam locomotive, Garratt 4112 after its withdrawal from service in South Africa.

The locomotive needed repainting. This was made possible by sponsorship from Manders, who supplied the paint.

Manders paints were ideal for the purpose as Manders used to supply paint to British Rail.

An advert for Vernasca wall paint. Courtesy of David Wilsdon.
An advert for Aqualine water paint. Courtesy of David Wilsdon.

A 1958 advert.

Manders also acquired a number of the world's leading ink manufacturers, including a major competitor, Croda, with operations in the U.K., Ireland. Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. 

In 1994 the Netherlands based Premier Inks was acquired. It was one of Europe's largest manufacturers of publishing inks. 

In the same year Morrison Inks of New Zealand was also acquired to give Manders a strong world-wide presence. 

In 1996 Manders made its final acquisition with the purchase of a large facility in Sweden which specialised in metal decorating coatings. Six centres of excellence were set up in various European locations, specialising in commercial sheet fed inks, liquid inks, metal decorating inks, news inks and publication inks.

The company invested heavily in research and development to ensure that its products kept ahead of the competition and satisfied customer's needs. The Wolverhampton factory became the Centre of Excellence for the manufacture of coldset inks, which are fast drying inks for use in newspapers. Most of the national and provincial newspapers used inks that were manufactured in Wolverhampton, and the company also supplied many newspapers throughout Europe. Printing ink sales increased from £40 million in 1993 to £160 million in 1997. About 60 countries were supplied through 28 manufacturing and distribution centres.

A tube of artist's oil colour in original box.

In 1998 Manders was acquired by the Flint Ink Corporation of America. This is the largest privately-owned ink manufacturer in the world. The Heath Town works became the European Headquarters of Flint Ink Europe, and the remainder of the works closed. It has since become Manders Industrial Estate, which is now home to a variety of companies.

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