Tarmac - The First 80 Years

The firm was named after the road surfacing material, developed and patented by Edgar Purnell Hooley in 1902.

By the early years of the twentieth century, mechanised road transport was becoming commonplace. The newly developed motorcycles, steam and petrol cars needed a good flat surface on which to run, and Tarmac Limited came up with the solution.


One of the first really suitable road surfaces for carriage wheels was macadam, named after John McAdam. It used layers of crushed stones, with thicker ones at the bottom, and smaller ones at the top. Most iron carriage tyres were about four inches wide. The top layer of stones would be around three quarters of an inch across, so that the tyres easily travelled over them. The roads were built above the water table, and cambered, to allow rain water to run off into ditches on either side.

By 1834 John Henry Cassell began using his patented ‘Lava Stone’ which consisted of a layer of tar, covered by a layer of macadam and sealed with a mixture of tar and sand. It could be added to an existing macadam road after scarifying the surface.

Tarmac uses coal tar, a once commonly available by-product from the many town gas works that heated coal in a closed retort. Approximately 10 to 15 gallons of coal tar were produced from each ton of coal. The tar was transported from the gas works by canal boat, or by road in large barrels, and used to produce a wide range of products including creosote, disinfectants, foundry pitch, liquid fuels, naphthas, protective coatings, and solvents.

A lucky accident

In the early 1900s the search was on for a better material for resurfacing the roads. This problem had been worrying Mr. Edgar Purnell Hooley, the County Surveyor of Nottinghamshire. One day in 1901 he was passing a tar works near Denby Ironworks in Derbyshire, where a barrel of tar had recently fallen from a dray, and burst open, covering the road with tar. In order to prevent the sticky black mess from spreading everywhere, a thoughtful person covered the tar with small pieces of slag from the ironworks. Hooley noticed that the resulting surface was remarkably durable, dust free, and had not been rutted by passing vehicles.

An advert from 1929.

He realised that this material could solve all of the road surfacing problems at the time, and set about finding a way of producing it commercially. He called the new material tarmac, short for tarmacadam, meaning macadam mixed with tar. He took out a British patent for the new material on 3rd April, 1902 (patent number 7796), and on 17th June, 1903 founded the Tar Macadam (Purnell Hooley's Patent) Syndicate Limited.

His process consisted of mechanically mixing tar and aggregate, which was spread over the road surface, and compacted with a steamroller. Small amounts of Portland cement, resin, and pitch were also added to the mixture. Radcliffe Road in Nottingham became the first tarmac road in the world. The new surface lived up to expectations. It was hard wearing, and free from dust and mud.

A factory to produce tarmac was built at Denby, and on 26th July, 1904 Hooley obtained a US patent for an apparatus for the preparation of tar macadam, which improved the existing method of production. Later in 1904 he visited the USA in order to promote the use of tarmac, but unfortunately he was not a good businessman and had problems selling the product. Because of lack of sales, the business ran into financial difficulties, and in his absence everything was put on hold.

The story could have ended there, but luckily Wolverhampton MP, Sir Alfred Hickman realised the potential of the new product, which could be made from the large quantities of waste slag that were produced at his ironworks in Ettingshall. He purchased the ailing company and re-launched it in 1905 as Tarmac Limited, with himself as Chairman.

A new Era

The new company, Tarmac Limited became an overnight success, and orders poured in. The new management had completely turned the business around.

Sir Alfred died in 1910, and his son Edward took over. The company continued to be successful, making a profit of £4,752 at the end of his first year as Chairman, which is nearly half a million pounds in today’s money.

Because of increasing demand, the manufacturing facilities had to be extended, and so in order to raise capital, Tarmac Limited became a public company in 1913.

The factories at Ettingshall and Denby were extended in 1914, and a new factory opened at Middlesbrough, near to the North Eastern Steel Company.

Around the same time several lucrative contracts were made with county councils.

An advert from 1936.

World War One

At the outbreak of war, the company lost hundreds of men who joined the armed forces. This greatly affected the road building programme and could have led to the company’s demise. Orders rapidly decreased and profits fell from £21,792 in 1914 to around £16,000 in 1918. Luckily Tarmac’s Company Secretary Mr. D. G. Comyn had a good relationship with the Head of the Road Board, Sir Henry Maybury. This led to orders for large quantities of Tarmac, which were despatched for military use.

An advert from 1938.

In September 1916 the Road Board approached Tarmac to ask if crushed slag could be supplied to help build urgently needed roads, to improve access to the French battlefields. As a result large quantities of crushed slag were shipped to the Front from Tarmac’s Middlesbrough factory.

The shortage of labour continued to be a problem for the company, but luckily the Road Board came to the rescue, by supplying several hundred German prisoners of war, who were each paid seven pence an hour. Camps were setup to house the men at Bilston, Denby, and Middlesbrough.

By 1918, with the end of the war in sight, Tarmac began to look forward to the future, and expected a great increase in orders for new roads, and resurfacing schemes.

The company leased  a local slag heap from Lord Dudley, and a steam-powered tipping waggon was acquired to take the slag by road to the works at Ettingshall.

The Inter-War Years

At the end of the war, orders poured in, and Tarmac began a huge expansion programme. Sir Henry Maybury continued his relationship with the company. In early 1919 the Board was informed that 750,000 tons of tarmac would be needed over the next two years, for special work alone. In order to meet the demand, Tarmac acquired slag heaps and a roadstone quarry on the Welsh border.

In the same year the company began to diversify into the construction industry after acquiring the patents for a system of construction using reinforced Vinculum concrete, made from the company’s waste slag dust. Contracts were acquired for the building of council houses for Wolverhampton Corporation and the City of Birmingham. The houses were extremely successful, and another order arrived from Wolverhampton for a further twenty houses at £720 each.

By 1926 around 190 miles of arterial roads had been completed, including the country’s first dual carriageway, the Kingston By Pass. Unfortunately 1926 was a bad year for the company due to the general strike, the recession, and a fall in the price of tarmac. In that year Tarmac reported a loss of £49,576. Fortunately things soon improved. In 1927 the after-tax profit was £44,576.

The late 1920s and the 1930s were years of steady growth thanks to a rise in demand for the company’s products. The average after-tax profits rose to £57,000. There were two exceptional years, 1936 and 1938 when the after-tax profit rose to £80,000. The company’s quarries were mechanised, and excavators began to be used to load stone into railway wagons and road vehicles. Over the years, Tarmac had acquired a large fleet of Sentinel steam wagons, which were now being replaced with modern lorries. New products appeared in the form of ‘Settite’, a bitumen macadam, introduced in 1932, and ‘Asphaltic Grittite’, a cold asphalt, introduced in 1938.

An advert from 1929.

By this time Tarmac had become a household name. The Roadstone Department had production facilities at Cardiff, Corby, Deptford, Ettingshall, Irlam, Middlesbrough, Scunthorpe, Shoreham, and Skinningrove.

In the late 1930s the company formed a Civil Engineering Department which would not only concentrate on road building, but also on the building of military airports, soon to become a necessity.

The Second World War

Because aircraft played a significant role in the Second World War, new airfields were desperately needed, and Tarmac began a huge airfield construction programme.

An advert from 1936.

The company produced over five million tons of road and runway materials, and as far as possible introduced mechanisation to overcome labour shortages. Nearly six million pounds worth of orders were received by the Civil Engineering Department during the war.

The work was often difficult and dangerous. On one occasion nearly fifty German bombs fell on one airfield while it was being built. Another airfield was machine-gunned by Messerschmitts while building work was underway.

The Vinculum Department received a large number of orders for air raid shelters. In the first eighteen months of the war, around 50,000 precast concrete units were produced, as well as concrete blocks for blast walls. Building work was also carried out on gun sites, road blocks, and defence projects.

When the end of war was in site, Tarmac received an order for a special rush job, the widening and strengthening of miles of roads in the south of England, in readiness for the D-Day invasion traffic, which travelled to the coast.

There were many other road building projects carried out during the war. Britain’s roads had to be brought up to scratch. One important project was the building of the Maidenhead Bypass for Berkshire County Council.

The Post War Years

Tarmac began a re-investment programme in readiness for the expected post-war boom. Over two million pounds was spent over eight years on the reconstruction and mechanisation of the existing production facilities. The company was not disappointed. In 1946 the pre-tax profit was £207,256 which by 1953 had risen to £680,040. By this time Tarmac was processing over 2 million tons of slag a year, and had become one of the most important civil engineering businesses in the country.

Tarmac built the first stretch of motorway in the country in 1956, the eight mile long Preston Bypass which became part of the M6 Motorway. This was followed by the country’s first stretch of concrete surfaced motorway, the St. Albans Bypass, which became part of the M1.

In 1957 Tarmac Limited became a holding company with three main subsidiaries: Tarmac Roadstone, Tarmac Civil Engineering, and Tarmac Vinculum. In October 1958, merger talks were held with the tar distillers Crow Catchpole, and the Amalgamated Roadstone Corporation.

The Vinculum loading yard at Ettingshall.

The talks broke down and the merger was abandoned. In 1959 however, Tarmac acquired Crow Catchpole to improve its sales capability in London and the south east. In December of that year, Tarmac acquired Tarslag, a company based in the north east, which moved to Wolverhampton.

An advert from 1948.

An advert from 1953.

Tarmac also acquired Rowley Regis Granite Quarries Limited and their massive Hailstone Quarry at Rowley Regis. The company now had a vast supply of stone and so was less reliant on slag. After the acquisition, the Industrial Division was formed, to serve both private and public industries. Local area construction teams were also set up. They became a vital part of the company’s operations.

Profits continued to increase. By 1959 the annual profit amounted to £1,047,000, and the equity capital had soared to £3,592,000. Tarmac’s new Managing Director, Robin Martin, who was appointed in 1963, instigated a massive expansion programme, which led to vastly increased profits. By 1970 the annual profit was £3.8 million.

In the mid 1960s one of Tarmac’s major projects was the building of the M5 Motorway.

Because of the decline in the availability of slag, Tarmac acquired more quarries and several slag processors, including: Taylors (Crook) Limited, slag processors in the north east; William Prestwich & Sons, slag processors and quarry owners, surfacing contractors, and foundry owners in Sheffield; New Northern Quarries in the north west; Cliffe Hill Granite in Leicestershire; and  Hillhead Hughes, a quarrying company with quarries in Derbyshire, Lancashire, and North Wales.

Tarmac also secured its supply of bitumen by acquiring a bitumen refinery at Ellesmere Port, jointly owned with Phillips Petroleum of Oklahoma. A reliable bitumen supply became essential by the late 1960s when town gas was replaced by natural gas, so that coal tar was no longer available. The first natural gas arrived from the North Sea in 1967.

The company's head office at Ettingshall.

In August 1968 Tarmac merged with two rivals, Derbyshire Stone, and William Briggs, a company based at Dundee, specialising in bitumen, building materials, and building contracts. Tarmac also acquired Amasco which then became known as Briggs Amasco. The new group, the country’s largest roadstone and construction group was initially named Tarmac Derby, but in 1970 the word Derby was dropped.

1971 Tarmac acquired Limmer and Trinidad, a London based quarry products firm, with an asphalt lake in Trinidad. Tarmac then became the largest road surfacing contractor and blacktop producer in UK. The acquisition included the firm of Fitzpatrick & Son, which for many years held all of the paving contracts for the City of London and the City of Westminster.

Tarmac’s expansion continued. In February 1973 the company acquired Mitchell Construction Holdings, and its subsidiaries including Kinnear Moodie, an expert tunnelling company. This led to contracts for parts of the Fleet Line underground network in London, the first tunnel under the Suez Canal in Egypt, and the Brighton sewer outfall. The company also carried out construction work on parts of the Majes Project in Peru, which included the building of tunnels, canals, and reservoirs to transport water from the Andes to irrigate the Majes Plain. Other projects included concrete oil production platforms, and civil engineering work on the Thames Barrier.

An advert from 1956.

From the Glasgow Herald. 14th February, 1973.

From the 1972 Wolverhampton Handbook.

By this time the company had vast stone reserves. Tarmac owned over a hundred quarries, and could potentially remove over 3,300 million tons of rock, enough to supply the country for about thirty years.

The stone was mainly quarried for concrete, building and road foundations, rail ballast, sewage filter beds, sea and river defences, and road surfacing.

There were also sand and gravel pits, and a dwindling supply of furnace slag.

The company’s limestone quarries supplied ground limestone for use as a soil neutraliser, and stone for cement, iron and steel production, fillers, and for the sugar, glass, rubber, and plastics industries. Tarmac also mined natural rock asphalt in France and Switzerland, which is a naturally occurring mixture of limestone and bituminous crude oil.

An advert from 1951.


An advert from 1956.

The road building and resurfacing part of the business continued to thrive. Products were available with a wide range of characteristics. There were skid resistant surfaces, heat resistant surfaces, airport runway surfaces, and many more. The company also had a large involvement in the country’s motorway building programme, and built roads throughout the world, in all kinds of terrain, from mountains to deserts.

Careers at Tarmac in 1967.

The home building side of the company expanded dramatically in early 1974 when Tarmac acquired McLean Homes. Up until then, Tarmac Homes, the original private house building company, had been a mediocre performer, but that soon changed.

After the take-over, Eric Pountain, McLean’s Managing Director, ran the house building division. Under his leadership it went from strength to strength, producing around 2,000 houses a year. By the end of the 1970s McLean was building 4,000 houses a year, and substantially contributed to the group’s profits. It soon became the country’s biggest house builder, and in 1979 Eric Pountain took over as Managing Director for the whole Tarmac Group.

There were other take-overs in the 1970s. In 1976 the civil engineering part of the company expanded with the acquisition of the building company Holland Hannen and Cubitts which had been involved in many important building projects.

Tarmac set up a number of teams to work as local contractors, both at home and abroad. The expansion continued with the acquisition of Thomas Lowe & Sons, followed by the acquisition of Alexander Turner of Scotland in 1977.

An advert from 1965.


An advert from 1968.

The company became one of the largest waterproofing businesses in the country after taking over Permanite, Britain’s biggest roofing felt manufacturer. Under Tarmac’s wing, the firm’s products included bituminous roofing felts, mastic asphalts, and bitumen polymer based sheeting. Another member of the group, Coolag, enabled Tarmac to produce a variety of thermal insulation products including rigid polyurethane, and polyisocyanurate foam, ideal for roof and wall insulation.

Expansion continued in 1980 when Tarmac acquired Briggs' Dundee oil refinery and greatly increased its output.

An advert from 1985.

The company grew from small beginnings into a vast group, and since the 1980s has continued to expand. In recent times it has itself been taken over, to become part of one of the largest construction companies in the world.

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