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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Feeder Canal

The life blood of Bristol's new industries

The Feeder Canal was built through the rural countryside to the east of Bristol centre in order to feed fresh clear water from the tidal River Avon back into the Floating Harbour and to maintain the level of water in the Floating Harbour.

From 1804 to 1809 over a 1000 English and Irish labourers worked in Bristol to turn a two and a half mile stretch of the original tidal course of the River Avon into a 84 acre floating harbour.  Excavation had to be done by hand with spades and the waste that was removed had to be transported by horse and cart. The lock that was constructed at the far end of Feeder Canal not only controlled the water but prevented barges from entering the canal until they had paid harbour tolls (the amount of which depended on the commodities they were carrying).

The Feeder Canal and Floating Harbour opened on 1st May 1809 and was one of the biggest events in Bristol’s history.  The whole thing was an unprecedented piece of engineering and cost £600,000, almost £400,000 more than estimated.  The opening was celebrated with a dinner for the workers in a field near the New Cut.  Labourers were treated to a feast of roast beef, tons of potatoes, six-hundredweight of plum duff and a seemingly endless supply of ‘Stingo’, a very strong beer! By the end of the afternoon spirits were high and fights broke out which the ‘Guardians of the Peach (the local constabulary) and Press Gang were called in to quell.

Horses or ponies hauled the early barges with the captain and his family living aboard and many carried commodities associated with the industries that had already established around Crews Hole/Troopers Hill including coal, stone, lead, copper, zinc and brass (coal and stone being most plentiful). 

New industries began to spring up along the canal as, through the Floating Harbour, there was a direct link to the Port of Bristol.  Raw materials were brought by barge and the finished products and waste was also transported by barge - although much of the waste went straight into the canal itself which at times made the water bubble! 

The Feeder Canal began to be urbanized in 1838 with the opening of the Great Western Cotton Factory – the largest mill in the South of England at the time.  Barges brought raw cotton from America and the calico cloth was made from it and exported to the Far East.  The area we now know as Barton Hill owes it’s existence to the Great Western Cotton Factory as it was developed to house its workers.

The heyday of the Feeder Canal was in the years between 1900 and 1950 when the feeder was the main artery feeding  many new industries:

Avon Street Gas Works (which continued to operate until the 1950s), the first of Bristol’s coal gas production sites, works which needed coal and coke which arrive by barge to be processed and turned into gas.

St Vincents Works and Netham Works (John Lysaghts) required coal, iron and steel for the manufacture of galvanized tin baths and wire netting.

John Lysaght was born in County Cork in Ireland in 1832 and sent by his father to Bristol to be educated.  There he met his best friend who was the son of Mr Clark a maker of galvanised iron buckets at his successful business on Temple Back. When Mr Clark died his son gave the business that he had inherited to John – lock, stock and barrel.  By the turn of the century John had made this company one of Britain’s leading iron and steel manufacturers. 

Having grown out of the premises at Temple Back, in 1869 he bought St Vincent’s Works, an empty pre-Victorian engineering works on the Feeder Canal.   It grew rapidly from 29 workers in 1864 to 400 by 1878!  In 1876 Lysaght purchased a further 13 acres of land next to the Feeder Canal which had a railway system that linked to the Great Western Dock yard, crossing the Avon on an iron bridge at Whitby Road.  Lysaghts’ Constructional Engineering Works exported products (including churches, railway stations, bridges, farm buildings, huts pavilions, warehouses, halls, exhibition buildings made of iron) as far away as China and Peru.  Lysaght acquired iron works in Wolverhampton and land to create another 60 acre site in 1895 on the banks of the River Usk near Newport.  With these acquisitions the company employed 3000 men, producing 175,000 tons of sheet iron each year, transporting 80% of that by steam barge to Bristol to be used at the Feeder Canal works. 

After Lysaght’s comparatively early death in 1895 (he was only 63) his eldest son Fred Percy Lysaght became chairman.  WWI brought difficulties with the interruption of the supply of zinc from Belgium and as workers were put on short time many, with Lysaght’s support, joined the war effort, with many jointing the Somerset Light Infantry.  The Lysaght family finally cut its connections with the company in 1919 when it was sold to the Berry Group. 

The St Vincent’s and Netham Works continued into the 20th Century but with the onset of WWII Bristol became a target for German bombers.  St Vincent’s was almost entirely occupied with producing Bailey bridges and then in 1944 with the construction of the petrol pipeline linking England and France after the D Day landings and with the construction of floating tanks for the Mulberry harbours used on D Day.  Netham works was busy producing amphibian tanks, anti-submarine netting, prefabricated ship super-structures, anti-aircraft guns and shells with most of this wartime construction being carried out by women.  In  1950 St Vincent’s concentrated on the fabrication of oil drums and Netham returned to the construction for Agriculture and Tanks (which had been moved from Netham during the world depression of the 1930s) keeping the Netham Works viable during the 1950s but by 1970 the works were closed with the old buildings remaining until demolition in 1976.

Coles, the bone yard, dealt with dead animals.

Tamar Pockcock was born into a farming family in 1830 in Wiltshire and, as told in from "Without a Shilling" (a book on the Pocock family history), like her sister Sarah, she assisted in the day to day running of the farm, particularly in dairy work. Tamar married an elderly widower, James Humphreys Cole, in the 1877 at the Baptist Chapel, Calne. Her brother Edmund had married Martha Wiltshire Cole in the same chapel in 1859, who was a daughter of James Humphreys Cole by his first marriage. So, in effect Tamar now became her elder brother's step-mother, James Humphreys Cole being some 30 years senior to Tamar!

Farming was not the sole occupation of the Cole family. One of JHC's sons, another JHC, turned animal waste, mostly blood, into farm fertilizer. As the fertilizer business became more successful, the family decided to expand into the city of Bristol in and quite a large plant for the production of animal based fertilizer was built in Feeder Road in Bristol around 1850.  In the process the Coles acquired Cottrell’s Bristol Bone Manure Company and the Bristol Stone Manufacturing Company.

The plant was situated virtually on the banks of the Feeder Canal and contributed significantly to the growing number of industries emitting vast quantities of smoke, grime and overpowering smells. Accounts from the time describe that of all the noxious emissions from the alkali chemical plant, the tar and creosote distilling, the huge gas works using coke, the animal glue factory, paint works, foundries, cattle market, one smell stood out from all the others - the one from what was know to all Bristolians of the period, as "Coles Boneyard" or "Glue Factory".

A private road, still named Cole Road, led from Feeder Road to the plant and in the large yards surrounding these 'rusty coloured' buildings were huge mounds of bones which were crushed to produce 'bone meal'. There was a steady stream of animal carcases and large quantities of offal from the slaughter houses and as one man who worked there for many years remarked "if any animal died from disease or was slaughtered for any reason its destination would be 'Coles boneyard'". The processing apparently involved heating the raw material by steam to cook it at high temperature and in so doing vast quantities of fat were extracted which were taken off to be sold as tallow. Some of the earlier trade notices list the Company as the 'Bristol Bone Manure Co. Grease Works, Corn and Oil Cake Merchants, St. Phillips Marsh. Prop. J. Humphrey Cole & A. Cole'.

In 1885 Coles gained much publicity by transporting a dead whale through the streets of Bristol to be processed at the works. More recently, when Rosie, the Bristol Zoo elephant died, her carcass was also disposed of by Proctor’s, though without a lot of publicity! The meat and bone section of the works closed down around 1980.

Coles operated on the Feeder Road site for many years and was taken over by mutual agreement by H.&T. Proctor Ltd. in 1958, who still use the site for the formulation of chemical fertilizers and some of the old Cole buildings are still in use.

Cathay Chemical Works of H & T Proctor (An engraving, about 1830)

Proctor’s also started as rag and bone men. Even in 1842, Matthews’ ‘Bristol directory’ gives H&T Proctor as rag and bone merchants, preparers of bones for manure and glue manufacturers. A billhead, dated 14 December 1844, describes the Cathay Works, in Prewett Street, near St. Mary Redcliffe Church (above), as ‘The West of England depot for bone, guano, nitrate of soda, and other portable manures’. The billhead carries two engravings on the left, a liquid manure cart and on the right, a cornfield in harvest. Underneath is the message: ‘He who gives to the soil liberally will receive there from abundantly’. Proctors were also inventors and suppliers of agricultural machinery; ‘drills, threshing machines, ploughs, turnip cutters, clod rollers, manure carts etc.’

Alderman Thomas Proctor (In the Mansion House, Bristol)

By the end of the 19th century the fertiliser trade was being affected by foreign competition and in 1892, William Proctor arranged an amalgamation with Norrington and Hingston, who were making superphosphates at the Great Western Chemical Works at Netham. This was the combination of the Netham Works ‘artificials’ with the muck and magic’ of the Cathay Works, beneficial to both parties.

By October/November 1985 H&T proctor Ltd was in real trouble. There was a major down turn in the use of fertilisers in agriculture and having made no real move to diversify, the business was unable to compete with the big fertiliser producers and so went into receivership. It went into liquidation in April 1987. However the name H&T Proctor still continues as a division of the animal feed merchants Willett & Son (Bristol) Ltd.

Netham Chemical Works was an East Bristol industrial giant (Bristol's largest Alkali Works) covered nearly 40 acres of land with a landmark chimney that could be seen for miles and demanded vast quantities of coal and chemicals to produce mainly sulphuric adic (vitriol) and washing soda. The so called ‘Netham Monster’ expanded on the site from 1859 (now the Netham playing fields and park) saw a vast sprawling of industrial structures next to the Feeder Canal towering over Marsh Lane and extended to Blackswarth Road and Avonvale Road with hot furnaces, huge waste tips and a complex tramway network. 

A Mr Windus took a tour of the works and wrote:

'The works are favourably situated and have a frontage both on the Avon and the Feeder which join just in front of the premises. Barges bringing goods used in the manufacturing come right up to the wharves and discharge their cargoes. There are 3 wharves, each provided with double acting steam cranes, each capable of lifting 1 ton at a time. They hoist the materials to an overhead tramway where it is deposited in trollies and conveyed to where it is desired. The overhead tramway system runs right round the works and ground tramways as well, indeed everything in this scheme is perfect. Men run the trams along with the greatest of ease and the saving of labour must be immense.'

Mr Windus described the various process at the works. The pyrites, imported from Spain, were used for the manufacture of sulphuric acid. At the time of the visit the manufacture of alkali was undergoing changes, so the buildings were mostly temporary wooden ones. The Spanish pyrites were 50% sulphur and were piled in large heaps where the big lumps were broken up ready to be burnt in the kilns. A hundred kilns were alight at the time and capable of treating 200 tons of pyrites a week. The heat had to be regular, not intense, but steady. The fumes produced were conveyed into great leaden chambers where steam was introduced and sulphuric acid was condensed. The steam came from 20 large boilers of Galloway make, each 30ft long. There were vitriol chambers and towers for condensing. Vitriol was concentrated by means of Glover towers, built of wood and iron stages with linings of brick and lead. There were three chimneys towering high above, 2 being 300 feet high and one 200 feet.

The visitors passed over wooden bridges from the pyrites burning process to where the residual cinders were stored. These were later sent to South Wales for the extraction of copper. Each of the storage arches contained 400-500 tons of cinders. Next to this was where the salt cake or sulphate of soda was made. Salt was decomposed by vitriol in an iron pan and the residuum roasted in a furnace, drawn off and placed in heaps. Many men were engaged in this roasting. process. Hydrochloric acid was evolved, cooled by glass pipes and condensed in high towers, built of Yorkshire flags and packed with coke.

Huge hoppers each holding 500 or 600 tons of limestone moved up the 150 yard long incline to the crushing mills, all driven by steam. Carbonate of soda was manufactured by mixing, salt cake with the crushed limestone and small coal in a large revolving furnace, fusing it into a molten mass. When it had cooled it was placed with black ash in iron tanks, the soda dissolved and the greenish chemical water left treated for the recovery of the soda.

Elsewhere quicklime was prepared in 3 large kilns and chlorine generated from hydochloric acid. In yet another part of the works muriate of ammonia (sal ammoniac) manufacture was carried on.

Caustic soda was another important product Carbonate of soda resulting from the lixivation of black ash was treated with quicklime in vessels provided with agitators worked by machinery. This made caustic soda and gave up carbonic acid to the lime. Carbonate of soda settled out and a weak solution of caustic soda was concentrated in cast iron pans. About 500 tons of pure carbonate of soda crystals were in the process of crystallisation at the time of the visit.

At its peak the chemical works employed up to 500 men working in very touch conditions.  They were divided between process workers who dealt with the chemicals and the yard men who were blacksmiths, hauliers, carpenters, painters and general labourers.

The Netham Chemical Works provides a good example of the interlocking interests so typical of business in Bristol; its chairman was the soap manufacturer Charles Thomas, and the board included Joseph Wethered, a leading coal-owner.

In 1927 the Netham Chemical Works became the I.C.I. plant which produced vast quantities of waste creating a strange landscape, mounds and valleys of chemical waste which became an unofficial playground known as ‘The Brillos’ for the local children of Barton Hill. On explanation for this name is that ‘Barilla’ was the ash of seashore plants found in Spain and contained about 25% sodium carbonate. Alkali was made from Barilla but its use became replaced by the Leblanc soda process.

The works closed in 1949 and the chimney, which was 300 feet high and said to comprise half a million bricks, was demolished in 1950.

For more then a century the Feeder Canal was the main artery that kept the wheels of industry turning – supplying jobs for the people of the area.

By the 1950s lorries had begun to take over the work of the barges which saw a decline in the use of the Feeder Canal, followed by a decline in the industries themselves and by the early 1980s all the industry had gone – but the canal remained.

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