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Philip John Worsley & chemical manure

In 1861 Philip John Worsley became the manager (on six months’ probation) of Netham Chemical Company Works on the banks of the Feeder Canal in Bristol.


In 1871 he was made a director. In 1890, when the Netham Works was absorbed into the United Alkali Company Limited, he became a director of that organisation. He retired in 1901. All the Worsley family papers are lodged in the Bristol University special section. They are invaluable for their wide ranging detail, particularly the recollections of PJ Worsley, written when he retired. Referring to the Netham Works, Worsley says:

‘About 1865 we decided to add another branch to our business making superphosphate of lime and bone manure. We found that several customers who bought our acid for making chemical manures had taken to making the acid themselves. It was especially the case when customers’ trade had reached a large scale and was most valuable to us. Rather than lose trade in acid for manure, we decided to make it ourselves.'

The manufacture of chemical manure was the treatment of calcium phosphate with sulphuric acid to produce the more soluble calcium superphosphate.

A patent was applied for on 23 May 1842 for the process of decomposing phosphatic material.  It specified:

‘To bones, bone ash, bone dust and other phosphoritic substances, mix a quantity of sulphuric acid just suffi cient to set free such phosphoric acid as will hold in solution the undecomposed phosphate of lime.’

On the very same day another patent was applied for which has priority over the one above. It defined the dry absorbent matter: ‘such as bran, sawdust, sand, fine sifted cinders and the like’ which needed to be mixed with the pasty mass to make a ‘dry and powdery compost’.  Worsley recounted:

‘For some years, we did well making the manure and selling it to dealers, but it required agencies and a considerable staff of travellers. So we were pleased to receive a proposal from two young men, Norrington and Hingston, to build them a small factory on the site into which we could supply acid by a pipe and so save the expense of delivery.'

Fertilisers Fertilisers are not recent innovations; they go back beyond the production of superphosphates in the 1840s. Manures and composts were probably in use ever since man learnt to dig. In the 18th century, a quantity of fine bone dust resulted from the manufacture of knife handles in the neighbourhood of Sheffield. This was found to have an exceptionally beneficial effect on arable land. Demand quickly exceeded supply and mills were erected to grind bones to powder and bone manure became a profitable industry. By 1821 the national supply of bones was inadequate to meet the demand. Nitrate of soda and even ammoniacal liquor from gas works had been introduced as fertilisers before 1840.

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