Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history


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Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive


Summary of my presentation to the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) Conference, Hampton Court, October 27th, 2017. 


Airedale Works, Kirkstall

The Airedale Chemical Works (Wood & Bedford) around 1850

For the last nine years I have been researching an archive relating to dye manufacture in nineteenth and twentieth century Leeds. In September 2017 a large portion of it was handed over to West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). The archive represents 186 years of a dye manufacturing company’s existence, and covers its life from cradle to grave.

The founding Bedford family has a long and distinguished history of political, social and commercial significance in and around Leeds. The archive is concerned chiefly with their commercial activities, and illustrates how successive generations played an important role in business developments which contributed to the emergence of Leeds as a commercial centre during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Beginnings In around 1810, a 15-year old James Bedford became apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Leeds. In 1821 he was involved in oil refining but by 1827 was solely engaged in making cudbear and orchil.  The company ‘Wood & Bedford’ was founded in the 1850s, manufacturing natural dyes and tannins. Wood & Bedford became a leading manufacturer in Leeds, based at premises on Kirkstall Road.

woodbedford

Colophon from after 1850

Wood & Bedford brought together eleven leading local companies in 1900 to form the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company Limited (YDC). Over the next hundred years this company evolved from being predominantly dependent on natural dyes and extracts to becoming one of the major synthetic dye manufacturers in the world, known for creative ideas and innovative products.

YDC Lorry

Photo from the archive showing YDC lorry. Note the telegram address ‘Dyewood Dewsbury’ on the door!

Yorkshire Chemicals In the twentieth century the company operated under the name ‘Yorkshire Chemicals plc’, signifying its diversification into other chemical classes and acquiring the plc designation when the business floated on the stock exchange in the 1970s.

The textiles industry migrated to Asia, and in the late 1990s the company over-reached itself by acquisition of new companies. Yorkshire Chemicals went into rapid decline, and into administration in 2004. It struggled for another year as Yorkshire Colours under a management buyout, and collapsed again in 2005 when the Leeds factories finally closed. In 2008 the main Leeds sites site were demolished.

The Yorkshire name and brands survive, with the business now under Chinese ownership and continuing to trade in Europe as Yorkshire Farben GmbH based in Germany, and in Asia as Yorkshire Asia Pacific, with headquarters in China.

demoliton 2

Kirkstall Road site under demolition, 2008

Archive sources The archive, which is now housed at WYAS’ Morley facility near Leeds, preserves documentary records and photographs spanning the complete history of a company whose changing fortunes broadly parallel those of the UK and European textiles industry. The collection comprises items from three main sources.

Devon source I live in a small Devon market town. In 2008, a neighbour (who is descended from the Bedfords) invited me to look at a large quantity of family papers and documents. Recognising their historical value, I undertook to find them a permanent home. The items from this Devon source are of the earliest in date, assembled around 1914 by James E. Bedford, at that time Lord Mayor of Leeds.

Demolition Source In 2008 I visited the demolition site in Kirkstall Road and asked to take some photos, explaining my research to the foreman. A fortnight later he called me as his team had found a set of photo albums sealed in to partition wall. These invaluable records now form part of the archive. There are 11 albums, with photographs dating from the 1920s until around 1990.

Muck and brass 1960_edited-1

Photo from one of the 11 albums with a view of Yorkshire Chemicals, 1960s. It has the caption ‘Where’s there’s muck, there’s brass’.

Ex-employee Source Through my research I made contact with a large group of Yorkshire Chemicals ex-employees. Many of them had retained papers, photographs and other documents relating to the latter days of the company which they were happy to donate to the archive. One of these employees has undertaken the colossal task of indexing, annotating  and cataloguing the collection. Future scholars will be indebted to him for his knowledge and insight as a chemist, as a long-serving employee who knew the various sites, subsidiaries and employees, and as an intelligent and often critical bystander to the final company collapse.

Edited 17th January 2018 The catalogue is now online through WYAS. You can start your Search here

A quote from West Yorkshire Archive Service 

‘The West Yorkshire Archive Service are delighted to be the new custodians of the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company Archive, playing our part in preserving the memory of a comprehensive archive of a local business.  The records gives a fantastic insight into the creation, development, success and eventual decline of the company over a 150 year period which will be of great interest to anyone researching the history of manufacturing natural dyes and the evolution of the textile industry in Leeds and we look forward to facilitating public access to the records now, and for generations to come’.

Links

You will find other information on my research, and the archive, by searching the blog using the word cloud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My National Archives blog: in pursuit of lichen dyes

lichen_edited-1

Specimen page from lichen collection found in Leeds archive, now held in the Economic Botany Collections, Kew. The botanist was J.M. Despréaux.

‘Connecting Collections’ is a series of National Archives blogs by academic researchers, exploring the connections between archives across the UK and around the world Last year The National Archives held a competition inviting researchers to submit guest blogs. When I thought about it, I realised just how many such connections had been made in my early research into the lichen dye trade. My blog just made it on the closing day and I was delighted it it was accepted for publication – on 18th May. The title was A Purple Pursuit and you can read it here:

http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/purple-pursuit/

It is about my research into the history of a Leeds dye manufacturer whose early fortunes were based on a lichen-sourced dye called orchil.

Links

There are several other interesting blogs available at the Connecting Collections page on National Archives site

More on my Wood and Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals research on this blog:

Tyrian Purple – from a Leeds archive?

Tyrian Treasure: Part One

Tyrian Treasure: Part Two

Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

A Purple Pursuit


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Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

About five years ago life veered off in a new and unexpected direction.

My neighbours asked me to look at a dye-related company archive they were liberating from their attic. They were selling their house, thought they had a ‘firm offer’ and there wasn’t a lot of time.  There would be no space for the archive in their new home and I offered to rescue anything important from its potential new resting place – an unconverted stone barn. I imagined I’d see a small, disparate heap of documents and books descend the attic stairs with little supporting contextual information;  honestly, I did wonder how interesting that might be.  Because I knew a little about dyes I hoped to advise my neighbours if anyone would be interested in any of the collection before it made its acquaintance with the barn.

Six weeks later (the ‘firm offer’ wasn’t) I had opened and listed the contents of dozens of boxes and trunks containing documents, books, ledgers, patents, dye samples, photographs, letters, diaries, Minutes, catalogues, invoices, plans, maps, contracts, botanical samples, watercolours, chemicals, medals and awards….   and even a mousetrap, devoid of mouse.

Are you beginning to get the idea? Neither disparate, nor without context.

This is some of what I initially learned. The archive had been handed down through my neighbour’s family. He is a direct descendant (the great-great grandson) of a chemist called James Bedford who was born in  1795 and apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Briggate, Leeds, in 1810.  James Bedford was the first in a descending series of three James’, all of whom worked in the family business, which started its life as Wood & Bedford. The same company, though it amalgamated with others and changed names, never underwent a takeover and occupied the same premises in Leeds, on Kirkstall Road, until it went into administration in 2004. It was by then the internationally-known Yorkshire Chemicals.

The Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive was largely assembled in the early twentieth century by the third of the James’, although it included material from the early 1800s. There was little after 1945 as later material was largely retained by the company and not kept within the family. I published an article in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2008 (it can still be downloaded here) which gives a summary of the early days of my research. I was amazed to discover that, contrary to what I had read and often heard, the use of natural dyes persisted long after 1856 when mauveine was discovered by the young William Henry Perkin. Logwood, orchil lichen and various tannins featured in the archive well into the twentieth century, although the company also worked successfully on the development of synthetic dyes.

It’s hard to pin down why I became particularly intrigued by the orchil trade, but an early 1800s dyers’ notebook (there’s a page shown above) certainly helped. My orchil-dyed path, proceeding from the heap of rusty trunks, has since led me to Galicia in Spain, to Posnan in Poland, to Leeds, Lisbon and to Ecuador. In October it’s taking me to La Rochelle, and last week it took me back to Yorkshire. I will be giving a talk on the orchil trade to the ‘6 Guilds’ group of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at the end of this month in Stratford; at DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) in La Rochelle in October I am delivering a joint research paper with Professor Zvi Koren on samples labelled ‘Tyrian Purple’. I can’t say any more about those until after the event – or I would have to leap through the screen and kill you. It’s Classified.

Yorkshire Grit

The Wood & Bedford / YC archive has been accepted by the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) through the generosity of my one-time neighbours; a ‘firm offer’ did eventually materialise. So the collection has gone back to Leeds where it belongs. WYAS were excited by the fact that the archive covered long periods of the same company’s history. It isn’t yet available for study as archiving is being undertaken by a dye chemist; through a coincidental set of circumstances I was put in touch with a large group of ex-employees of Yorkshire Chemicals (YC), of which he is one. This contact led to my giving ex YC employees several presentations as they knew nothing about Wood & Bedford’s beginnings. Most professed great affection for their time at YC, and one referred to it as ‘the best days of my working life’.

A (sadly) dwindling band of ageing YC folk meet up from time to time and I sometimes join them for the annual outdoor charity Band Concert given by the Elland Silver Youth Band. That’s why I have just been back to Yorkshire. The rest of the country sweltered in tropical heat, but Halifax wasn’t having that. It was practising Yorkshire Winter. The wind Heathcliffed down from the moors with such enthusiasm that tents and gazebos couldn’t be put up to protect the young Band members – who played valiantly in shirtsleeves. A knocky-kneed and freezing set of ex YC attendees cowered under woolly blankets and discussed cryogenic concerts. There’s nout like Yorkshire Grit.

I’ll be writing more about the archive in future blogs, once I thaw out.

Farfield Mill

Some years ago when Farfield Mill reopened as an arts centre, I used to sell work there but I have never visited until this week. The impressive Mill centre is set on four floors which include exhibition spaces, a retail area, the best second-hand textiles bookshop ever, a historical display about wool, weaving and knitting  and small workshop / display units. A large industrial working loom weaves blankets and throws next to the Weavers Café – a refuelling stop after the rigours of viewing everything at Farfield. I enjoyed seeing but particularly, handling, Laura Rosenzweig’s Howgill Range which I have only read about in the Journal  (issue 243).  As Laura’s Loom, Laura runs one of the work and display units. With my next Yorkshire concert in mind, I bought a Shetland wool hat from Angela Bradley‘s shop.

On the top floor we found a welcoming group of weavers, some of whom I know through the Online Guild. They had a variety of looms and equipment on show and in use, and were clearly a valuable asset offering explanations to visitors, many of whom, it seems, don’t know the difference between weaving and knitting.