ICI Billingham Coal Hydrogenation Site

t15417This picture looks like it was taken from an aeroplane flying to the north of the site, probably in the late 1930s. I wonder how realistic this picture is of the Billingham site, although it does show in the far distance the Newport Bridge?
I understand that Ordnance Survey maps did not show the location of the plant, as it was built before WWII to produce high octane petrol for aircraft engines. It is also interesting that the actual coal hydrogenation units are not marked. Were they under the arch-like building at the lower centre of the picture?

Image and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

6 thoughts on “ICI Billingham Coal Hydrogenation Site

  1. Explosives were made at ICI Ardeer Nobel Division an explosive making plant from 1871 becoming one of the original founders of Imperial Chemical Company. Brunner Mond, Nobel, The Alkali Company and British Dye’s. That merger was in 1926.
    After a huge explosion at the London explosive works the Government who urgently needed explosive in 1917 decided to move production to Billingham Marshes, away from the town and near the River for transport, that was the start of The Synthetic as we all called it. The Building of the Ammonia plant began using German POW Labour. When the war 1914-18 ended things stopped at Billingham for a while, Brunner Mond came on the scene and started to make Ammonia from it is rumoured stolen German documents.
    Once the Company’s merged the building began in earnest all the huge buildings were up and running in the 1930’s. Initially using brine from the Salt Wells then mining Anhydrite they started to produce everything from household cleaners to scent, Petrol from Coal and exotic Chemicals, Food additives (what do you think makes your bread white) Urea, to Plastics. It was also said ICI Billingham made Sten Guns and explosive.
    I found out the whole area was built on marsh when the WG2 crane driver reported he could not stop his crane at one end of the building, I got in the cab with him and we hit the buffers so hard we were nearly thrown from the cab. When they dug into the founds the main columns were hanging in a pond, the building had sunk, weeks of work to jack it back up and put in deep founds followed. Then the 100,000 Ton Silo which was supposed to float, sinking when full rising when empty, using the marshy ground as a spring went down and stayed down, the end wall buckled, it was a Friday and my men had to work night and day to make it safe.
    The picture had me puzzled or the description did then I worked it out as the plant and tank farm this side of New Road Billingham the main tank farm being the south side of New Road.
    The Ammonia plant was up and running on the open pan system in the 1930’s so why it is not shown on the maps Fred mentions I would not know, they were big enough.
    Frank

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  2. Great aerial views. Thanks. One forgets what real pollution was like!

    A very good source for maps is the National Library of Scotland which is completely free. The “updated” OS map for 1938 shows nothing of ICI Billingham at all, as the main site in the country for making ammonia. This was used for making explosives, but not a Billingham I think..

    The 1938 map also doesn’t show the power stations on the Tees, and the image of the Furness ship yards is very schematic.

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  3. Due to the industry this area has great coverage on the BFA website:
    1930 – silos under construction – no tanks yet
    http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/epw032202
    1937 – site layout matches this photo
    http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/epw055929
    1949 –
    http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/eaw024035

    Some maps:
    1939 – https://www.old-maps.co.uk/index.html#/Map/446762/521897/12/101200
    1951 – https://www.old-maps.co.uk/index.html#/Map/446762/521897/13/101329

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  4. That looks like “Oil Works” as it was called. part of Heavy Organic Chemical division (HOC). My Dad, Harry Appleton was General Foreman there until he retired in the early 1970s. I remember the Coal Hydrogenation Plant where they had Coke Ovens to cook the coal then, plants to remove the CO & CO2. These plants were arranged along “Ammonia Avenue” which ran the full length of the Billingham site with, “Nitrates Avenue” paralleling it. I remember my first day as a “Messenger Boy” delivering mail, walking past the coal plant and seeing Hydrogen burning from leaking pipe gaskets. It was safer to let it burn than risk an explosion if the gas accumulated.
    When they did away with the coke ovens. They replaced them with the first ever “Steam Reform Plant” which used Naphtha a oil derivative and later, Natural Gas.
    Getting rid of the coke ovens certainly cleaned up Billingham’s air. I did an apprenticeship as a Fitter in ICI and later converted to Instrumentation which, was my true calling. Lots of great memories of ICI Billingham.

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    • After all these years I can now read about a mentor of mine – Harry Appleton. What a great person he is. Cool as a cucumber, wise as an oracle! I became a foreman at the neighbouring part of Oil Works where distillation of various hydrocarbons took place.
      I truly hope that Harry Appleton is as hale and hearty as am I, approaching my ninetieth birthday in May of this year. Cheers to Harry at this moment – and his kin.

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