Whites Chemical Company
© Rutherglen Heritage Society
Above, part of Whites Chemical Works pictured in June 1955. The work's Planet steam engine is shown in the middle distance.
Whites Chemical Company is probably the most controversial business in Rutherglen's industrial past. That business was under the control of a single family for well over 100 years. That family grew enormously wealthy from the profits of the business, and they ended up as landed gentry with grand country estates. The family in question were the Whites, owners of Whites Chemical Company which was located in Shawfield.
The people who were employed in the business owned and run by that family didn’t fare so quite well. They saw nothing of the vast wealth accumulated by their employers. What they got instead was having to work a seven-day week for pitiful wages, in miserable working conditions which caused appalling damage to their health. There’s also the issue of land contamination caused by that business, which remains an environmental problem to this day.
J & J White Chemicals, also referred to as Shawfield Chemical Works, was established in 1820 by brothers James and John White after a soap business on the same site, in which their father John White I of Shawfield was a partner from 1810, had failed. John White I had also purchased Shawfield estate and its policies including Shawfield House and Hayfield, and in the following years the business flourished, particularly in the manufacture of bichromate of potash, with their premises expanding over the previously rural estate.
The 1856 Ordnance Survey map above shows the chemical works well established on the east side of Glasgow Road, with Bichrome and Sulphuric Acid 'departments' in place. Also on the map are the old country houses of Shawfield and Hayfield, the latter being the birthplace of John White II and James White of Overtoun.
The original works were located in what is now Rutherglen Industrial Estate just off Glasgow Road, and expansion was across the road in the 1860s to ground now partly occupied by what was the Arnold Clark showroom.
Left, 1893 map showing the location of Whites Shawfield Chemical works, the hatched buildings on both sides of Glasgow Road.
Click here to see the same map on the National Library of Scotland's website, then drag back the blue dot on the bottom left panel to reveal what that area looks like today.
James White of Overtoun
Working out who’s who in the White family isn’t helped by the fact that all the men seem to be called either James or John. John White II seemed to contribute little to the business in his later years while being happy to live off its profits. He bought Arddarroch, a country estate on Loch Long in 1858.
His brother James White of Overtoun, on the other hand, became every inch the Victorian philanthropist and a pillar of the Glasgow establishment. Written in the ponderous language of the time, this is from a minute of a meeting of the Town Council of Glasgow, held shortly after his death in 1884.
“The Lord Provost noticed the recent death of Mr. James White of Overtoun, and moved that this meeting resolve to record an expression of its sense of the great loss which the community has sustained by the death of Mr. James White of Overtoun - a gentleman who has long occupied a foremost place among the citizens of Glasgow, and taken an active part in the promotion of every good work, for which his personal services and liberal contributions were always available.”
Left, James White of Overtoun
Left, Overtoun House near Dumbarton, pictured in 2017.
The architect of Overtoun House, the Scots baronial-style mansion which James White built near Dumbarton, was James Smith father of Madeleine Smith who was at the centre of a sensational murder trial in Glasgow in 1857.
Overtoun House was built between 1860 and 1863 though Smith died before work was finished. The house was completed by one of his partners. White's family began living in the mansion in 1862.
During the Second World War, Overtoun House was turned into a convalescent home for injured soldiers
John Campbell White, 1st. Baron Overtoun
Following the death of James White of Overtoun, the Shawfield business passed into the control of his son, John Campbell White.
John Campbell White was an evangelistic Christian and like the Whites before him, a prominent member of the Free Church. He’s really the central figure in this story. Following his father’s death in 1884, he inherited the chemical works at Shawfield, along with £1.9m, an extraordinary sum of money, even by today’s standards.
From an early age Lord Overtoun took a strong interest in religious matters. His father and mother "came out" at the Disruption in the year in which he was born, and he himself was always a strong supporter of the Free Church, and afterwards of the United Free. He was an elder in the United Free High Church of Dumbarton, to which he gave a large mission hall, and, along with a brother elder, a fine organ.
Right, John Campbell White, 1st Baron Overtoun. Portrait by Lowes Cato Dickinson, 1819-1908
He took a prominent part in bringing about the union of the Free and the United Presbyterian Churches, and the troubles that afterwards arose through the claim of the dissenting minority to the church property. He stood in the law courts and before the House of Lords as the responsible representative of his denomination. He was a member of several committees of the Church, and took especial interest in its Home and Foreign Missions. He was Chairman of the Livingstonia Mission in Central Africa, in the founding of which his father had a leading part.
Working Conditions at Whites
Just before the time of James White of Overtoun’s death, it was becoming clear that working in the chromate manufacturing process was a hazardous occupation with the main causes and effects being revealed in a government report as early as 1893, the same year John Campbell White became Lord Overtoun.
Among the materials used at Whites were, apart from chrome iron ore were: ferrous ore, limestone, potassium carbonate, sodium carbonate and sulphuric acid. The end product was refined into crystals.
Processing those materials to produce these crystals, gave off toxic clouds of potash of chrome, soda, or lime dust, all of which were breathed in by the workforce. The White family had long since decamped to Overtoun House, far from the smoke, dust and fumes of the Shawﬁeld Works.
Early indications were that the working conditions at White’s badly affected the health of the workforce.
Evidence was produced that shortening the hours of work and bringing in a three-shift pattern, lowered sickness rates amongst chemical workers. Lord Overtoun’s response to this was, that if the working hours were reduced his men “would simply spend more time in the pub.” His lordship, himself a total abstainer, was a strong advocate of the temperance cause.
A typical working week for the Shawﬁeld workers remained: seven days a week, 12 hours a day with no set meal breaks, forcing workers to eat what food they had in areas contaminated by chrome dust.
However, not everyone agreed that the responsibility for the poor health of the workers
lay with Whites. The Rutherglen Reformer sided with Lord Overtoun, and wrote that “the workers should have taken more care of their personal cleanliness to reduce the levels of illness.”
Whites largely ignored the special rules and regulations which were introduced for the operation of bichromate works, laid down in the 1893 government report. Further attempts by the men to change their working patterns, including getting Sunday off, to reduce time spent in the toxic atmosphere of the Shawfield works, were refused. Whites maintained they couldn’t afford to agree to these changes. Although around this time, Lord Overtoun’s cousin and fellow boss at Whites, William James Chrystal bought Auchendennan, a country estate on Loch Lomond, costing £43,000.
The workers at Whites got nowhere with the owners in their attempts, including strike action, to improve their pay and working conditions. They turned to Keir Hardie of the Independent Labour Party, for support.
Hardie duly investigated, and was appalled by the working conditions which he discovered at the Shawfield works. He was extremely critical of Lord Overtoun, pointing out the hypocrisy in him campaigning for strict observance of the Sabbath, while insisting that his employees work a 7 day week including Sundays. The articles he published attacking Overtoun were sold as a pamphlet, the White Slave Series, and described in scathing terms the terrible working conditions, and the demands placed on the workforce at Shawfield. This is an extract from Hardie’s pamphlet:
Safety regulations introduced in 1893 had been ignored, and ineffective protective equipment in unventilated sheds left the employees exposed to the harmful chemical dust at all times. In the short term this led to widespread perforation of the septum in their noses and ‘chrome holes’ (ulcerations burnt into the flesh), as well as lung cancer, digestive disorders and skin diseases over longer periods.
The exact number of workers affected is unknown due to unreliable figures and reluctance among authorities of the time to acknowledge and document any direct link between the chrome dust and the health dangers. The exposure to the dust was such that the workers were referred to locally as ‘White’s Dead Men’ or ‘White’s Canaries’ due to their bleached faces and yellow chrome dust-covered clothing.
From The Labour Leader, January 1899.
I wish I could adequately describe a day’s work, so that my readers could fully understand its horrors. The men in the day shift go into begin work at six in the morning. The vapours and fumes from the chemicals are all about them, all the time, eating away the cartilage of the nose and poisoning the blood. A dry dust floats in the atmosphere, which gets into the throat and produces an arid, burning feeling. The surroundings, as stated, are all of the gloomy depressing kind.
Once every hour the two men who work the furnace have to draw their charge of molten chemicals. At this time a sweet, poisonous gas is thrown off, which the men inhale every time they breathe. The charge is put into a small truck, which the men draw with a hook, and empty at the appointed place. In some cases this is not more than a few feet from the furnace, and the men have to work with the hot, glowing mass at their back, and the roaring furnace in front.
And this goes on all the day without a break until six o’clock in the evening. Twelve weary, wretched hours. For it will be scarcely be believed, but it is none the less true, that there are no meal hours allowed these men. From six in the morning until six at night without a stoppage. It sounds incredible, and yet it cannot be denied. Food has to be snatched in mouthfuls as best the men can, whilst carrying on their never-ceasing task.
With their hands soiled with the poisonous chemicals they handle, inhaling a poison-laden atmosphere, they ‘dine’ in the fashion here stated. Twelve hours a day and seven days every week. For there is no rest for these men. If a man dares to stay away from work on Sunday to attend Church or Chapel he is punished by being compelled to lose Monday’s wages also.
There’s no doubt that Lord Overtoun’s reputation suffered following Keir Hardie’s exposure of the working conditions at Shawfield. Unable to deny Hardie’s accusations, the only way Lord Overtoun could defend himself was to maintain that he, senior partner of the firm, didn’t know anything about the day-to-day goings on at the Shawfield works. According to his obituary, this was due to ‘the heavy demands of his religious and public duties.’
In his lifetime, Lord Overtoun donated huge sums towards evangelistic causes. It seems that his Lordship could find money to save souls, but not the bodies of his workforce.
Despite the damage to his reputation following Keir Hardie’s exposure of the working conditions at Shawfield in 1899, further honours were bestowed upon Lord Overtoun. He was made a freeman of Rutherglen following his donation of Overtoun Park to the town, and he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Dunbartonshire in 1907. Lord Overtoun died the following year, by which time the Shawfield works were the largest of their kind in the world. Lord Overtoun is buried in Dumbarton.
'Lord Overtoun's purse was ever at the disposal of any Church object, great or small. No humble Highland minister seeking aid for urgent repairs to church or manse ever approached the impressive portals of Overtoun House unbuoyed by hope, or departed thence without a remembrance of his noble host in the form of a treasured leaf from his Lordship's cheque-book.'
From Lord Overtoun's obituary, included in Brother Scots by Donald Carswell, 1927
William James Chrystal
Above, William James Chrystal. Portrait by Edmond Brock (1882–1952)
William James Chrystal, cousin of John Cambell White, was educated at Glasgow Academy and the University of Glasgow. He was a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Chemical Society. He joined Whites in the 1870s as an expert chemist, in due course becoming the technical partner in the business. At this time the Shawfield works, mainly producing bichromate of potash, employed over 500 men. Chrystal was credited with improving the manufacturing processes for the products.
Following the death of John Cambell White in 1908, Chrystal took full control of the firm until his own death in 1921. Sadly, his son 2nd Lieutenant Ian Campbell Chrystal died in World War I, killed in action near Cavrelle, France, in 1917, aged 29.
By the mid-1920s the works, now controlled by another cousin in the White family, Hill Hamilton Barrett, employed around 900 men and the site had expanded further, now covering 30 acres. Hill Hamilton Barrett died in 1934, leaving over £300,000 in his will.
The Queen Street Plaque
There is a plaque on the churchyard wall in Queen Street, Rutherglen, next to Dr. Gorman's statue.. The inscription begins 'In commemoration of the generosity of William James Chrystal of Auchendennan and Shawfield Works.'
The plaque goes on to tell us that Chrystal purchased some properties between Main Street and King Street, subsequently donating these in 1899 to the Corporation of Rutherglen who then had them demolished, enabling Queen Street to be widened, and providing an access to the Old Parish Church.
Suspicion remains that this gift to the council was given, along with other acts of philanthropy, in return for them allowing Whites to dump toxic waste in areas in and around the town outwith the Shawfield works.
Above, the William James Chrystal plaque in Queen Street, Rutherglen
Perhaps the largest manufacturing concern within the
town is the well-known Shawfield Chemical Works. It
is said that the firm of John & James White were the first,
and for long the only manufacturers of the bichromates of
potassium and sodium in Scotland. The works are now
among the largest in Britain, and cover some thirty acres
of ground. Beginning in a small way some 113 years ago
as a soap and soda venture, a certain Dr. White, a well known
Paisley surgeon, took over the business, which now
employs about nine hundred workers in the manufacture
of the bichromates, which are extensively used in dyeing,
tanning, and other processes. The senior partner and
founder, John White, resided at Shawfield, and James
Campbell White, father of John Campbell White, afterwards
Lord Overtoun, occupied Hayfield House. Subsequent to
the latter's death, the late Wm. James Chrystal became
chief partner, and the greatly extended business is now
under the able control of H. Hamilton Barrett.
From Rutherglen Lore
William Ross Shearer, 1922
Above, W. Ross Shearer, author, Rutherglen Lore
The large volumes and varieties of harmful chemicals used in the Shawfield works resulted in huge amounts of toxic waste to be disposed of. This waste included the highly carcenogenic hexavalent chromium, or Chromium VI. If you’ve ever seen that Julia Roberts movie Erin Brokovich, it’s the same material that she discovered had been illegally dumped by the company, Pacific Gas & Electric.
Initially at Whites, the area set aside for dumping waste within the works covered 12 acres, which by an odd coincidence is the same size as Overtoun Park. But the waste site at the Shawfield works wasn’t big enough, and Whites began dumping the waste elsewhere, as local historian David Jackson tells us in this audio clip recorded in 2017:
Up until the 1960s, dumping waste of this type wasn’t illegal. In the early 1990s, surveys carried out on blaes playing fields due to be built on for a nursing home revealed dangerously high levels of hexavalent chromium. Further investigations confirmed that Whites had been routinely discarding up to 2.5 million tonnes of their waste materials at locations around Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Glasgow (such as Carmyle) for many years, and at the time this was permitted. These sites were often old quarries or mines requiring suitable landfill for reuse. Here's David Jackson again:
Later Years of the Works and Closure
During the 1930s Whites output of chromates represented 70% of the total British output
and by the mid-1950s they were manufacturing sodium and potassium dichromate,
sodium chromate, potassium and aluminium chromate, chromate acid and chromium
oxide; for use in textiles, ceramics, paints and pigments, chromium plating,
pharmaceuticals, explosives, photographic materials, corrosion prevention and wood
In 1953 the firm merged with Eaglescliffe Chemical Company from County Durham and became British Chrome & Chemicals. In 1958 the company was renamed Associated Chemical Companies. It was bought over by Albright & Wilson in 1965 and the Shawfield works closed down in 1967.
Although the levels of toxic chrome dust may have been eventually reduced at Whites, they were never eliminated, and thus the workforce continued to be exposed to a contaminated and potentially lethal atmosphere, right up until the time the works closed.
My dad, Arthur Quigg worked as a key man at Whites when he was young. He worked in there for around 20 years. My auntie Cathie remembers him going in a big truck with the chemicals and he was always very dirty. My sister said my dad use to have a face covering.
He was born in King Street, Rutherglen in 1924. He lived with my mum, Rose, at 34 Buchanan Square, The Pen. My dad's sister Catherine Connolly, still lives in Rutherglen, in Quarryknowe off Bankhead Road. She's the only one still with us sadly.
Right, Mum and Dad's wedding, Easter Monday, 22nd. April 1946, in St Brides Cambuslang. He was 21, she was 22.
I think dad worked in Whites when he and mum married. Whites chemicals is on all of our birth certificates so that would be from the 1940s onwards.
Above, my dad, front row middle, at my brother David’s engagement party in 1982. My mum and I are on either side of him
Right, mum and dad at my wedding in St Cadocs in Halfway on 11th. of August 1984
My dad would've been 95 if he were still alive, born the 29th. August. He would've been 96 this August.
I worked in the Personnel Department at Whites. We had a little building of our own just a few yards away from the Main Office, which was across the road facing the factory gates. There were four of us in the department: one lady and two girls and the Personnel Officer, the lady was the Office Manager and Nancy and myself. We were all responsible for admin, keeping records of employees updated and there was a big board in the Personnel Officer's office that had to be kept updated on a daily basis so he knew how many men were working in each section of the factory.
We also had other admin duties. It was a great office to work in, we all got on so well, still get a Christmas card from the girl I worked with. I was there till they closed in 1967 when they moved to Harrogate.
Right, Margaret in July 1967, just after Whites shut down, and a few weeks before her wedding, At the time of this photo, she was Margaret Aslett.
My father Harry Bradley worked in Whites until it closed I 1967. He died in 1973 at the age of 59. When he went for radiotherapy at Belvedere it was like an old or really more truthfully, a young boys reunion of Whites workers.
You've probably guessed I am not a fan and think the workforce were treated disgracefully and it's absolutely disgusting that they were not called to book for it.
Rose Mary Brown nee Bradley
'l would guess he would be about 29 (in the photos above). His name was Henry but was always known as Harry. He was a lovely, husband, father and friend as well as being the favourite child of 8 siblings.'
Rose Mary Brown
Right, a reference dated 11th. September 1967 from Whites, by then known as Associated Chemical Companies Ltd., provided for Harry Bradley
Scottish Labour History Journal, Volume 40, 2005, pp.50-69 'Working in it, through it, and among it all day' by Dr. David Walker, Department of History, Strathclyde University.
The Toxic Burn, Future Climate Info.com
The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis.
Helensburgh Heritage Trust
Rutherglen Lore by W. Ross Shearer, 1922
Lord Overtoun obituary, included in Brother Scots by Donald Carswell, 1927
Shawfiield Amateurs FC. Some information about Whites 'works' football team.
Georeferenced 1953 map showing two football pitches right next to the chemical works
Links to newspaper articles about Whites toxic waste