Sootigine: How cheap fertiliser made in Hackney Downs turned out to be a load of...
PUBLISHED: 15:00 16 April 2017
Historian Prof Ged Martin documents the rise and fall of sootigine, a cheap and, as it turned out, pretty damaging fertiliser made in Hackney Downs in the 1880s.
Sootigine was a soot and sewage fertiliser, made in Hackney Downs in the 1880s. Its promoter was Wesley Darley, a hyperactive fantasist, with a trail of business failures.
By 1877, Darley was involved with a firm which manufactured “Carbolic Disinfectants” at Bedford, Dunstable and “the Hackney Downs Station”, which had opened in 1872. (The plant was located in the railway arches.)
By 1884 Darley had reorganised the business, as the New Carbolic Sanitary Company. It was a genuine manufacturing operation, for instance, supplying disinfectant to the Hackney Vestry, forerunner of the local council.
But by 1883, it was producing 1,000 tons a week of “Sootigine: or, London Sewage and Soot Manure” at the “Adams’ Works, Manor Place, Hackney”. William Adams was Darley’s manager. He and his wife and six children actually lived in Manor Place.
By 1886, the firm employed “about 300” men. Sootigine was energetically marketed, through newspaper adverts and promotions at agricultural fairs. The company registered a shorthand address for orders by telegram, “Sootigine London”.
British agriculture faced competition from cheap American grain imports. Artificial fertilisers cost between £6 and £8 a ton: Sootigine was available at £2 per ton, cheaper if shipped in bulk by rail.
Sootigine treated soot and sewage with disinfectant, and bound them together with sand.
It seemed environmentally friendly: London produced a “practically unlimited” output of sewage, but there were few drains to carry it away. Everybody had coal fires.
Unfortunately, the disinfectant destroyed the nutrients.
Sootigine was tested by an expert, Dr J. Augustus Voelcker. He called it “rubbish sold at an extravagant price”.
Samples fluctuated wildly, some containing one third organic matter, others almost none. Half of one sample was “worthless sand”. Quality control procedures at Hackney Downs (if they existed) did not ensure a consistent product.
“£2 per ton is an absurd price”, Voelcker reported.
Adams rubbished the tests, but shifted his ground, defending Sootigine as “an insect exterminator”. London’s market gardeners knew more than any laboratory scientist. They could use free stable manure, “but they prefer to purchase our Sootigine.”
Advertisements now countered the bad publicity, assuring customers that “only 4 small lots” had failed scientific analysis. There were no advertising standards in those days.
Ads also claimed Sootigine had “5,000 references and testimonials” from satisfied farmers.
But by 1888, consumers were aware of diminishing returns. Sootigine’s sand content did not dissolve in rainwater. Repeated applications affected soil quality.
Victorian Hackney was not an entirely working-class community: two of its three constituencies elected Conservative MPs. But many households could probably only afford to burn low-grade coal, which produced soot full of impurities – rubbish that Voelcker reckoned made up one-third of the product.
In 1887, Darley’s firm claimed to be producing 120,000 tons of Sootigine annually. This implied use of maybe 40,000 tons of soot, too much to be checked or filtered.
By May 1889, the New Carbolic Sanitary Company was bankrupt, and Darley went down with it. He became a commercial traveller, and died in 1895. He was only 52.
William Adams rescued the business with a new partner. In 1895, Adams, Webster & Co. were “carbolic acid & powder manufacturers”, but their main product was a disinfectant called “Healthitas”. Only the telegraphic address, “Sootigine, London” remained. But by 1899, the railway arches housed the “Manor Chemical Works”, its telegraphic address “Healthward, London”. Sootigine wasn’t even a memory.
Nowadays, Clean Air Acts prevent soot. We flush our toilets down the sewers. Human waste is kept out of the food chain. Manor Place has been demolished, and replaced by Marcon Place. But you can still see the railway arches near Hackney Downs station.