Jewel in the town factory

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Recently I came across a brochure A Jewel in the Town published in 1995 by Dupont (formerly ICI, British Nylon Spinners and Bemberg) detailing the firm’s history in Doncaster. So, today I thought we’d delve into it and look back at some of the firm’s fascinating history.

The Dupont factory was built on land which was once part of Wheatley Hall. The first company to occupy the Wheatley Hall Road site was Bemberg Limited, a German Rayon producer in the late 1920s. When the Second World War broke out the German management were given 36 hours to get out or be interned. The factory then fell under the auspices of Enemy Property and became known as British Bemberg.

The factory with its 200ft chimney and north-south axis was a useful landmark for enemy aircraft and had to be camouflaged during the war.

After the cessation of hostilities the demand for rayon started to decline. One of the reasons for this was that a team of research chemists had constructed a polyamide based on adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine. The first fibre based on this new substance was nylon.

British Bemberg went into receivership in June 1953. A year later British Nylon Spinners (BNS) – owned 50/50 by ICI and Courtaulds – saw the potential of the Wheatley Hall site for nylon production. Buildings were cleared of the rayon machinery and gutted.

The most difficult job for the main contractors –McAlpine – was the demolition of the copper sulphate settling tanks. Explosives were used to fracture the concrete shell.

Nylon spinning at the Wheatley Hall Road site started on June 1, 1955 on gravity units transferred from Pontypool in Wales. Six to eight weeks before start-up a technical team arrived from Pontypool to train the handful of new employees.

On July 29, 1957 a site expansion programme was announced. Production climbed steadily with Doncaster producing about half the company’s output of yarn and staple fibre.

There was a strong union representation on the site during the 1950s. In 1958 the number of employees rose from 1,100 to 1,700.

Employees worked a bonus system. If a machine was set up incorrectly it affected the bonus of the whole team.

Bonuses were also affected by the amount of waste and ingenious methods were used in an attempt to hide it.

The 1960s was a decade of change for the factory. In 1965 ICI took over Courtaulds’ share of BNS and on January 1, 1966 formed ICI Fibres Limited. In the same year the Doncaster site experienced its first redundancies with 600 people losing their jobs. In the 1960s, the workforce was reduced to 3,500.

The 1970s was a decade of unrest with a national three- day week causing severe restrictions in electricity supply. Doncaster imported surplus power from the Wilton factory to keep the plant running. ICI Fibres Limited became Fibres Division of Imperial Chemical Industries on January 1, 1972.

Inside the factory in the 1970s the Autefa presses and high throughput Fleissner staple lines were installed.

In 1971, 600 weekly and 150 monthly staff were made redundant. The AUEW organised a six-week strike against reorganisation after redundancies. The 1980s saw a further reduction in staff from 1,513 to about 1,200. The start of the decade saw the first PC on the site in the finance department – it was a Commodore and stored data and programs on audio tape.

On the production side Type 50 single-stage spinning was installed and Type 14S staple machines were uprated to give higher throughput with metered spin finish. Old redundant machinery was ripped out and the plant tidied up to make way for future investment.

The business concentrated on core activities and many support tasks were transferred to contractors.

The beginning of the 1990s was a very unsettling time for the Doncaster site, first because of the threatened takeover of ICI by Lord Hanson and then the uncertainty surrounding the sale to Dupont.

But from July 1993 when Dupont bought the ICI Fibres business there was a £2m investment in the boilerhouse and a £100,000 facelift of the spinning tower building.

The number of employees was reduced from 850 in 1993 to 630 in 1995, due partly to the loss of carpet staple and BCF and partly because of the re-engineering project introduced to restore the nylon business to financial health.

On June 1, 1995 the Doncaster site celebrated 40 years of nylon production.

The nylon fibre produced at Doncaster but closed not long afterwards.

Over the years the nylon fibre produced at the Doncaster site went into the manufacture of many industrial and household goods.

They included inter-linings for suits, shirts and leisure wear, fabrics for upholstery, curtains and clothing, machine and hand knitting yarns, tennis balls, paint rollers, pan scourers, sewing threads, battery separators, conveyor belts, tarpaulins, car seat belts, tyres and automotive air springs.