Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The wonders of coal.

It’s funny how some smells are so thought provoking and evocative.  At the end of our street in Tipton, where I grew up as a small child was the Birmingham New Main Line and at the other was a small general shop called Cotterills which was owned by a little old lady, Mrs. Cotterill, and it always had huge sacks of potatoes leaning up against this side of the counter and that earthy smell of potatoes always takes me straight back to my childhood.  Another smell which takes me back to that time is the sweets pear drops, and Teddy Grays Herbals, but those remind me of my dentist as Teddy Grays factory was on the opposite side of the road to the dentist and the air was always perfumed with ‘herbal Mixture’. 

But enough I hear you say, get on with it.  I love the smell of fresh creosote!  It always smells clean to me, and last Sunday, I was able to fill my nostrils with its addictive fragrance as I started to creosote the new false floors that I spent all last week fitting into Darley.  I have noticed a lot of people nowadays refer to them as shuts,  I’ve only ever known them as false floors, but anyway.  When I bought Darley she only had half the hold fitted out with some badly fitting false floors.  Terry, the previous owner stated that he had timber at home to finish off the floors and said I could have it and so he delivered that to the mooring on last Thursday.  On Saturday I called in at Wickes to fetch 20 meters of 5” x 2” rough sawn timber to finish off the supports and so since then I have been busily making up the floor sections which, as I say, I finished off on Sunday afternoon and started creosoting them.  For the creosote I mix in about a half-pint of black bitumastic paint to every gallon of creosote just to darken it down, we always used to use old black engine oil but that’s harder to comeby nowadays with everybody going ‘green’.  Whats all this got to do with coal – I’m getting there I promise.  I have also had to add an inch thick strip of timber to the underside of each of the existing bearers as they were only 4”, the size of the original steel keelson, but when Terry put a new 12mm thick bottom in Darley he replaced it with a 5” X 3” Joist and so now the bearers have to be 5” high.  Right here’s how my brain works,
whilst sitting having five and breathing the creosote fumes
 the smell, as I’ve already stated is one of those evocative smells from the past, reminded me of the smell of the BCN.
Especially the bottom of ‘The Crow’ where Midland Tar Distillers were located.
This was where Thomas Claytons boat delivered their cargo’s that they had collected from round the gas works.
Their cargos from the gas works were all coal based by-products.
This then got me thinking what a wonderful substance coal is, or should I say was, The BCN owed its livelihood to it as well as all the associated workers.  To explain (My area only)
Coal was extracted from beneath the ground around the Black Country keeping thousands of local men and women employed.  It was loaded directly into narrow boats, predominantly wooden Joey boats  and transported to gas works at such places as Wolverhampton, half way down the W’ton 21 locks, The Mond Gas at Tipton on the new main line and Swan Village in West Bromwich on the Ridgacre Branch, again employing hundreds of folk.  At the gas works it would be loaded into huge furnaces and ‘cooked’ whilst starving it of oxygen, during this process the gases and other by-products would emerge and be collected, then at the precise moment the contents would be pushed out of the oven into water baths to stall the process.  The results were phenomenal as far as range of products, oh and employing hundreds at each gas works...  Firstly coal gas, or to use local term ‘town gas’ which was put into huge storage tanks called ‘gassometers’ which went up and down in the ground depending on how much gas was in them. 

Mothers in Tipton would look at the gassometers and if they were quite low down would blame the pressure of the ‘gas is low’ for the slow cooking of the Sunday roast.  Coke, a clean burning fuel used by smiths in their hearths, it’s had all the nasties taken out of it so less effect on the metal to be forged, also used in blast furnaces for the smelting of steel burning at a higher, cleaner temperature than coal.  Next there was coal tar which would be pumped into Clayton’s tar boats and taken to Midland Tar Distillers for distillation into many other products including tar, paints soaps as a few examples.  Also Clatons would take away loads made up of creosolic acid (main ingredient of creosote) used very extensively by the developing railways for treatment of the railway sleepers.  As a lad I remember walking over to the Mond Gas with your own tincan to buy, very cheaply,  a gallon of creosote for sheds and fences etc. Not like this modern stuff though, this would kill anything!  Another product that was taken away by Claton’s boat was a foul smelling liquid called ‘gas water’  I don’t know what it was or what it was used for but it smelt of bad eggs and smelt the same as the sulphurous fumes that came off the coke as it was quenched out of the ovens.  So there you go, next time your washing your hair with coal tar dandruff shampoo, or washing your hands with Wrights coal tar soap or even creosoting that fence, think of where it came from and the wonders of coal, till next time, as always
Don’t bang ‘em about.


  1. Wonderful stuff as always Blossom... but how many people seek out real creosote today... And did you know that Wrights soap is no longer actually made with coal tar..?

  2. Thanks for that Sarah, and no I did not know but I could not resist and look it up and your absolutely right. So Iv'e posted what I found.