There have been two previously published accounts of the transport of waste to Rattlechain from the Albright and Wilson works, by those who were directly involved in the journey. The first from Frank Hadley was published in “Making and Moving in Langley”, published by Langley local history society. It is now out of print but can be downloaded from their website. It also gives some background to the chemical industry in the area, though the accounts concerning Albright and Wilson should be read with caution, given that they were largely written by a then Albright and Wilson public relations officer.
In this account Mr Hadley recalls an early life on the Alfred Matty boats with his father as a boy. He recalls the journey to the site and the manual unloading of “the calcium phosphate residue” in wheelbarrows into the pit. An account of the practice at The Gower tip is also given, confirming that both disposal practices were undertakn by Alfred Matty boats. What is certain is that it was NOT ‘calcium phosphate residue’, but the effluent stream from the waste of the factory. Thus we see possibly the recollections of what someone was told unquestioningly as a boy, who followed in his fathers footsteps, to retell the story that Albright and Wilson had concealed.
The following piece appeared in Albright World in 1990, which appears to cast some doubt on his recollections. To start with the article states that he started working FOR Albright and Wilson in 1946;remember Rhodia claim that they acquired the rattlechain site in 1948. Presumably Mr Hadley would had to have been at least 15 or 16 when he started work- so how could he have remembered tipping waste as a young boy with his father in an Alfred Matty boat into the site BEFORE the official acquisition
A more compelling account is given by long time boatman Enoch Clowes in Robert Davies’ “Midlands Canals- memories of the canal carriers.”
This account is important for two reasons. The description of the lagoon as it then stood, and the toxic effects that it had to human health on those who carried out the job. From page 39-40
“My new but hazardous job was to transport effluent waste, and sometimes phosphorus, to a dumping site near the junction with the Netherton branch canal….
The huge marl hole that served as a waste dump had many years before been the site of the Rattlechain brick works, and also the place where a disastrous breach of the canal had occured late in the nineteenth century. But now there was just this enormous marl hole, filled with the most horrid blue water in which nothing could live. And it was this ghastly cargo that nearly finished me and my mate off one day. We arrived at the dumping site, and started the petrol Meadows pump to empty the boat. Within minutes the pump stopped working, and as we tried to sort the problem out we were both overcome by the toxic fumes coming from the outlet pipe. Fortunately, a passer-by helped us to safety, and Frank Matty told us to take a few days off to get over it. Thats’s how it was in those days.”
As with Frank Hadley, he also reveals that he took a job with Albright and Wilson after his employment with Matty ended in 1970. But we have seen pictures of him dated 1972 published in The Blackcountryman magazine manning the same Matty boat disposal route to rattlechain. You have to question why someone would want to be employed by an employer who cared very little about their personal protection during a hazardous job, that would now be regarded as criminally negligent.
Perhaps this incident described above woke up this company to the dangers of the cargo being carried, and for this reason the practice was curtailed. We also wonder whether he was offered a job to buy his silence- something which AW appeared to be rather skilled at. They could also have monitored his long term health- including phosphorus related necrosis of the jaw- tied to their dental inspections of their staff.
The account reveals accute effects to the fumes of liquid being disposed of, but does not consider what these fumes could have been. There is no smell described, but it is unlikely that “the toxic fumes” from the outlet pipe were petrol related. Phosphorus vapour and or phosphorus pentoxide/phosphine is more likely, given the admission of what he was carrying for the company. Either way, the nonsense of “calcium phosphate” waste can certainly be laid to rest. “Toothpaste” fumes do not make you pass out!
There are also no clinical signs described, which is a little frustrating as this would have perhaps confirmed a diagnosis. Unlike the wildfowl demonstrated at the lagoon in later years, Mr Clowes and his colleague would not have ingested the toxic material that they liberally dispensed, so poisoning via this oral route, which would likely have been fatal should not be used as evidence that they did not suffer the acute effects of the chemical.
There is no mention of how this incident was remedied. Who picked up the mess left behind? What was Albright and Wilson’s reaction to this? Did those who were tasked with fixing this pipe have to wear breathing apparatus to do so? Were any authorities ever informed of the incident? These questions like those concerning the military wastes of war are now likely lost in the mists of time.
The book gives a fascinating account of life on the canals and those involved in the trade, and is well worth seeking out for anyone interested in local, social and canal transport history. We have contacted the author Robert Davies who has kindly given us permission to use the picture below of an Alfred Matty boat- “The Stratford”- making its way through the ice somewhere between Dudley Port and Oldbury. We think this is Enoch Clowes sometime around the mid 1960’s. The white staining on the front of the boat is a giveaway to the load that was being carried, and note too the planks present at the front of the boat.
There are more pictures of Alfred Matty boats decending The Brades Locks towards Rattlechain on Tony Clayton’s picture canal blog. It appears to be the same boat, though manned by a different skipper. These are also dated 1972 and can be viewed HERE.
Roy Martin has also provided us with a very detailed description of the chemical run also from 1972 which can be read HERE.
A postscript to this disastrous ill thought policy of redistributing and depositing dredged toxic waste via canal rather than treating it properly at source, is given as an anecdote in a West Midland County Council report dated 20th January, 1981 to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology- Sub Committee on Hazardous Waste. Its comment on phosphorus underwater is not correct when ingesting it however!
“Redevelopment of a site in the Birmingham area incorporated infill of a disused canal arm. During site clearance a spontaneous fire developed with choking fumes covering the area. Investigation revealed that the site had previously been occupied by a phosphor bronze manufacturer and drums of phosphorus which had “dried out” were deposited in the canal. Underwater, phosphorus is quite safe, but when exposed to atmosphere will ignite spontaneously and produce poisonous phosphorus pentoxide fumes. The drums had rotted over the years and the canal silt was highly contaminated. The work needed to remedy the problem and clear the site was so costly that the developer went bankrupt.”
Though one can appreciate the difficulties and hardships endured by those “just doing their jobs”, I am afraid that we see little in admiration or gratitude for what they left behind them. It is up to the consciences of old men to tell of what they know, else take their secrets to their graves. The past can be buried, when the name of the manufacturer that made it has evaporated out of memory. But white phosphorus rests like a sleeping dragon, below the depths in Rattlechain lagoon, awaiting its reawakening. The future belongs to us, the toxic legacy to that Oldbury chemical company.