The site of the old Wellcome Pharmaceutical Factory at Mill Ponds is now a multi-million pound housing development that comes with 400 years of industrial history.
Rewind back to the 19th century when this same 7.59 acre site of the Phoenix Paper Mills came up for sale in 1888. Located on the River Darent in Dartford, it boasted good communications, abundant water and substantial acreage – ideal factors for a burgeoning manufacturing business like Burroughs Wellcome.
Once the largest milling complex on the Darent, the site had housed mills for iron, corn, oil-seed, mustard and eventually paper. Allegedly one corn mill was run by an ex-pirate and slave runner, Matthew Wilkes, during the 17th century. The final paper mill was in operation by 1852 producing machine-made paper.
Silas Burroughs, business partner of Henry Wellcome, snapped up the opportunity to buy the site in 1888 for £5000 on the condition that he rent it to their joint company for the pricey sum of £250 per year over a 49-year period. This arrangement irked Wellcome until he was able to buy the entire plot following Burrough’s death in 1895, after some wrangling with the widow’s executors, apparently a “most wearisome affair”.
Despite Wellcome’s strained friendship with Burroughs over their joint business rights within the company, the refurbishment of the Mill Pond site was a success. The plant opened on 6 July 1889 with a spectacular fete and firework display. Although, the evening was marred by Burroughs when he invited the liberal radical Henry George as guest of honour and speaker. George’s rousing speech promoted “Free Land” – a topic with which Wellcome did not agree – and provoked a near riot when an extra 5000 radicals tried to gatecrash the event.
The political publicity may not have been what Wellcome wanted for the company, but it probably gained him more attention in the pharmaceutical world. Burroughs became a local celebrity for the post-mill unemployed community – suddenly job prospects were looking up.
The factory move had been necessary: the existing plant in Wandsworth was proving too small, not helped by a fire that broke out before the Dartford premises were fully up and running. More room was needed to expand and to establish farms for materia medica drug production.
Influenced by the Quaker community-building spirit, the small lake in front of the mills was drained and cleaned, an artificial island was built and the brick mill re-purposed to house laboratories. By 1897, an analytical department had been added to the complex to test raw materials – many of which were home-grown on the company’s farm, including deadly nightshade, foxglove, henbane, thorn apple and aconite.
Business began to boom from 1895 to 1920 as new markets for the products were found overseas. Natural sources eventually gave way in the 1930s to synthetic compounds, which enabled the start of Wellcome’s development of drug research.
For factory life, it can’t have been too bad. Salaries were above average for the time, highly skilled training was on offer and there was plenty of entertainment on site with landscaped gardens, tennis courts and a social club housed within Acacia Hall. By 1897, the workforce had doubled, many of them women when it was discovered that female labour was “much quicker and cheaper for folding, insetting and collating”.
Of the many products made at the complex, perhaps the most well known was the Kepler cod-liver oil solution, a nutritious food supplement. Wellcome’s promotion of this product at the BMA annual conference in 1896 involved the transportation of live cod in a tank for display at an exhibition stand. Although some poor fish expired en-route, four survived and attracted “considerable interest” according to an account by A W Haggis.
With his business expanding, Wellcome was able to turn his attention to his ever-increasing collection. He envisioned a site encompassing all the facilities at the Dartford plant and possibly even a museum, and this vision was captured in a 1911 drawing of Wellcomeville – the ideal company village.
Further expansions occurred at the Burroughs Wellcome factory during the 1970s, by which time social events had progressed to accommodate the “shortest mini skirt contest” in addition to the annual staff fete.
The new development and regeneration in Dartford will include a football stadium, science centre and retail space – a 21st century version of Wellcome’s original vision?
You can find out more about the history of Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. in Burroughs, Wellcome & Co : knowledge, trust, profit and the transformation of the British pharmaceutical industry, 1880-1940 by Roy Church and E M Tansey.