An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St. Helens, Lancashire

Part 60 (of 89 parts) - Memories of Sutton Part 11

Introduction: Memories of Sutton is a series of recollections of Sutton's past that have been contributed by visitors to this website. If you have any memories or personal experiences - perhaps from your childhood - that you'd like to share, do please contact me. I'll be delighted to hear from you!  SRW
An Illustrated History of Old Sutton in St.Helens
Part 60 (of 89 parts) - Memories of Sutton Part 11
Introduction: Memories of Sutton is a series of recollections of Sutton's past that have been contributed by visitors to this website. If you have any memories or personal experiences - perhaps from your childhood - that you'd like to share, do please contact me. I'll be delighted to hear from you!  SRW
An Illustrated History of
Old Sutton in St.Helens
Memories of Sutton 11
Researched and Written by Stephen Wainwright ©MMXVII
Introduction: Memories of Sutton is a 24-part series of recollections of Sutton's past contributed by visitors to this website. If you have any memories or personal experiences that you'd like to share, do please get in touch.

'Memories of My Father's Work at Sutton Oak & Nancecuke' by John Hunter

My father was John Alexander Hunter who was born on September 17th 1902 in Eccleston, St.Helens. He worked at the Sutton Oak mustard gas plant for almost thirty years, from 1922 to 1951. I was born in 1940 and the only occasion I visited the plant with my father was at Christmas 1947 or 1948. It was a small Christmas party for children and I remember seeing a uniformed security guard armed with what looked like a Colt 38 revolver. We lived at 45 Brookside Avenue, Eccleston and I believe my father purchased this semi-detached house in 1933 for the sum of £240. I do recall that he had regular visits at home by Dr Ferry, a government doctor, to treat his emphysema caused by mustard gas poisoning.

John Hunter Snr. & Jnr. in Brookside Avenue in 1944 and a plaque presented to John Hunter in 1958

John Hunter Snr. & Jnr. and plaque presented to John Hunter in 1958

John Hunter Snr. & Jnr. and a plaque presented to John Hunter in 1958

Chemical Warfare by Curt Wachtel
In 1951 the family moved to Falmouth in Cornwall and my father was transferred to the recently-opened Nancecuke gas plant. However, he had to retire prematurely in 1958 through mustard gas poisoning and was presented with a commemorative plaque signed by his colleagues. He never spoke very much about his work, although I do recall him saying that during the war, the Sutton Oak plant had two 10,000 gallon tanks of liquid mustard gas, both of which were above ground. My father said that had bombs hit these tanks, there would have been a disaster for the local population. He also told me that he had become very sensitive to certain chemicals. Even a mix of one part mustard gas in 1000 parts water in solution would cause my father a reaction, even if just a single drop was put on his skin.

I have possession of a book which my father left to me after his passing. It's titled 'Chemical Warfare' by Curt Wachtel. The inside cover has a stamp which says C.D.R.E / Sutton Oak Library and Records Section and it gives all the formulas and toxic effects for various compounds used in WW1. In closing, I should mention that my father lived many years longer than what Dr Ferry had told my mother. Cora Hunter was a nurse at both Liverpool General and Alder Hey hospitals and so she understood father’s condition. He died in in 1978 aged 76
.
JOHN HUNTER Jnr.

'Memories of the Poison Gas Works' by Stan Bate

This is a personal account of an air accident as told to me by my father, James Bate. During the 1930s he worked in Roughdale’s Quarry, in Chester Lane and he's pictured below with a colleague, holding a pick. During the second world war he was a Fireman at HM Chemical Defence & Research Factory, Reginald Road, Sutton Oak, known locally as ‘The Poison Gas Works’ or 'Magnum'. In an effort to effectively minimise the risk of a major fire, resulting in a possible discharge of gas, the factory had its own fire fighting equipment and employed its own Firemen.

James Bate on the right working in Roughdales Quarry during the 1930s - contributed by Stan Bate

James Bate on the right working in Roughdales Quarry during the 1930s

James Bate on the right working in Roughdales Quarry during the 1930s

On the afternoon of the 30th of August 1943 a US Army Air Force Liberator bomber departed Burtonwood on a flight to the 392nd Bomb Group airfield at Wendling, Norfolk; onboard were a crew of nine and three passengers. The aircraft departed the airfield, heading in a westwardly direction at 270 deg. When it was about one mile from the airfield it turned right heading towards the west of Sutton and shortly afterwards, due to some unknown malfunction, the aircraft first turned back towards the airfield and then attempted to make a emergency landing in the fields just five hundred yards to the east of the Poison Gas Works; unfortunately it hit a mound of earth known locally as the 'Battery Cob' and burst into flames on impact. The ‘Battery Cob’ was about 30 yards long and 35 feet high, and was part of an old disused rifle range built in the mid 1800s; it was the highest point in what is essentially flat farmland.

On hearing of the crash the Firemen at the factory were preparing to turn out and attend, using their portable pumps, but were stopped from doing so by their senior officers and management because there were so many employees running from their places of work to observe the accident, leaving the factory vulnerable to possible fire and explosion. The firemen, with their exceptional knowledge of the area and its emergency water sources, would have been at the scene long before the local Auxiliary Fire Service, one of whose engines went into a ditch, however, nothing could have been done to save the victims. Anyone who has seen images of soldiers in the First Word War, clearly suffering from the effects of a poison gas attack, can only imagine what would have happen to the people of Sutton if that bomber had stayed airborne for an extra two or three seconds and crashed into the factory; the result would have been catastrophic.

James Bate at far right of this group of firemen at the poison gas works. Right James (left) in later years in the Mill House

Fireman James Bate (on the far right) and in later years in the Mill House

Fireman James Bate on the far right

The Poison Gas Factory was decommissioned in the 1950s, and over the following years the buildings were knocked down and the ground on which they stood was flattened. The only buildings left are the main offices, which still stand close to what was the railway bridge in Reginald Road. Parts of land where the factory stood was later built on, one noticeable building being a large cold store to the south side of Abbotsfield Road.

Early in the 1990s, a small factory producing brass castings was being built on the site. As the builders began digging out the foundations they came across what can only be described as six very large cauldrons, complete with lids. They were obviously some kind of pressure vessel, whose dimensions where approximately seven feet from base to rim, six feet six in diameter and three inches thick; the lids were dome shaped and attached to the base with large bolts around the rim.

Over the following years I became very friendly with the factory owner who one day told me that apart from the cauldrons, further excavation of the site had also turned up some other very sinister finds such as thousands of boxes of glass vials containing small amounts of liquid poison gas. I understand that they were to be used by operatives within the factory who, on suspecting a gas leak, would break open the vial and sniff its contents in an attempt to identify the category of gas escaping into the atmosphere; a WW2 anti aircraft gun was also extracted.

I was informed by the factory owner that all this toxic waste had to be transported to the south of England for disposal by a specialist company, at a cost of many thousands of pounds to his company. When he approached the local Council, who gave planning permission for the factory, and the government regarding reimbursement for his outlay, they refused to confirm that a poison gas factory had ever been on that site. However, one day a delegation of officials, made up from a number of countries around the world, arrived at the factory, escorted by armed police. It is understood that they had come on behalf of the United Nations, to ensure that poison gas was no longer being produced on the site. Their undeclared arrival at the factory was due to a non-proliferation treaty agreement between the western powers and Russia, following which the government had to own up to the factories existence as it was on a list of defunct establishments that were open to examination by the signatories, and it had to be shown to have been fully decommissioned. Only after this admission by the government was the factory owner able to recover his outlay for disposing of the toxic waste.
STAN BATE
'Ernest Booth Research Organic Chemist' by Elisabeth Nicolson
Ernest Booth, my late father, worked as a research chemist at Sutton Oak Chemical Defence Research Establishment in St Helens, Lancashire, at the time of my birth, on Sunday 14.03.1943, in St Helens Hospital, UD. This I know, as it is written on my birth certificate under the column 'Rank and Profession of father' as 'Research Chemist, HM Factory, St Helens'. In the manner of his generation, and as I now understand it, under the terms of the Official Secrets Act, Dad said very little about this part of his life (or about any other part of his life, for that matter!!). It is perhaps time for me to ask my three younger brothers, John, Donald and Steven William, what they learned from Dad. We lived at 84, St Helens Road, Rainford at this time. The owners had gone to Canada 'for the duration of hostilities', locking their belongings in to some of the rooms.

Left: Ernest Booth (1911-86) with daughter Elisabeth at the 'pig-farm' near their St.Helens Road home in 1944
Right: at the Institute of Seaweed Research at Inveresk, Musselburgh, East Lothian - contributed by Lis Nicolson

Ernest Booth with Elisabeth in 1944 and at the Institute of Seaweed Research

Ernest Booth with daughter Elisabeth

Of his work Dad did say that word came from British spies in Germany about the types of chemicals and the numbers of railway wagon-loads, that were being delivered to German poison-gas factories. At Sutton Oak they were then expected to try out these proportions to invent and manufacture new poison gases. He indicated further that sometimes a small experimental quantity, only, was required. At other times, they would then be given orders to make up 10 tons, or some other large quantity, immediately.

Research chemist Ernest Booth at the Institute of Seaweed Research at Inveresk, Musselburgh
Ernest Booth pictured at the Institute of Seaweed
Research at Inveresk - contributed by Lis Nicolson
On one occasion that Dad did talk about, they worked day and night to produce a large quantity of one particular gas. Dad noticed that his eyes were sore, but took it to be a sign of lack of sleep and tiredness. However, the damage to his eyes was much worse than that. He had to wear bandages over his eyes for six months, and Mum, newly married to this man, and away from her own family in Swinton, had to do these dressings for him. Dad's temper was never of the sweetest!!! Dad was a very good and orderly gardener, and he always boasted of a row of onions that he planted while blindfolded. He reckoned that they were the straightest row of onions that he ever planted! Dad's paternal grandma was Emma PLANT, from Cheshire, where the family were market gardeners. I reckon this showed in his extreme gardening skill and knowledge.

Having recently read about lung damage among workers at Sutton Oak, only now do I realise that Dad had a shocking early morning cough, and years later, he coughed up some blood, which caused a stir in the family at the time (he smoked like a chimney, on a pipe). Upon broncoscopy, the doctors discovered what they called 'old lung damage'. Dad told them that he had had a very bad dose of whooping cough when we, his children, did, at which time he would have been about 37. The doctors agreed that this damage was consistent with this clinical history. But Sutton Oak was never thought of until I write this now.

As the War came to an end, the owners of 84, St Helens Road, Rainford came back from Canada to their house, and Mum, Dad and I went to live with Mum's parents, John and Marion Marjorie Tyldesley at 4 Leinster Road, Swinton. Dad worked for Hardman and Holden, possibly somewhere in Salford, at this time. They made, among other things, Rennies indigestion lozenges, which he told us children were 'just the same thing as blackboard chalk!!' They were having a house built for us in Cheadle Hulme. But neither men nor materials were readily available, and we finally moved there in 1947. Dad, by this time, was Works Manager for British Schering, in Hazel Grove. I understand that they were pioneering research into synthetic sex hormones. This led to the advent of THE PILL!!!

My understanding is that Dr Neville Woodward at the Institute of Seaweed Research and who had been Dad's boss at Sutton Oak, invited him to apply for the job at the Institute at Inveresk, Musselburgh, Midlothian (now East Lothian). When Dad's job finally came to an end, he moved back to Rawtenstall and Calico Printing at Broad Oak Mill, Accrington. This mill would seem to have had a historic place in textiles. Then finally, the mill closed and Dad became a Consultant. This took him all around seaweedy places including twelve months with the United Nations, doing a world tour, to promote sales of seaweed products, as I understand it. The only continent he did not visit was Australasia.

His very last job was to design a liquid seaweed manure plant in Tralee, Co Kerry, Ireland. Alas, while recovering from minor surgery, (in the War Memorial Hospital, Lytham St Annes) and between his meat-course and his pudding, he collapsed and died! This was in 1986 and he had become a world expert on seaweed, lecturing at various International Seaweed Symposiums/a, held every four years, always in seaside university cities. Some of his papers are on the internet, and I have some, here, too. I have also visited the factory in Tralee, where the owner, Dr Henry Lyons, told me how much they had wished that Dad could have lived a little longer, to help them with their early 'teething problems' at the factory.

Ernest Booth pictured at the Institute of Seaweed Research at Inveresk

ELISABETH NICOLSON, Unst, Shetland
This page is reserved exclusively for memories of the Sutton Oak Chemical Defence Research Establishment. Please do get in touch if you would like to contribute your memories. Also see the dedicated page on the poison gas works.
This page is reserved exclusively for memories of the Sutton Oak Chemical Defence Research Establishment. Please do get in touch if you would like to contribute your memories. Also see the dedicated page on the poison gas works.
Also see the dedicated page on the Sutton Poison Gas Works
Stephen Wainwright
This website has been written and researched and many images photographed by myself, Stephen Wainwright, the Sutton Beauty & Heritage site owner. Individuals from all over the world have also kindly contributed their own photographs. If you wish to reuse any image, please contact me first as permission may be needed from the copyright owner. High resolution versions of many pictures can also be supplied at no charge. Please also contact me if you can provide any further information or photographs concerning Sutton, St.Helens. You might also consider contributing your recollections of Sutton for the series of Memories pages. Sutton Beauty & Heritage strives for factual accuracy at all times. Do also get in touch if you believe that there are any errors. I respond quickly to emails and if you haven't had a response within twelve hours, check your junk mail folder or resend your message. Thank you! SRW
This website is written and researched by Stephen R. Wainwright ©MMXVI  Contact Me
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