Distillers Impact on the Plastics Industry


A boardroom view by Ted Westnedge

The years immediately following the end of the second world war are of particular historical significance. The move away from the traditional thermosets and semi-synthetics towards the newer thermoplastics increased the tempo, as did the change in sources of feedstock. Equally significant was the spate of company mergers, expansions and re-organisations that were to shape the future of the industry for many years. One company heavily involved in such changes was the Distillers Company Limited (plc), better known of course for their leading brands of spirits.

pleastiquarian is particularly fortunate to have this exclusive article on those times, written for us by Ted Westnedge whose unrivalled knowledge of events stems from his personal involvement at a high level. If you have ever wondered what became of Xyloniteand Bakelite(and much more besides) you will find some of the answers in what follows...

In 1937 the Distillers Company Ltd purchased a small company, British Resin Products Ltd (BRP), manufacturers of paint and other thermosetting resins in Tonbridge Kent. In 1939 it negotiated a 50% interest in BX Plastics Ltd (BXP) in partnership with the British Xylonite Co Ltd. The latter was an old established public company in which the Merriam and Coubrough families were predominant and it was at the time intended that BXP would by DCLs vehicle for development of their thermoplastics interests.

In 1941 DCL purchased a 48% shareholding in F.A.Hughes & Co Ltd (FAH), a company founded in 1868 and then under the control of Major C.J.P.Ball. Charles Ball had joined FAH in 1923 on retirement from the Army and through the knowledge he had gained about Germans post first world war advances in plastics materials developed FAHs interests in plastics. This involved importing early plastics and later the processes and equipment to manufacture phenolic and cellulose acetate moulding powders, synthetic resins and some PVC. These were developed by Charles Ball through Rockhard Resins Ltd and Cellomold Ltd at Feltham, Indurite Moulding Powders at Radcliffe in Lancashire, and also Turners Carbides at Hull as a source of acetylene.

In 1947 DCL acquired the remainder of the FAH shareholding, amalgamated all its wholly owned plastics interests as BRP and set up a new factory at Barry in South Wales, (Epok & Cellobond resins and Rockite & Cellomold moulding powders) whilst retaining its 50% interest in BXP.

British Resin Products Ltd (BRP)  ー F.A.Hughes & Co Ltd (48%100%)
                       50% of BX Plastics Ltd (BXP) with British Xylonite Co Ltd.
                        (1959 50% of BXP British Xylonite を取得
PSPVC生産でDistrene LtdBritish Geon と競合)

The potential growth areas in which DCL had by this time other development work in hand were in polystyrene and PVC. BRP had already developed, and were producing, polystyrene on a small plant at Tonbridge (Distrene) by an extrusion process and Distillers Research had been particularly successful on PVC paste development. These interests prompted, in 1945, the formation of a 55/45% partnership between DCL and B F Goodrich of America (BFG) to produce at Barry a range of PVC products and later nitrile synthetic rubbers (British Geon Ltd). BFG were one of the leading world producers of PVC and the decision enabled DCL to get into bulk PVC production promptly and to expand its interests rapidly. BFG contributed their resin know-howand DCL their paste know-howwith an original capacity of 3000 tons of PVC.

British Geon Ltd    55/45% partnership between DCL and B F Goodrich of America
              PVC products and later nitrile synthetic rubbers

When the partnership was finally dissolved in 1967 after some 20 years the plant capacity was of the order of 141,500 tons! There is no doubt that the decision to form this partnership at the time was the right one as it enabled DCL to develop its existing research know-howand to establish a major position in this rapidly growing and profitable field of plastics. The basis of the partnership was such that BFG were to continue to develop and supply know-howand that the joint company would have exclusive manufacturing and selling rights in the UK and non-exclusive selling rights overseas under all BFG patents. Owing to the dollar situation at the time, BFG were unable to export into European and various other world markets and, thus as a matter of convenience, a number of BFG agents were appointed to handle the British Geon (BG) products. Subsequently the position changed and DCL found itself in competition with other overseas interests of BFG.

Meanwhile, on the polystyrene side, DCL developed its own clear general purpose polystyrene and were producing small quantities, first in Tonbridge and later at Barry, with modified success. It had also developed an impact polystyrene of some merit but which was, unfortunately, ahead of its time to the extent that few moulding machines in the country were able to convert it into finished articles. The company suffered an unfortunate dust explosion at Barry in 1953 which destroyed much of its plant. Charles Ball, who had had wartime contacts with the Dow Chemical Company in the States, by then one of the leading polystyrene producers in the world, approached them on behalf of DCL and another partnership was formed (Distrene Ltd) this time to manufacture polystyrene in the UK on a 55/45% basis. The partnership was set up on very similar lines to BG in that Distillers Plastics managed the company, and DCL was also responsible for supplying the companys feedstock. Distrene Ltd grew to be the leading polystyrene producer in the UK. Quite early on in this partnership conflicts of interest arose for DCL not only on account of its 50% interest in BXP (who were also manufacturing polystyrene), but also with its Dow partner. In export markets Dow were successful exporters of polystyrene into Europe from the US. Dow were also setting up a number of 100% controlled and partnership companies in various European countries. Distrene was simultaneously developing its own product range to suit the UK and European markets.

Distrene Ltd    55/45% partnership between DCL and Dow   (but reduced to 50%)

Around this time problems on priorities in investment at BG and Distrene arose with inevitable delays in approval of capital investments on expansions, having in turn a serious effect on the growth and profitability of the two UK companies. At the end of 1959, DCL acquired the full ownership of British Xylonite/BX Plastics. Although this removed the conflict of interest between DCL and British Xylonite it exasperated the relationship between DCL and both its American partners Dow and BFG, because by this time BX Plastics were in both polystyrene and PVC production. Both the American partners felt that Distillers would give priority to its 100% interests against its 55/45% partnerships.

Towards the end of 1961, DCL entered into negotiations with the American company, Union Carbide, with the proposal that the two companies would pool their UK plastics fabrication interests. However out of the discussions developed a proposal that the whole of the British Xylonite/BX Plastics interests and the whole of Union Carbides UK plastics interests including Bakelite Ltd be put together into a joint 50/50 company which would manage itself. The other DCL 55/45% partnerships, BG and Distrene and its wholly owned BRP interests were managed by DCL through the Distillers Plastics Group. As a result, Bakelite Xylonite Limited (BXL) was formed in 1963.

Bakelite Xylonite Limited (BXL)  50/50 between DCL and UCC
    the whole of the British Xylonite/BX Plastics interests  
British Geon Ltd Distrene Ltd
the whole of Union Carbides UK plastics interests including Bakelite Ltd                      

These developments occurred against a background of radical changes in the feedstock price structure. In 1945 the Chancellor had removed the fiscal advantages of making acetylene from alcohol and simultaneously removed the import duty on hydrocarbon oils to be used in chemicals manufacture. DCL therefore turned from molasses (スコットランドの糖蜜から作るアルコール)to petroleum and in 1947 linked with the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (BP after 1955) to form British Petroleum Chemicals (changed to British Hydrocarbon Chemicals (BHC) in 1956. BHC became the supplier of petroleum-based raw materials for all Distillers plastics interests. A further development resulted in DCL taking an exclusive licence from Phillips Petroleum in the US to manufacture High Density Polyethylene at Grangemouth and to market it through BRP. This was DCLs first entry into the high density polyethylene field.

British Petroleum Chemicals (changed to British Hydrocarbon Chemicals)  DCL and Anglo Iranian Oil(BP)
     The supplier of petroleum-based raw materials for all Distillers plastics interests

HDPEの製造(exclusive licence from Phillips Petroleum in the US

The Distillers Plasticssituation by the end of 1965 was that DCL had its original 100% BRP company manufacturing a very wide range of resins; its 55% partnership in BG manufacturing PVC resins, compounds and Nitrile Rubbers; its 55% (but reduced to 50%) partnership in Distrene manufacturing the polystyrene range, its 50% partnership in BXL, manufacturing how density polyethylene, polystyrene, Bakelite moulding powders and resins, fabrication, and so forth. Its high density polyethylene production at Grangemouth under its Phillips licence, and its overseas partnerships and other ventures, with the majority of its feedstock coming from its partnership in BHC.

Early in 1966 DCL opened negotiations with BP with the initial intention of transferring its various chemical interests to BP. The outcome was that DCL sold, subject to partnership approval, all its chemical and plastics interests to BP, effective on 31st March 1967. In the event (on the partnership side) Dow took over 100% control of Distrene, BFG sold out its interests in Geon, and DCL withdrew from its various overseas partnerships principally in Australia, South Africa, India and France.

  BRP company manufacturing a very wide range of resins;
  British Geon
  Bakelite Xylonite Limited (BXL)
  British Hydrocarbon Chemicals
  high density polyethylene production


DCLs active participation in the development of the Plastics Industry, spanning 30 eventful years, ended, as it began, with boardroom decisions, but with a series of products, plant and personnel in position ready to make further impressions on the industry.

The Distillers Company Limited (DCL) was founded in 1877 and was taken over in a spectacular hostile way by Guinness in 1986.


The Distillers Company (DCL), which opened the factory at Barry, was formed in 1877 making Scotch Whisky, and as a by-product, yeast and industrial alcohol. In 1926 it established its first factory at Hull for the production of chemicals. A subsidiary of Distillers, British Resin Products, began producing synthetic resins in 1937, and later the same year it acquired a 50% share in another chemical company, B.X. Plastics. During the war years DCL and associated companies came under government control. In the late 40's a calcium carbide plant was built at Kenfig and run for the Ministry by DCL.

In 1947 British Hydrocarbon Chemical Company, in association with BP Company Ltd. opened a factory at Grangemouth in Scotland. 1946 and 47 saw the start of the development of DCL on a 93-acre site at Barry. The first factory to be opened in 1948 was British Resin Products and was wholly owned by Distillers. This company was formed by the amalgamation of BRP, Tonbridge with F. A. Hughes of Feltham, and Messrs. Radcliffes.

1945 saw the amalgamation of the Goodrich Chemical Company, of the USA, and DCL, which culminated in the building of a factory on the Barry site for the production of PVC. In 1948 its production was 3,000 tons, but by 1956 the annual production had risen to over 27,000 tons. A great deal of the factory's production was used in the manufacture of vinyl for making LP records.

Also in the 40's Distillers joined with Dow Chemicals to form another company on the site, Distrene Ltd., for the production of Styron and Polystyrenes.

1954 saw the building, extending and modernisation of the various plants, and the company announced that there were over 1,700 workers employed on the Barry Site and over 500 employed by the various contractors engaged in these alterations and extensions.

In 1956 another plant, "Hycar", was commissioned to produce an oil resistant synthetic rubber previously manufactured and imported from the USA.

A number of Research and Development laboratories were set up to test materials produced by the various factories on site. These R&D Labs not only tested the raw materials, but also used small batch runs to test the quality and composition of them. Vacuum forming machines were used to test the elasticity of vinyl materials. Christmas time practically every home in Barry had a Father Christmas face displayed somewhere, produced by the labs and painted by its owner. A number of these labs are now part of the Vale Enterprise Park.

Social facilities were provided for personnel employed at the site by the opening of the Plastics Club in Market Street. Later in 1962 the managing director of the company opened the Sully Plastics Sports and Social Club at Swanbridge. The 1960's also saw the Wulff plant opened on the British Geon site to produce acetylene from calcium carbonate. Surplus gas was burned off at the top of the stack, lighting up the area for miles around. At one time the noise from the plant produced so many complaints from nearby residents that an injunction was sought by them to stop all production at the plant until steps were taken to moderate the noise. This, after a number of attempts, the company did, and the injunction was lifted.

Before further extensions to the British Geon Site began, a number of huts that were built during the war had to be demolished. These huts were used to store ammunition and the site was named Barry OSD (Ordnance Supply Depot). At one time the fields alongside were over-run with rabbits, which lived under these huts. Some nights using a long net a good number could be caught. There was no street lighting, and in this field was an old BUDC boundary post made of cast iron, which left a lasting impression if you bumped into it when you had to leave the vicinity quickly. I don't know if it's still there, but it would be near the road in the undergrowth between the entrance to the EVC plant and the river.

In January 1967 an agreement between BP and Distillers for BP to take over the Barry site was concluded, and by March the same year the transfer of all Distillers owned and part owned chemical and plastics interests at Barry were transferred to BP.

When BP chemicals stopped production the site was sold, and broken up into smaller units which are occupied by the following companies :-

The Dow Chemicals factory, which was sold off on the take-over by BP was originally Distrene. Further along Hayes Road, Vopak, which occupies the Windmill Site, is built on the site of the Naphthalene tank farm and boat stores