In 1803 an entrepreneur called John Johnson built a soapery on the south bank of the Bridgewater canal. It was sited more or less opposite to the centre of the small town of Runcorn whose population at the time was only around 1,500. In 1799 he had married Elizabeth Burton, a great-niece of the late Rev. Thomas Alcock. Thomas Alcock and his brother Nathan were important figures in late 18th century Runcorn. Thomas became vicar of Runcorn in 1756 and remained in this position for no less than 42 years. Through his marriage to Maria Harwood he became a considerable landowner in the town. Nathan was a physician who had a distinguished career elsewhere and finally settled in Runcorn where he cared for the local population. Nathan died in 1779 and Thomas in 17981.
The land on which John Johnson built his soapery was inherited by his wife from Rev. Thomas Alcock. Johnson had involvement in a range of other types of business, building houses on his land and developing a rope walk and a slate factory. In 1815, like Thomas Hazlehurst senior he was selling cinders to the Overseer of Highways2. Soap-making became his primary interest but sadly he died at the early age of 37 in 1816. (Ironically 1816 was the year when Thomas Hazlehurst senior opened his Camden Works and when Thomas Hazlehurst junior was born.) The business was then run by the Liverpool firm of Hayes, Ollier and Company, who in addition to soap, were producing resin and turpentine3 . This continued until 1821 when John Johnson's elder son, also called John, came of age4. Three years later his younger brother, Thomas, also came of age and joined John in the business, which became J & T Johnson's.
The Johnsons were soon involved in a number of enterprises and must have at one time been involved in a partnership with a third party, because in 1824-25 the business was called Johnson & Briddons, and they were "soap manufacturers, tallow-chandlers, and patent & common cordage manufacturers"5. The partnership continued towards the end of the decade as in 1828 Johnson & Briddons were soap boilers and rope makers, while there is a separate record of Thomas Johnson as a turpentine distiller6 . By 1834 the brothers were together without any mention of Briddons7 . I mentioned in Chapter 2 that 1832 Johnson's had been the 7th largest manufacturer of soap in the United Kingdom.
In 1836, Johnson's bought the factory established by Dennis Kennedy and Thomas Maguire in 1833 (see Chapter 2) at Weston and some adjacent land. This was to develop into a soap and alkali factory even greater than that on the Bridgewater canal. The size of the original factory in the town centre had been limited by a number of geographical factors.
The Johnson brothers created for themselves an "industrial empire". Over time they bought sources for their necessary raw materials. In 1840 they opened a coal mine near St. Helens and this was extremely successful. By 1843-44 they had obtained a large contract to supply the Royal Navy with coal for its steam-powered ships; this contract represented the largest single consignment of coal to naval establishments at home or abroad8. In 1845 they opened a salt works at Over, near Winsford9.
By 1857 they also owned limestone quarries in North Wales, a pyrites mine in Ireland, and a factory in Widnes producing resin. They opened a shipyard in Mill Street near the old steam mill and to transport their products, they acquired a fleet of ships; by 1865 they owned four schooners, a coasting flat, nine sailing flats and some smaller vessels10 . They also owned shares in various enterprises, usually those with whom they had a vested interest. For example John Johnson held 10 shares in the St. Helens and Runcorn Gap Railway11 . In addition to their markets in Great Britain, they were exporting coal, salt and soap to America12 . They were also involved in farming in the Runcorn area in a substantial way.
Meanwhile they were extending their production of chemicals at their works on the Bridgewater canal and especially at their Weston works. In 1850 they erected an enormous chimney at the Weston works measuring 360 feet in height13 . Near to Johnson's Weston works, William Collier, for 22 years the works manager of Johnson's, established a chemical works in 1859. This was also unsuccessful and Collier sold out to the Johnsons within three years14 . Collier had been condensing the hydrochloric acid from his works more efficiently than Johnson's and he complained that the Johnson's emissions were damaging his property and that they were also dumping waste products on his land. Collier complained that Johnson's tactics amounted to a 'hate campaign' against him15 . In 1859 the Johnson s bought the Ironbridge Oil Works in Widnes which they converted into a plant for refining rosin, a material which was incorporated into some of their soaps16 .
Both brothers were heavily involved in local politics and in the management of the town, although their dealings were not always scrupulous. John was a member of the Board of Heath established in 1831 to combat the anticipated epidemic of cholera17. Both brothers were appointed as Gas and Lighting Inspectors of the Runcorn Gas-Light Company and then became directors of its successor the Runcorn Gas Company. They were both elected to the first Board of Commissioners set up following the Runcorn Improvement Act of 185218.
However they were not averse to using their civic positions to their own ends. They were both members of a sub-committee set up in 1853 to organise the building of a market. Four sites were short-listed for the market and as it happened, the site chosen was a house in Bridge Street which was owned by the brothers. They sold it to the Improvement Commissioners for £1,800. However by doing this they had unwittingly breached the provisions of the Improvement Act and so had disqualified themselves from serving as commissioners for the rest of the year and two new commissioners had to be elected in their place19 . The Improvement Commissioners then had difficulty in raising the money to pay for the site and after a number of negotiations a mortgage was raised - from the Johnsons at an interest rate of 5%20 . For many years both brothers acted as JPs.
In 1860 Johnson's opened an office in Liverpool to assist their business with the USA. Their agent in Liverpool was Charles Wigg who was later to become an important figure in the chemical industry in Runcorn21 . In 1861 one of the Upper Mersey Due Trustees was John Johnson22 .
John Johnson lived in a fine house, Bank House in High Street, Runcorn. In 1854 Thomas bought land on which two years later he was to build an even finer house, Halton Grange.
The Johnsons were not particularly careful for the environment of the town. Although the Alkali Act had come into effect in 1863, even by 1866 the firm was blamed by the Inspector of Nuisances for the effect that the pollution from their works was having on the vegetation of the town. The Johnson brothers were not however particularly responsive to the complaints made by the Inspector and threatened to have him removed from his post23 .
By the 1860s the Johnson brothers' business empire was at a peak. They were major manufacturers of chemicals and soap. They owned means of supply of all their necessary raw materials and were able to sell coal and salt which were excessive to their own needs. But it seems that they were never satisfied by their achievements and were constantly striving for more power and more profit. This eventually led to their downfall. They had attempted to run the Union blockade in the American Civil War to supply materials to the Confederate States. Their initial venture was successful; they managed to pass a steamer through the blockade and by so doing made an enormous profit of £70,000. However when they attempted to do this again with a number of steamers, virtually all of their ships were in port at Charlestown, South Carolina, when in 1865 it suffered a naval bombardment and their vessels were sunk24. The Johnsons were unable to withstand the loss and in order for the company to continue it had to be floated as a public concern in 1865, when it became the Runcorn Soap and Alkali Company25. Initially the brothers were the major shareholders and directors. Other shareholders included Thomas and Charles Hazlehurst, William Gossage and some employees of Johnson's, Charles Wigg, Neil Mathieson and Duncan McKechnie who were all later to become large chemical manufacturers in their own right
Despite this the financial problems of the Johnson brothers continued and as time went on they had to sell their assets. As a gesture of generosity they were allowed to keep their coal mine in St Helens but in 1869 they had to sell even this to pay their debts. And then in 1871 they were declared bankrupt. Thomas Johnson had to sell his magnificent house, Halton Grange. He offered it to the Improvement Commissioners for public use but they declined the offer. Somewhat ironically the house was purchased by the Hazlehursts, and it became the home of Charles until his death in 1878. The Johnson brothers lived on for some years and eventually died in relative poverty, John in 1883 and Thomas the following year26.
While the Hazlehursts were Methodists, the Johnsons were Anglicans. The Johnson brothers were the largest subscribers to the building of Holy Trinity church which was consecrated in 1838. They supplied the endowment and were patrons of the living27, paying the curate's fees of £200 per annum28. They promoted the Day infant and Sunday schools at Holy Trinity and also supported the Ragged School29.Return to