Sootigine: Marketing a Failed Victorian Fertiliser

While reviewing commercial activities in Romford in 1886, as listed in Kelly's Directory of Essex, I came across an intriguing entry, which described one Thomas F. Burbrow as "sootigine agent". I had never heard of sootigine – nor, it seemed, had the Oxford English Dictionary.

Internet searches yielded thin results. However, fortunately, a controversy about the product in the Penzance newspaper, The Cornishman, in 1886, helped flesh out the basic story.[1] Sootigine was described as a manure, a term loosely used in the late nineteenth-century to include artificial fertilisers. Its basic ingredients were soot and sewage, the latter apparently treated with disinfectant. Since this process seems to have substantially reduced its nutritive value, it is probably best thought of as a manufactured soil additive. Since Sootigine never became a household word, there is no clue to its pronunciation. Analogy with the markedly more successful petroleum jelly brand-named "Vaseline", which was patented in 1872, suggests that the final syllable rhymed with "mean", but this cannot be claimed with certainty.[2]

            The large-scale promotion of Sootigine appears to have been the work of a man called Wesley Darley, whose activities may be traced through the pages of the London Gazette, which is (inter alia) England's official record of business failures.[3] Although his forename suggests a Methodist upbringing, Darley's career reflects nothing of the cautious probity generally associated  with that communion. His serial bankruptcies and broken partnerships suggest a hyperactive and dangerously plausible fantasist, who presumably left a trail of bruised associates in his wake. He was born in Dunstable around 1843-4, the son of John and Sarah Darley, whose exotic choice of children's names may offer some clue to their son's grandiose schemes. Wesley's father was an upholsterer, and three of his sisters worked as bonnet-sewers (Dunstable was noted for the manufacture of straw hats), but sibling names included Dorcas, Theophilus and Maximilian.[4] (Maximilian was Wesley's first business partner.)  The young man certainly took the world at flood tide. He was married at the age of 19: he and Jane Samuel would have four children, one of whom died in infancy, before her death in 1873, at the age of 30. His first business, as a wine and spirit merchant with Maximilian, at Linslade in Buckinghamshire, collapsed in 1866, when he was just 22. The brothers evaded the legal handicaps of formal bankruptcy by agreeing to transfer their assets to creditors (who included Bass, the brewers), but he was less fortunate in his next financial crisis. In 1869, now based in Leighton Buzzard, Darley was declared bankrupt, although it was not explained how somebody described as a commercial traveller could have amassed unpayable debts. By the time of the 1871 census, he was living at Linslade in Buckinghamshire and described as a commercial traveller, but when discharged from bankruptcy in May 1872, he was unemployed and living in Highbury, North London. He promptly formed a partnership with a man called Ebenezer Pearce, operating general merchants' business in London's Mark Lane, but the business was "dissolved by mutual consent" ten months later. Since Pearce took charge of the winding-up arrangements, it seems likely that he had rapidly lost confidence in an unreliable associate. With the death of Jane and the parting of the ways with Pearce, 1873 must have been a fraught year for Darley. However, he bounced back. At the time of the 1881 census, he was living with Harriet Charters. The couple assured the enumerator that they were man and wife, but they did not get around to tying the knot until 1884. 

Mark Lane was the City of London's corn-trading market, and it would have been here that Darley became aware of the challenges facing British agriculture, particularly from cheap grain imports from North America. Dumped by Pearce, he simply moved along the street and went into business on his own. This venture did not last long either. By February 1877, he was seeking an accommodation with his creditors. At this time, Darley also owned property in the Harrow Road and Dalston districts of North London.

            Darley's 1877 brush with insolvency probably explains the dissolution, in September of that year, of another enterprise in which he had been involved. The Government Sanitary Company – a misleading name, presumably designed to give spurious official status to its products, Government Carbolic Disinfectants – operated at locations in Bedford, Dunstable and "the Hackney Downs Station of the Great Eastern Railway".[5] (The station had opened in 1872, with the construction of a branch line to Enfield off the main railway to Cambridge. Located barely two miles from Liverpool Street, it was a good location for the handling of bulk produce, in a developing area of London. The works was located in the railway arches.[6]) Darley seems to have emerged from the break-up retaining some connection with the Hackney Downs plant, which later became the New Carbolic Sanitary Company. It is unlikely that he gave the enterprise his immediate and undivided attention: there was another attempt at a wine and spirit business, this time in Finsbury Park, but the enterprise only lasted until December 1881, with the withdrawal of his latest partner, Henry Speedy, leaving the veteran Wesley to close the books on Darley and Speedy. August 1883 found him in the unprecedented situation of helping to untangle another enterprise. An ambitiously comprehensive title had not ensured the survival of the London, Provincial, and Foreign Ale, Wine and Spirit Company, and an extraordinary general meeting appointed Wesley Darley as one of the two liquidators to undertake its voluntary winding-up.  He certainly brought a wealth of experience to the task, and possibly used the exercise to amass some capital for his next scheme.

He was now free to turn his attention to the Hackney Downs chemical works. In 1879 it had operated as the Carbolic Sanitary Company; by 1884 the adjective "New" had been added, and this may signal a reorganisation involving Darley, who was described as its managing director in 1889. At the London International Health Exhibition of 1884, the New Carbolic Sanitary Company won a silver medal for its entry in the category "Water and Earth Closets, Ash Closets, Commodes, Urinals, Disinfecting Powders and Fluids, Insect Destroyers."[7]  Since the silver medal was never mentioned in the subsequent advertising campaign, it could not have been awarded for Sootigine. The New Carbolic Sanitary Company was a genuine manufacturing business. In 1888, for instance, it won the contract to supply disinfectant to the Hackney Vestry, still the outdated administrative body for a growing suburb.[8]

Although advertisements in 1887-8 claimed a venerable history for Sootigine, all the way back to 1873, it was in the early eighteen-eighties, that the Hackney Downs disinfectant plant evidently switched its emphasis to large-scale production of its soot-based soil additive: the steward on the Surrey estates of the Earl of Derby began using it in 1883.[9] In 1885, "Sootigine: or, London Sewage and Soot Manure" was being produced, in quantities of a thousand tons a week, at the "Adams' Works, Manor Place, Hackney".[10] William Adams appears in The Cornishman in March 1886, simply signing himself as "Manager" of an unspecified business.[11] At the time of the 1881 census, Adams had been living in Islington and employed as a brewer's clerk, which may explain how he knew Darley. Fortunately for the historian, William and his wife Ann Elizabeth rarely let a year go past without adding to their family, and birthplace information in the 1891 census suggests that he moved to Hackney around 1883, possibly installed by Darley as part of the reorganisation of the Carbolic Sanitary Company. He not only worked in Manor Place but actually lived there, with his wife and six children.

            Testimonials from satisfied customers submitted to The Cornishman began from October 1884. William Adams reported that "when this manure was first made, a few hands sufficed for its manufacture", but the workforce had risen to "about 300". The firm was mainly dealing with repeat orders, but Adams estimated that, even starting the 1886 season with 50,000 tons of Sootigine on hand, they would be able to respond to only two-thirds of the demand.[12] In January 1886, the New Carbolic Sanitary Company further underlined its central concern by registering a telegraphic address, "Sootigine London".[13] The product was widely advertised in local newspapers and energetically marketed at agricultural fairs, such as the Royal Cornwall Show.[14] Advertisements specified that the company sought agents, and a network seems to have been recruited, mainly – it would seem – from established storekeepers. (Burbrow in Romford was obviously unusual in announcing no other commercial function.) In Penzance, Charles F. Wills of Mount's-bay Stores, defended his involvement with the admission: "if I had not taken the agency some one else would have done so."[15]

            Wills defended the product as a way of meeting "an increasing demand, on account of the depressed state of farming, for low-priced manure". Most artificial fertilisers cost between £6 and £8 a ton: Sootigine was available at 35 shillings (£1.15s.) per ton shipped by rail, or £2 per ton sold in bags. In addition, Wills stressed the environmental concern that the "practically unlimited and ever increasing" output of sewage from a growing population "must be kept from polluting our rivers". Sootigine seemed a neat solution to both problems. But this begged the question of its composition, and its innate value. As "Agricola", the energetically sceptical correspondent of The Cornishman, pointed out, a product that was cheap in comparison with its competitors might also be dear in relation to its contents. Sootigine's defenders accepted that the product contained sand, probably used as a binding agent – although this argument was not advanced. One key issue was how much non-biodegradable silica it contained. 

            William Adams had simply claimed that Sootigine "Equals Guano".[16] The New Carbolic Sanitary Company issued a more detailed leaflet claiming that it contained 18 percent silica, 7.25 percent moisture, 35.78 percent nitrogenous organic matter and 8.8 percent phosphate of lime.[17] (Unfortunately, the summary reported in The Cornishman did not add up to 100 percent.) More alarming was the refusal of the company to guarantee that individual shipments conformed to their advertised profile, the explanation that they "were making it of a better quality than when the analysis was taken" sounding decidedly suspect. "Agricola" reported that five samples – delivered to customers in Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex – had been submitted for independent analysis, by Dr J. Augustus Voelcker of the Royal Agricultural Society. English-born of German parentage, Voelcker had inherited his name, his job and his scientific method from his father, who had died the previous year. Voelcker senior had studied the application of sewage to agriculture. He had also developed a technique of minute analysis, minutely breaking down the components of artificial fertilisers so they could be separately priced, and an overall market value placed upon the product.

Applied to Sootigine by Voelcker junior, the results were unflattering. His five examinations found that the water content had been underestimated (at between 9.33 and 16.2 percent) – hardly a major flaw, except that Sootigine was advertised as a dry powder. Organic matter fluctuated wildly, from a high of 33.24 percent, close to the Company's own claim, down to 10.11 percent. Worse still, the organic matter contained almost no nutrients, with nitrogen content below one percent of the total. No information was forthcoming about the manufacturing process that produced Sootigine, but it may be assumed to have involved passing the sewage through a carbolic filter to clean it up. Unfortunately, the process seems also to have largely destroyed its value as a fertiliser. But that was not the end of the negative report. Phosphate of lime, vaunted as a selling point, could be found only in traces, with just one of the five samples registering above the one percent mark. Carbonate and sulphate of lime – in plain English, soot – made up between 14.57 and 26.19 percent of the samples. Oxides of iron and alumina ranged from 3.11 to 18.06 percent. Most damning of all was the predominance of "siliceous matter" – "worthless sand" in Voelcker's words – rising as high as 52.75 percent in one sample, although another yielded no more than 4.68 percent. At the very least, it seemed that quality control procedures at Hackney Downs (if such there were) were incapable of ensuring a consistent product. At worst, Sootigine was seriously deficient in nutrients, and over-weighted towards insoluble sand, which would hardly add to soil quality if used repeatedly. "£2 per ton is an absurd price, 7s 6d or 8s per ton being quite enough to pay for it", Voelcker wrote of one sample. Of another, he was even more forthright: "This is rubbish sold at an extravagant price."[18]

It was William Adams who replied in defence of Sootigine.[19] He began with an attempt to occupy the moral high ground, complaining that Voelcker's tests had been performed without his company's knowledge: "we were not present, or represented, when the samples were taken." Having hinted at underhand behaviour, Adams then launched a counter-attack on what seems to have been a new front. Even if Voelcker were correct in his valuation of the contents "(which we, of course, dispute)", Sootigine was worth £3 or £4 a ton "as an insect exterminator". Many customers "last season would have had no root, or other crops, but for our sootigine." This argument raised two questions, neither of which the controversy pursued. The first could have asked why Sootigine was only sold for 35 shillings or £2 a ton if its insect-slaughtering powers justified a higher price. The second might have wondered whether a concoction that was so repellent to insects was ideally suited to the growth of food for human consumption. Adams concluded with a line of attack crafted to tap into farmers' distrust of armchair experts: "we say – ascertained result is preferable, and more reliable agriculturally, than analysis. This the London market-gardeners have found out. They may have stable-manure at our works for the carting away, but they prefer to purchase our sootigine." He was prepared to offer fifty guineas (£52, 10 shillings) to Cornwall's county infirmary if any reader of The Cornishman failed to grow as good a crop with Sootigine, at 35 shillings a ton, as with more expensive artificial fertilisers. The editor welcomed the challenge and asked Adams to set his terms and conditions, but it does not seem that the competition was taken any further.

The Penzance controversy can be traced through Internet sources: possibly there were other critics of Sootigine. Even one round of bad publicity was embarrassing, and during the following year, the New Carbolic Sanitary Company engaged in an aggressive form of damage limitation. Advertisements now subtitled Sootigine "the London Soot and Sewage Manure, and Insect Destroyer .... Suitable for all crops. Distroys [sic] fly, grub, wire-worm, &c." What had begun as a diversionary tactic to deflect Voelcker's criticisms was now claimed as an integral feature of the product. The advertisement then shifted to breathtaking heights of mendacity. "120,000 tons sold again this and last season, most of which was analysed by the highest authorities on behalf of buyers; only 4 small lots did not reach their highstandards [sic]; many far exceeded it. Beware of worthless imitations. New firms have even copied our advertisements.'[20] The wording was cleverly designed to reassure potential customers who might have vaguely heard that some Sootigine samples had failed independent analysis. There were no advertising standards in those days. Perhaps it was soon decided that this publicity campaign protested too much. It was succeeded by a widely published miniature display advert, printed from an engraved block supplied to a wide range of provincial newspapers throughout 1888. This simply gave the name and address of the company, the price (35 shillings a ton), and the product title in bold block capitals: "'Sootigine' manure", with the smaller-type description, also in capitals, "a dry powder".[21] The strategy was presumably to keep an established brand name in the public consciousness through endless repetition, rather than make the case to win new customers. In any case, Sootigine was coming to the end of its commercial career.

One mystery in the Sootigine saga is the degree of endorsement it received from customers. Its advertised claim of "5,000 references and testimonials from all districts"[22] may be taken with a pinch of powdered sewage, but William Adams was able to supply The Cornishman with "testimonials enough to fill a column, even if placed in small type."[23] No doubt, testimonials might be obtained in exchange for product discounts, but it seems unlikely that, say, the steward to the Earl of Derby would have risked his responsible position by engaging in a fertiliser scam. Farmers the world over tend to be doggedly confident in their own wisdom and, having invested in a product, they may have been inclined to vaunt its utility. Despite Voelcker's sweeping dismissal ("rubbish"), Sootigine probably contained some nutrients: even Voelcker gave it an estimated value, albeit far below its selling price. Its function as an insect repellent also made it attractive. It may be with recalling, too, that Sootigine was promoted as a low-cost alternative to more expensive products, and many of its customers were presumably trading down. Land top-dressed with guano in 1884 might still be reaping the benefits even when treated with an inferior substitute in 1885.

However, by 1888, farmers were perhaps aware of diminishing returns. Voelcker's objection to Sootigine's heavy sand content was essentially that silica did not dissolve. Repeated applications may well have tangibly affected soil quality. Perhaps crucially, there seems to have been no discussion of the role of the element that gave the product its name. Late-Victorian Hackney was not an entirely working-class community.[24] But it is likely that many households could only afford to burn low-grade coal, which would have produced soot heavily infused with impurities – which probably explains the carbonate and sulphite of lime, and the oxides of iron and alumina that Voelcker identified as composing around one-third of his analysed samples. If the New Carbolic Sanitary Company was really, as it claimed, producing 120,000 tons of Sootigine by 1887, then Voelcker's analysis would point to the processing of something like 40,000 tons of soot, far too much to be checked for clinker or filtered. It is possible that Sootigine came to reflect Julius Caesar's funeral oration: its good qualities were quickly and invisibly washed into the soil, but its sand base and chimney detritus littered the ground, undermining customer confidence. Whatever the causes, by May 1889, the New Carbolic Sanitary Company was bankrupt.[25] Wesley Darley went down with it.[26]

William Adams rescued the business, re-launching it with a new partner as Adams, Webster & Co. In the 1895 Post Office Directory for London, the firm appeared as "carbolic acid & powder manufacturers". The products they were pushing now were their disinfectants, "Healthitas" and "Government", although they added, as if by afterthought, that they also operated as "grease merchants & manure manufacturers". Almost the sole link with the previous regime was the telegraphic address, "Sootigine, London". Four years later, even that was gone. The installation under the railway arches was now the "Manor Chemical Works", and its telegraphic address was now "Healthward, London".[27] Sootigine, it seems, was not even a memory. William Adams died in 1906, aged 63. He left an estate valued at £573, a meagre enough return for two decades manufacturing disinfectant. Perhaps the mysterious partner Webster owned most of the business.

When he went bankrupt for the last time in 1889, Wesley Darley was living in Lea Bridge Road, Leyton. The 1891 census found him working once again as a commercial traveller, now living in Selby Road, Wanstead. Among Essex suburbs, Wanstead possessed – and retains – a certain prestige, but Selby Road could only doubtfully claim the address.[28] In fact, Darley was living on the frontier between Leyton and West Ham, close to Leytonstone High Road, in a street of small terraced houses – just about the lowest rung of London middle-class life. He died in 1895, aged at most 52, leaving behind him six business failures in a little over thirty years. His personal life in this last phase is also intriguing. The 1891 census lists as his wife, not Harriet Charters, whom he had married in 1874, but 30 year-old Emma Darley, who was seventeen years his junior. Genealogical records are not perfect, but it is curious that neither Harriet's death, nor Emma's marriage can be traced.[29] The couple had a daughter, whom they called Daisybell. Like Sootigine, Emma and Daisybell vanish from the records after Darley's death.

The only other information that surfaces about Emma Darley is the census note that she had been born in Romford. And so the story comes full circle, back to Thomas F. Burbrow, and it seems appropriate to close this survey by wondering how he came to be involved with Sootigine. Such information as emerges from the census can only add to the mystery. Born around 1849, Burbrow was the son of prosperous parents. His father was styled a "fund holder" in the 1851 census, meaning that he lived off investment income. In 1861, he was working as a commission agent, a white-collar occupation. Thomas Figes Burbrow (he was given his mother's maiden name) called himself a "mariner" in 1891 and 1911 censuses. He married Ellen Mary Bailey at Canning Town – the docks area of West Ham – in November 1886, at about the time he was trying to sell Sootigine around Romford. She died the following year, apparently giving birth to a little girl, Elizabeth. Burbrow's eldest sister, Caroline Ann, had settled in Romford, living on "independent means". Caroline Ann provided a home for her brother and niece at 7 North Street – a short step from Romford's busy east-west axis of High Street and Market Place, but something of a residential backwater: the vicarage, with its two-acre garden, was just across the road. It is unlikely that Thomas established a Sootigine depot there. He was no doubt versatile: in 1901, he was attempting to make a living as a painter and decorator, but it has to be said that there is not a whiff of fertiliser in his life story.[30] More to the point, the Essex farmers he canvassed for orders would have had little difficulty in deducing that he was no expert on their needs. Nothing links him with his fellow Romfordian, Emma Darley, but it is noteworthy that in the major agricultural market centre for south Essex, no established merchant seemed interested in becoming agent for Sootigine.

It remains tempting to wonder whether, with some different form of preparation, Sootigine might have avoided failure. Its basic ingredients, soot and sewage, were available in unlimited quantities and for little more than the costs of collection in a metropolis desperate to be rid of its waste products. Its manufacture and marketing involved the harnessing of science, the exploitation of the railway freight network and a mass-marketing campaign through newspaper advertising – each of them buzz-themes for Victorian entrepreneurship and, surely, all of them together constituting a formula for success? But it was not be – probably because the use of the manufacturing process destroyed the nutrient value of the product, perhaps as a result of the negative impact of impurities in the soot content proved counter-productive, or maybe simply because Wesley Darley was a one-man jinx whose enterprises invariably came to grief. This essay is offered as a tentative outline in the hope that other earnest searchers after Sootigine will take the story further, and that students of economic history may be able to place this cameo in the wider history of Victorian agribusiness.

[minor revisions, 22, 28 February 2017]


[1] Items in the The Cornishman [cited as TC] began on 4 March 1886 with an attack on Sootigine by"Agricola" of West Penwith (the Lands End peninsula), who cited analyses by Dr J.A. Voelcker of the Royal Agricultural Society. This drew a response from W. Adams, "manager" (although the company was not specified) on 18 March.  The local agent for Sootigine, Charles F. Wills of Mount's-bay Stores, Penzance, defended the product in issues of 11 and 25 March, his first letter drawing a response from "Agricola" on 18 March. Endnote references to the controversy are intentionally sparse.

[2] The product was also randomly referred to with and without a capital letter.

[3] In order to limit Endnote referencing, I summarise extensive entries in the London Gazette, which can be traced through its effective on-line search command.

[4] Census and genealogical information from Gail Wood, to whom my warm thanks. Sarah Darley's maiden name was Munsey, and she came from Spitalfields in London. In the 1871 census, the entry that clearly indicates Wesley refers to him as "William W. Darley", which may have been his full name. Maximilian Darley was born in 1835.

[5] London Gazette, 25 September 1877, 5388.

[6] London Gazette, 22 July 1879, 4616. Manor Place vanished in 20th-century redevelopment. Its closest modern equivalent is Marcon Place.

[7] London Gazette, 27 October 1884, 4634, 4646.

[8] London Mercury, 22 September 1888.

[9] TC, 11 March 1886. The Earl of Derby owned land around the village of Woodmansterne, where a house, The Oaks, is recalled in a classic horse-race.

[10] Denbighshire Free Press, 18 July 1885.

[11] He signed himself "W. Adams" in TC, 16 March 1886. Kelly's Directory of the Northern Suburbs, 1896, 1154, identified him as William Adams, 11 Manor Place, Hackney.

[12] TC, 16 March 1886.

[13] Chemist and Druggist, 15 January 1886.

[14] TC, 4 March 1886. Extensive newspaper advertisements are revealed by key-word searches in the on-line British London Newspaper archive, and the excellently presented newspaper archive of the National Library of Wales.

[15] TC, 11 March 1886. William Adams appealed to a positive report in the grain-growers' trade paper, the Mark Lane Express, 27 June 1885, suggestive of Darley's influence.

[16] Denbighshire Free Press, 18 July 1885.

[17] For this paragraph, TC, 4 March 1886.

[18] TC, 4 March 1886.

[19] TC, 16 March 1886.

[20] Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald, 1 April 1887.

[21] Aberdare Times, 10 March 1888; Flintshire Observer, 29 March 1888.

[22] Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald, 1 April 1887.

[23] TC, 16 March 1886.

[24] In 1902, 23.1 percent of Hackney's population were classed as living in poverty, half the rate of nearby Bethnal Green. In 1885, Hackney was divided into three parliamentary constituencies. Hackney North and Hackney Central returned Conservative MPs until 1906; Hackney South elected a Unionist (Conservative) from 1895 to 1906. By 1930, around one fifth of the Borough's population was middle class, although mainly concentrated to the north, where suburban development came later. Victoria County History of Middlesex, x, 14-18. Soot collection, of course, was not limited by local government boundaries.

[25] London Gazette, 3 May 1889, 2460; 8 October 1889, 5329. R.P. Wright, ed., The Standard Cyclopedia of Modern Agriculture and Rural Economy (London, 1911), xi, 66-7 argued that soot "derives its fertilizing properties mostly from the small quantities of ammonium salts it contains." Good quality soot could contain "about 3 percent of nitrogen", but this depended "a good deal upon the proportion of dirt and cinder admixed". Soot was "also of value as a slug destroyer". Being dark in colour, it "may assist in warming light-coloured soils by absorbing more of the sun's heat." I am grateful to Dr Paul Brassley of the University of Exeter for drawing this source to my attention.

[26] The Times, 20 March 1889; London Gazette, 27 February 1891, 1187.

[27] Post Office Directory for London, 1895, Part 3, 12; Post Office Directory for London, 1899, part 3, 5.

[28] A narrow westward extension, the Wanstead Slip, separated the parishes of Leyton and West Ham, presumably to guarantee the parish grazing and watering access to the river Lea.

[29] Once again, I owe this information to Gail Wood.

[30] I owe this comment to Gail Wood.