The artificial dyestuffs industry began with the discovery of mauveine by William Perkin in 1856. This was the first fully synthesised artificial dye, developed from coal tar by-products (which were known as aniline dyes), and it marked the beginning of an internationally-important dyestuffs industry.
Perkin set up his own company in London, and by the early 1860s a number of other firms emerged in the UK as well as continental Europe, which developed an ever-increasing range of aniline dyes. Among the British firms were Read Holliday and Levinsteins, both of which would play an important role in the future of the industry, and ultimately became part of the ICI Dyestuffs Division.
During the next five decades, the British firms remained small and independent, while dyestuff firms in Germany, BASF, Bayer, Agfa and Hoechst (Lucius & Bruning), became very large and came to dominate the Continental market. By the late 19th century, there were growing concerns about German import penetration, and British dyestuffs firms, either argued for tariffs or else tried to enter market-sharing agreements with German and Swiss firms. By the outbreak of war in 1914, British firms had lost most of the competitive edge they had when the industry was first established. Wartime demand for the chemicals used in dyestuffs for other purposes such as explosives and gases demonstrated that the industry had a strategic importance, which justified state support. The government supported the creation of British Dyes Ltd., later the British Dyestuffs Corporation, which was meant to dominate the UK market. In practice, it failed to do this, and by the early 1920s, German firms were again dominant. British firms feared that such a large competitor would exclude them from many of their traditional markets.
Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. was therefore created in December 1926 when the firms of Brunner Mond, Nobel Explosives, the United Alkali Co. and the British Dyestuffs Corporation united to form the UK's first chemicals conglomerate. Of these, British Dyestuffs was probably the least important member. The new conglomerate was essentially the creation of Sir Alfred Mond of Brunner Mond and Harry McGowan of Nobel.
ICI's strategy in its early years was to develop its manufacturing capability in the UK and exploit imperial markets, with a measure of support from tariffs and preference agreements. The company also made cartel agreements with foreign groups. Much of the focus on the original strategy was building up general chemicals, as characterised by the investment in the huge Billingham plant in the North-East.
Dyestuffs were an important but secondary component of this strategy, and essentially ICI continued the policy of British Dyestuffs Corporation in seeking protection for domestic producers through the Dyestuffs (Import Regulations ) Act 1921 (made permanent in 1934 and repealed in 1960). An agreement was negotiated with the US firm Du Pont, but efforts to reach a lasting agreement with IG Farben, which was the largest dyestuffs producer, proved elusive. During the 1930s, the Dyestuffs Division acquired a number of the remaining independent dyestuffs firms including British Alizarine and Scottish Dyes. Some firms such as Clayton Aniline Co Ltd., L B Holliday, and Williams (Hounslow) Ltd. remained independent of ICI. By the later 1930s, the Dyestuffs Group was profitable, with plans for expansion.
Dyestuffs was organised as a separate division within ICI's highly complex organisational structure. The Dyestuffs Group had its headquarters at Blackley, reporting to the Millbank headquarters in London. Legally, the British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd. name was retained until 1940 when it became ICI (Dyestuffs) Ltd. For practical purposes, it was usually known as the Dyestuffs Group, and from 1944, the Dyestuffs Division. In 1972, the Dyestuffs Division became the Organics Division (reflecting the declining importance of dyestuffs in its work). Apart from Blackley, the Division operated at several UK sites including Huddersfield, Grangemouth, Trafford Park, Derby and Ellesmere Port.
ICI had a reputation for product innovation, and important discoveries were made by the Dyestuffs Group, such as the copper phenolphthalein dyes, marketed as Monastral Fast Blue BS, which was sold from 1935. The Dyestuffs Group also diversified its activities into pharmaceuticals, resins and rubber chemicals, and these non-dye activities would become increasingly important as time went on. The Group also supported other ICI divisions making polymers, paints and artificial fibres.
Some of these successes were down to effective research and development, and the company employed a significant tram of graduate researchers at Blackley. It was advised by notable academic consultants including Sir Robert Robinson, Sir Ian Heilbron, and Sir Norman Haworth. A major extension to the Hexagon complex was opened in 1938 to improve laboratory capacity. By 1945 the Dyestuffs Division, as it now was, has 10,000 employees (just over 10% of ICI's total workforce) and was selling 6000 different products.
In the post-war period, ICI continued to benefit from its established (and protected) markets. Major competitors either suffered enforced dissolution (IG Farben), or were subject to anti-cartel actions (DuPont). The Dyestuffs Division achieved major innovations, such as the development of Procion reactive dyes in the 1950s. The company’s position only came to be challenged in the late 1960s, with a loss of markets especially in Europe and the former British colonies. In this period, Dyestuffs was part of a larger ICI Group - Group B - which included the newer Pharmaceuticals Division, an area where the company's activities had expanded rapidly since the War.
In 1972 the Dyestuffs Division has changed its name to ICI Organics, indicating that production of dyes was no longer its major work (it took over responsibility for the Nobel Division's Ardeer works at this time). Dyestuffs became relatively less important, and the Division shifted to other areas of 'fine' chemical manufacture. Despite this, ICI still felt confident enough to open new research facilities at Blackley in 1974, at the Hexagon Tower, a thirteen storey building designed by Richard Seifert, which became a landmark in north Manchester. The Division continued to perform well, in contrast to ICI's heavy chemicals and plastics operations. During the 1980s ICI pursued a strategy focussed on food and fragrance chemicals, as well as paints. In 1991, the Division was renamed ICI Specialities.
In 1993, the fine chemicals section of ICI Specialties became part of Zeneca PLC, the former pharmaceuticals branch of ICI, which became an independent company. In 1999 Zeneca merged with Astra AB, a Swedish pharmaceuticals firm, to form AstraZeneca PLC. At this point the company divested its remaining interests in fine chemicals, selling the Grangemouth and Huddersfield plants (which were now producing mainly agrochemicals). At this point, the Blackley site was abandoned after over 130 years association with dyestuffs. ICI itself sold its remaining interests to the Dutch firm AkZo Nobel in 2007.