ICI Dyestuffs Division and predecessor companies archive

Scope and Content

The archive comprises the surviving records of the ICI Dyestuffs/Organics/Fine Chemicals Division (1926-1999) and of various predecessor companies. The latter include the British Dyestuffs Corporation (BDC), a founder company of ICI and the two dyestuff companies which had united to form BDC: Read Holliday & Sons and Levinstein Ltd. Also present are records of smaller companies acquired by ICI such as British Alizarine, Scottish Dyes, Leech Neal, and Claus & Co.Ltd.

The records of the predecessor companies are patchy, with major gaps in the coverage of records. Surviving records for the smaller firms are typically directors and shareholders minutes, annual accounts and balance sheets, and certain financial records (as these tended to be the records which the acquiring company required), There is very little in the way of personnel records, production and marketing records, or company correspondence for these companies.

For the ICI Dyestuffs Division, coverage within the archive is more eclectic. Although ICI was noted for its complex system of management, it does not appear to have been employed modern records management procedures. Selection of records for preservation seems, where it existed, to have been by perceived historical interest, rather than an overarching view of achieving a comprehensive official record of activities.

It is the case that some key record series are absent from the archive: notably these include minutes of the various managing committees of the Division. The complex, bureaucratic nature of ICI seems to have coincided with a lack of formal procedures for the retention of key records. Consequently, The archive contains virtually no formal minutes of ICI committees, despite the importance these committees played in running the organisation. It is possible that some of these records were retained at the Millbank, and their current whereabouts are unknown. Also fragmentary are the files which would have recorded major projects and topics, which are important for implementation and execution of Division policies. Some of these files survive particularly for the 1940s, but there is almost total absence of these files for the 1960s onwards. It must be concluded that these records were not considered to be worth retaining,

Other areas where there is limited coverage include: personnel records, to the extent, that very little information is available on individual employees of the Division, and the Division;s research and development work. The archive does include a very good collection of ICI's internal staff guides, manuals and in-house publications. Most of the Dyestuff Division' documents were issued by the headquarters, and so the Blackley site is better covered than the operations at Huddersfield, Ellesmere Port, Grangemouth, Trafford Park and other sites.

The ICI photographs, which show both plant and personnel, mainly at Blackley, are not currently catalogued.

Administrative / Biographical History

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.


The archival arrangement reflects the complex history of the British dyestuffs industry. The main group of records and documents is for the Dyestuffs/Organics Division (ICI/1), with each company acquired by ICI forming its own group of records (ICI/2-ICI/11). These company archives range from several dozen documents to less than five records in some cases:

  • ICI/1 - ICI Dyestuffs /Organics Division
  • ICI/2 - Albert Products Limited
  • ICI/3 - Alliance Chemical Co.
  • ICI/4 - British Alizarine Company Limited
  • ICI/5 - British Dyestuffs Limited/British Dyestuffs Corporation Limited
  • ICI/6 - Claus & Co. Limited
  • ICI/7 - Leech, Neal & Co. Ltd.
  • ICI/8 - Levinstein & Co. Ltd.
  • ICI/9 - Read Holliday & Sons ltd.
  • ICI/10 - Scottish Dyes Ltd.
  • ICI/11 - Hooton Light Railway Company

Many of the items in the archive were previously referenced by ICI with a "DH" identifier. This reference does not appear to have been used in any previous research citation of documents in the collection.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader, unless otherwise stated. Given the nature of the material, there are very few access restrictions in place, even for 20th century material.

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 2018. Under Data Protection Act 2018, The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the UML to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018, the UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 2018, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Acquisition Information

The Archive was donated to the Library by AstraZeneca PLC in August 2016.

Other Finding Aids


Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The records of the Dyestuff Division were maintained at the divisional headquarters at Blackley, presumably from 1926. The records of the former British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd. present in this archive would have formed the core of this collection. Records of other dyestuff firms were passed to the Blackley HQ after acquisition (e.g. British Alizarine, Scottish Dyes). In 1993, the Blackley site became part of Zeneca when the latter split from ICI. Zeneca maintained a base at Blackley until 1999, at which point the archive was moved to the AstraZeneca site at Alderley Park, Cheshire. The archive was retained at this site until its transfer to the Library in 2016.


None expected, but it is possible that individual items might be acquired.

Related Material

ICI's surviving corporate archives have been dispersed, and it appears for some areas of its operations records have not survived or remain inaccessible. Generally, some ICI divisions have extant archives, while information is lacking for those of other divisions.

Records of ICI General Chemicals Division have been deposited at Cheshire Archives, Teeside Archives and the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre. Records of the Plastics Division have been deposited at Hertfordshire Archives. There is no information on the current location of records of the ICI HQ, including the records of the Board of Directors.


W J Reader's two volume official history, Imperial Chemical Industries: a history (London 1975), provides a detailed account of the business, including the Dyestuffs Division. It is based on extensive archival research, and used some of the documents present in this archive.

Two important works for the history of the British dye-making industry are: M R Fox Dye-makers of Great Britain 1856-1976: a history of chemists, companies, products and changes (Imperial Chemical Industries 1987) , which is by far the most detailed account of the work of ICI Dyestuffs and its predecessors, and Anthony Travis, The rainbow makers: the origins of the synthetic dyestuffs industry in Western Europe (Associated University Presses, 1993) , a useful comparative study of the industry in the UK and Germany in the late nineteenth century.