Castlepark Primary School (pictured) P7 pupils chose to adopt The Blue Billie Bing as their local heritage topic in 2013-14. They investigated businessman William Henderson, who established the chemical works, a major source of employment - which produced this waste heap. A podcast records their interview with the ghost of William Henderson. Congratulations to the team (and their teacher) for creating such an imaginative item from a very technical topic - it is clear that they enjoyed finding out more about the man and his achievements.
William Henderson was a pioneer of metallurgical chemistry. Aged 21 in 1849, he patented a new 'wet' process for extracting copper. In 1863 he helped form a British Metal Extracting Company which obtained from Spanish pyrites the sulphur and copper which were in great demand. A few years later, he was involved in the newly-formed Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Company. Another few years later, he set up his own Seville Sulphur and Copper Company, and in 1871 chose Irvine as the site for his new works, attracted possibly by the combination of available land and wharves for importing his raw materials. From Spanish ores, Henderson's works produced sulphuric acid, bleaching powder and caustic soda. Within 20 years, between 200 and 300 men were employed on the 27-acre site. Beside the works grew up a waste heap of "blue billie" - the iron oxide residue. The Blue Billy Bing was reduced in size in the 1970s and it now offers a view-point over the mouth of the Irvine to the Ayrshire coast north and south, and to Arran in the west. His chemical works in Irvine laid the foundation for Irvine's industrial future. He died In London on a return journey from Spain, weeks before he was due to preside at the Annual Celebration of Irvine Burns Club.
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Presenter Molly Alexander: Hi, and welcome to today's
special issue of "All About Irvine". We are
really lucky to have the ghost of William Henderson in our studio.
First of all, thank you for visiting us today - I know haunting is a busy occupation and we appreciate you taking the time to visit us. We'd like to ask you a few questions about your time spent in Irvine and your contribution to the chemical industry.
So, William, where and when were you born?
Wm Henderson (using Scott Gibson's vocal chords): Thank you for having me here today. I was born in Glasgow - 1827.
P: Could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the development of the chemical industry?
WH: I led the industry by developing a new process called the 'wet process'.
P: Sounds interesting. Please tell us more?
WH: Of course. In the 1860s there was a rise in the UK of the consumption of sulphuric acid, which meant industries had to find alternatives to the sulphur source. Many manufacturers turned to pyrites as their new source of sulphur. Pyrites are sometimes known as fool's gold and I developed the wet process to extract copper from those pyrites.
P: Fascinating. Tell us more about this wet process.
WH: The wet process is a 3-stage process. It involved burning off the sulphur from the pyrites. This had to be carried out by acid manufacturers. They added salt to make the copper soluble which is then leached from the pyrites.
P: Was this process popular?
WH: It most certainly was. So much that by 1870 there were 20 wet process works in Britain.
P: I understand you had a fall-out with your partner Sir Charles Tennant.
WH: Yes, we quarrelled and I set up my own. That was when I decided to set up my new factory in Irvine.
P: Whereabouts in Irvine were you based?
WH: It was on Henderson's Wharf, on Irvine harbour, where ships from Spain, England and Ireland were unloaded. [Note: they brought iron from Spain, salt from Cheshire and limestone from Ireland.]
P: I understand you were a keen inventor.
WH: Yes. I used the waste from iron oxide and local sand to make glass and cement. I also experimented in making cement railway sleepers.
P: Was your business a success?
WH: Yes. I named it Henderson's Works and a year later I joined it with a second company called the Eglinton Chemical Company. I set up a third business close by, called Irvine Chemical Works, where I employed 140 workers.
P: Your successful business ventures allowed you to create a beautiful home.
WH: Yes. I enlarged Williamfield on Kilwinning Road. It was once described as 'a princely mansion' but unfortunately it has been demolished. [Note: It was built in 1821 by the Macredie family of Perceton.]
P: Were you involved in any community work?
WH: I was involved in various local organisations as far as my work allowed. The local paper saw me as the next Provost. In 1881 I was elected as President of Irvine's Burns Club.
P: Sadly you did not serve your full term as President.
WH: No, I died at age 53 leaving behind my widow Esther.
P: How do you feel you helped the local economy?
WH: In less than ten years I feel I laid the foundations for Irvine's industrial future.
P: Finally, could you tell us a little bit about the Blue Billy Bing?
WH: I will leave that in the capable hands of my Castlepark friends who have been researching this specific topic.
P: Hi. We're from Castlepark Primary and we are going to tell you a little bit of info about the Blue Billy Bing. Nowadays it's just a hill covered with grass that everyone uses for rolling eggs down at Easter. It's just a nice place to sit on a sunny summer day or even just to go and look at the wonderful views. Now we are going to hand you over to Jaimie to tell you a little bit about its origins.
Presenter 2 (Jaimie Wilson): In the 1860s the harbour and surrounding area became an area heavily blighted by industrial waste. Even long after some of the industries were gone, there was a waste bing known by the locals as the Blue Billy due to the colour of waste there. The waste was the remaining iron oxide residue. During World War Two a Royal Corps Watchtower was situated on the Blue Billy Bing giving an overall view of the Clyde. It's also credited with the first visual sighting of Rudolf Hess's Messerschmitt 110 in 1941. The harbour was Hitler's prime target for invasion of the British Isles, being a major boating district and in near vicinity to ICI weapons development. [Note: While ICI produced explosives, the main weapons development (and TNT production) was at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Irvine where the Industrial Estate is today.]
We repeat our congratulations to Castlepark P7 of spring 2014.
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