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ICI was one of the most well-known businesses in the Tees Valley, being a large producer of chemicals, and the Billingham site also had a part to play in the Second World War.

ICI Logo. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum.

ICI (Imperial Chemicals Industries) was founded in 1926 after the merger of four British chemical companies – Brunner Mond, Nobel Industries, United Alkali, and British Dyestuffs.

From its founding, ICI made a wide range of products, including dyes, metals like aluminium and zinc, fertilisers, paints, and even explosives. The company were successful from the beginning and in the first year of business alone they had sold £27million worth of products.

In the 1930s ICI began to expand into making plastics, and they were also instrumental in creating the foundations of the plastics industry. Among the products they created was Perspex acrylic sheeting, first used as windscreens for cars and vehicles.

Bags of chemical products supplied by ICI. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum.

ICI expanded into other products and materials from the 1940s, including –

  • Paludrine, medication used to treat and prevent malaria
  • Diphenylmethane di-isocyanate (MDI), a chemical used in making insulation for refrigerators and freezers
  • Dulux paints
  • Tenormin, a beta-blocker used to treat angina and hypertension.

It was in the 1950s that the company began to develop Crimplene, a type of thick polyester fabric. It proved to be popular with both clothing manufacturers and their customers for being easy to sew, quick-drying and wrinkle resistant. Many women’s dresses from the 1960s were made from Crimplene.

Workmen and a road tanker from ICI’s Commercial Works Division. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum.

ICI reached its peak in the 1980s, reaching profits of £1 billion for most years during that decade. But they also amounted billions of pounds of debts and the company’s fortunes slipped in the 1990s. After avoiding a hostile takeover in 1991, the company began to sell off and divert its businesses. It was acquired and separated further by AkzoNobel in 2008.

The Billingham and Wilton Sites

The ICI site in Billingham started off in the manufacture of fertilisers in the 1920s, and the Wilton site was opened in 1949. Both sites played their part during the Second World War by developing synthetic ammonia, or Synthonia as it was also known, for explosives, and aviation fuel for RAF aircrafts. From 1934, when the sites had developed into plastics production, many of these plastics were used in the construction of aircraft cockpits. From 1971 to 1988 a small General Atomics TRIGA mark 1 nuclear reactor was installed and used for the production of radioisotopes.

A lorry from the Synthetic Ammonia and Nitrates Division. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum.

In their lifetimes, ICI Billingham and Wilton employed large amounts of workers. By 1932 the Billingham site had employed 5,000 workers out of the town’s population of 18,000, rising to 15,000 workers between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, and the Wilton site employed 25,000 between the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While no longer owned by ICI today, the Billingham site remains one of the biggest producers of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and is an important part of the UK’s manufacturing industry. The Wilton site also remains as an industrial site with facilities including plastics recycling and the UK’s first wood-fired power station.