Grangemouth’s ICI plant had ‘green’ credentials back in the day

An aerial view of the old ICI plant in Grangemouth, above, before it was broken up into different companies in the 1990s
An aerial view of the old ICI plant in Grangemouth, above, before it was broken up into different companies in the 1990s

My first contact with the mighty Grangemouth chemical industry came way back in 1961 when I worked for a couple of months during the summer with ICI.

I was described as a ‘lab assistant’ and my pals said, ‘You’ll be washing test tubes and bottles all day, every day’. They couldn’t have been more wrong because I was dumped on the Divisional Engineering Department (DED) and worked all over the plant doing different odd jobs and learning a lot about the manufacture of dyestuffs and medicinals.

I already knew quite a lot about “the Dyes” because it was a really important part of the huge ICI operation and dated back to 1919 when James Morton opened Scottish Dyes on the 80 acre site. There was a huge demand from the textile industries for ‘fast’ dyes that didn’t fade and Grangemouth went from strength to strength.

In 1926 the firm became part of the British Dyestuffs Corporation which helped form Imperial Chemicals Industry two years later. When I arrived in 1961 everything was green! The buildings were green, the drums and tanks were green and many of the man who worked there were green as well. To be precise, they were Monastral Fast Green – the star product at the time and one of the firm’s most valuable lines.

I was told that years before the place had been blue for a similar reason. It wasn’t long before I was carrying dye home in my clothes and my poor mother wondered why all the family shirts and underwear began to take on a pale green colour.

As well as working in the sheds on half-scale experiments I had the chance to cross the road where they were manufacturing a substance called griseofulvin (I think), which was used in the production of penicillin. The company had been making medicinal products since 1942 when they developed anti-malaria drugs for use by the military in the far east.

Later it was ‘sulpha’ drugs and antiseptic products. I remember that they had to recover used acetone in a huge fractionation column and I had to sit and twiddle the dials and test samples every now and then. Great fun!

The glory days are gone, of course. From 1993 on ICI was ‘demerged’ and subdivided and we later had Zeneca, Syngenta, Avecia, Kem Fine and others. The huge site was gradually reduced and most of the old sheds came down.

The old red brick buildings on either side of the main entrance, which used to house the offices and laboratories, are still there but one wonders how long for. Over the road the huge Asda complex meant that the old ICI recreation club building was doomed. Most folk used to think it was the garden pavilion of Kerse House but Geoff Bailey tells me that it was built in the 20th century. I’m still not convinced.

If anyone is interested in the fantastic history of the ICI on the site they should look out for John Blackie’s excellent 2009 book called ‘90 Years on the Earls Road’.

Unfortunately my time at the plant ended abruptly. A shower of green dye led to a bad reaction which landed me in Stobhill Hospital for a fortnight. By the time I recovered I was off to Glasgow to study. When I arrived we were greeted with the message, “Welcome to the Dear Green Place”. I thought, ‘Here we go again!’.