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Preston's Lost Soap Making Industry

Preston's Lost Soap Making Industry

Joshua Margerison & Co of Preston
White Windsor soap works

A Facebook post by The Harris (Harris Museum & Art Gallery) last week, sent me on the trail of the history of the House of Margerison, which was once on Leighton Street in Preston.

Joshua Margerison & Co, White Windsor soap works, Leighton Street in Preston
Joshua Margerison & Co, White Windsor soap works, Leighton Street in Preston

I'll be honest, I hadn't previously heard of this famous business. From what I can see, they were very well known in their day.

The post by The Harris was about a painting of one of the daughters of wealthy Preston soap manufacturer, Joshua Margerison. It was titled "The White Piano", and was painted in 1897. It is thought to be of Mary Jane, the youngest, who would have been about 28 at the time. The artist was Arthur Melville (1855–1904). He was one of the Glasgow Boys group of painters who used an Impressionist style. By the 1890s, Melville followed the French Nabis artists who emphasised colour and simplifying shapes.

The White Piano by Arthur Melville from the Harris Museum Art Gallery
The White Piano by Arthur Melville from the Harris Museum Art Gallery

Margerison’s (Joshua Margerison & Co, Preston, White Windsor soap works) operated from 1863 through to the 1950s, when a fire at their factory effectively closed down the business. Due to the heat of the flames, all the soap melted and apparently created a river of soap that could be seen running through the streets of the local area.

Marbolic Soap - Joshua Margerison & Co, Preston, Circa 1930
Marbolic Soap - Joshua Margerison & Co, Preston, Circa 1930

The Margerison Soap Company appeared to have manufactured a number of novelty, or commemorative soap bars over the years. A typical example of this was a WW1 era soap bar, which was modelled as the head of King George V and Queen Mary of Teck. It was possibly made as a wartime patriotic item. The bar is embossed ‘Margerison’ for Joshua Margerison & Co of Preston. The soap has a three dimensional face of George V to one side, and his wife, Queen Mary to the other.

Soap bar modelled on the head of King George V - Hansons Auctioneers
Soap bar modelled on the head of King George V - Hansons Auctioneers

Part of my investigation turned up an 18 page autobiography that was written by Joshua Margerison. I am not sure if these eighteen pages are part of a larger work. I could only find one source, from a Genealogy website called "ClanBarker" that Traces the disparate ancestries of four families. It appears that Barney Smith (of the Preston Digital Archive) had also been here about 10 years ago.

It was published as a PDF document which normally contains text that you can search or copy and paste. In this instance, I haven't been able to extract the text, so far. I have managed to create 18 separate images of the pages, but that would mean that I'd have to run an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) process eighteen separate times to convert it. I have included images of pages 13 and 14, which describe the beginnings of the soap business.

The account describes a brief emigration to the USA, after which Joshua embarked on the Soap making business. It would appear that the fire that finally brought an end to the business in the 1950s was not the first one they had suffered. There had been at least one earlier, on 29th September 1879.

What next?...

The question soon cropped up. What next?... In a few days I saw an advertisement in a Liverpool paper, for a man with a small capital, to join another who had started a profitable business, but had not enough money to carry out his idea. I made my way to Liverpool, found the place, and that the business was white soap and brown toilets (soap). He showed me his calculations; the profits were good; the sale quick, and in my way we agreed to buy some material, and I would pay for it; bring my sons from Hoghton, and if it worked out, would rent a warehouse, and go into business.

In a day or two I went down to Liverpool, and we bought some material wanted in the manufacture, and took my sons, melted the material and began the process. My partner made about 6 batches of soap, and half of this turned out hollow, and entirely unfit for sale, but the maker said the fault was ours, in not keeping the paddling continually in motion. But it really arose from the fact, that he did not understand the process. However, I was convinced there was something in the process, and took a small ware-house in Preston, and bought additional stock, and the man came to Preston, and made soap at the new works, where the same imperfect-tons were manifest, and he freed himself from blame, arid cast the blame upon the paddling. At this time I drew up the verbal conditions upon which we had agreed to work. His Still Labour and Capital t. I submitted the written conditions on which we had agreed. He looked them over and said. "I will not sign them"."Are they not those on which we agreed"? "Yes, but I will not sign them, unless I have 10,, additional upon every ton of soap made here or elsewhere, by you or any-one else over whom you may have command". Well said I. "fhat matter will require consideration". lery well said he. "I will put on my coat, and go to Liverpool, and when you are ready I will come over". I went to the top of the stairs, and called the lads and said. "Rome is 'zone"; "come here... Now, here we are with everything but knowledge, what do we know about ? Just look round the place, and see if you can find ought that will lead us to anything practical". There was nothing but about 1 quart of liquor left in an old iron pan. We sent and got an instrument which tested the strength, we found it much too strong We tried again, now said I. "The heat and strength is somewhere between those two strengths, but where? ...Where"? He had his instrument marked with letters, and carried it in his pocket, and I had no idea he would cut up so short. we turned to chemistry, but we were not much helped. Being ignorant we read books, but no light came on the subject of white soap.

In these circumstances, we sought and got a man to make com-mon soap. We turned to common soap for manufacture, and James sold in Yorkshire for one or two years. Also a little fine pale soap, but the manufacture of these articles was not in quantity, or profit, to meet our requirements. de then got an old man, who had gained some experience at some time in cold soap; and by this time, we had gained a little by experience, and had got one traveller who sold several tons a week, he and the old man put their heads together, and intimated to the customers, that they were going to make soap, and if they wanted more of the soap, they must order it from them. When they sent in their first delivery, it was found to be rubbish, and they were obliged to come back to us-for soap. Thus we got back our customers, and a new traveller, who could do more business, than the one who had gone to begin business.

Our own business was increasing every week, & our new opponents were doing nothing worth mentioning, and they were contriving all methods conceivable, to prejudice our friends against our manufactures. At this time, on the 29th September 1879. I called at the warehouse, and found it had been set on fire, and all burnt down but for about 7 casts of tallow. Fortunately, we had insured for £2,250. We were responsible for the building and stock, and after about two months, we got the building repaired, and bought all the damaged stock...

Thomas Roger & Son, Grocers - Suppliers' Invoice for 1902-6
Thomas Roger & Son, Grocers - Suppliers' Invoice for 1902-6


Further reading and sources of information

House of Margerison, of Leighton Street, Preston

Hansons Auctioneers - Soap bar modelled on the head of King George V and Queen Mary

Thomas Roger & Son, Grocers - Suppliers' Invoices for 1902-3 & 1905


Marbolic Soap - Joshua Margerison & Co, Preston, Circa 1930 [Tom & Jerrys Militaria and Collectables]

Clan Barker Histories - Joshua Margerison Autobiography (pdf)

Findlay Antique Bottle Club of Ohio - MARGERISON'S drugstore advertising piece

The White Piano - Art UK

Ordnance Survey Town Plans - Side by Side Georeferenced Maps - National Library of Scotland


My accounts of the local area - About this Blog


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