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The History of the Rubber Industry

The history of the rubber industry in the UK centres on Bradford on Avon, where the first rubber mill was set up in the mid-19th century by a friend of famous tyre manufacturer, Charles Goodyear.

Born in 1794, entrepreneur Stephen Moulton, of County Durham, had been living in New York, where he met rubber pioneer Goodyear. The two businessmen worked together in the United States.

Making rubber

© gan chaonan/ Shutterstock.com


First rubber factory

Goodyear developed a method of stabilising natural rubber, known as vulcanising. It stopped the latex rubber from becoming sticky when warm and brittle when it was either cold or got older. The process revolutionised the rubber industry and Moulton came back to Britain to set up his own rubber factory.

He chose the redundant Kingston woollen mill in Bradford for the location of his new venture, opening his factory in 1848. He was backed by Goodyear and local businessman, Septimus Palairet, from Woolley in Bradford.

The old mill was ideal for the rubber factory. Vacant wool production buildings were already water and steam-powered and there was a skilled local workforce, well used to factory conditions, that was eager to start working again.


Railway contracts

Moulton, an astute businessman, not only got the factory up and running, he also managed to win a massive contract to supply the Great Western Railway with rubber buffers, hosepipes and springs.

He worked with the railway's engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to ensure products of the correct specifications were produced. Other railway companies were soon going to Moulton for their rubber supplies.

He also manufactured thin, rubber-coated fabric sheets to make into waterproof capes for the army. Business was booming after the start of the Crimean War in 1853.


Largest machine

Incredibly large machinery was used in the Kingston Mill rubber factory. The most modern, biggest and heaviest piece of equipment was called the Iron Duke machine. Designed in the United States, it was named in honour of the Duke of Wellington and built in the UK in 1849.

It was in the possession of the Bristol Museums, Art Gallery and Archives after it went out of service, but it is now on display in Kingston Road, Bradford on Avon, as a memento of the thriving rubber industry of the 19th century. The machine was put on display there in 2016.


Company growth

After more than 40 years' success, in 1891, Moulton’s rubber company merged with George Spencer's London-based rubber manufacturing plant. The resulting company became known as the George Spencer Moulton Rubber Company and was one of the UK's major suppliers.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the manufacture of rubber became big business and other companies sprang up at Greenland Mills and Limpley Stoke Mill. Bradford became known as a rubber town. Soon, rubber factories were being set up across the world.

In 1915, the Limpley Stoke Mill Company moved to Melksham and took over Bradford's Sirdar rubber firm. In 1956, the Limpley manufacturer expanded further by taking over the Spencer Moulton Company.


End of an era

Rubber production continued in Bradford until 1995. The former production sites are now occupied by non-industrial premises.

Rubber manufacture declined in the UK as a result of cheaper imports. Today, the three largest producers are Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Between them, they produce around 72% of the world's natural rubber.

However, Bradford on Avon's link to the heyday of British rubber production will never be forgotten. Stephen Moulton's great-grandson, the late Dr Alex Moulton, set up the Alex Moulton Charitable Trust at the town's Hall Estate in 1977.

The trust aims to inspire future generations of engineers and designers, and to interest the local community in Bradford on Avon's unique industrial legacy.

Offering a full range of rubber supplies for the industrial, commercial and residential sectors, Coruba is a leading UK manufacturer of standard and bespoke rubber products. Please give us a call on 01702 560194 for further information.

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