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Mystery Tar Works


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Roger Arevalo

I've been interested in industrial history for a long time and around 1996-97 we started driving around South Yorkshire to see what there was to be seen. Which gives you some idea the kind of pain in the arse teenager I was - "Hey Mum! Let's go to Orgreave!" We saw a lot of interesting stuff but one thing in particular stuck in my mind and I'd love to find out more about it.

It was a tiny industrial site that looked more like a big outdoor chemistry set than a regular chemical plant. Every inch of it that wasn't encrusted black was rusty. I was amazed it was still operating, and I know it was because it stank of rotten eggs. The location in the middle of open countryside made it stick out even more. It was like looking at the industrial revolution (smelling it too).

I always regretted not stopping for a better look, and we were lost at the time so I was never able to relocate it. I remember the site being just a couple of minutes drive outside the built-up area of Sheffield or Rotherham. The two-lane road went past the lower side of the plant (it was on a flattened area of a gentle slope), then turned a right-angle left in front of it, then once past it turned sharply right and away. The plant was set back from the road beyond what looked like a large gravel car park, but I assume that was a turning space for lorries as there were only two or three cars parked right up at the plant.

The only trace I have ever found is the attached photo. That may not be exactly what it looked like, but it conveys the small, thin, unusual structure. I contacted an American expert http://www.hatheway.net/25_contact_info_Hatheway.htm who told me a lot of technical detail about what it was (single-pot tar distillery), but couldn't help with location. To be clear I'm not asking for identification of that specific photo. I'm pretty sure that ultimately grew into Kilnhurst Tar Works. Neither was it any of the other Yorkshire Tar Distillers main sites, or a coking plant like Monckton. Those were all huge industrial sites and this was tiny, as the photo shows.

Does anyone remember this (maybe it even still exists), the location, any details of people who worked there or how it operated? It was a weird little stinky chemical plant in the countryside, right next to a main road that turned in an unusual way, so I'd expect it would stick in someone's memory. I've pored over satellite photos and old maps, dug through the archive at the National Coal Mining Museum, contacted a company, a historical society, three specialists. This is my white whale, people. Someone help me catch it.

ellison-and-mitchell.jpg

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Unitedite Returns

Could be a coal gas mains dewatering plant. There were some pretty hefty coal gas mains around Sheffield, back in the day, supplying coal gas solely for industrial users. One such system connected the Orgreave site with the steelworks. 

Cannot help with location, but there seems to be a railway embankment in the background. Possibly, the 1500v DC line.

 

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Roger Arevalo
32 minutes ago, Unitedite Returns said:

Could be a coal gas mains dewatering plant. There were some pretty hefty coal gas mains around Sheffield, back in the day, supplying coal gas solely for industrial users. One such system connected the Orgreave site with the steelworks.

Hadn't heard of that before. Are there any photos or drawings I can compare with my memory? Also what year would something like that have stopped operating? The thing I saw was still going in the mid to late 90s, when Orgreave had been reduced to a big hole in the ground.

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Roger Arevalo

The plot thickens. I've just discovered something called a bituminous suction gas plant. It's the only other thing I've seen that looks like what I saw in both scale and appearance. Gas suction plants were made by several companies including Campbell Gas Engine Company in Halifax. I'd discounted significant gas production because the site didn't have a gasometer (or if it did it was a really small one). But the brochures say one of the selling points of suction gas is not needing a gasometer. They're power sources for other industries so if there was one there it would have to be connected to some other part of coal byproducts processing. There'd be no reason for one to be sat on its own surrounded by fields. Maybe ammonia and benzole recovery as well as tar.

bituminous suction gas plant.jpg

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Unitedite Returns

Looked long and hard at the original image and I must say that it is intriguing. I can't help with any actual definitive information, that would confirm it's purpose, or location, but I would make the following observations:-

Looks like a railway embankment in the background, and looks like it might be electrified (are those vertical lines, power traction gantries?) which would limit potential locations.

Railway boundary looks to be of dry stone construction and therefore likely to be either North Sheffield, or Barnsley, or Rotherham. Probably somewhere on the Pennines.

Installation looks incomplete, and in course of construction, i.e. rail mounted crane, (with vertical steam boiler?) to R.H.S., and sand-gravel in foreground, etc.

No actual fixed access to tanks - ladders are temporary, not permanent.

Horizontal, cylindrical tanks to bottom L.H.S. don't look connected - in fact, you can see an incomplete, open flanged pipe leading towards same.

Almost certain that this is not a tar plant, because:-

None of tanks appear to be jacketed, or insulated.

Pipe runs appear too lightweight for the transfer of viscous liquids and are neither jacketed, nor insulated.

No evidence of steam jacketed, positive displacement pumps, for transfer of viscous liquids.

What appears to be elevated, open topped rectangular balance tank in centre of image, which would indicate something that does not readily evaporate either. Is that a centrifugal clarifier alongside?

Can't make out the details of the square black structure to the R.H.S. of the tank mounted on the gantry, but my best guess is that it looks like a couple of vertical, cylindrical tanks mounted within a bund wall. But, could be something else, a condensing tower, for example.

Sorry that I can't offer much more than these observations, but if you do crack the mystery, please let us know.

What ever is being processed, I don't think that it's viscous, or likely to solidify if not kept hot.

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leksand

Apologies if this doesn't help (I have no scecialist knowledge to offer) but could it possibly be this at Aldwarke? I think the road description and contours are pretty much in line with the description but, obviously, no idea about the plant. There is and was a lot of industial building behind it too - certainly not isolated.

aldwarke-close.jpg.002b5c7bb15ea37f52d912c6eb64af11.jpg

aldwarke-broad.jpg.754ff83d1ff3f037098d66c7e56f28f9.jpg

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Roger Arevalo
On 09/04/2021 at 16:12, Unitedite Returns said:

Looked long and hard at the original image and I must say that it is intriguing. I can't help with any actual definitive information, that would confirm it's purpose, or location, but I would make the following observations:-

That's fascinating and puts a new spin on it.

This is from the analysis from Allen Hatheway and offers some explanations:

 

View the image from its upper right, along a line of visual progression, toward the lower left corner.

1)  This is very-much a “typical” single coal-tar still.

2)  There are two men standing (for image-scale).

      Both men would be assigned to the individual pot still shown

      in the view.

3)  The still feeds directly into the UK-pattern RR tar tank waggon

4)  I judge the image to date from post-WW-I

5)  All tar stills were dangerous from fires and explosions and

    o  Were not enclosed within built-walls

    o  Were separated from each other (if more than one)

6)  This is a ‘batch’ still (probably 2000 Imp. gal); not a ‘continuous’

      still.

7) At the upper end of the view is a non-involved steam-driven

    ‘donkey-engine-powered’ crane riding on perpendicular rails;

    such as can be brought around to move incoming rail tank

    waggons, such as the lower-left man stands upon.

😎 The upper-right dark-tone (”ge” overprint) is the brick-and-steel

    batch still.

9) Cooling-Water tank (man standing on top) to supply the tripple-

    compartment still-vapor condensor, into the selected sp.

    gravity-grade of tar “oil” being produced in the particular “batch.)

10) Rectilinear, three-compartment “condensor.”

11) Unidentified vertical cylinder, possibly a separate vacuum pump

      off-line from the gravity-feed line to the large distilled-product-’

      stained, open-topped tar-product storage tank,

This whole still may have a duplicate tar still located off-view, to the right.

The Yorkshire Tar Distillers had multiple tar distilleries, at presently unknown locations.

The company apparently was in business as recently as 1989.

 

Particularly significant is the horizontal tanks aren't a permenant part of the plant but dismountable tanks carried by rail cars or lorries. They were just left on site until they were full. It's disorientating because modern tyre and plastic pyrolysis plants look nearly identical, but built the other way around. Their horizontal cylinders are the ovens the raw material is cooked in, not tanks where the end product is collected.

Just noticed the 8 and closed bracket has been converted automatically into a smiling face with sunglasses. Think I'll leave it that way. 😄

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Roger Arevalo
On 10/04/2021 at 10:50, leksand said:

I think the road description and contours are pretty much in line with the description but, obviously, no idea about the plant. There is and was a lot of industial building behind it too - certainly not isolated.

That is far more heavy industrial than what I saw. It didn't have a railway and by the topography, I don't think it ever did. There was also a distinct lack of a MASSIVE steelworks in the background. 🙂 It is an interesting building though and I'm kind of annoyed at Google Streetview for not having run a car past it so I could get a better look.

I've zoomed in on so many maps and satellite views because the road looked to curve right. Just to clarify, when I say a two-lane road, I mean a regular main road with a lane in each direcion, not a dual carriageway or separated by an island.

I've drawn the layout the best I can remember. It's a bit rough but gives the general idea. If it's hard to read the labels are the surrounding fields, the entrance, the piles of rubble near the entrance, the flat gravel area, the works, the direction of the slope with arrow, and the crook of the right turn where there may have been a couple of houses, but I don't remember clearly. Not marked is that the road to the left side connects to Sheffield or Rotherham, and there were more bushes on the embankments above and below the site than I drew.

Mystery works.jpg

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It looks like a temporary  water treatment plant on the edge of a larger construction site.  Dirty water goes in at the left, through filter presses and comes out clean on the right. Gas goes up the chimney.

Two possible applications; (1) before developing a large coal field several test bores were drilled to establish what lay beneath or (2) landfill sites have vents installed to release leachate (dirty water) and gasses as the ground settles.  Either case would need some treatment plant to dispose of the ground water.

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Roger Arevalo
2 hours ago, rover1949 said:

It looks like a temporary  water treatment plant on the edge of a larger construction site.  Dirty water goes in at the left, through filter presses and comes out clean on the right. Gas goes up the chimney.

Two possible applications; (1) before developing a large coal field several test bores were drilled to establish what lay beneath or (2) landfill sites have vents installed to release leachate (dirty water) and gasses as the ground settles.  Either case would need some treatment plant to dispose of the ground water.

That's a new idea. Do you have any other pictures of what you have in mind? I looked for some images and saw a couple that could look sort-of right if you left them to rust for decades. But I think they're all new designs and what I saw looked ancient even then. Did they do industrial wastewater treatment back in those eras?

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Sorry, I don't have any pictures but look up 'groundwater treatment' for modern equivalents.

The whole structure looks designed for quick set up and removal, certainly not a permanent production plant. I would guess it may have been there for a year or two then moved to the next job?

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Roger Arevalo
2 hours ago, rover1949 said:

Sorry, I don't have any pictures but look up 'groundwater treatment' for modern equivalents.

The whole structure looks designed for quick set up and removal, certainly not a permanent production plant. I would guess it may have been there for a year or two then moved to the next job?

I see what you mean:

https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/6503617

http://longhornaap.com/pages/5-remedial-technologies

Not far off. Would groundwater treatment have that distinctive hydrogen sulphide rotten eggs smell?

I agree it looked modular. It also looked like the site had been there in some form for a long time. Maybe there was more industry there at one time that had been completely demolished.

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Unitedite Returns
7 hours ago, rover1949 said:

It looks like a temporary  water treatment plant on the edge of a larger construction site.  Dirty water goes in at the left, through filter presses and comes out clean on the right. Gas goes up the chimney.

Two possible applications; (1) before developing a large coal field several test bores were drilled to establish what lay beneath or (2) landfill sites have vents installed to release leachate (dirty water) and gasses as the ground settles.  Either case would need some treatment plant to dispose of the ground water.

I'll buy this as a probable explanation. Would certainly account for much of what can be seen in the photograph.

One question. The hand drawing portrays a vertical cylindrical vessel, with semi-spherical top, located to the L.H.S. of the two horizontal cylindrical vessels. Not seen in the photograph.

A simplex water softening tower, degassing tower, or treatment chemical storage silo perhaps?

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Roger Arevalo
2 minutes ago, Unitedite Returns said:

One question. The hand drawing portrays a vertical cylindrical vessel, with semi-spherical top, located to the L.H.S. of the two horizontal cylindrical vessels. Not seen in the photograph.

A simplex water softening tower, degassing tower, or treatment chemical storage silo perhaps?

I drew that a few years ago partly from memory but also after having seen the photo and before getting any analysis of it. I can't guarrantee that cylinder was there (or in that position) but I felt like there could well have been something like that. It felt like there were other structures in my memory that weren't in the photo so I was covering some bases and showing it wasn't identical to that image. The same reason I could easily believe there was a suction gas plant at the site even though there isn't one in the first photo. The memory is far from perfect and I'm conveying aesthetic as well as specifics.

Thinking about aesthetics - as far as rusty industry surrounded by grass goes, Gas Works Park in Seattle nails the look, despite being much bigger.

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On 07/04/2021 at 15:53, Roger Arevalo said:

I've been interested in industrial history for a long time and around 1996-97 we started driving around South Yorkshire to see what there was to be seen. Which gives you some idea the kind of pain in the arse teenager I was - "Hey Mum! Let's go to Orgreave!" We saw a lot of interesting stuff but one thing in particular stuck in my mind and I'd love to find out more about it.

It was a tiny industrial site that looked more like a big outdoor chemistry set than a regular chemical plant. Every inch of it that wasn't encrusted black was rusty. I was amazed it was still operating, and I know it was because it stank of rotten eggs. The location in the middle of open countryside made it stick out even more. It was like looking at the industrial revolution (smelling it too).

I always regretted not stopping for a better look, and we were lost at the time so I was never able to relocate it. I remember the site being just a couple of minutes drive outside the built-up area of Sheffield or Rotherham. The two-lane road went past the lower side of the plant (it was on a flattened area of a gentle slope), then turned a right-angle left in front of it, then once past it turned sharply right and away. The plant was set back from the road beyond what looked like a large gravel car park, but I assume that was a turning space for lorries as there were only two or three cars parked right up at the plant.

The only trace I have ever found is the attached photo. That may not be exactly what it looked like, but it conveys the small, thin, unusual structure. I contacted an American expert http://www.hatheway.net/25_contact_info_Hatheway.htm who told me a lot of technical detail about what it was (single-pot tar distillery), but couldn't help with location. To be clear I'm not asking for identification of that specific photo. I'm pretty sure that ultimately grew into Kilnhurst Tar Works. Neither was it any of the other Yorkshire Tar Distillers main sites, or a coking plant like Monckton. Those were all huge industrial sites and this was tiny, as the photo shows.

Does anyone remember this (maybe it even still exists), the location, any details of people who worked there or how it operated? It was a weird little stinky chemical plant in the countryside, right next to a main road that turned in an unusual way, so I'd expect it would stick in someone's memory. I've pored over satellite photos and old maps, dug through the archive at the National Coal Mining Museum, contacted a company, a historical society, three specialists. This is my white whale, people. Someone help me catch it.

ellison-and-mitchell.jpg

Could it be a Precipitator for removing impurities from gas? I think water was used in this process! 

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Roger Arevalo
2 hours ago, southside said:

Could it be a Precipitator for removing impurities from gas? I think water was used in this process! 

I think whatever it was there was probably some kind of gas handling there. Just because so much to do with coal involves gas - whether syngas from pyrolysis and distillation, or methane from mine workings. Now that I think of it, does mine water have gas dissolved in it that coud be separated and used? Not saying that's what it was but it'd be an interesting idea if a facility brought up both mine gas and water and used them to process each other.

Also you could have just replied at the bottom of the thread - you don't need to quote the entire original post. 🙂

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