In the overall story of the vast Newton Chambers empire, to mention only the firm’s Izal products would just be scratching the surface – which the company’s toilet paper did, literally.
But to get to the bottom of local historian Joan Jones’s fascinating presentation about the history of the Chapeltown conglomerate, the main focus was indeed on the Izal products, from disinfectant to coal tar soap, which became household names for most of the 20th century.
And yet the Izal brand of no fewer than 137 different products, used in hospitals and homes throughout the world in their heyday, was in reality just a by-product of Newton Chambers’s more industrial origins.
George Newton and Thomas Chambers were partners in the Phoenix Foundry, and along with financier Henry Longden they signed an initial 21-year lease in 1793 with Earl Fitzwilliam, the landowner, to extract coal and ironstone from the Thorncliffe Valley. The company would later expand into the production of ironware, heavy machinery such as dragline excavators, and even military tanks.
It was a hundred years after coal production began that the trade name Izal was registered. It was, basically, a hugely successful marketing campaign – orchestrated by chief salesman Joseph Godber, who was said to possess ‘a missionary zeal’ – to sell any product that could be made from or with carbolic acid, a by-product of the Newton Chambers coking ovens at Rockingham Colliery, five miles away near Birdwell.
The company engaged an analytical chemist to explore the possibility of using coal oil, which was claimed to have antiseptic qualities but would not mix with water, and by adding emulsifiers they were able to disperse the oil. The resulting liquid was trialled in hospitals across the land, and full page adverts were placed in publications such as The Times and London Illustrated News.
Godber travelled as far afield as South Africa, Canada, the USA, India, the Far East and Egypt to promote the products.
W. Heath Robinson, the renowned cartoonist of the day who thought up laughingly complicated machines for achieving simple objectives, was recruited in the 1920s and 1930s to draw a series of illustrations of various aspects of production, in the form of posters and postcards.
The scratchy toilet paper, impregnated with Izal disinfectant and every sheet printed with the legend ‘Now wash your hands’ (not to mention, in some cases, ‘Property of British Railways’ if I remember correctly), was at first given away to local authorities who bought bulk supplies of hygiene products, before being marketed as a commodity in its own right.
During the Second World War, Izal produced sheets of toilet paper overprinted with cartoon illustrations of Adolf Hitler, which were popular with customers but frowned upon by the government because ‘it wasn’t really the British thing to do.’
Some of Izal’s health giving claims, and the diseases it would help prevent, might seem rather far fetched by today’s advertising standards. Restrictions on the use of poisons, and increased competition from more modern products, lessened Izal’s market dominance, although it was still a major profit maker for Newton Chambers until the 1970s.
The company, which had once employed 8,000 people, was sold off and split up, although the Izal factory continued to be run until 1981 by Sterling Health, who also bought the Ronseal DIY brand which still survives at Chapeltown.
But in the end, production of Izal medicated toilet paper at the North Sheffield factory fell victim to the accountants’ bottom line, as the bottoms of Britain opted for something a little more comfortable.