In 2015, clearance of the site of a former council depot in Bethnal Green included demolition of premises, built as factory offices a century before.
A stone entablature across the front of the building proudly proclaimed it as belonging to The Sanitas Company Limited: a once well-known concern deserving remembrance for its contribution to public health and, to a lesser extent, to the world of film and theatre for employing the actor Sir John Mills as a travelling salesman in the early days of his career.
The Sanitas company was founded in 1878 by two chemists, Charles Kingzett and Maximilian Zingler, to exploit a patent issued to them in 1876 on ‘improvements in the production of antiseptics and disinfectants’. At the time, biocides for clinical and household use were becoming increasingly important as the Sanitary Movement’s prevailing view that miasmas caused infectious diseases was giving way to the germ theory. Kingzett, the leading force in the partnership, had been working on the oxidation of turpentine, a distillate of the resin from pine trees, and was struck by its antimicrobial properties. When hot air was introduced at the junction of layers of turpentine and water in tin-lined, earthenware vessels at 50°C, the turpentine layer gradually diminished as it was oxidised to what was probably a complex mix of water soluble products. This material, which was declared to contain hydrogen peroxide, thymol and derivatives of camphoric acid, was the basis of Sanitas Fluid. The residual organic layer was marketed separately as Sanitas Oil for inter alia antiseptic dressings, the treatment of ringworm and rheumatism and the bleaching of feathers! Though Sanitas in its different guises was, for many years, the mainstay of the company, an increasing range of other products, including sulphur candles, drain testers and antiseptic sawdust for spittoons was offered from its main premises in Limehouse.
While the Sanitas company used turpentine, others employed alternative raw materials for biocides, particularly distillates from coal tar, a by-product of the expanding coal gas industry. These tar acids, mainly phenol (carbolic acid), cresols and xylenols, showed useful antiseptic activity but were insoluble in water and had to be emulsified with resins and other compounds. One such product was Jeyes Fluid, still with us today, patented by John Jeyes in 1877 and manufactured in Plaistow, just a couple of miles east from the Sanitas factory. John Jeyes had moved to London from Northampton in 1859 to launch the Jeyesine Oil and Paint Company Ltd, which later failed. In a new venture, he introduced Jeyes Fluid but, again, his inventiveness was not matched by his business acumen and he was forced to sell out to investors who retained his name on the product and his services as an employee, but, inevitably, at a much lower salary than that enjoyed by the company’s directors.
Kingzett had come from modest beginnings in Oxford but, from the age of 13, had acquired an education in chemistry as a junior assistant in the university’s new chemical laboratories, which included attendance at undergraduate lectures. A teaching post brought him to London but he soon moved on to an industrial chemistry laboratory in Putney followed by a spell in the chemical industry in Liverpool. He returned to London to work with Johann Thudichum, a German refugee and a founding father of biochemistry in the UK, whose first commission here had been to investigate the prevalence of trichinosis in meat in the London markets. Kingzett later went into business as a consulting chemist before founding the Sanitas company. This was not, however, his only manufacturing enterprise; the Sanitas premises in Limehouse were also home to the unlikely sounding ‘Improved Golf Ball Company’; the chairman was one Charles Kingzett.
Kingzett was also very active in professional circles as a Fellow of the Chemical Society for more than 60 years and a founder of the Institute of Chemistry and the Society of Chemical Industry. He also published numerous research papers, articles and books. Among the latter, several touched on microbiology, including Animal Chemistry, or the Relations of Chemistry to Physiology and Pathology (1877), based in part on his work with Thudichum, and Nature’s Hygiene and Sanitary Chemistry, first published in 1880 and running through to a fifth edition in 1907. In these and others, such as his 1000-page Chemical Encyclopædia, Kingzett would often take the opportunity to give comprehensive, and perhaps undue, coverage of the virtues of Sanitas; though, to be fair to him, I believe Sanitas is not mentioned at all in his lesser-known monograph, The Evolution of the Rubber-Cored Golf Ball (1904).
After Kingzett retired in 1926, the Sanitas company moved to south London and diversified further, acquiring brands such as Woodward’s Gripe Water and Liqufruta, a product patented by William Holmyard in 1902, which propagated both false hopes and reassurances such as: ‘the only safe cure for pulmonary consumption, chronic asthma, bronchitis…’ and ‘guaranteed free of poison…’.
The Sanitas company devoted considerable effort to promoting its products. In addition to Kingzett’s own publications, and conventional advertisements and articles by physicians praising Sanitas products, the British Journal of Nursing in 1908 described the opportunity for nurses to visit the Sanitas factory. After detailed instructions directing intrepid travellers to Limehouse by bus, tram or underground, the article describes the activities of the diligent staff of bacteriologists and factory workers producing and testing Sanitas products, and a display of their multifarious uses in, for example, food preservation. It also notes enthusiastically that, ‘At the conclusion of the visit…a most bounteous tea was hospitably provided, to which most of the nurses present appeared ready to do full justice.’
Today, Sanitas is no longer part of our biocidal armoury, but other products of the Limehouse factory still appear on the market. In 2019 the Edinburgh auctioneers Bonhams listed two golf balls from the Improved Golf Ball Company with guide prices in excess of £400 each.
Thomson G. The factory that never was? London’s Industrial Archaeology 2019; 17, 41–60