Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 21, 2019
Webpage updated: September 21, 2019




The Plymouth business house of Messrs Edward James and Sons, starch, blue and black-lead manufacturers, were located in Sutton Road, Coxside, Plymouth, until 1912.

Edward James was born around the start of the 19th century in or near Redruth in Cornwall.  He came to Plymouth in 1833 and on October 5th 1836 married Miss Charlotte Collier, daughter of Mr William Collier, by which means he became first cousin to Sir Robert Pollett Collier (1817-1886), Member of Parliament and Attorney General.

Soon after his arrival in Plymouth he set up in partnership with Mr William Bryant and Mr Francis May, two local merchants, and they started a factory in Woolster Street, close to The Exchange, to produce what were then called "lucifers" or matches.  However, the process and product were very unsafe at that time and on the evening of Friday August 23rd 1839 their factory burned down.  One report of the fire mentions that 'there were many children at work in the manufactory' but they all got out and luckily the bonded warehouses attached to the Custom House, to the rear of the factory, was saved as the spirits stored in there might have caused quite an explosion.

Being an Elder of the Society of Friends, with one child already, Miss Charlotte Mary James, and another on the way, who was to become their first son, William Collier James, he evidently decided to play safe and withdrew from the partnership to concentrate on the relative safety of manufacturing starch, washing blue and black-lead for polishing.  In 1840 he purchased a site at Coxside which included some of the land previously occupied by the Roman Catholic Nunnery of the Poor Clares and there he built a large factory.

He enlisted the help of Mr Henry Lang, whom he sent over to Waterford, in Ireland, to learn the process of wheat starch manufacture from one of William Bryant's Quaker friends, Mr George White.  Mr Lang then became the manager of the business in Sutton Road and lived in Clare House. 

Starch is not strictly speaking a manufactured article,  It exists more or less in all grains and in many roots.  Mr James had to extract the starch and produce it in a form suitable for the laundry market.  Rice was the most productive grain for starch making.  After it had been cleaned and steeped in a prepared liquor, the soft grain was passed through one of the many mill-stones in the mill-room.  The resultant substance, described as being like raw cream, was then pumped to the top floor of the building where it was placed in deep wooden vessels and treated chemically before being transferred into vats to be agitated by machinery.  The starch was then drawn off and conveyed by chutes down to the "flats" for settling.  The fibre of the grain that remained in the vats was used for other purposes.

After further treatment in the "flats", the starch was run off into long narrow boxes to solidify.  When that has been satisfactorily completed, the solid starch is turned out and cut into blocks about six inches square.  These then go into a "crusting stove", where the high temperatures produce an outer crust.  The crust is then removed and the cubes are wrapped in paper and placed in the lower temperature "drying stoves".  This created the long white crystals.  It was marketed as Red Cross Starch.

On November 8th 1846 Mrs Mary Grace Lang had a son, whom they christened George Henry Lang.  He attended the school run by the Reverend John Barter in Union Terrace, Plymouth, until 1860, when Mr James asked him to leave and work in the warehouse at the starch factory.

The 1861 census confirms that young George was a clerk and the family were living at 12 Sutton Road, Coxside.

By 1861 Edward and Charlotte's family was complete.   After William Collier James came Martha Jane James in 1841, Edward Hamilton James in 1843 and Edith Ann James in 1848.  Edward was now employing 53 men and boys plus 274 women and girls. Of his children, only Mr Edward Hamilton James was employed by his father, as a clerk.

At some time in the 1860s he formed Messrs Edward James and Sons and both Mr William Collier James and Mr Edward Hamilton James became full partners.   This was good timing because Mr Edward James passed away on December 1st 1870, at the age of 69.  His widow and the two sons took over the business and in 1871 they were employing 160 people.  Mrs James even had the luxury of a Lady's Maid, 58-years-old Elizabeth Lamble.

A fancy-box making factory was also located on the site, which provided employment for women and girls.  They also printed labels for the boxes.

When the business first started they produced only Ball Blue and it was something of a novelty.  Gradually, however, this was superseded by Square Blue, of which a large quantity was exported.  This was marketed under the name of Peasant Girl.

Large quantities of award-winning Dome Black-lead were manufactured daily.  It was very dirty work but did result in the most brilliant form of black-lead for household use.  This side of the business was also carried on at a branch establishment in London.

The business was incorporated as a private company in 1902, with Mr George Henry Lang becoming the managing director.  He had worked his way up through the business from clerk to accountant, to cashier and finally manager.

After a lengthy illness, Mr William Collier James passed away on Friday June 12th 1903, leaving a widow, seven sons and one daughter.  He was 63 years of age.  Mr William Collier James was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and represented Charles Ward on the Borough Council for some 21 years.   He fought many elections and more than one occasion was re-elected unopposed.   He took a keen interest in the problem of the Town's water supply, although he did not support the Weir Head option that was eventually adopted.  He was also a member of the Plymouth School Board for ten years and a Justice of the Peace for twenty years.   Mr James was a supporter of fishing and shooting and with friends held shooting rights at Saint German's.  He was an enthusiastic member of the Plymouth Photographic Club.

During 1904 Mr Lang negotiated the sale of the business to Messrs Reckitt and Sons Limited and he then set about liquidating the old company in 1905.  He remained in charge of the factory for the new owners.

Mr Edward Hamilton James died, after a short illness, during the afternoon of Saturday January 16th 1915.  He was 71 years of age and was survived by his widow.  Like his older brother, he had also supported the a Liberal cause and had been a very active member of the Religious Society of Friends.  He had been a Town Councillor for Sutton Ward, before being elected Alderman.

Mr George Henry Lang retired in August 1920, at the age of 73 years, and died at his home in Thorn Park, Mannamead, on Friday June 6th 1930.  He was survived by his widow, three sons and two daughters.  He had been a regular at services in the Ebenezer Methodist Chapel, where his parents had introduced him to the Sunday School of which he later became a superintendent.  He was a Liberal in politics and had for a short time represented Greenbank Ward on Plymouth Borough Council.  Mr Lang was a keen temperance worker and president of the Deaf and Dumb Institution.