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




The Plymouth business house of Messrs Plymouth Tar Distilleries Ltd was located at Cattedown, Plymouth.

The Plymouth Tar Distilleries as it looked in 1927.

The Plymouth Tar Distilleries as it looked in 1927.
Gas Journal 1927.

Sometime around 1924 the Plymouth and Stonehouse Gas Light and Coke Company Limited purchased the former tar distillery works at Cattedown previously operated by Mr Thomas Henry Harvey.

On October 1st 1927 a group of municipal and county engineers visited the works and their findings were published in the industry's magazine, the "Gas Journal".

The area covered by the works was about 850 feet in length by an average of 140 feet in width and was sandwiched between the Southern Railway Company's Cattewater Branch and the Cattewater Harbour.

At the time of their visit, the works was receiving about 2,500,000 gallons of crude tar per year from the various gas companies in Devon and Cornwall.  Much of it arrived in rail tank wagons, of which 25 were in constant service, but the tar from smaller gas works often came in barrels.  Two steam lorries were in use to collect the crude from the local gas works, one not far away in Sutton Road and the other at Keyham.  Only one of them, a Sentinel, was normally required but the second, a Yorkshire, was held in readiness as a reserve.

From that crude tar the Distillery produced some 2 million gallons of road tars, 200,000 gallons of creosote, 12,000 gallons of crude carbolic acid, 15,000 gallons of crude cresylic acid, 7,000 gallons of crude pyridine acid and 50,000 gallons of motor benzole and other white spirits.

The tars received from the various gas works varied in standard according to the type of retort used and the quality of the coal carbonized.  Therefore, much care had to be taken to ensure that the tar put into the stills was of the same standard every day and they were often mixed to produce this standard throughout the year.

From the settling and mixing tanks, the tar passed into a pre-heater and then into one of four 3,000 gallon tar stills.  There it was distilled using fire heat from either Scottish or Midland coal.  The full process was long and complicated.

At the end of the manufacturing process, the road tar was distributed either in rail tank wagons or in barrels.  Each of the rail wagons had a steam heating coil and large and small outlets fitted at the bottom to suit the requirements of each of the Company's customers.  Some 12,000 barrels were needed and four coopers were fully employed dealing with minor and major repairs to keep them in service.  New ones were bought in to replace any that had to be condemned.

Steam power was much in evidence for the heating required and for driving pumps and machinery.  This was supplied by a single 32 feet Lancashire boiler.

When the gas industry was nationalised in 1948 the business was taken over by the South Western Gas Board and a subsidiary company, the Plymouth Tar Distilleries Limited, was created to operate the works.  Mr J W Dean was one of its directors and eventually he became manager of all the tar distilleries owned by the South Western Gas Board.

After two years of planning and construction, the first stage of a new plant was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Mr Edwin Broad, on Tuesday June 21st 1955.  The first stage, built by Messrs Burts and Harvey Limited, covered the distillation of the tar into its primary products and included the erection of two crude tar storage tanks, one with a capacity of 1,500,000 gallons and the second for 150,000 gallons.  The new works, in a modern blue and white colour scheme, were opposite the old works.  Also present for the ceremony, and at the luncheon held in the Grand Hotel afterwards, were Mr C H Chester, chairman of the Company and also of the South Western Gas Board; Mr W Harris and Mr L A Draper, directors of the Tar Company; and the County Surveyors of both Devon and Cornwall, Messrs R B Carnegie and A Ashworth.

Plymouth Tar Distilleries plant at Cattedown.

The new Plymouth Tar Distilleries in 1955.

The Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Mr Edwin Broad, performing the official opening.

The Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Mr Edwin Broad, performing the opening ceremony.

Plymouth Tar Distilleries plant by night.

Plymouth Tar Distilleries plant by night.

The distillery was taken over by a national company but closed down in 1970-71 and the whole area of the works became part of the Conoco Ltd and Esso Petroleum Company Ltd site.


  With acknowledgement to the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office and Ms Kerry Moores, Records Officer of the National Grid PLC.