Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Muspratt, James (1793-1886)

MUSPRATT, JAMES (1793–1886), founder of the alkali industry in Lancashire, was born in Dublin, 12 Aug. 1793, of English parents, Evan and Sarah Muspratt. His mother belonged to the Cheshire family of Mainwaxings. He was educated at a commercial school in Dublin, and at the age of fourteen was apprenticed to a wholesale chemist and druggist there, named Mitcheltree, with whom he remained between three and four years. He lost his father in 1810, and his mother in the following year. Failing to obtain a cavalry commission in order to serve in the Peninsular war, and refusing to accept a commission in the infantry, he went to Spain and followed in the wake of the British troops. After the temporary abandonment of Madrid by General Hill in 1812 he was left in that city prostrated by fever; but, in order not to fall into the hands of the French, he rose from his sick bed, and managed to walk one hundred miles in two days on the way to Lisbon. He has left a record of the journey in a diary. Muspratt then enlisted as midshipman on the Impetueux, took part in the blockade of Brest, and was promoted second officer on another vessel. But the harsh discipline of his superiors proved intolerable to him, and, with a comrade, he deserted by night in the Mumbles roadstead off Swansea. He returned to Dublin about 1814, and became the intimate friend of Samuel Lover [q. v.], James Sheridan Knowles [q. v.], and the actress Eliza O'Neill, whom he was able to help in her profession.

A little later his inheritance, much diminished by a long chancery suit, came into his hands, and in 1818, at the age of twenty-five, after starting the manufacture of certain chemicals in a small way by himself, he set up, with a friend named Abbott, as a manufacturer of prussiate of potash. In 1823 the duty of 30l. per ton was taken off salt, and Muspratt at once took advantage of the opportunity of introducing into this country the manufacture of soda on a large scale by the Leblanc process. Losh had preceded him on the Tyne in 1814, and Charles Tennant [q. v.] on the Clyde in 1816, but only a beginning had been made. Muspratt saw that the valley of the Mersey, with its coalfields, salt-mines, and seaport, offered advantages of the first order for alkali works, and he set up his first plant at Liverpool. At first he was actually obliged to give away his soda-ash to the soap-boilers (who were prejudiced in favour of potash), and to teach them how to use it ; but soon the demand for his products increased so much that the works outgrew the land at his disposal, and Muspratt joined an Irishman, Josias Christopher Gamble, in building new works at St. Helens in 1828. Two years later he left Gamble and set up another manufactory at Newton. At this time the means for condensing the hydrochloric acid produced in the Leblanc process were quite inadequate, and the Liverpool corporation and the landowners near Newton, on account of the damage done to vegetation by the acid fumes, began litigation against Muspratt, which lasted from 1832 to 1850. Finally Muspratt closed his works and opened new and successful ones in Widnes and Flint, which he left in 1857 to his sons on retiring from business. Muspratt was the first to build a Leblanc soda-works in England on a large scale, and it is as the chief founder of the alkali manufacture in this country that he will be remembered. In the towns of St. Helens and Widnes thousands of workmen are now employed in the manufacture.

Muspratt took in his later years a keen interest in educational matters, and helped to found the Liverpool Institute. He passed much of his time in foreign travel, and paid long visits to the chemist Liebig at Giessen and Munich. He died on 4 May 1886 at Seaforth Hall, near Liverpool, and was buried in the parish churchyard of Walton.

Muspratt married Julia Connor, in Dublin, on 6 Oct. 1819. He had ten children, four of whom, James Sheridan [q. v.], Richard, Frederick (of whom see obituary in the Journ. Chem. Soc. xx. vi. 780), and Edmund Knowles, became chemists, and succeeded him in his business.

A woodcut engraving of Muspratt is prefixed to the memoir quoted below.

[Memoir of James Muspratt, by J. F. Allen; Chemical Trade Journal, v. 240 (1889); Obituary, Journ. Soc. Chemical Industry, v. 314; J. S. Muspratt's Chemistry, ii. 920 (1st edit.); First Annual Report under the Alkali Act, by E. Angus Smith, p. 14 (1865); private information from his son, E. K. Muspratt, esq.]

P. J. H.