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Lewis Chemical Works

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Lewis Chemical Works Memorial.jpg, 2008
Lewis Chemical Works Memorial
© JJM

Lewis Chemical Works was located to the west of the modern A859 road, just over 1 mile (2 km) west of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides.

Sir James Matheson purchased the Isle of Lewis in 1844, and planned to improve the resident's lives by introducing new industries to the island. The chemical works was one such venture and for the Victorian era, a bold and experimental scheme intended to extract paraffin or lamp oil from the local peat. Construction of the works, using local brick, began in 1851/2 at a cost of some £33,000, and included two railway lines, installed to bring the peat to the works.

While the experiment proved successful, corruption was to render the project a short-lived success.

For technical support, Matheson had employed the industrial chemist Dr Benjamin Horatio Paul to perfect the distillation process which extracted the oil from the peat. This was achieved by heating it within a retort, which released both the oil and a flammable gas (hydrogen) from the material. The gas was collected and used heat the retorts once the process was underway, thereby increasing the efficiency of the process.

Paul left the project once the process were operational, but his replacement proved to be less of a success, and was an embezzler who brought ruin to the project, and the plant closed in 1874.

The name of his replacement is unknown, and the only person of responsibility noted from census results of 1861 and 1871 is "Henry Carter, 62, Manager of Lewis Chemical Works and Fire Works." Presumably not the person in question, as the manager would have been tasked with running the factory, rather than developing and perfecting the plant and process.

Little evidence remains of the works itself, other than a few mounds discernible on the land, and the site is marked by a monument erected at the end of the railway track which once delivered the peat collected from extensive cuttings to the west.

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