Home » Human Life » Radioactive Limehouse – The Strange Story of the British Radium Corporation

Radioactive Limehouse – The Strange Story of the British Radium Corporation

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Regular readers will know that the Isle of Dogs and nearby Limehouse has been the site of a wide variety of  industries over the last few hundred year, However I have recently came across some newspaper articles that illustrate that Limehouse played a major part in the processing of Radium, this largely forgotten story has it origins in the early years of the twentieth century.

The turn of the 20th century was the time of remarkable advances in science, One of the most significant discoveries was Radium which was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie in 1898. Due to the difficulties of obtaining radium, its scarcity led to it being considered very valuable and governments and companies began develop mines that would extract the uranium ore needed for the process.

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In Britain, it was Nobel laureate Sir William Ramsay who was the main driving force behind the establishment of the Radium Institute that carried out and supervised research on radium and was responsible for the supply of radioactive materials to British hospitals. Since its discovery, radium had been used in the treatment of cancers and the race was on to produce other radium treatments that would ‘cure’ a variety of ailments.

To secure future supplies Ramsay became involved in the founding of the British Radium Corporation and created the first radium factory in the UK in Limehouse. A newspaper report from 1909 takes up the story.

The East- End is to be the repository of untold wealth.

Tomorrow in Thomas Street, Limehouse, the foundation stone of a radium factory will be laid. It will be the first factory of its kind established, in this country; and, as marking the inauguration of a new British industry whose possibilities cannot be foreseen, the occasion will be of peculiar interest.

The stone-laying ceremony will be performed at noon by Lady Ramsay, wife of Sir William Ramsay who will accompany her and deliver an address on radium and its production and commercial form. Indeed,the distinguished scientist is to be the consulting chemist to the new concern.

The factory was built within six weeks and production began, by 1910, Sir William Ramsay was able to announce that in the Limehouse factory, for the first time radium had been produced in Great Britain from British ore. In the following report, the distinguished scientist explained the process.

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Sir W. Ramsay’s Process.

Sir William Ramsay, the eminent scientist, gave a demonstration of the various processes in connection with the extraction of radium at the British Radium Corporation factory at Limehouse, on the 19th October, and announced that the Trenwith mine, in Cornwall, has produced to date some 5,000 milligrammes of radium containing 10 per cent, of pure radium bromide.

The event was, in a sense, an historic one, for the radium exhibited by Sir William Ramsay was the first that had ever been extracted in Great Britain from British ore. As most people are aware, radium is obtained from pitchblende — a mineral which is a very rare occurrence, the only two deposits of serious magnitude so far located being in Austria and in Cornwall.

Without going into much detail it may be stated briefly that the ore after concentration at the mines is taken to the factory where it is dissolved and a solution is obtained containing uranium, radium, polonium and actinium. At the present time the polonium and actinium contents are not recovered, all efforts being concentrated on securing primarily the radium.

If the thought of all this radioactive material in Limehouse is making you nervous, do not worry because the pure radium was put into a specially built safe. The safe was specially made by Chubb and Sons, for the British Radium Corporation to allow the storage and protection of radium. Although only three feet in height, the safe weighed a ton and a half and had a steel and lead casing with asbestos padding with movements controlled by mercury rods. This would be a modern day health and safety nightmare but the main concern in 1910 was to stop burglars taking the radium that was worth £600,000 for half an ounce.

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Although there was a great shortage of radium, a whole industry developed around the ‘miracle’ element, items such as toothpaste, cosmetics, radioactive waters and many such items were sold which often contained minute traces of radium.

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The main commercial use of radium was in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. A tragic aspect of this industry was that the painting was done by hand mostly by young woman   who licked their brushes to give them a fine point, therefore ingesting radium. Gradually the girls developed serious   health problems which included bone cancer.

For all the excitement of the launch of the Limehouse factory, it was to be a short lived success. The British Radium Corporation  factory on Thomas Street near Baltic Wharf, which was situated between a biscuit factory and a refining works for gold and silver and became the first commercial radium factory in Britain went into receivership in 1918 and was finally dissolved in 1921.

 

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