Heritage: Sootigine, Dagfert and Baxtrol

Pathe News film about Baxtrol

Pathe News made a short film about Baxtrol. It's on YouTube called Coupon-Free Petrol Brings Miles Queue (1949) - Credit: Pathe News

I believe I'm the world expert on Sootigine, but that's mainly because the other 7.8 billion people on the planet aren't interested. I owe my global status to a man in Romford 's North Street.

Looking through an 1886 local directory, I found Thomas Burbrow, "Sootigine agent". I'd never heard of Sootigine. Nor had the Oxford English Dictionary. I explored the mystery.

Wesley Darley was born near Luton around 1844. As his siblings were called Dorcas, Maximilian and Theophilus, he probably came from an odd family. He sounds like a chancer and a fantasist. By the age of 33, he'd chalked up four business failures.

In 1877, he was joint proprietor of a company called Government Carbolic Disinfectants – which, of course, had no link with the government whatsoever. When it, too, failed, he emerged owning a chemical works under the railway arches near Hackney Downs Station. Soon after, Sootigine was born.

Don't read this over breakfast.

Many Hackney homes had no connection to London's sewers. Their waste materials had to be carted away. Bodily products were usually mixed with ash from fireplaces. That's why other countries have garbage collectors but we have dustmen.

Houses were heated by coal fires, which produced masses of soot. Darley decided to treat sewage with carbolic and pour in soot to create an artificial fertiliser which would also kill insect pests – hey presto, Sootigine!

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Much cheaper than its rivals, it was backed by a massive promotional campaign – stalls at country fairs, endorsements from farmers (how collected I do not know), newspaper adverts. With an endless supply of raw materials, Darley surely had a winner: by 1884, his Hackney Downs plant claimed to employ 300 people.

There was just one problem. Sootigine was useless. It was tested by Britain's leading farm scientist, Dr Voelcker of the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. He called it "RUBBISH sold at an extravagant price".

That killed Sootigine. Yet again, Darley went bankrupt in 1889. He died in Leytonstone six years later, leaving a young widow, a Romford woman. His local agent, Thomas Burbrow, became a painter and decorator.

Around 1960, Dagenham's enterprising council sold a fertiliser called Dagfert, made from crumbly dried sewage. I've seen Brussels sprouts six feet tall grown in Dagfert, and that was in Rush Green, not the Canadian prairies.

Unfortunately – those pesky scientists again – Dagfert was banned because it's best to keep human waste products out of the food chain.

Baxtrol had such a short career that not much is known about it. Postwar Britain was hard up. Petrol was rationed. In 1949, an industrial chemist from Cheshire called Baxter invented a substitute fuel. Baxtrol was a mixture of acetone (paint thinner) and methanol, a basic and dangerous form of alcohol.

Baxtrol worked when mixed in a three-to-one ratio with petrol. Although it was much dearer, it was not rationed, thereby making the motorist's petrol coupons go further. But Baxtrol needed a distribution network, garages with special tanks and pumps to sell this new fuel.

Only one petrol station made the attempt. A garage at Rainham – I think it was located on the A1306 New Road – proclaimed "Petrol worries over. Use Baxtrol the coupon-free motor fuel." An amusing 50-second clip from Pathe News (it's on YouTube) showed jalopies rushing to Rainham, queuing for the miracle fuel.

In fact, Baxtrol probably harmed car engines. To make it work, you needed to pull your choke full out, which also increased fuel consumption.

But the real problem faced by Baxtrol was that its components came from the United States. With Britain short of dollars, imports from the USA were tightly controlled. In December 1949, the Board of Trade cut off the raw materials, and that finished Baxtrol.

It's an old problem – how to encourage entrepreneurship, while protecting customers, ensuring public health and using scarce resources wisely? Alas, Sootigine, Baxtrol and Dagfert failed the tests.