Muspratt, James (1793–1886), chemical industrialist, was born 12 August 1793 in Dublin, third child and second son among six sons and two daughters of Evan Muspratt, cork-cutter, and Sarah Muspratt (née Mainwaring), both of Dublin, whose families came originally from England. After some years of education James was apprenticed (1807–10) to a Mr Micheltree, wholesale druggist in Dublin, where he learned his trade of making and selling chemicals. His father died in 1810 and his mother remarried but died shortly afterwards in 1811. Orphaned and with the family's assets tied up in chancery, James decided in 1812 to go adventuring in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. He tried and failed to get a cavalry commission, joined the infantry, was taken ill, and had to escape from behind enemy lines. He then tried the navy, obtaining a junior commission, but disliking the life, deserted ship in Swansea and made his way back to Dublin in 1814. Having no money, he needed to make a living and thus started making chemicals on a small scale from 1816. In 1819 he went into partnership with Thomas Abbott at 14, Parkgate St., Dublin, where they made hydrochloric and acetic acids, and later prussiate of potash and probably also soda on a small scale.
In 1819 he married Julia Josephine, daughter of John Connor of Dublin. Two sons, James Sheridan (see below) and Richard, were born in Dublin. Two more sons (Frederic and Edmund Knowles) and three daughters (Julia Sophia, Emma Jessie, and Mary Adelaide) were born in England after the family moved there, and three sons died in infancy.
In 1822 James decided that there were greater opportunities and more money to be made from making chemicals in England than in Ireland and he moved to Liverpool. Raw materials and markets were more readily available and he built a chemical works in Vauxhall Road, Liverpool, to produce prussiate of potash and later sulphuric acid. He made enough money by 1823 to build a plant to make soda by the Leblanc process. He was not the first to make synthetic soda in the UK, in competition with natural sources of alkali from barilla and kelp, but he saw the potential market and the advantages of the synthetic product more clearly, and actively promoted the product to soap boilers. He had to give away his product initially until the traditional soap manufacturers saw the superiority of his soda. The venture succeeded and from this small beginning grew the Lancashire alkali industry, this area becoming the centre of the heavy chemical industry in the UK. James Muspratt became known as the ‘father of the alkali industry in Great Britain’ (Hardie & Pratt, 26). In 1825 he severed his link with Thomas Abbott, and from 1828 to 1830 went into a short-lived partnership with another Irish émigré, Josiah Christopher Gamble (qv), and they built a new works in St Helens. In 1830 James left the partnership and set up his own works in Newton-le-Willows (closed in 1850). In 1852 two other factories were built in Widnes, Cheshire, and Flint (in north Wales), run by his sons.
Although James had no formal education in chemistry, he made sure that his sons had the best training available. All four were educated as chemists, and were sent to Germany to study in Giessen under Justus von Liebig, whom James had met at a British Association meeting in Liverpool in 1837. All four were also encouraged to get involved in the family business, although the eldest, James Sheridan, was not successful as a businessman and, instead, became well known as an educator and writer. The other sons ran the factories when their father retired from business from 1850 onwards. The most successful of them was Edmund Knowles Muspratt (1833–1923), who went on to be a director of the United Alkali Company and pro-chancellor of Liverpool University.
James Muspratt was a successful chemical entrepreneur and, after establishing the alkali industry in the UK, opened up the American market in 1840. At that time he made 15 per cent of British alkali production. He was always willing to take a chance and try out new ideas, not always successfully. However, the Leblanc process on which he based his success was inherently polluting and wasteful, and from 1827 he faced almost non-stop litigation for causing pollution. This legal pressure resulted in his shifting production to Widnes and Flint, away from the vicinity of Liverpool. The combined pressure of business and litigation wore him out, and from 1850 onwards he handed over the business to his sons, retiring finally in 1857 after the death of his wife. Initially the family lived in 2 Great Oxford St., Liverpool (1823–34), then in Pembroke Place (1834–41); in 1841 he built Seaforth Hall on the banks of the Mersey, where he lived until his death on 4 May 1886. He is buried in Walton cemetery.
In Dublin James had always enjoyed the company of artists and actors, and he named two of his sons after the Irish dramatist James Sheridan Knowles (qv). He continued his involvement with the arts world in England and he welcomed well known writers and artists of the day, as well as scientists and industrialists, to Seaforth Hall. Charles Dickens was a family friend.
His long life, his breadth of interests and wide circle of friends, his importance in the growth of the British chemical industry, and the involvement of his sons and grandsons, meant that the name Muspratt was synonymous with the chemical industry in the nineteenth century. In America (1841) Sheridan Muspratt reported that their name was as well known as that of the leader of the senate. However, in 1890 the Muspratt factories were subsumed into the United Alkali Company, itself absorbed into Imperial Chemical Industries in 1926. The family connection was preserved by James's youngest son, Edmund Knowles, and his sons, who were involved in the UAC and later in ICI. The Muspratt name survives also in the Muspratt Laboratory at the University of Liverpool, endowed by Edmund Knowles Muspratt.
A portrait of James Muspratt as a young man is in J. F. Allen, Some founders of the chemical industry (1906). A photograph as an old man is in the appreciation in the Chemical Trades Journal (19 Oct. 1889, 240). An engraving of the Vauxhall Road works in Liverpool c.1830 is in the Liverpool Public Libraries and was reproduced as the frontispiece in D. W. F. Hardie and J. Davidson, A history of the modern British chemical industry (1966).
His eldest son, (James) Sheridan Muspratt (1821–71), chemist and scientific author, was born 8 March 1821 in Dublin. Sheridan first went to local schools and in 1836 went to study with Thomas Graham in Glasgow and then in London, together with his brother Richard. His father sent him to America (1841–2) to set up the American arm of the business, but this venture was a failure. Unlike his other three brothers – Richard, Frederic, and Edmund Knowles, who were all actively involved in chemical manufacturing – Sheridan's flair was for chemistry (where he did original research) and for teaching and writing, rather than making or selling chemicals. In 1843 his father sent him to Germany to work with Liebig and there Sheridan studied for his Ph.D, which was awarded in 1844 for work on sulphites. He travelled around Germany and the UK, and worked with Augustus von Hofmann in London, doing research in coal-tar chemistry. In 1848 Sheridan founded the Liverpool College of Chemistry, Canning St., in the stables of his house, modelling it on Hofmann's Royal College of Chemistry in London. These were both pioneering ventures in scientific education, designed to meet the growing need of industry for scientifically trained personnel. He also gave public lectures in chemistry and conducted chemical analyses when requested. One of the Harrogate mineral springs is named after him, after he analysed the waters in 1865.
Sheridan also became famous for a number of books. He translated Liebig's works into English, as well as those of other German chemists. From 1848 he started to compile a dictionary of chemistry, published in parts from 1854 and then in two volumes (1860) as Chemistry, theoretical, practical and analytical as applied and relating to the arts and manufactures. It was well received, widely translated, and republished abroad and became very influential as a reference book. Twenty years later it was revised and reissued in eight parts under the same title, but without his name. He is best known and remembered for this work, although most of the editorial work was by a Limerick chemist, Martin Murphy. Sheridan was a great self-publicist and made the most of his connections with Liebig and Hofmann. Brock (1997) judges him to be ‘a sham but a very successful one’. He published thirty-five scientific papers in addition to his books.
He died in Liverpool 3 February 1871, the first of James's and Sarah's children to die, at the early age of 49. Following his father's example, Sheridan had moved in literary and theatrical circles as well as in scientific ones. The Muspratt house was always full of artists of one sort and another, and Sheridan married (1848) the well-known actress Susan Webb (née Cushman), settling in Canning St., Liverpool. They had three daughters. After her death (1859), he married (1860) Ann Neale; they had no children. An engraving of a portrait appears at the beginning of volume I of Chemistry, theoretical, practical and analytical . . . (1860).