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Albright, Arthurlocked

(1811–1900)
  • Frank Greenaway

Albright, Arthur (1811–1900), chemist and phosphorus manufacturer, was born on 3 March 1811 in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, into a Quaker family, the second son and sixth of ten children of William Albright, grocer and mercer of Charlbury, and his wife, Rachel Tanner of Woodborough, Somerset. He was educated at schools in Rochester and privately at home, and then at the age of sixteen became apprenticed to his uncle, a chemist and druggist in Bristol. He did not settle to this life and had a number of activities, including travel to France and Belgium, studying other industries such as beet growing. For a while he worked for a Bristol printer and publisher.

In 1842 Albright joined the firm of John and Edward Sturge, manufacturing chemists in Birmingham, a town congenial to enterprising dissenters because it did not tolerate the limitations on the holding of municipal office imposed on them in the older charter cities. The firm expanded its scope in 1844 to make white phosphorus (from bone-ash), the main outlet for which was the making of matches. The match, as a simple, reliable source of fire, was one of the great technical innovations of the nineteenth century, a fact which explains the importance of Albright's industrial activity. However, the white phosphorus matches were dangerous and their manufacture a serious danger to health. In the course of travels to find sources of bone-ash Albright met Anton Schrötter (1802–1875), who had published in 1850 a good method of making the red, or amorphous, form of phosphorus, which was much less reactive than the white form. Albright purchased the patents, and then took out his own on improvements to Schrötter's method. He was thus able to make, economically, this form of phosphorus which was a main factor in bringing about the widespread use of safety matches.

In September 1848 Albright married Rachel (d. 1899), daughter of George Stacey of Tottenham. They had four sons and four daughters. They lived mainly in fine houses not far from his factories. In 1851, in an area already much industrialized (Oldbury in Worcestershire), the Sturge brothers opened a new phosphorus plant, which Albright took over at the end of 1854. In 1856 he went into partnership with J. W. Wilson (1834–1907), who married his wife's sister, Catherine Stacey, in 1857. The firm Albright and Wilson survived until the middle of the twentieth century. Albright travelled all through his working life, in eastern Europe in the early 1850s and in western Europe thereafter, promoting the use of red phosphorus, for example by showing specimens at exhibitions, first in the 1851 Great Exhibition, then in the Paris expositions from 1855 onwards. In his widespread business dealings for an expanding export business he developed a good command of several European languages, for which he had shown a facility in childhood. Seeking sources of raw materials and expanding his export trade he visited Europe more than a hundred times, Egypt once, and the USA several times.

Albright was a dedicated and effective philanthropist, his early interest in phosphorus having grown out of a concern for the health of match workers. He concerned himself with alleviating the slave-like conditions of black people in the West Indies, and when war broke out in the United States in 1861 he worked at getting financial and material support for emancipated slaves. He was also active in alleviating distress in France following the devastation of the Franco-Prussian War. In later life he expanded this social interest, even attempting to enter parliament; he stood as a candidate for East Worcestershire in 1874, but his platform, based on proposals to deal with the health problems of prostitution near garrisons and naval establishments, attracted little support. He was an active member of the Arbitration Society, believing that the kind of process which proved successful in settling some international disputes, such as the Alabama arbitration of 1871, should become general. He supported Gladstone in opposing the jingoistic agitation of 1877–8 when a Russo-Turkish war was feared, but parted from him on some of his domestic policies. Albright died in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, while on a visit to his daughter Dora (Lady Scott-Moncrieff), on 3 July 1900. He was buried at Witton, Birmingham.

Sources

  • R. E. Threlfall, The story of 100 years of phosphorus making, 1851–1951 (1951)
  • P. J. T. Morris and C. A. Russell, Archives of the British chemical industry, 1750–1914: a handlist (1988)

Archives

  • Albright and Wilson Ltd, Oldbury, Birmingham
  • Library of Birmingham, family papers of Albrights of Edgbaston
  • Library of Birmingham, letters to his family, mainly while on business trips abroad

Likenesses

  • P. Bigland, oils, repro. in Threlfall, Story of 100 years of phosphorus making, frontispiece

Wealth at Death

£112,305 9s. 5d.: probate, 7 Aug 1900, CGPLA Eng. & Wales