Sir George Thomas Beilby FRS (1850-1924)


Scottish industrial chemist, national adviser and benefactor, George Beilby had a vital influence on industrial and scientific progress, but is now too little known.


A descendant of a notable Tyneside glassmaking family, he was born in Edinburgh in 1850 to a doctor and an artist.  One of his grandparents had been President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, another a Baptist minister, and his uncle Julius was a papermaker and Edinburgh director of the Clydesdale Bank.  George was educated in Edinburgh at the Academy and University, and in 1869 began working in the oil shale industry nearby, where Edinburgh obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson had invested to develop the Oakbank Company along scientific principles. 

from David Kerr’s Shale Oil Scotland (2nd Ed)


William Young

Beilby soon began a productive technical collaboration with Selkirk-born technologist William Young, ten years his senior. Working together from 1872, they were able to increase the yield of oil, ammonia and other useful materials from the shale by retorting and fractional distillation improvements, and the Young and Beilby patent retort of 1882 was the result.  Their methods dominated the oil shale industry for decades to come.  Beilby continued to support William Young’s later work on oil and gasworks efficiency.  He went on himself to develop and patent a process for the bulk synthesis of potassium cyanide for use in the gold-extraction industry, by passing ammonia over a heated mixture of charcoal and potassium carbonate.  This process helped meet the increased demand for cyanide for use in extracting gold from low-grade ores, a technique newly developed by a young Govan analytical chemist John Stewart MacArthur and two Govan doctors, William and Robert Wardrop Forrest. 

John Stewart MacArthur

Beilby's close association from 1892 with the Glasgow-based Cassel Cyanide Company helped to make him a fortune in this field.  Then, with a later sodium cyanide process to his credit, Beilby became a director of the Castner-Kellner Company at Runcorn and he developed their new Tyneside facilities at Wallsend.  Also involved in the development of the aluminium industry in Britain, Beilby was instrumental in founding the Scottish branch of the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI). He was the Society's President in 1899. His work and contacts drew him increasingly to the centre of British scientific and industrial progress, which he sought to advance strategically in the practical application of atomic chemistry, metallurgy, and fuel economy.


George had married Emma Clarke Newnham a daughter of the Baptist manse at Dublin Street, Edinburgh in 1877 and, moving from a first house near the Oakbank oilworks at The Birches, East Calder, the couple settled into a large villa at St Kitts, Colinton where their children Hubert and Winifred grew up.  Later the family moved to Glasgow, to University Gardens, Kelvingrove, not far from the Cassel Cyanide Company plant at Maryhill.  From an imposing corner house overlooking the newly relocated Glasgow University, Beilby was to exercise influence on British technology and industry.


Beilby had no official standing at Glasgow University but he nevertheless worked closely with fellow chemist Sir William Ramsay in promoting the teaching of scientific and technical subjects there --and at the Glasgow Technical College. They looked on the two institutions as complementary, and considered the advancement of science and technology for the chemical industries which were then concentrated in Glasgow as vital to trade, security and the future of civilisation. 


William Ramsay                 G.G. Henderson

At Beilby’s right hand to deliver this integration in Glasgow was George G. Henderson, Freeland Professor of Chemistry at the Technical College, later to be Regius Professor at the University. Like Beilby, Henderson was a leading light of the Society for Chemical Industry and like him became President of the Institute of Chemistry in due course.


Frederick Soddy

Beilby was exceptionally keen to foster work on the borders of physics and chemistry, and the researches in radioactivity planned by the young New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford and the young English chemist Frederick Soddy, both at that time in posts at McGill University, Montreal.  Rutherford hoped to come to Scotland through a professorship at Edinburgh in 1901.  Soddy, who had already impressed Ramsay, visited Glasgow that year and through his school friend H.C.H. Carpenter met Beilby there at the British Association meeting in September.  After successfully completing his Montreal research on transmutation with Rutherford, Soddy spent some time working with Ramsay at University College London.  He and Beilby were together again at the 1903 British Association meeting, where they were shown the research laboratories developed by Arthur Schuster FRS in the Physics Department at Manchester, at that time among the largest in the world -Rutherford was brought in to head them when Schuster retired.  Soddy was duly found a post to form and lead a small research team in physical chemistry and radioactivity in Glasgow University. He came to live in the Beilby household at 11 University Gardens in 1904, where he began the most productive period of his life.  Soddy was in no doubt about the power these researches might unleash. Lecturing the Royal Engineers in 1904, he said ''The man who put his hand on the lever by which a parsimonious nature regulates so jealously the output of this store of energy would possess a weapon by which he could destroy the earth if he chose.''  Soddy (later Nobel Laureate for Chemistry) was engaged to Beilby’s daughter Winifred when she came of age in 1906.  Winifred Beilby was on the threshold of her career as a recognised researcher in radioactivity.  They were married two years later in 1908. 


Sophia Jex-Blake

George and Emma Beilby had enlightened interests in women’s rights, mountain walking, the arts and medicine, and supported the work of Sophia Jex-Blake and her Bruntsfield Hospital for women in Edinburgh, where a Beilby Ward was endowed.  It was in the Beilbys’ Glasgow home at 11 University Gardens that a close friend of the family, Jex-Blake's biographer and companion the medical novelist Margaret Todd, suggested that Soddy use the word “isotope” to describe the atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number and position in the periodic table and near-identical chemical behaviour but different atomic masses and physical properties.  It was Beilby who gave Soddy and his team 50 kilograms of uranyl nitrate on which to begin research into what became known as the disintegration theory.  It was Beilby who smoothed the way for Soddy to obtain supplies of the radioactive material needed in Scotland for research and medical applications. Beilby’s colleague in the Cassel patents, J. S. MacArthur (the benefactor of Balliol College) developed radium production first at Runcorn then at Balloch on Loch Lomond.  And it was the Beilbys, husband and wife, who in 1912 symbolically gave the money to repay Madame Curie for the radium sample that Soddy and others had used to establish the international standard for radioactivity.

Marie Curie in 1912



In February 1904, Beilby presented the centenary lecture at the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow on advances in chemical industry during the nineteenth century.  He chaired the chemical section of the British Association held in South Africa in 1905 and in 1906 attended the International Congress of Applied Chemistry in Rome, visiting Switzerland for a family mountain holiday along the way. He was later to preside over the Institute of Chemistry (1909 -12) and the Institute of Metals (1915-18). He was Chairman of the Governors of the Royal Technical College in Glasgow from 1907.  As a metallurgist, Beilby postulated that a film forms on the surface of a metal by plastic flow when a metal is polished. From his work in shale oil and cyanide production, he had noted the destructive effect of ammonia on metals at high temperatures. Researching the flow of solids, Beilby inferred that when a solid is caused to flow, as in polishing, the crystalline surface is broken down to a harder and denser layer. Although much criticized, this controversial theory of what became known as the Beilby Layer explained the hardening of metals under cold working and helped to stimulate further research.


Alexander Fleck

Alexander Fleck, a friendly and perceptive fourteen year old employed in 1904 to keep Soddy’s radio-activity laboratory tidy at Glasgow University became a trusted member of the team.  With Beilby and Soddy he used to go over to the Cassel chemical works at Maryhill to help sort out practical problems there.  In due course after technical classes he was encouraged to enrol and obtain a degree in chemistry.   The degree of trust was such that in 1913 Fleck took over Soddy’s post as technical adviser to the West of Scotland Radium Committee, and obtained a doctorate for his subsequent thesis on Some chapters of the chemistry of the radio-elements.   In 1916 he left the University to become chief chemist at Beilby’s Castner-Kellner plant in Wallsend.  After Beilby’s death, the interests in Cassel Cyanide and Castner-Kellner were amalgamated with partners in Brunner Mond and a number of other firms to form Imperial Chemical Industries in 1926.

Fleck planned the amalgamation of the Wallsend and Maryhill plants on a large new site at Billingham, and with an instinct for practical issues and good industrial relations he rose through the company to became head of ICI worldwide.  He chaired the committees set up following the Atomic Energy Establishment’s Windscale accident in 1957.  Presiding over the British Association meeting in Glasgow in 1958, Fleck unveiled a plaque to Soddy and, delighted to find his own name also there, exclaimed “It’s no every man gets his name on a brass plate before he’s deid!”



George Beilby

But to return to Fleck’s mentor, George Beilby served on the Admiralty Board of Inventions and Research, advising on matters relating to the production and use of oil for the Navy.  His membership of the Royal Commission on Oil Fuel from 1912, and his knowledge of Scottish techniques and investments in oil production at home and abroad led indirectly to Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty taking a major government shareholding in the Glasgow-based Burmah Oil Company’s substantial Anglo-Persian interests in 1913. This, by bringing together all the Scottish oil-shale businesses and refining expertise, was to form the basis for the semi-nationalised company that became BP.


Pursuing his personal interest in new forms of oil production and more efficient energy use, Beilby was appointed chairman of the Fuel Research Board and director of its Fuel Research Station.  This new research facility at East Greenwich was laid out under Beilby’s personal care, reflecting his idea of what a centre of national research on the scientific utilization of fuel should be.  He held this position for six years during and after the war, publishing the record of the centre’s studies and experiments in Fuel Research reports issued annually by the government’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.


Beilby worked hard to survey of the properties of the various types of coal and brown coal available in the British Isles with a view to their more scientific utilization. He also explored techniques to make Britain self-sufficient in fuel oils, in view of emerging wartime naval requirements that were soon to become pressing.  The Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines for the Navy, 1912-13, had reported that the way ahead lay in the development of a new carbonising industry, founded on the distillation of coal at a temperature well below that used in gas retorts and coke ovens.  Beilby ensured that the scientific and technical problems of this approach were solved so that an adequate supply of oil fuel could be produced if the need had continued, but with low - temperature distillation coke was the main product of the process and its commercial disposal remained a problem.  One result of Beilby’s attempts to standardise town gas supplies efficiently was the establishment of the "therm" as the basis for the charging of town gas to consumers.


 In these later years Beilby lived mainly in Hampstead and towards the end of his life became associated with University College, London. He was knighted in 1916 and died in Hampstead in 1924.  Writing his obituary for the Chemical Society, his old friend and colleague George Henderson quoted the words of the Committee of the Privy Council for Scientific and Industrial Research paying tribute to Beilby’s wise and experienced counsel, to his scientific and practical knowledge freely given in wartime and the hard years that followed: “Through all, his aim and effort were to help to the utmost the re-establishment of this land and people”.


From his first days as an inventor, in each of the processes he pioneered, Beilby had sought to make the most productive and economical use of raw materials and fuel, and to minimise smoke and other polluting wastes. He took a lively concern in the role of science and technology in human welfare and progress. He was warmly interested in the arts. He researched the properties and permanency of artists’ materials, and over many years took painstaking pleasure in designing and hand-building extensive home organs in the houses where he lived. After his death, the organ he had constructed at 11 University Gardens was carefully dismantled and reinstalled in the hall of Glasgow Royal Technical College, George Street at the expense of Emma Beilby by organ builders Hill Norman & Beard, and it was inaugurated at a public concert of his favourite music there in 1926.



HCH Carpenter

When the metallurgist H.C.H. Carpenter wrote George Beilby’s obituary for the Royal Society in 1925, he ended with this tribute: “A study of Beilby's life and work as a whole leaves a vivid impression of his greatness. He was a successful manufacturer and an acute and patient scientific investigator.  Though he gave the impression of alertness and quickness of thought, his mind really preferred to work slowly and cautiously.  It was speculative, but always scientifically controlled.  It was this quality which gave his scientific work its peculiar value.  He was also a great public servant and citizen.  He possessed great nobility of character and endeared himself by his personal qualities to his friends.  He had in a pre-eminent degree the quality of charm, and this was felt not merely by his intimate friends but by those who met him, perhaps only a few times.  He carried in his face a look of rare high-mindedness and elevation.  Probably no-one will ever know the full extent of his generosity, for it was always exercised in the quietest possible way, and it is doubtful whether anyone has ever helped so many other investigators, whatever their age, or helped them in a more perfect way.”




George Beilby family tree

Beilby’s oil & gas colleague William Young (1840-1907)


Crystals, photography & flow of metals: John W “Jack” Mitchell FRS (1913-2007)




Glasgow 1904: the Kosmoid story 


More LIVES & fragments  



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