The Gelatine Factory

for the benefit of Warwickians and others by Anthony James Leahy 2008


Photographic gelatine

From "instructions in Photography" 1900


Messrs George Nelson, Dale and Co.'s

Gelatine Manufactory

From the British Journal of Photography, July 23, 1880

As Printed in Nelson's Home Comforts


A half-pound packet for Nelson's photographic gelatine No1. (c1870-1880s)


  But a few years ago gelatine was only known to photographers as one of the substances used to mount their prints. At a later date it became of greater importance as one of the chief sensitive agents in the carbon, or, more properly speaking, the pigment printing process. To-day it promises to replace collodion as the medium or vehicle for forming the sensitive layer of the glass plate for use in the camera; and, if we may venture on a prophecy, to-morrow it will replace that plate, and become itself the transparent support of the sensitive medium. Feeling assured that the description of the manufacturing processes by which the important photographic agent is obtained cannot fail to interest our readers, we sometime ago addressed ourselves to one of the principle members of the above-named firm, and their place of business in London, and, not withstanding their usual practice to the contrary, permission to pay a visit to the factory and record the impressions of that visit was graciously accorded.


Left "ABC of Modern Photography" W K Burton 1884

Right "the chemistry of Photography" Raphael Meldola 1889

  Messrs Nelson, Dale and Co.'s factory is situated at Emscote, a hamlet lying between the towns of Warwick and Leamington, and abuts upon the Birmingham and London Canal. Knowing the extensive business of the firm we were prepared to see a large establishment; but on our arrival the area occupied by numerous buildings, the scale of operations, and the style and finish of the whole took us completely by surprise. The business was founded in 1839, but not a trace of age or of the gradual growth and accumulation of a rapidly-growing business was evident. The numerous handsome workshops and warehouses, occupying a space of fully five acres, have been erected within a few years, with all new machinery, modifications and improvements suggested by thirty years of practical experience, while the whole of the old plant has been discarded. The results have naturally been great improvement in the process of manufacture and great economy of labour; yet the increase of business keeps the number of hands employed up to between two hundred and three hundred.


A half-pound packet for Nelson's photographic gelatine No2.


The Powerhouse Museum Australia have this listed as c1950 - There is a date clue written on the top of 1883 and I believe that may be closer to the actual date of manufacture, because "By Royal Letters Patent is dated on other Nelson products from 1882. (100mm x 100mm x 240mm)

  The entrance to the works is impressive, and suggestive of a large and prosperous business conducted by men of taste and culture. The exterior of the building through which we enter is simple and plain, the only ornaments being two large beds of choice rhododendrons (many of them now in flower), and a stone wall with iron balustrade. On entering, however, we find ourselves in a wide passage or hall beautifully paved with Minton tiles, from which a handsome staircase leads to the upper floor, while glimpses are seen of the glorious engineer's office and large rooms for the use of several partners, fitted with carved office furniture, bookshelves, carpets, etc. The factory itself is entirely arranged with the same completeness and finish; but before we can make our readers understand the various operations carried out within the numerous buildings we must say something of the process of making gelatine in general terms.

Gelatine consisting of small yellowing shards.

(gelatine removed from packaging and sealed in plastic bag by Conservation team.)


  Everybody knows what jelly is, in some form or other, if not gelatine. well, gelatine is simple pure jelly in the desiccated state, and is made on the large scale almost exactly as the cook makes jelly for food; that is, by boiling calves' feet or calves' heads. the former in order to make sweet or savoury jelly for the table; the latter to make mock-turtle soup, which is chiefly a strong solution of gelatine artistically flavoured with herbs, wine, and spices. If the boiling of these culinary preparations were continued until the solution became sufficiently concentrated to form a hard stiff jelly on cooling, and if this were cut into thin slices and dried in a current of warm air, gelatine would be the result. In both parts of the animal referred to as convertible into gelatine the skin is by far the richest source of that substance, and hence it is the skin alone which is used by the gelatine manufacturer on the large scale. Experience has, moreover, taught him that the skin of the adult animal yields a stronger and firmer gelatine than that of the calf, and that the hide of the buffalo and South American ox of the pampas produces a still superior article. As the head and feet of the calf are used by the cooks, so likewise it is the skin of the heads and feet of oxen which is chiefly employed by the manufacturers on the large scale. Not because of the superiority of these parts of the animal's hide, but because they are of the least use for the preparation of leather, and are therefore rejected by the tanner.

Nelson's no 1 gelatine packaged by jonathan fallowfield ltd c1923

   On entering the numerous spacious warehouses at Emscote we see enormous piles of these pieces of many hundred tons; the greater part of them deprived of their hair by the tanners, and others with the hair upon them. In the latter they have to undergo the depilatory process. This consists in steeping them in lime-water, by the action of which the hide softens and swells, in which state the hair is easily removed; an operation which is added mechanically by means of powerful machinery, through which the pieces pass in succession, coming out in a state very similar to that of calves' head carefully cleansed and prepared for cooking. In this condition the pieces are again dried and kept in stock, so that an abundant supply of the raw material may be always ready for the subsequent operations, which may be called the proper manufacture, that just described being merely the preliminary process for cleansing or purifying the new material.


Warwick Plates (1901 - 1920?)


   The first step in the proper manufacture consists in slitting up the purified pieces into strips. We need scarcely say that this and the whole of the subsequent operations are effected almost entirely by means of special labour-saving machinery, and to such an extent is this carried that we counted no fewer than seventeen steam-engines in various parts of the different buildings, beside the large engine used for the supply of pure well-water for the whole establishment. The shreds or strips above referred to are again soaked in order to be softened and swollen, and when this is effected they are placed in large vessels through which a steam of pure well-water constantly flows. When the last traces of lime have been removed the pieces are drained from the water and are then ready for the next operations.


Austin Edwards Ltd Warwick Ensign Film Tin c1920


   These are identical with those we have already described when referring to the domestic process of the cook in the preparation of jelly; that is to say, the pure pieces are boiled in water. The clear solution, after settling, is run off and evaporated, until, on cooling, the liquid forms a stiff jelly, when it is filtered and poured upon carefully-levelled stone or glass slabs or tables. Some idea may be formed of the extent of the Emscote manufacture when we say that we saw in the course of our visit upwards of six hundred yards, run of these slabs or tables, each about a yard wide; that is to say, a space or area nearly six thousand square feet, in the act of being filled with, or emptied of, gelatine, and this is repeated many times a day. When duly set on the slab the jelly is cut up into strips, and these are lifted off and laid upon nets, held in wooden frames, which when filled, are carried to the drying-room and laid in rack, tier upon tier, to complete the desiccation of the jelly, which is thereby converted into gelatine.



Austin Edwards Ltd Warwick Ensign Films c1946 -1952 - 1948


  When this has been effected, that portion that is known in the trade as "sheet gelatine" is ready for the market; but the great bulk of the manufacture is cut up into shreds or films, which are packed by a numerous bevy of women and girls into the yellow paper packets so familiar to us as containing "Nelson's Gelatine." We noticed some of the women occupied with large piles with red packets, each containing a cardboard box. These, we found, were intended for Transatlantic use, and are thus specially prepared for the use of Cousin Jonathan, who is a large customer of Messrs. Nelson, Dale and Co., and insists on having his gelatine packed in this form and colour.

  Our readers must be satisfied with this cursory glance at this great establishment. it would require a volume to describe the various utensils, apparatus and ingenious mechanical contrivances shown to us in the manufactory, and in the smiths' and engineers' shops, fitted with lathes, planing machines, and other labour-saving tools. In the latter the various special machines are not only repaired but the greater part of them constructed, so that the firm is independent of all extraneous aid, so complete are the arrangements. Nor has the comfort of the workmen been forgotten in this model factory. A large dining-hall, one hundred feet long, with benches, tables, cooking-stove, and boiler has been built for their accommodation, while the upper floor, of equal dimensions, has been appropriated to their instruction and amusement, as a reading-room, and occasionally as ball-room and theatre.

  We must not, however, close this notice without referring to one of the chief features in Messrs. Nelson, Dale and Co.'s establishment, and to which its high character is not a little due. we refer to the sampling or sorting of the produce of each days manufacture into distinct classes or qualities. Professor Eder, has stated in one of his admirable papers on gelatine, that if this article will form a firm jelly when dissolved in forty parts of water it may be considered a good photographic gelatine. At Emscote a much higher standard for the photographic and other high-class gelatines exists. One gramme of each sample produced is dissolved in winter in seventy cubic centimetres, and in the hot weather of summer in fifty cubic centimetres of distilled water. the jelly so formed is carefully tested and sampled with others of known and approved quality, and according to the result of the article and is carried to and mixed with the stock of similar quality. when we consider the large quantity made at each operation, the care at which this is tested and the amount of the bulk of stock with which it is subsequently mixed, it is obvious that each class of Nelson's gelatine must necessarily be a far more uniform article than most other commercial products. These gentlemen, indeed, contend that it is the variability and want in the care and treatment of gelatine when being prepared for use which give rise to such different results, and not the article itself. Mr. E. M. Nelson, who is himself a scientific chemist, has kindly given us some important practical information on these points, together with a description of the different qualities of gelatine which issue from the manufactory.







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