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Victorian chemist's Parkesine plastic invention uncovered by Bow Arts project goes on public show

PUBLISHED: 13:01 10 May 2019 | UPDATED: 20:42 12 May 2019

How the common plastic comb came out of a Victorian chemist's invention. Picture: Bow Arts

How the common plastic comb came out of a Victorian chemist's invention. Picture: Bow Arts

Bow Arts

This may seem like just a cheap plastic comb that you can pick up in any local corner shop—but it has a history that has impacted around the world for two centuries.

Youngsters get to grips with plastic pollution fished out of the river by the Thames 21 environment charity. Picture: John Surron/Thamesd 21Youngsters get to grips with plastic pollution fished out of the river by the Thames 21 environment charity. Picture: John Surron/Thamesd 21

The common comb has real teeth biting into the East End's industrial heritage and its links to modern-day global pollution.

It is part of the story of how plastic was invented by a Victorian chemist in a factory at Hackney Wick which is being told in an exhibition opening next week in Bow.

The inventor responsible for a chemical process that probably led to plastic pollution on the Thames and around the world two centuries later was Alexander Parkes.

Victorian chemist Alexander Parkes who invented plastic formula at Hackney Wick in 1865. Picture: LBH archiveVictorian chemist Alexander Parkes who invented plastic formula at Hackney Wick in 1865. Picture: LBH archive

His invention 160 years ago has been researched by Bow Arts organisation, into how his process has had a global impact ever since.

The 'Raw Materials Plastics' exhibition is being opened next Friday by his descendant Roderick Parkes, exploring the forgotten industrial heritage around the River Lea.

Parkes created Parkesine in 1865, a precursor to celluloid and one of the world's first man-made plastics, developed at the Parkesine works in Wallis Road.

The original Parkesine factory in Wallis Road where plastic was invented. Picture: LBH archive.The original Parkesine factory in Wallis Road where plastic was invented. Picture: LBH archive.

He could never have guessed the impact his invention would have, leading to other plastic processes and eventual pollution of some of the world's rivers and oceans.

The exhibition shows early Victorian plastics and the first mass-produced items appearing in shops in the first half of the 20th century such as combs made in the East End by the British Xylonite company or modern-day coffee mugs, file folders and even furniture.

New artwork commissions in plastic are also on show. Peter Marigold responds to Parkes' early moulding techniques using his own bioplastic, while Frances Scott's new Xylonite film uses state-of-the-art laser scanning to animate 3D images of early plastic objects.

Modern plastics going on show by Bow Arts that have their heritage in Alexander Parkes' original Parkesine.  Picture: Carolyn Clark/Plastics Historical SocietyModern plastics going on show by Bow Arts that have their heritage in Alexander Parkes' original Parkesine. Picture: Carolyn Clark/Plastics Historical Society

Bow Arts has been working on the project with the Plastics Historical Society, the V&A and Science museums, Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow, University College London and local authority archives in Hackney, Newham, Barking & Dagenham and Waltham Forest.

The free exhibition opening May 16 at the Nunnery Gallery at 181 Bow Road, opposite Bow Church, runs until August 25 (closed Mondays).

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