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Victorian chemist’s invention of early plastic is uncovered by Bow Arts heritage project

PUBLISHED: 23:47 03 March 2019 | UPDATED: 00:24 04 March 2019

Alexander Parkes, 1813-1890, inventor of Parkesine and early celuloid plastics. Picture: Science Museum

Alexander Parkes, 1813-1890, inventor of Parkesine and early celuloid plastics. Picture: Science Museum

Science Museum

This is the inventor responsible for producing a chemical process at Hackney Wick that probably led to plastic pollution on the Thames and around the world 200 years later.

Last days of Alexander Parkes' factory in Wallis Road, Hackney Wick, in 1948. Picture: Hackney archive.Last days of Alexander Parkes' factory in Wallis Road, Hackney Wick, in 1948. Picture: Hackney archive.

He was a Victorian chemist called Alexander Parkes whose invention 160 years ago is being studied by Bow Arts organisation, which has been given Lottery Heritage funding to research how his process has had a global impact ever since.

Parkes produced the first-ever semi-synthetic plastic in 1856, when he set up a company at Hackney Wick to manufacture and market his new “wonder product” based on gun cotton, which he called Parkesine.

He was granted 66 patents on processes, including electroplating works of art like the silver-plated spider’s web he presented to Prince Albert.

Parkes also found time to father 17 children!

Alexander Parkes legacy... his factory railway depot at Hackney Wick in 1893, but was the end of the line for his early plastics process by the 1950s. Picture: Bow ArtsAlexander Parkes legacy... his factory railway depot at Hackney Wick in 1893, but was the end of the line for his early plastics process by the 1950s. Picture: Bow Arts

Bow Arts is getting £47,600 from the National Lottery to run the project looking into the industrial revolution of the Lea Valley, birthplace of the remarkable material with its much-debated future.

“Plastic invented in Hackney Wick has changed the world,” the Lottery heritage fund’s Stuart Hobley said. “It’s one of our most debated materials today. Our funding means Bow Arts can explore its origins, its impact and its future.”

The project aims to uncover local collections and stories to reveal the beginnings of this controversial material, with help from the Museum of Design in Plastics and the V&A Children’s Museum in Bethnal Green.

It kicks off with a Saturday ‘plastics roadshow’ on April 6 in the courtyard of Bow Arts, with the public invited to bring vintage plastics to have identified or be analysed scientifically.

Bits of plastic washed up in the Thames shown to children at a Bow Arts roadshow on how pollution affects the environment. Picture: John SuttonBits of plastic washed up in the Thames shown to children at a Bow Arts roadshow on how pollution affects the environment. Picture: John Sutton

An exhibition follows a month later displaying historical plastics at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery, including a Childhood Museum collection of plastic toys going back 100 years, and looking into ways technology must adapt to sustain its endemic worldwide uses today.

The exhibition is also to display plastic waste scooped up by the Thames 21 environment charity which makes regular pollution sweeps with volunteers along the foreshore, especially the river bend around the Isle of Dogs which is prone to trapping plastic waste from tidal surges.

That’s something Alexander Parkes didn’t quite anticipate with his Victorian “wonder product”.

The five-hour Saturday roadshow on April 6 opens 11am at Bow Arts, 181 Bow Road (near Bow Road Underground and Bow Church DLR).

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