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British Industrial History

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Laboratory of the Government Chemist

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In its early years, the Government Chemist was responsible to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as minister, and the laboratory was constituted as a separate Government Chemist's Department under the Treasury, though it was frequently referred to as the Government Laboratory.

1842 In order to detect adulteration of tobacco, a laboratory was set up in Broad Street, the excise department's headquarters in London, staffed just by George Phillips (1806-1877) who had taught himself the principles of chemistry to enable him to detect adulteration. His confidence in his ability was borne out in practice, and by 1857 the amount of adulteration had been considerably reduced.[1]

1858 the laboratory was reorganized as a separate establishment by the Board of Inland Revenue, with which the excise had been merged; Phillips was appointed principal of this larger laboratory, testing many different substances including food, beer, and spirits, as well as tobacco. This was presumably at Somerset House and the institution became known as the Somerset House Laboratory.

1894 Professor Thomas Thorpe was appointed principal chemist of the Inland Revenue laboratory

1894 The laboratory became the government laboratory

1897 Moved to a new purpose-built laboratory building, largely designed by Thorpe.

The laboratory conducted investigations in the fields of industrial and public welfare, including the detection of arsenic in beer and the elimination of lead from pottery glazes and of white phosphorus from matches, as well as work on the original gravity of beers and alcoholic strength tables. Both of these latter were important for their bearing on the public revenue.[2]

1909 James Dobbie succeeded Thorpe as principal of the laboratory (later termed the government chemist).

1921 Robert Robertson (1869-1949) was appointed government chemist[3]

The work of this department was considerably increased between 1921 and 1936 due to the introduction of various new import duties, and by legislation involving chemical control.

The government chemist acquired statutory functions as an analyst or as a referee in cases of disputed analysis under such legislation as the Food and Drugs Acts and acts concerned with the use of chemically dangerous materials at work. The headquarters were in central London, but it also maintained either a branch laboratory or a chemical station in a number of major ports.

1936 Robertson was succeeded by John Jacob Fox[4]

1959 The laboratory ceased to be a separate department when it was transferred to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist.

1965 Transferred to the Ministry of Technology

1970 Transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry

1974 Transferred to the Department of Industry

1983 Transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry

1989 Became an executive agency. The modern Laboratory of the Government Chemist provided analytical, investigatory, and advisory services and policy support to government departments, public institutions, local authorities and other organisations. These services were concerned with revenue protection, environmental protection, public health and consumer protection. The Laboratory also carried out research and development programmes for government and industry.

The Government Chemist continued to hold statutory functions as official referee analyst under various acts of Parliament, and co-ordinated government activity in analytical science.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Biography of George Phillips, ODNB
  2. Biography of Sir Thomas Edward Thorpe, ODNB
  3. Biography of Sir Robert Robertson, ODNB
  4. Biography of Sir John Jacob Fox, ODNB
  • National Archives [1]