“Does exactly what it says on the tin.”

This story doesn’t start in Sheffield, but 230 miles away at Brighton in East Sussex, when in the late 1800s, a gentleman by the name of Fowler formulated a special polish called Fowler’s Wax Composition, although legend suggests it might have been Mrs Fowler who came up with the putty-coloured substance.

Production was taken over by his son, Thomas Horace Fowler, who registered the name of the polish as Ronuk in 1896, an anglicised form of a word suggested by an ex-Indian Army officer signifying brilliance.

Photograph by Brighton & Hove City Libraries
Photograph by Brighton & Hove City Libraries

Manufacturing switched to Portslade, a suburb of Brighton, and in 1927, Ronuk launched Colron Wood Dyes that helped establish the company as a leading UK DIY brand, followed by Ronseal wood varnish in 1956.

Our story switches to Chapeltown in 1960, when Newton Chambers, one of England’s largest industrial companies, founded in 1789 by George Newton and Thomas Chambers, bought Ronuk.

The brands were absorbed into the company’s Izal division in 1963, and the following year manufacturing was switched to Sheffield. With significant investment, the Ronuk, Ronseal and Colron brands soon became dominant, but by 1968, Roncraft had been adopted as the name for Ronseal.

Newton Chambers was bought by Central and Sheerwood in 1972, and the following year Izal was sold to the Sterling Winthrop Group, renaming the Roncraft business as Sterling Roncraft.

In 1989, Sterling Winthrop was bought by Eastman Kodak, until the multinational photographic company sold all its DIY business to New York-based investment bank Forstmann Little & Co, which included the Roncraft brand (reverting back to its Ronseal name) within its Thompson Minwax Holding Corporation.

The brands were sold again in 1997 to Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams, involved in the manufacture of paint coatings across North and South America and Europe. Far from diluting the integrity of the brand it renamed the Roncraft business as Ronseal Ltd, advancing the name with a new slogan – “Does exactly what it says on the tin” – devised by advertising agency HHCL.

With production now taking place at a new facility in Thorncliffe Park, Chapeltown, a new warehouse was opened in 2007. Two years later, Sherwin-Williams acquired Altax, a woodcare company in Poland, and added to its Ronseal Coatings division.

Still owned by Sherwin-Williams and considered to be the UK brand leader in varnish and woodstain products, Ronseal achieved acclaim in 2013 when Prime Minister David Cameron told a mid-term press conference that the coalition between the Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats was a “Ronseal deal.”

Photograph by Google
Photograph by Google

Izal: “The invisible guardian against risks to health.”

Here’s a topical post because it involves disinfectant and toilet paper… and a brand that was once a brand leader. I’m talking about Izal, made here in Sheffield, famous for that waxy disinfectant toilet paper that many of us grew up with.

The origins go back to 1793 when George Newton and Thomas Chambers became partners in the Phoenix Foundry and, along with financier Henry Longden, they signed a 21-year-lease with Earl Fitzwilliam, the landowner, to extract coal and ironstone from the Thorncliffe Valley near Chapeltown.

A hundred years after coal production began it turned to Jason Hall Worrall, a chemist, to analyse the oil produced by coke and subsequently develop a germicide oil which, when mixed with an emulsifying agent, dispersed through any liquid.

The resulting product was trialled in hospitals and became known as Thorncliffe Patent Disinfectant before being called Izal – reputed to be an anagram of Liza, Worrall’s sister.

“Izal – the new non-poisonous disinfectant and prevention of infection. Izal prevents infection in Cholera, Smallpox, Diphtheria, Influenza, Scarlet Fever, Swine Fever, Malaria, Worms, Typhus, and Typhoid Fever, and practically covers the whole field of infectious diseases.”

The claims seem unbelievably wild today, but Izal attracted favourable reports from bacteriologists.

One of its products was a ‘scratchy’ toilet paper, impregnated with Izal disinfectant, and given away free to local authorities which bought bulk supplies of hygiene products.

Izal Toilet paper appeared in hospitals, schools and public buildings (‘Government Property’) around the country and wasn’t sold to the public until 1922.

In 1924, William Heath Robinson, a cartoonist and illustrator, was employed by Newton Chambers to provide amusing illustrations on the toilet rolls, and in the 1930s there were rhymes printed on each sheet. During World War 2, the sheets were printed with a cartoon of Adolph Hitler, very popular with the public but less so with officials.

Shiny on one side, rough on the other, experience showed that the paper was better at smearing rather than cleaning, and children of a certain age remember it better as being a useful musical instrument (comb and paper), as well as an excellent tracing paper.

Alongside the toilet Rolls, the Izal brand extended to San Izal Disinfectant, San Pine Disinfectant, soaps, shampoos, shaving foams, Polly kitchen rolls and even Izal lozenges and mints, in all about 137 products.

In 1968, Newton Chambers unsuccessfully tried to buy rival manufacturer Jeyes (makers of Jeyes Fluid and Parazone), and in 1973 the whole Newton Chambers business was acquired by Sterling-Winthrop (Sterling Industrial) which continued Izal production at Thorncliffe until 1981.

Restrictions of the use of poisons, and increased competition, lessened Izal’s market dominance, although it was still going strong in the 1970s. With a certain irony, the Izal brand was sold to Jeyes in 1986 and production stopped completely in 2010.

Ten years’ later, Izal Medicated Toilet Tissue is back on the shelves (or not as recent experience shows) but is still tainted by bad memories.

“The Clint Eastwood of loo paper – it’s rough, it’s tough and takes no shit.”