Jan 04 2014

Harrow’s Corporate Purple – The Background, Perhaps?

harrow_council_logoDid Harrow, intentionally or otherwise, select purple as its corporate colour for sentimental and historical reasons? The colour itself is well chosen: its a mix of blue and red, denoting the two political parties, doesn’t show the dirt on the council’s vehicles too badly, is vivid and eye-catching, but perhaps there’s another reason, which all started 176 years ago…

William Henry Perkin (1838 – 1907)

Many residents will be familiar with the purple livery that Harrow has chosen for it’s corporate branding, but the colour itself has a more local connection, thanks to a chemist named William Perkin.

Perkin was born in the East End of London in March 1838, and, at the age of 14, attended the City of London School where his scientific talent was realised and a year later, joined the Royal College of Chemistry.

At the age of just 18, Perkin was experimenting on the synthesis of quinine, and expensive natural substance used to treat malaria. During this work, he discovered that aniline could be used to produce a substance with an intense purple colour. Further experiments produced a dye, which they named mauvine, and which could dye silk in a way which was stable when washed or exposed to light. This was in contrast to most other dyes of the time, which were natural substances, expensive and difficult to produce. They also lacked stability or fastness – mauvine, on the other hand, had all the atributes which we expect from modern dyes of today.

220px-William_PerkinWith funding from his father, he opened a factory on the bank of the Grand Union Canal in Greenford, approximately where the Black Horse public house stands today on Oldfield Lane North.

Public demand was increased when a similar colour was adopted by Queen Victoria in England and by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, in France, and when the crinoline or hooped-skirt, whose manufacture used a large quantity of cloth, became fashionable. Everything seemed to fall into place by dint of hard work, with a little luck, too. Perkin became rich.

He continued  active research in organic chemistry for the rest of his life: he discovered and marketed other synthetic dyes, including Britannia Violet and Perkin’s Green ; he discovered ways to make coumarin, one of the first synthetic perfume raw materials, and cinnamic acid. (The reaction used to make the latter became known as the Perkin reaction.)

Local lore has it that the colour of the nearby Grand Union Canal changed from week to week depending on the activity at Perkin’s Greenford dyeworks. In 1869, Perkin found a method for the commercial production from anthracene of the brilliant red dyealizarin, which had been isolated and identified from madder root some forty years earlier in 1826 by the French chemist Pierre Robiquet, simultaneously withpurpurin, another red dye of lesser industrial interest, but the German chemical company BASF patented the same process one day before he did.

Over the next few years, Perkin found his research and development efforts increasingly eclipsed by the German chemical industry, and so in 1874 he sold his factory and retired from business, a very wealthy man.

Perkin sadly died in 1907 of both pneumonia and appendicitis. He is buried in the grounds of Christchurch, in Roxeth.

Intentionally or not, Harrow Council has inked a connection with the achievements of the past, to the challenges of today.

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