Sunday, 7 October 2018

Droyt soap factory, Chorley

A visit to Droyt’s factory in Chorley will leave not only your hands supple and softened, but also the soles of your shoes: nearly one hundred years of manufacturing glycerine soap has left the stone flagged floors with an exceedingly slippery surface, despite managing director Chris Effendowicz stating that they are scrubbed down weekly.

Chris took over the business from his great uncle. You might notice that the company was founded in Minsk (in 1893), and it is Chris’s ancestors who set it up there, leaving when the Russian revolution happened. After a stop in Berlin, the coming of the Nazis meant a second relocation to Chorley, in Lancashire. Appropriately enough, to Progress street. Upstairs at the factory that he set up, it was Chris’s great uncle who constructed the makeshift wall that encloses the lab, made of boxes used to ship fat over from Argentina, at that time an ingredient in soap production (no longer): the boxes have written on their sides, “stow away from engines & boilers”.

Droyt is now the last company in the UK manufacturing traditional glycerine soap. You know Pears soap? That’s glycerine soap, though Pears soap has been through some rather major manufacturing changes since 2009, after being taken over by another company. Droyt still manufacture their soap using traditional ingredients and in a traditional way, which Chris describes as being “massively labour intensive”.

Despite this, Droyt’s commitment to producing very fine soap has led to them supplying some big names, such as Waitrose and Muji. Droyt were in fact the first non-Japanese supplier to Muji, and the plainly wrapped soaps with katakana script that are boxed up ready for export will be heading to Japan. Droyt supplies customers all around the world, as glycerine soap manufacturing has become rather a dying art, with Progress Street in Chorley probably being its worldwide epicentre.

A quick rundown of the process, starting from the big vats of ingredients stored in the warehouse. This little residential street sees some unusual traffic, such as the big tanker that arrived to deliver pure alcohol, pumped into a storage tank, and deliveries of oils that are “bags in boxes”: solidified oils that were pumped into a plastic bag in a box.

It is David in charge of production this day, and David is so experienced that he can fill a vat with an ingredient and know to within less than a kilo how full it is just by sight. Oh, and castor oil is utterly silent and still when being poured: it is quite uncanny to watch.

These ingredients are added into a large cauldron which can heat and mix. The final mixture is poured into large casting containers which can hold up to a ton of soap. The mixture cools for a couple of days and the sides are unbolted and removed, revealing a bar of soap fit for a giant. The really labour intensive work starts now: dividing this giant block up into little pieces that fit onto your soap dish.

The first part of this is to slice the huge blocks into slightly more manageable chunks. All cutting is done by wire pulled through, as any attempt to cut such a thing with a knife will never result in a straight cut. From giant blocks to smaller blocks, eventually the block is cut down to a size recognisable as a bar of soap, and even in this form it is really quite a beautiful sight: oblong and with a rough looking texture, though smooth and slippery to the touch, and translucent but with an ability to catch the light, like a stained glass window.

After cutting down to size, the soap bars are dried in what Chris described as the “alcoholic sauna”, a heated room where the scent from the soaps would probably make people pass out if they were locked in there for more than a few minutes.

Then, most soaps are stamped with a logo (except Muji’s, which are of course “no logo”). This is done with a foot operated machine, and a die which is created by expert metal craftsmen. This is where you can really see the labour intensive nature of the work: three people surrounding the stamping bench, one lining up the soaps, one at the stamping machine, and one lining them up on the outgoing tray. You can hear the “thunking” noise of the machine swinging back and forth from outside the building.

Nearly all of Droyt’s machinery is of 1920s German vintage. Heavy, cast iron equipment that looks like it means business even when standing still, and the speed of the operators is impressive, pushing soap through at a blur.

After stamping, the soaps are polished and washed with damp cloths, smoothing up the surface and rounding off the sharp edges. They are then packaged and boxed up for shipping out to wherever in the world they are going, from this tiny Lancashire factory.

Fortunately, Droyt’s business is thriving, based on a simple recipe of producing a superior product. Chris says that his great uncle refused to admit anybody to the factory, worried that somebody might steal the formula for his soap. Now, Chris says that somebody would probably be a bit crazy to try and start their own glycerine soap business, so if you want the formula, you’re probably welcome to ask. However, Chris points out that nobody is making a fortune at Droyt, though they are making a living: the staff are not paid high wages, but they clearly enjoy working together as a team.

In fact, a special note has to be said about the staff at Droyt: the place seemed very much like a family business. And like a family they will no doubt have their ups and downs, but they were extremely welcoming and friendly people who were keen to show what they do (and then have a quick tea and chocolate break and swap some more gossip). Most live locally enough that they can walk to work, as evidenced by the nearly empty car park, and most have worked there for a long time. Building a group of workers who work hard and have pride in what they are producing is surely a very positive reflection on this little Lancastrian business.

Chris obviously also realises how special this is, and wants to preserve it. At a trade show, he was approached by a vendor saying that they could produce a similar product in Asia for 30% less than his current costs. Unsurprisingly, Chris did not take them up on their offer, preferring to keep a traditional business open.

Potential minor storm clouds are looming however: a post on the company’s blog states in a humorously ironical way that Brexit is in fact going to increase production costs, so people are damn well going to have to pay a bit more for their glycerine soap. What is most ironic is that Brexit will put a squeeze on this last bastion of plucky British manufacturing. The law of unintended consequences, no doubt?

In the meantime, Chris and his crew will continue to produce beautifully fragrant soaps that will leave your hands feeling disturbingly soft. So head to your nearest Waitrose or Muji and pick up a bar.