Inventor who cleaned up with Swarfega leaves fortune to charity

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The Independent Online

Muck and brass have enjoyed a long and profitable relationship in the business world. For the pioneering chemist Audley Bowdler Williamson, the muck that made his fortune could be found on the hands of the mechanics who worked in his family garage in Belper, Derbyshire.

Moved by the sight of workers at the end of a long day cleaning their greasy hands using an abrasive compound of petrol, paraffin and sand, which left their skin cracked and sore, AB, as he was known to all, found a revolutionary solution to their problem.

Swarfega, the emerald green, gelatinous gunk he created, became one of the most instantly recognisable British-made products of the 20th century. It went on to be sold in 100 countries. Shortly before his death in 2004, aged 88, the Williamson family sold a majority stake in the brand for £135m.

Details of his will, published yesterday, revealed that AB left a hefty slice of his £1.4m personal fortune to charity.

Born in Heanor, Derbyshire, the businessman was a life-long philanthropist and environmentalist who never lost touch with the working-class people of his home town. His charity, the Ryklow Charitable Trust, which offers financial support to local community and wildlife conservation projects, will be the main beneficiary. A sum of £100,000 was left to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, while £250,000 went to his family.

His passing marks the end of one of the most intriguing stories in recent British industrial history. AB's father and uncles ran a horse-drawn haulage firm working for the then thriving Nottingham silk trade. It was motorised following the brothers' return from the First World War after they had witnessed the marvels of automated transport.

After attending the local grammar school, AB became a trainee chemist at Dalton's, well known as the manufacturer of the Silkolene range of lubricants. But the young chemist was keen to branch out on his own, and in 1941 set up his own company Deb Silkware Protection. But the gamble nearly backfired disastrously. His mild detergent to preserve silk stockings was rendered virtually obsolete by the arrival of Nylon from the United States at the close of the Second World War.

AB had to find a new use for his product quickly, and his thoughts returned to the plight of the dirty-handed mechanics trying to clean up at the end of the day. After tinkering with the formula, he named it Swarfega. The word Swarf was taken from the greasy grit found at the centre of a wheel axle, caused by the rubbing of bearings and an accumulation of lubricant and dirt. "Ega" was there to imply that it would get the job done fast.

It was launched under the legend: "Clean hands in a flash!" and found a ready supply of customers who were taking up the fashionable and affordable post-war craze of motoring.

Even those whose knowledge of mechanics extends little further than tinkering with the lawnmower will testify that plunging mucky hands into the pleasingly cool tub of the green stuff is one of the most soothing experiences known to man.

Astonishingly effective as a degreaser, Swarfega works because of the power of its hydrophobic ingredients, the medium-chain alkanes and cycloalkanes that work in tandem with an emulsifier.

AB retired from the company in 1986, devoting himself to his passions of gardening, sailing and philanthropy. As well as the Ryklow Charitable Trust, he established a local amateur dramatic society.

'Clean hands in a flash!'

* Swarfega was originally a liquid silk stocking preservative.

* The arrival of Nylon from the US destroyed the market.

* The name was created by combining an old engineering term for grease - swarf - with "ega," a shortened form of "eager" to describe its ability to remove.

* The substance was available in male-dominated environments, such as garages and barbers.

* Swarfega combines powerful hydrophobic ingredients such as alkanes and cycloalkanesm, which produces a more powerful result than detergent alone.

* Sixty years on from its original form, the formula has been developed into a range of surface and vehicle cleaning products.

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