In Verviers, Belgium, there is a stunning abandoned lanolin factory called Solvent Belge that I have visited and photographed multiple times. The factory never ceases to amaze me, and each time I have found a new room or perspective. Next to that, decay did its work very well over the past years. Solvent Belge is a perfect example of industrial archeology. Below you will find the history of the area and this 19th century factory, and of course many photos from my visits. If you are interested in industrial sites, make sure to check out my article about the Szombierki Power Plant in Poland, and the Kelenfold Power Station in Hungary.
History of the area and the factory
In the beginning of the 19th century, an industrial revolution was underway in the area. However, the factories in Verviers did not process coal or iron ore. Instead, they focussed on fabricating wool from sheep. They did this because the rivers in this region contain very pure water without chalk. Next to that, the rivers are slightly acidic making them ideal to treat the wool. The most important river of the area is called Vesder, and Solvent Belge is located right next to it. At first, many small workshops were located along the river. These workshops were later taken over by the much larger factories.
The raw material (sheep wool) was brought in by train. Because the water was so pure, the washing process was very efficient and therefor they were able to use rather cheap and low-quality sheep wool from for example Argentina. Unfortunately, the Vesder turned out to become an insufficient water supply to the factories. Especially in the hot summer months. The factories obviously have to rely on a steady supply of water, so this was causing an issue. They decided to build a dam which was mostly paid for by the factories.
After the Second World War it becomes possible to soften water in a cheap way. Therefor it is no longer necessary to use pure and soft water for the process of washing wool. This turnaround causes that the location of factories is not required to be near a pure water source. It becomes more viable to transport the sheep wool to alternative locations.
The abandoned lanolin factory Solvent Belge, established at the 2nd of September 1899, used the water from the river Vesder to reduce water consumption in their site. They used the water for their steam engines. The factory used a new process, developed in the United States, to degrease and wash wool. During the washing process, lanolin floats on the water. The lanolin is then drained, filtered and purified. Lanolin used to be an import part of cosmetics products. You could and still can buy lanolin in cans or bottles. It helps to treat or prevent dry skin, itching or other skin irritations.
The factory closed in 2009. In the meantime, volunteers have been working hard to save and restore multiple original steam engines, with great success. Some of these steam engines were in use until the end of the 20th century. Among other items and machines, the legendary ‘mule jenny‘ is also part of the restored collection.
Below you can find multiple photos that I have taken during my visits. Make sure to also check out this interactive 3D tour of the workshop.