OIL-STAINED mechanics, greasy bikers and grubby petrol heads the world over owe their social lives and a debt of happiness to “AB” Williamson. He was the inventor of Swarfega, the cool, strangely seductive emerald-green gel with a wonderful ability to cleanse even the blackest, grimiest hands, wrists and forearms. For half a century it has been the end-of-the-day ritual for numberless mechanics: a scoop of the fingers into a battered grimy pot of the translucent gel, rub and rinse, and clean, socially acceptable skin reappears as if by magic.
Audley Bowdler Williamson - known as "AB"- was born in Heanor, Derbyshire, February 28, 1916. His father and his father’s two brothers, who had operated a horse-drawn haulage business for the Nottingham silk trade, returned from the First World War convinced that motorised transport was the future.
They started with lorries and soon moved into buses, running the business from the yard beside their home, and so Williamson was familiar with the oily business of motor mechanics from an early age. He attended Heanor Grammar School and in 1934, at the age of 18, he joined a local firm, Dalton’s — known to all as Silkolene for its lubricants — as a trainee chemist.
In 1941 he set up a company, Deb, in Belper, just north of Derby — he took the name from “debutante” to signify that both the company and its products, all developed by him, were new to the market. Williamson had high hopes for his first product, a mild detergent called Deb Silkware Protection. The war had diverted silk to parachute production, but Williamson was confident that when the hostilities were over, silk stockings would be back in a big way. Alas, the Americans arrived with nylons and destroyed the silk stocking market — and the need for Deb Silkware Protection.
Falling back on his early memories of oily-handed motor fitters washing their hands with petrol, paraffin and sand — and suffering from cracked skin and dermatitis — he decided to develop a skin cleaner which would remove engine oils and grease, but leave the body’s natural oils intact. And so, in 1947, Swarfega was born; it was the first hand cleaner of its type in the world.
The name derives from “swarf” — the fine, oily tangle of metal shavings produced when machining components, and hence unwanted oil and grease in general — and “ega”, as in “eager to clean”.
Swarfega burst upon a postwar era which was just succumbing to mass motoring — and masses of motor mechanics — and soon became a household word.
It was marketed with the slogan "Clean hands in a flash!" As businesses in the late 1940's and early 1950's did not provide proper hand cleaners (only tablet soap), people started using Swarfega after a hard day at work and its popularity quickly grew.
As one journalist put it recently, "God knows how it works, but it does, and all you have to do is put some on your hands, rub mightily, and lo and behold all the irremovable oil comes off, and then you wash the lot off, and all you have left on your hands is the smell of Swarfega for days and days and days".
In it’s early days Swarfega was available in places frequented by men such as motorbike shops, chemists and even barbers. Swarfega is now sold in over 100 countries and renowned world-wide for it’s unique qualities.
Deb gradually increased its product range to include other skincare and workplace cleaning products, from car shampoos to engine degreasants. And as Britain’s heavy engineering industries declined, the company diversified its products to target such markets as hospitals and other large institutions. It now also produces Suprega, an “orange Swarfega” which uses citrus oils instead of the petroleum-derived solvents in the famous original. At present the company’s annual worldwide turnover is more than £60 million.
This steady success allowed Williamson, after his retirement in 1986, to follow his lifelong socialist principles and contribute his money and management skills to a number of philanthropic initiatives. These include the Belper Civic Association and the Ryklow Charitable Trust, which support environmental and wildlife conservation activities.
Swarfega is now sold in 100 countries; in March 2004 the Williamson family sold a majority stake in the brand for £135 million.
Williamson’s wife Kathleen, whom he married in 1943, died in 2002. Audley died on November 21, 2004 aged 88. He is survived by their three sons.
Sources: The Times (December 14, 2004), the Deb Ltd website and the idea from Andy Bowdler.