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Papers of John Stewart MacArthur 1856-1920

Biographical note

Born one of seven children in Glasgow in 1856, JSM left school at fourteen to begin work as an apprentice chemist with the Tharsis Sulphur and Copper Co.; it was while working on the recovery of previous metals from sulphur liquids that his attention was drawn by the problem of gold extraction. Meanwhile an interest in photography and photographic chemistry had brought him into contact with two Glasgow doctors, the brothers Robert Wardrop Forrest and William Forrest, and together they carried out a number of scientific investigations; in 1885 the trio acquired several samples of refractory gold ore and began to experiment.

By the 1880s the world’s gold industry was in a precarious state, and nowhere was the problem more acute than on the goldfields of South Africa. The rich surface zones were becoming exhausted and treatment of the unoxidised pyritic reefs below by the regular method of amalgamation yielded only 50% of its wealth. Vast tailings containing at least one ounce of gold per ton were accumulating, and there was no practical method of recovery.

A number of Scottish mineral extraction companies were active in the search for a cheap and effective solution. In 1884 a New York metallurgist, Henry Rennel Cassel, had interested a group of Glasgow businessmen in proposals for an electrolytic process, resulting in the flotation of the Cassel Gold Extracting Co; two years later Cassel was granted a patent which attracted a great deal of attention, but while Cassel himself achieved impressive results, others were unable to repeat his success, and shortly after Cassel disappeared.

Macarthur’s association with the Forrest brothers had by now crystallised into a formal syndicate, backed by the financier George Morton; even after he joined Cassel Co s Technical Manager to pursue the electrolytic idea, JSM continued to work with the research syndicate towards a chemical solution, on the understanding that Cassel Co would have first claim in any discovery. The essential work, however, had already been done: in November 1886 the syndicate had tested potassium cyanide as a possible solvent, but it was not until a year later that the results were fully appreciated; the MacArthur-Forrest process, which involved dissolving crushed ore in a weak cyanide solution and then precipitating the gold with zinc shavings, received its British patents in October 1887 and July 1888, the South African patent following twelve months later.

The Cassel Gold Recovery Co immediately set about disseminating and exploiting the new process: expeditions were sent out worldwide and subsidiary companies established to control licensing. The first gold production by the new process took place in Australia and New Zealand, but it was on the South African Rand that the MacArthur-Forrest patents had their most powerful impact. Here the ores proved particularly amenable to cyanide treatment and after JSM himself had demonstrated the process to skeptical mine owners in 1890, it was quickly adopted; within two years of its introduction the total weight of gold produced had risen from forty thousand to one hundred thousand ounces per month. Stagnation in the gold-mining industry was arrested; the new process had striking effects: instead of being able to refine only around 45% of metal from complex ores, as before, 98% extraction could be achieved.

The Cassel directors had decided to exploit the process on a royalty basis, but by 1892 the mine owners were unhappy about the difficulties of obtaining licenses and the percentage of royalty demanded. Initially the petitioned the Volksraad Chamber of Mines for a reduction in rates, but when lengthy negotiations failed they made a more serious attack on the validity of the MacArthur –Forrest patents themselves.

The ‘ Great Cyanide Case’ which opened in the Pretorian High Court in February 1896, centred on the claim that JSM’s ‘invention’ contained no novelty: that gold was soluble in a cyanide solution had been known for many years, and extraction processes employing this knowledge had already received patents- in America, for example, Cassel Co had been compelled to purchase one such patent. It was true that until the advent of the MacArthur-Forrest process no gold had been extracted by this method in a commercially viable way, but this commonsense argument held little sway in a court of law. The patents were annulled first in South Africa, then elsewhere, so that JSM and the Cassel Co ceased to benefit materially in any way from their discovery. The issue, however, was never cut and dried: an English Court of Appeal in 1895 found that the process did contain ‘novelty, invention and utility’ and even in South Africa a verdict could be obtained only by a majority, not by the unanimity, of the judges; elsewhere the situation was defused by government purchase of the patents.

JSM continued to travel extensively, working as a practising metallurgist. In 1911 he became interested in the new science of radium, establishing a refining works for the production of radium bromide (only the second in Britain), first at Runcorn, Cheshire, and later at Balloch on the banks of Loch Lomond, where he operated at JSM Ltd. From 1911 he concentrated on this pioneering work on refining radium on an industrial scale (most work on radium at this time was confined to the laboratory). The process was highly toxic, costly and time-consuming – raw materials were imported from the USA and Portugal to undergo approximately fifty operations, and JSM estimated that realistically one should not expect a yield of more than one grain per ten tons of ore. However, the new substance was in demand for the treatment of cancers and skin conditions, and JSM further envisaged its use in the manufacture of fertilizers and luminous paint. His work on the development of radium salt production continued until his death in 1920.

JSM was deprived of material reward by the greed of the mine owners and the mismanagement of his colleagues, although he did enjoy the recognition of his profession – he was, for example, the first recipient of the gold medal of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy; and the world since has been rather grudging in its praise of the Glasgow pioneer, failing to acknowledge that in his work on the cyanide process and radium, JSM showed himself to possess both the vision of an innovator and the crucial ability o make the move from test tube to factory.

JSM died at Pollockshields, Glasgow, on 16 March 1920.

Provenance of the papers

JSM was neither a Balliol nor an Oxford man; the papers were given to the college by his son, John Stewart MacArthur (1893-1970, Balliol 1919). The Rev. MacArthur’s association with the college was revived in his later years when he held two Balliol livings, South Luffenham and Huntspill. On his death he bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the college, including a number of shares in American and South African mineral extraction companies and a considerable holding in ICI, which had incorporated the old Cassel Co.

The Papers

The collection, which concentrates almost exclusively on JSM’s earlier development of the cyanide process, reflects the practical nature of his work – although he did publish some material, JSM was first and foremost a working chemist and metallurgist, and, less successfully, a businessman. The papers were either loose or had been organised in small subject groups by JSM himself and by his son who continued to collect items and foster interest in his father’s work by lending out material. This structure has been maintained as far as possible in the present catalogue, in which material is arranged by chronology and subject.


J Gray and JA McLachlan. ‘A History of the Introduction of the MacArthur-Forrest Cyanide Process to the Witwatersrand Goldfields.’ Journal of the Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa, June 1933.

David I Harvie. ‘John Stewart MacArthur: Pioneer Gold and Radium Refiner.’ Endeavour (13.4), 1989. There is a photocopy of this in the file on MacArthur (annex); Mr. Harvie also provided a typescript version of the article, kept with it.

David I Harvie’s entry on MacArthur in the Dictionary of National Biography: Missing Persons.

In 1994, Mr. Harvie kindly provided the Library with further in formation on MacArthur, in the form of a synopsis of his work on him; a photocopy of this is also in the MacArthur file.

A History of Technology. Vol. V: The Late Nineteenth Century (ed. C Singer et al), pp 95, 249. Vol. VI: The Twentieth Century part I. (Ed TI Williams), p 424.


Original 29/04/1988



1. 14 examination certificates awarded to JSM between ages of 14 and 22.


A. Scientific materials

1.4 AMS: `The Elementary Principles of the Cyanide Process', 4 p; 1 p of notes; text on gold properties, etc., 13 p; chapter headings, 1 p. In blue JSM & Co. envelope. Marked `MS of book' in JSM's hand.

2.TS (9 p) `The Elementary Principles of the Cyanide Process'. Introduction and Chapter 1.

3.TS (16 p) `The Elementary Principles of the Cyanide Process'.

4.5 AMSS (4, 1, 6, 4, 6 p) and TS with AMS emendations (7 p) on cyanides. In blue JSM & Co. envelope. Marked `Cyanide Book MS' in JSM's hand.

5.AMSS (6, 1 p) and TS (1 p) notes and calculations, post-1909. In blue JSM & Co. envelope. Marked `Cyanide papers/Phosphate papers' in JSM's hand.


i.Leaf of gold.

ii.Gold sample. Coral-like appearance. Approx. 5.25 Troy oz.

iii.Square gold lump. Marked `38'. 4 Troy oz.

iv.Disk of silver-grey metal. Rough appearance. 2" in diameter. 4 Troy oz.

v.Disk of silver-grey metal. 1.5" in diameter. 3 Troy oz.

vi.Small rectangular piece of gold.

vii.Small brown envelope from Assay Office, Birmingham. Contains small strips of 18 ct. gold.

viii.Small brown envelope from Assay Office, Birmingham. Contains small lump of silver/gold alloy.

ix.MS evaluation (1 p) of gold items from Assay Office, Birmingham, 13 May 1971.

x.4 minute pieces of fine gold.

xi.Square lump of silver-grey metal. 1 Troy oz.

xii.5 small lumps of silver-coloured metal.

xiii.12 small pieces of shaped grey-coloured metal.

xiv.TLS (1 p) and invoice (1 p) from Joseph Gloster, silversmith, to the Dean, Balliol College, 18 April 1972.

xv.MS note (1 p) recording transfer of items, 3 August 1973.

7.Gold medal of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, inscribed `John Stewart MacArthur 1903'. 5.25 Troy oz. In black leather presentation box, gilt embossed.

B. Association with Drs. Forrest

1.Negative photostat copies of British cyanide process patent declarations, 5 leaves.

2.Leather-bound letter book. AMS copies of 23 business letters 15 May 1891 - 15 April 1897 written from South Africa (1891) and Glasgow (1892-7). Bulk of early letters to Forrests.

3.Printed slip `With Dr. Forrest's Compliments'.

C. Cassel Co.

1.2 cuttings from Glasgow Evening News on share arrangements between syndicate and Cassel Co.

2.TS Minute of `African Agreement' (4 p) between Cassel Co. and Wolstan Trubshaw, 21 November 1889.

3.ALS (3 leaves) from Ed Lippert to Charles McCulloch, 22 December 1892, + CU copy of TS of same letter (2 p).


A. Earlier patents

1. MLU copy (1 leaf) from William Letts Oliver to the Cassel directors, 18 March 1890.

2. Cutting from Glasgow Evening News, February 1892.

B. Negotiations

1.CLS with MS emendations (1 p) from Solomon to William Webster, African Gold Recovery Co., 22 October 1894, + C copy.

2.CLS with MS emendations (2 p) from Solomon and Thomson to J.M. Buckland, General Manager of African Gold Recovery Co., 22 October 1894, + C copy.

3.TS/C proposed agreement with MS emendations (22 p) between Committee of Investigation of the MacArthur Forrest and Forrest Patents and Africa Gold Recovery Co. Ltd., 22 October 1894, + C copy (16 p).

4.MLU copy (2 p) from William Webster to Solomon and Thomson, 24 October 1894, + C copy.

5.CLS (2 p) from Solomon and Thomson to William Webster, 24 October 1894, + MS copy + C copy.

6.MLU copy (1 p) from William Webster to the Editor of The Star, 23 October 1894, + C copy.

7.MLU copy (1 p) from Francis Dormer, Editor of The Star, to William Webster, 24 October 1894, + C copy.

C. False cable

1.ALS (5 p) from Robert Chrystal to Charles McCulloch, 19 October 1896, enclosing CU copy of affidavit (2 p) made by Henry Walter Burton, 13 October 1896. C copies of each (3, 2 p).

2.i.Cutting of article `That Lying Wire'. The Star, 13 October 1896.

ii.TS of above (2 p). Identified in JSM's hand in top left.

3.i.Cutting of article `That Cyanide Scare. Excitement on the Bourse. Was it a Trick?'. Standard and Diggers News, 19 October 1896.

ii.TS of above (2 p). Identified in JSM's hand in top left.

D. Legal

1. Laws, 1887. Patent & Copyright Laws of the South African Republic. Flavell, Brown & Co., Pretoria.

2.Printed English Appeal Court judgement in the case of Cassel Gold Extracting Co. vs. Cyanide Gold Recovery Syndicate Ltd., 9 April 1895.

Contained in brown paper package. Contents marked in JSM's hand.

3.Printed judgement in case of Gold and Silver Extraction Co. of America, Ltd. vs. Mercur Gold Mining and Milling Co., 1986.

Contained in blue envelope. Marked`Copy/Mercur Decree' in JSM's hand.

4.Cutting (3 leaves) from The South African Mining Journal, 18 May [1895?].

5.`The Cyanide Judgement'. By John Stuart. The South African Mining Journal, 7 November 1896. 1 leaf.

6.`The Great Cyanide Case'. The South African Mining Journal, 7 November 1896. 1 leaf.

7.`The Effect of the Recent African Decisions on the American Cyanide Patents'. Letter from Walter D. Edmonds. The Engineering and Mining Journal, 28 November 1896. 1 leaf.


1.TLS copy (8 p) from JSM to Fitzpatrick, 9 August 1900,+ 2 TSS copies.

2.TLU copy (4 p) from Fitzpatrick to JSM, 12 October 1900, + 3 copies.

3.TS confidential draft of letter (4 p) from JSM to Fitzpatrick, November 1900, + 3 copies.

4.ALS (2 leaves) from William Webster to JSM, 29 November 1900, + TSU copy + CU copy.

5. ALU (1 p) from William Webster to JSM, 30 November [1900].


1.Financial statements. Stamped 22 February 1904.

i.Property and Income on Doornfontein Mynopacht, 1 September 1898-30 November 1903, 4 p.

ii.Account of JSM with Robert Chrystal, 23 January 1904, 1 p.

2.Statements and invoices relating to account of Robert Chrystal with William Dodds & Co., 1904.

3.ALS (1 p) from Robert Chrystal to JSM, 1 February 1904.

4.ALS (2 p) from Robert Chrystal to JSM, 14 March 1904.

5.MS employment agreement (2 p) between Nevada Star Mining Co. Ltd. and William Dempster, 31 December 1913. Contained in blue envelope. Contents marked in JSM's hand.

6. Papers concerning Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd

i.CS (11 p) proposal for reducing copper production costs from JSM to the Secretary, Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd., 27 August 1902.

ii.ALS (2 leaves) from C. Will cox to JSM, 25 September 1902.

iii.Printed notice (1 p) of General Meeting of shareholders of Wallaroo and Moonta Co., 20 September 1902.

iv.Printed Chairman's Statement (1 p) delivered at General Meeting, 30 September 1902.

v.TS copy of draft agreement (3 p) between JSM & Co. and Wallaroo and Moonta, September 1902.

vi.TSS agreement with MS additions (3 p) between JSM & Co. and Wallaroo and Moonta, 7 October 1902. Contained in blue JSM & Co. envelope. Contents listed in JSM's hand on back.


1.Black notebook. Entries 19 February 1919 - 21 June 1919.


1.i.TLS (1 p) from ICI to JSM Jnr., 3 October 1938. Attached copy of telegram (1 p) from Rae, Glasgow.

ii.Canadian Industries Ltd. advertising magazine, December 1937. Contains `Gold's Golden Jubilee'. 3 copies.

2.TLU copy (1 p) from H.R. Raikes, Principal, University of Witwatersrand, to JSM Jnr., 2 August 1950.



A. Books

1.Alfred James. Cyanide Practice (2nd edition), E. & F.N. Spon Ltd., London,1902.

Front cover contains 2 AMS dedications by author to JSM Jnr. 1902.

B. Articles

1. The Critic, 10 June 1892.

Contains `A Dictionary of Mining Expressions and Idioms'.

2. Pretoria `Press' Annual. Pretoria, December 1895.

Contains `The Gold Industry of the Rand'; `The MacArthur-Forrest Cyanide Process. What it has done for the Rand up to 1896' with diagram.

3. Chamber's Journal, April 1928.

Copy inscribed by hand `Agnes A. MacArthur, Rowantree, West Kilbride'.

Contains `Side-Lights on the Gold Industry'. By Thomas E. Mackenzie.

4. The Co-ordinator, January 1931.

Contains `Fixity and Fluidity in the Price of Gold'. By Prof. J.W. Scott.

5.i.C of TS (7 p) `A Chapter in the Romance of Gold Extraction', + TS copy. "Dr. A. Simpson Wells, Cape Town" is inscribed on 1st leaf.

ii.ALS (1 leaf) from M.B. W. to Mrs. MacArthur, 11 January [1933?], accompanying above TS.

iii. `The Cyanide Process: Glasgow-Rand Memories'. The Star, 17 May 1933. "The late Dr. A.S. Wells of Cape Town" inscribed at head of article.

6.`A History of the Introduction of the MacArthur-Forrest Cyanide Process to the Witwatersrand Goldfields'. By J. Gray and J.A. McLachlan. Reprint from The Journal of the Chemical and Mining Society of South Africa, June 1933. 3 copies.

7.`Reverberating Smelting of Rich Gold Residues'. By C.C. Downie. Engineering and Mining Journal, November 1937. 2 leaves.

8.TS (4 p) of `Gold's Debt to Glasgow' from Glasgow Herald, 7 August 1939.

9.TS of article by Stephen Miall from A History of the British Chemical Industry. 2 copies (2, 3 p).

C. Cuttings

1.Cuttings album.

Mid 1880s-1939, loose and glued. 2 loose sheets of poems dedicated to `our dear Uncle John', June 7 1906.

2. The Star, 10 October 1891.

3. The Standard and Digger's News, 25 November 1891.

4. The Star, undated.

5. The Star, 28 November 1891.

6.`The Siemens and Halske Process of Gold Recovery'. Electrical Review, 16 October 1896.

7.Tasmanian Mining Regulations, [1900].

8. The Mining Journal, Railway and Commercial Gazette, 7 January 1905.

9.`Glasgow Students in the Transvaal'. The Glasgow Herald, 16 November 1909.

10.Obituary notice. Bulawayo Chronicle, 23 April 1920.

11. The Star, 16 May 1933.

12. Rand Daily Mail, 16 May 1933.


1.Tables: Association of Mines of the Republic of South Africa Total Gold Output for September 1896.

2.Diagram illustrating the McArthur-Yates Process from Machinery, 1 July 1896. 3 copies.


1.TLS (1 p) from William Ne ill to JSM, 30 November 1903.

Enclosed notes (1 p),initialled and dated 12 November 1903.

2. TLS (1 p) from Gr iffin and Tatlock Ltd. to JSM Jnr., 8 June 1939.

3.MS (1 leaf) `Account of the name of Nairn in the County of Dumbarton'.

4.MLS ( 1 leaf) from An drew, University of Glasgow, to JSM Jnr., 31 April 1970.


1.B/W group. Inscribed `The Institution of Mining and Metallurgy. Annual Dinner, Hotel Cecil, London, November 25th, 1903'.

2. B/W portrait of JSM in later life. Glasgow.

3.B/W portrait of Robert Wardrop Forrest M.D. about 1890.

4.B/W portrait of William Forrest M.B. C.M. about 1895. Glasgow.

5.B/W group, `Cassel Cyanide Group MacArthur Forrest Process about 1896'. Includes JSM, Alfred James.

6.B/W, `La Mina Colorada, Ures, office and storeroom'.

7.B/W portrait of JSM in later life.

8.B/W photo-advertisement by Bowers and Boyd for MacArthur-Forrest process and African Gold Recovery Co. Ltd.

9.B/W portrait of JSM. Melbourne.

10.B/W group, ` South Africa 1896. Taken at the time of the Patents Case'. Includes JSM, William Forrest, McCulloch.

11.B/W group. Includes JSM, Alfred James.



Buckland, J.M.

Cassel directors

Chrystal, Robert

Dormer, Francis

Fitzpatrick, J.P.

Forrest, Robert Wardrop

Forrest, William

Griffin and Tatlock Ltd.


James, Alfred

JSM Jnr.

Lippert, Ed

MacArthur, Agnes

McCulloch, Charles

Neill, William

Oliver, William Letts

Raikes, H.R.

Solomon and Thomson

Solomon, Ed

Webster, William

Wells, M.B.

Willcox, C.

- Catalogue by SA Baker, Modern MSS Assistant, 1989; updated by R Kemsley, Modern MSS Assistant 1994-5

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