As the Babcock and Wilcox plant at

Dumbarton closes its doors, David Harvie looks back on the legend which surrounds the previous owners - the tale of a secret society reputed to have dabbled in

an ancient art.

THE closure was recently announced of the Babcock and Wilcox plant at Dumbarton, almost a century after its construction. This factory was the focus of one of Britain's most bizarre scandals. It was alleged that the princes of Scottish business were persuaded to connive - knowingly or otherwise - in the commercial production of gold from lead and copper from pig-iron.

According to the legend nurtured by years of lazy journalism, Lord Kelvin - Europe's most celebrated physicist - was the leading proponent. Aided and abetted by suppression of facts and a peculiar novel, the myth outgrew the equally grotesque truth.

In January 1906 the Daily Express made a startling revelation: ''A mysterious-looking document, apparently of American origin, reached the Express office for publication yesterday. It stated that the secret of the Philosopher's Stone and the transmutation of metals had been discovered by a young Glasgow doctor.

''A new metal called Cuferal, a mixture of copper and iron, is being manufactured by Kosmoid Ltd. The process, which is a secret one, was invented by Dr Alexander Shiels of Glasgow and London, and is carried out by Kosmoid Ltd, whose headquarters are at Glasgow.''

The affair embarrassed some of the most influential families in Scottish engineering, shipbuilding, and commercial circles.

''It is suggested that the real secret of Kosmoid was not the method of making Cuferal, but the transmutation of metals, and declared that such eminent men as Lords Kelvin, Overtoun and Inverclyde, having had ocular demonstration of the manufacture of gold, silver, and copper from lead and iron, had become shareholders.

''The initials of the names of the largest shareholders, said the document, form the word KOSMOID. They are Lord Kelvin, Lord Overtoun, Dr Shiels, GG Millar, Lady Overtoun, Lord Inverclyde, and Denny Brothers of Dumbarton.''

Hopes and aspirations were raised and dashed on a grand scale; a Parliamentary Inquiry collapsed in bitter recrimination; the events were described in a novel which had a strange publishing history; and there was an allegation of attempted murder. But how much was true?

Alexander Shields was born in 1865 at Earlston in Berwickshire. Having graduated in medicine from Glasgow University in 1890 and 1891, he lived with his mother at 190 Bath Street, where he opened consulting rooms.

With his brother-in-law, William Elliot of Lanark (father of Walter, later Secretary of State for Scotland) he developed a wide range of engineering patents, registering more than a hundred British patents for a huge range of engineering processes. He opened nursing homes at Park Crescent in London (where a neighbour was Lord Lister), and at No 12 Claremont Terrace near Glasgow's Charing Cross.

Shiels also led a double private life. In December 1902 he married Georgina Clark, daughter of a wine merchant, at St Pancras Registry Office. They later had two children, and apparently kept the whole matter secret from his mother.

An American niece wrote home describing the lavish life-style in Bath Street: dining with the aristocracy; servants; carriages; fine furniture and even a private railway sleeping-car, in which Shiels travelled weekly to and from London.

In Glasgow, the jealous medical

fraternity regarded Shiels as a charlatan. To some he became ''the most

polished humbug and trickster ever met or heard of - his capacity for fraud almost unlimited''.

During 1904, Shiels established three related companies, Kosmoid Ltd, Kosmoid Locks Ltd, and Kosmoid Tubes Ltd, with a combined share value of about #8m at today's values. The companies were established to exploit Shiels's ''special facility to introduce patents''.

The list of those who became directors or principal shareholders reads like Scotland's industrial roll of honour: James, Peter, Archibald, John and Leslie Denny of the Dumbarton shipbuilding family; William Donaldson, ironmaster and chairman of J&G Thomson (later John Brown's shipyard); Archibald Coats, of the Paisley threadmaking family; AD Wedgwood, forgemaster of Dumbarton and Sheffield; Alex Walker, the Kilmarnock distiller; Walter Brock and Daniel Jackson, eminent marine engineers, and many other of the most significant individuals in industry and commerce. Unquestionably, neither Lords Kelvin, Inverclyde, or Overtoun were ever involved in any Kosmoid venture.

Shiels organised a secretive organisation to control the companies. The Metallurgical Syndicate was a private association with capital of about #1.5m at today's values. The 18 members included Shiels, GG Millar (Art Publisher), Charles W Fulton (textile manufacturer), Archibald Coats, William Donaldson, Archibald Denny, James Denny, Walter Brock, Peter Coats and William Coats.

The principal object of this organisation was utterly astonishing - ''the commercial development of the products of certain secret processes of manufacture known to Alexander Shiels, known respectively as the Quicksilver Process and the Copper Process, by which quicksilver could be produced from lead and copper from iron.'

What did they think they were doing, these merchant princes? In a move either of spectacular irresponsibility or naivete, the syndicate members agreed that Shiels should control finance, and any manufacture, or buildings that might be erected, and any persons employed in their venture. It was confirmed that the members would have ''no right of interference with or inquiry into the said process'' and that they would not visit any of the premises to be built. Why did they abrogate their rights?

The press reported the construction of a huge new factory being built on 53 acres of the Dumbuck estate at Dumbarton: '' . . . the new works will be put down on the American principle; its equipment of machinery will be as near perfection as it is possible to make it; in fact, the new concern will be quite novel and wonderful for these parts.''

One four-storey building attracted particular attention. The Fireproof Stores had walls of two-feet-thick concrete, clad with armoured steel. The Burgh Council, especially the forward-looking Provost, Robert McFarlan, took a keen interest in the new development. Interest intensified when Kosmoid promoted a massive Garden City of 6000 cottages, with schools, library, churches, and public buildings. Dumbarton's Lennox Herald observed of the Kosmoid directors that ''their capital seems to be unlimited, and nothing but the very finest material and workmanship pleases those in charge''.

Provost McFarlan urged the council to petition Parliament for permission to impound the waters of Loch Sloy. This proposal (costing about #8m at today's values) was enormously controversial when information about Kosmoid was extremely vague: '' . . . some aver that the principal part of the work will be the manufacturing of projectiles; others that a new motive power will be conserved that will revolutionise every existing energy . . .''

In the autumn of 1904, Shiels's mother wrote to her son Tom in Texas, urging him to join the company. Her faith in supernatural guidance is touching: ''I can scarcely understand all that is taking place - surely it is the work of the Lord. They are 'Secret' patents and Alex being the only one in full possession of the Secrets must have a Nominee and no doubt the Lord in his great mercy and kindness has planned it for you. The Company is composed of very wealthy Gentlemen such as the Dennys. It seems all too great to grasp.''

Indeed it was. On the face of it, all was well. The three companies made their headquarters in The Hatrack, Glasgow's famous Art Nouveau building in St Vincent Street. But under the surface, scepticisim prevailed; Tom Shiels stayed only briefly before returning to Texas.

Shiels signed deeds of partnership with John Joseph Melville of Hampstead in London. He installed him in the vast Fireproof Stores, knowing that the directors were neutered. Catastrophically, Melville was a self-confessed alchemist.

The Kosmoid directors contracted with the Dennystown Forge Company in Dumbarton over experimental processes. However, attitudes soon soured, and a forge director wrote to James Denny that: ''I say without fear of contradiction that our friends are romancing.''

And Lord Kelvin, whom the legend improbably has steering the good ship Kosmoid, instructed his secretary to reply to a letter he had received: ''Lord Kelvin has received Mr Shiels's letter of June 25. He thinks you should not go on with your project as no result could come from it.''

The Parliamentary Inquiry into the Loch Sloy Water Scheme opened in May 1906, chaired by the Duke of Argyll. MacFarlan and the council were ridiculed by witnesses for their municipal megalomania. After several days of evidence, and without bothering to hear most of the formal objections, the Commissioners threw out the council's Bill, amid great acrimony.

Next came allegations that a senior Kosmoid manager, who was being treated by Shiels at his Glasgow nursing home, had been systematically poisoned. With that, Shiels disappeared.

Whether he fell or was pushed is uncertain, but he decamped to a small Northamptonshire village. The Kosmoid directors may have connived at his disappearance in order to remove him from the scene of their embarrassment and financial loss. Within a year, Shiels suffered a stroke and died, leaving about #5000 - hardly the swag of a man who had committed massive fraud.

Kosmoid and Kosmoid Locks were quickly dissolved, while Kosmoid Tubes was reconstituted by James Denny before being re-structured as the Dumbarton Weldless Tube Company, which in turn was subsumed by Babcock and Wilcox in 1915.

The rather mysterious Metallurgical Syndicate went into limbo, and a Judicial Factor for its sequestration was appointed by the Court of Session. Followers of conspiracy theory will be delighted that the papers of this process are missing from files in the Scottish Record Office.

In 1910, The Gold Makers, by Nathaniel P McCoy, was published in London. This rather bad novel tells the story of an eccentric doctor who persuades a number of influential businessmen to fund the US Multi-Patents Company to manufacture quicksilver and gold from base metals. The novel appears to mirror the scandal as perceived to surround the Kosmoid companies; the names are changed, and the setting is Boston, Massachusetts.

The quirk is that ''Nathaniel P McCoy'' was apparently none other than George Grandison Miller, Kosmoid director and member of the Metallurgical Syndicate. His fellow directors supposedly bought up and destroyed most of the print run of the book, copies of which are rare.

Did they really manufacture gold? It seems probable that they tried. John Joseph Melville, Shiels's alchemist collaborator, had a life-long history of similar scandals. His first disgrace was in the early 1900s in Tottenham, when he tried to make tin and gold from lead. There were further public outrages in 1923 in Battersea, and in 1928 in Southend-on-Sea.

Melville made endless spectacular claims, among which, in 1924, was that: ''Gold can be made in large quantities, not only from mercury, but also from antimony, lead, copper, and silver, and I do not hesitate positively to affirm that with relatively simple plant, our debt to America can be wiped out in 12 months.'' Just before his death in 1928, he admitted that he had been trying to make gold in Dumbarton.

There was confirmation of that extraordinary claim by a Kosmoid director and Metallurgical Syndicate member, Charles W Fulton, of Paisley and Launceston Place, South Kensington, who affirmed to the Daily Mail that: ''A special concrete building of four floors was erected for Mr Melville's process, the exact nature of which was kept secret. We in touch with him knew that he claimed to be able to produce copper from iron and quicksilver from lead, to say nothing of gold and silver.''

There is no evidence that Fulton's confirmation of attempted alchemy in Dumbarton was ever challenged by his fellow directors or anyone else.

Although the cobwebs will gather at the factory in Dumbarton before the roar of the bulldozers, the ''Transmutation Building'' of the novel (and of the resulting legend) still has a busy, working future.

Perhaps there is an argument for the listing of the ''special concrete building of four floors'' as being of unique architectural and historical interest. It is certainly unusual structurally, and there can be few equals in the country as the location of twentieth-century alchemy.