Hull’s industrial history has been dominated by two industries – the timber trade, which I have covered briefly in the page of that name on this website – and oil seed crushing, from which many subsidiary industries have come. In 2012 those two industries still provide a huge contribution to Hull’s economy, and historically Hull may never have achieved the success as a port that it has enjoyed, had these industries not been based – and chosen to remain – in Hull. The subject deserves a book - such is its complexity - but I can only scratch at the surface in this short page, which I hope gives an over-view of the oil seed-crushing industry in Hull.
Writing in 1960, historian Harold Brace noted: ‘Seed crushing is one of the world’s oldest industries, its origins being traceable back through several thousand years to the ancient civilizations of the Orient. Today it is an industry of world wide importance and one which is vital to the community, for dependent upon it are not only the supply of vegetable oils for margarine and cooking fats, for soaps, for paints, for linoleum manufacture and many other important uses, but also proteins and other ingredients needed to ensure the supply ... of milk, eggs, meat and other products from the livestock of our farms. It is estimated that some forty million tons of oilseeds are crushed in various parts of the world each year. Yet there must be few industries of its size about, which so little is known outside of its own sphere’.
Few studies have been made that enforce the importance of seed crushing to Hull, as little or no detailed records have survived from the companies involved. What follows is a summary, compiled mostly from secondary sources, of the massive influence this trade has had on the city and port of Kingston upon Hull. Oil has always featured highly in the commercial history of the city; rape and other seeds were imported into Hull in the Middle Ages, and the only purpose for this was to extract the useful oil by crushing. In 1969, the compilers of the Victoria County History for Hull noted:
‘The raw materials flowing into Hull gave rise to a number of industries engaged in processing and refining. The oldest of these was the oil-seed extracting industry. There are references to the milling of rape-seed in Hull from the early 16th century and by the middle of the 18th century the industry was well established. As early as 1740 Joseph Pease, later head of the banking firm, had built an oil-mill at the corner of Lowgate and Salthouse Lane, and by the end of the century, when there a growing demand for linseed oil for cloth-making processes, for paint, and for soap, there were numerous such mills. In 1796 in one street alone, Wincolmlee, there were 'three wind oil-mills, one belonging to Messrs. Jarratt & Coates, worked by a steam engine, besides horse-mills for the same purpose'. The growth of the extracting industry is reflected in the quantity of cattle cakes exported; this rose from about 150,000 in 1717 to over 400,000 in 1737. Thereafter exports were recorded in tons, 52 tons being exported in 1758. Similarly, the quantity of linseed brought to Hull rose from 1,902 bushels in 1725 to 18,800 in 1758 and over 66,000 in 1783. English oil-seed was also being brought from East Anglia and from those parts of Yorkshire where flax-growing was developing. The value of rape and other seed sent to Hull by the Aire and Calder Navigation in 1792 amounted to £9,750. Two industries which arose in connexion with the oil extracting industry were the manufacture of paint and the production of machinery for the extraction process. Samuel Tudor is reputed to have founded a paint firm in Hull in 1749, which later became Tudors, Mash & Co. The main development of the industry however came in the early 19th century; in 1803 Sissons Bros. began manufacturing paint in Hull, and in 1811 Henry Blundell. White lead was made in Hull from at least the 1740s, and Pickard’s factory was established in 1791. The hydraulic press, invented by Joseph Bramah in 1795, was taken up by the Old Foundry, which was later to become Rose, Downs, and Thompson, specializing in the manufacture of oil-milling machinery. One of Hull’s paint firms installed in the early 1820s a plant, which had vertical presses with 12-inch rams. This new type of plant gave a great impetus to seed-crushing and remained standard equipment until 1874’.
From that short passage you will see it is almost impossible to write of Hull’s history without mentioning the seed-crushing industry, as its effects have been felt so widespread throughout the city, its industries, mercantile success, and more broadly – its social conditions. For those of you who dislike the new generation of wind turbines appearing on the horizon [I quite like them myself] it may surprise you to know that Hull was once dotted with large brick-built windmills – many later converted to steam and other power. Several of these were located near to the city centre, and often within areas of dense housing, often belching out smoke around the clock, as well as deafening those closest with the thump and grind of the machinery. Such industries also caused other nuisances, and in the 17th Century the Corporation forbid the burning of rape-cakes owing to their 'filthy smell'.
The oil seed crushing Industry depended upon the importation of oil-bearing seeds, from home and abroad, and historically in Hull this has included:
Rape – imported from the 1500s, mostly from Germany and the low-countries (Belgium, Netherlands etc), and now a major local crop, as can be seen from the many yellow fields around East Yorkshire in particular.
Flax – the variety of Flax commonly grown in England, is used to produce linseed oil for the manufacture of linoleum and some cattle foods, and is actually part of the cabbage family.
Cottonseed – once mostly imported from Egypt and the East Indies – trade increased from just 15 ships into Hull in 1860, to 110 in 1870, and continued to increase thereafter.
Soya beans – part of the pea family.
By the late 1830s linseed imports had trebled in comparison to earlier in that decade; rape-seed imports had more than doubled — in part stimulated by a tariff reduction in 1825 — and an increased demand for cattle food. The growth of the seed-crushing industry itself, also increased demand for imports.
White’s 1826 trade directory noted: ‘the manufactures of Hull are not so extensive and numerous as those in many of our inland towns. They are however, by no means insignificant. Among the principal of them is the expressing and refining of oil, from line, rape, and other seeds, and preparing the residue for the feeding of cattle. The process is chiefly effected by mills worked by the wind and occasionally by the aid of steam. The largest and finest mills in the kingdom of this kind, both for the above-named purpose, and also for grinding corn, whiting, &c. are found in great numbers in and near this place. The mode of refining rape oil was brought to perfection by Dr Daniel Bridges of Hull, who also invented the improved system of purifying spermaceti oil, now practiced here with great success.’
The same 1826 directory listed four seed crushing companies in Hull. By 1838 there were 13, 19 by 1846, and in 1858 there were 28. In 1867 there were 24, 36 in 1876, 32 in 1885, 35 in 1897, 24 in 1905, and thereafter a steady decrease in numbers. In 1914 there were 14, in 1926 just 10, and in 1939 only six. Following the Second World War the numbers were even lower, with just four seed-crushing companies listed in 1954. This does not indicate a reduction in the trade itself, but that a number of much larger mills had replaced many smaller ones.
The growth in the seed crushing industry in the late 1820s meant that other local firms enjoyed a boom in trade; Todd & Campbell, whose foundry (known locally as the Old Foundry) was based in ‘Foundry Row’ in the heart of Sculcoates, supplied oil presses to seed crushers’ Pease, Trigg & Company. In 1839 by W. Oldham & Son (engineers & millwrights) of 15 Trippett, sold similar equipment, advertising 'a double hydraulic press, together with pumps and driving gear made by Fenton, Murray & Jackson [of Leeds] and fitted with Blundell's Patent Boxes for eight cakes'.
The seed crushing industry was located mainly in mills along the banks of the river Hull – in Wincolmlee, Church Street and Bankside to the west of the river – and Dansom Lane, Lime Street, the Groves, Wilmington, Stoneferry and Holderness Road in the east. The river Hull was a well-established means of transport for the importation of raw materials by ship, as well as the export of any finished products. The earliest oil mill in Hull of which we have any definite evidence however, was built near the corner of Lowgate. Constructed in 1740, it was part of the business empire of Hull bankers Pease & Co., and was a windmill that was mainly used for crushing rape-seed. Other seed-crushing mills existed even earlier, including a 17th Century sugar mill at Trippett, which converted to rape-seed in 1673.
The construction of more and more seed crushing mills along the banks of the River Hull, where they could take their raw material from barges, had begun with a single horse powered mill, but by 1840 there were ten wind-powered mills, and by 1878 that figure had increased to 45. ‘By the 1860s seed crushing was well-established in Hull and in the subsequent decades it drew its supplies from further and further afield. By the end of the century imports of linseed came not only from Russia but from the East Indies, the Argentine, Canada, and the United States; there was considerable trade for example between Hull and the River Plate before 1914’ (VCH).
The process employed various methods of crushing and pressing, to extract the vegetable oil for use in a long list of products. This in turn gave rise to subsidiary industries all around Hull, such as the manufacture of paint, soap, linoleum, margarine and edible fats – e.g. cooking oil, with the residue often used for animal feed in the form of cattle-cake, and also manure, and fertiliser. Several of these industries remain important to Hull’s economy today.
In 1876 there were 33 Oil and Cake Merchants in Hull, as well as four Oil Press, Hair and Bagging Manufacturers, and 12 Oil Refiners - including Blundell, Spence & Co; Connell Bros., Storry, Smithson & Co., Sissons Bros & Co., Stuart & Gregson.
Bulmer's 1892 directory lists 30 Oil Boilers and Refiners, five Oil Brokers, seven Oil Importers 20 Oil Manufacturers, 48 Oil Merchants, four Oil cake Manufacturers, 19 Oil cake Merchants, four Oil Press Wrapper Makers, and 31 seed Crushers.
The industry reached its peak in the late 19th Century, and it was during that period that many of the large oil mills were constructed – many of which survived until very recently.As such, the seed crushing industry was a huge employer, and literally thousands of locals made their living in the mills or the many associated industries. The workers even had a pub named after them - the Seedcrushers Arms in Francis Street - which is shown and discussed in the Lost Pubs of Hull pages on this site.
In 1906 Sir A K Rollitt described the oil seed crushing trade in Hull: -
‘This most important local business is the successor of that of Arctic fishing and the manufacture of whale oil; the modernized mills, machinery and plant mostly occupy the same sites as the older ones; and the newest crushing machinery and inventions have been applied. Hence the trade has seen very great expansions; it now includes the production of castor oil and soft soaps; and, altogether, utilizes a very large capital and gives great employment.
Of this industry, Hull is the unrivalled centre, the port having been long and generally recognized as specially adapted to the importation and manufacture into cakes and oil of linseed, formerly brought chiefly from Russia, but now mostly from the Argentine, and from our Colonies and Dependencies; of cotton seed (largely from India and Egypt); and rape seed; also of carobs, etc., for cattle foods, from Cyprus, and other sub-tropical localities.
This staple trade was originated between Hull and Russia, probably in the fifteenth century – in 1400 seed-oil was imported into Hull – and was one chief cause of the commercial mission of the first ambassador from ‘The Emperor of Muscovy’ to England, Osep Napea, who came to Hull en route for London in 1577, in order to establish commerce between the two nations. The seed-crushing trade is largely the subject of an Association or Combine, which includes Hull and other places. The export of Linseed Oil from Hull in 1906 was 3,089 tons (including 1,289 tons to Australia), and of Cotton Oil 11,453 tons. The Agricultural Seed trade also flourishes in Hull’.
The industry grew to such an extent that in the inter-war period it dominated East Hull, where the British Oil & Cake Mill even had its own model village; their mills were destroyed in the Second World War. By the 1920s Hull had become the largest seed crushing and oil extracting centre in the world. In 1923 alone almost 700,000 tons of oil seeds were imported into Hull consisting of Linseed 165,830 tons, Soya Beans 74,566, Egyptian cottonseed 221,791, other kinds of cottonseed 62,799, Rape seed 41,246, Castor seed 14,527, Palm Kernels 87,204, Ground nuts 9,579, Sunflower seed 5,356.
Kelly's 1937 directory lists, 14 Oil Boilers & Refiners, one Oil dealer, two Oil Extractors, four Oil Manufacturers, 16 Oil Merchants, one Oil Mill Machinery Manufacturers (Rose, Downs & Thompson), one Oil Press Wrapper Manufacturer, one Oil Seed Merchants & importer, 12 seed Crushers & Cake Manufacturers, one Cake Broker, five Oil Brokers and three Seed Brokers.
After the war the 1954 directory listed five Seed Crushers & Cattle Cake Manufacturers, 13 Oil Merchants, one Oil Mill Machinery Manufacturer, 13 Oil Refiners, and one Oil Seed Press Cloth Manufacturer.
By 1974 there were four oil refining firms still operating in Hull; Chambers & Fargus in Wincolmlee; Croda Premier Oils Ltd at Stoneferry; Earl Stanley Hamilton Ltd, Air Street; and John L. Seaton & Co. Ltd, Bankside.
The Hull Port & Commercial Handbook, published in 1995, listed the following firms involved in the oil-seed industry: - Cargill PLC ‘processors of soya beans, rapeseed, linseed and maize germ; producers, importers and distributors of raw materials for animal feed; suppliers of refined vegetable oils to the UK food industry ... ‘; Hull Bulk Handling ‘ ... operates the rail-linked Kingston Terminal on Queen Elizabeth Dock ... [which] handles the import and export of ... bulks like aggregates, minerals and animal feeds ... ‘; New Holland Bulk Services ‘… operates a terminal on King George dock [which imports] animal feed from the U.S. and South America ... [and handles] ... bulk related products, including oilseeds and ores ... ‘.
In 1996 the following Oil Refiners were listed in Yellow Pages:- British Cod Liver Oils Ltd, 1305 Hedon Road; Cargill PLC Oilseeds Processing Division, 45 Morley Street, Stoneferry; Marfleet Refining Co. Ltd, 1305 Hedon Road; and John L. Seaton & Co. Ltd, Bankside.
The 1997 Yellow Pages listed seven firms under the heading of Edible Oils & Fats, including Anglia Oils Ltd, Edible Oil Refinery, King George Dock; Karlshamns Ltd, 220 Wincolmlee; and Multifry Ltd, Oxford Street; and under Oil Refiners, Cargill PLC, Oilseeds Processing Division, 45 Morley Street, John L. Seaton & Co. Ltd, Bankside, and Shann Consulting (UK) Unit 116 Hull Microfirms Centre, Wincolmlee.
Seed crushing continues to be equally as important to Hull’s economy in the 21st Century.
Although the many old-established High Street offices of the oil merchants and brokers have gone (in 1892 there were at least 53 firms involved in the oil seed crushing industry occupying properties in High Street alone), a very small number of buildings related to the oil seed crushing industry remain.
They survive in increasingly small numbers however - many having been demolished as recently as the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – and sadly they continue to be demolished despite their importance as part of Hull’s rich architectural heritage. It seems very likely that before too long the origins of this most important of industries will have been completely wiped out.
I am grateful to David Jessop for several of the photographs of former oil mills shown here, which include: -
Other buildings around the city, which also have a direct link to the seed crushing industry, are: -
The Windmill public house, now at the corner of Witham and Clarence Street, which originally took its name from the Block House Oil Mill that sat almost alongside it in Holderness Road before the pub was rebuilt. This was a four-sailed windmill that was converted to a stamper press mill in 1812.
The Pease Warehouses in High Street, now converted into flats, were built by Joseph Pease in 1745 and 1760. Joseph Pease (1688-1778) had by then already invested heavily in the oil seed crushing industry.
Blayde’s House at no.6 High Street, was occupied in 1892 by the firm of Henry Hodge (exors.) who were seed crushers.
Rose Downs & Thompson’s foundry in Cannon Street manufactured hydraulic presses for crushing oil seed.
Maister House in High Street - the Maister family invested in oil mills in the 18th Century.
BOCM - the British Oil & Cake Mills was formed in 1899 by the amalgamation of a number of different oil seed crushing mills, including six that were based in Hull.
The former 'Mutiny on The Bounty' pub in Dock Office Row, when known as Oriental Buildings in 1892, was occupied as offices by two seed crushing firms and one seed merchant.
Blundell’s Corner, the present address of the Hull Daily Mail is named after Henry Blundell’s color works, he also was a seed crusher in The Groves.
The Pacific Club, in High Street, now part of the 'Pacific Court' student flats complex was the merchants exchange where the business of trading in oil seed and corn was carried out.
'Sammy's Point', now home of 'The Deep', is named after Martin Samuelson, whose iron foundry made hydraulic presses for the oil seed crushing industry in addition to the firm's better-known shipbuilding activities.
The William Wilberforce pub/cafe bar at the corner of Trinity House Lane and Silver Street was formerly 'Pease's Old bank'. The banknotes issued by that bank had an engraving of Pease's oil mill on them for many years.
Paul L Gibson
Hull, September 2012
A History of the County of York East Riding Volume I the City of Kingston upon Hull. Edited by K J Allison. Oxford University Press for the Institute of Historical Research, 1969.
Sir A. K. Rollit and others. The City of Hull Official Handbook, with a Historical and Commercial Review. A. Brown & Sons. Hull, 1908.
The Trade and Shipping of Nineteenth Century Hull. Joyce M Bellamy, East Yorkshire Local History Society. 1971 reprinted 1979.
History of Seed Crushing in Great Britain. Harold W Brace, Land Books. 1960.
Flora of the East Riding of Yorkshire. Eva Crackles (ed. Roger Arnett), Hull University Press and Humberside County Council. 1990.
East Yorkshire Windmills. Roy Gregory, Charles Skilton. Cheddar, 1985
Oil Seed Crushing – What? Chris Ketchell, Hull College Local History Unit information sheet, 1997.
Hull In The Eighteenth Century: A Study in Economic and Social History. Gordon Jackson, Oxford University Press for the University of Hull. 1972.
Trade directories – various.