Paul Gibson’s Hull and East Yorkshire History

The timber industry in Hull

As a well-situated place of transhipment, there is evidence of major export trade to and from Hull dating back to at least the 12th Century, when Hull’s main export was wool and cloth. Where goods are exported, it usually follows that traders and merchants will seek return cargo to make the operation profitable, and in search of trade and custom further afield Hull merchants travelled as far as the Baltic. Initially the goods brought back to Hull were predominantly foodstuffs and wine, but since the earliest records raw materials for the construction of buildings and ships have also been imported. Although not a major percentage of inbound cargo until the 17th Century, timber has been one of Hull’s most important staple imports since trading began. Throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries traders and merchants from York accounted for almost half of Hull’s import and export trade, and it was not until the 17th Century that Hull’s merchants – with few exceptions – grew in stature comparable to their York counterparts.

What follows is a summary of Hull’s trade in timber, gathered mainly from the sources listed in the bibliography. Whilst by no means comprehensive, it offers a brief introduction to this incredibly important aspect of Hull’s history – a trade that continues to this day, remaining as important to the city now, as ever it was.

14th Century

Records show that timber as a raw material for ship building boosted imports. Timber, essential for masts and spars, and also in the form of planks and deals, came from Norway and the Baltic throughout the 14th Century. As well as the local ship building trade, timber from Hull also travelled to other east coast ship building yards. Whether un-worked or made up, timber was the most important and regular commodity in the Baltic cargoes, some of it coming indirectly from the Low Countries. In 1304-05 the full year’s imports amounted to over 25,000 boards and wainscots, about 600 empty barrels, over 4,200 troughs, bowls, and boxes, 660 lances, and 7,950 bow-staves. In three months in 1401 about 18,000 wainscots and various kinds of boards arrived, plus 2,000 spars, 11 masts, 70 bowls, tables and boxes, 2,000 arrow-shafts, and 7,680 bow-staves. Whilst this sounds a lot – all of this would fit into the smallest corner of a modern ship.

16th Century

England’s main timber supplier was Norway, through a series of ports on or near Oslo fjord. This was a new trade for Hull, as ships from Norway were unheard-of before the middle of the 16th Century, and only three came during 1567. Timber imports reached a peak in 1586-87, as England prepared a naval fleet suitable to repel any Spanish invaders. Added to this was a growing demand for Whaling vessels and the regular merchant ships.

17th Century

A rapid expansion of Hull’s timber trade with Norwegian ports around Oslo fjord occurred in the early 17th Century. Though much of our timber came from within the Baltic (Riga masts and Danzig clapboard were famous) the majority came from Norway. The number of vessels increased rapidly and by 1609 entries from Norway had increased to 16, and 22 in 1614. The Norwegians took a large share in this trade, and half the ships engaged were usually Norwegian, and in some years this proportion was much larger. The Norwegians took little in return cargo from England, and English merchants often had to find means of distributing silver goods (illegal before 1663) to pay for their increased imports. So despite its economic importance, trade with Norway was a speciality of just a few merchants in Hull.

Swedish military campaigns occasionally stopped traffic with the Baltic altogether and depressed the trade as a whole during the 1620s. During the 1620s and 1630s timber (amongst many other products) was increasingly imported indirectly from the Baltic via the Dutch. Despite an outcry by the English traders this continued mainly due to the ability of the Hollanders to move cargo more cost effectively from Norway and the Baltic than the English traders sailing direct from port to port. However, between 1600 and 1640 the total tonnage of ships entering Hull from the Baltic was higher than ever before. There was a striking fall in the use of foreign ships in Hull’s trade after 1660 and by 1700 Hull had over 100 ships of its own. The Dutch found the growth of their share of the trade halted by the Navigation Acts, which excluded Dutch ships from Hull’s Baltic trade – this undermined their carrying trade to such an extent that most of the foreign vessels entering Hull after 1660 were Norwegian, carrying Norwegian timber. 

From the middle of the 17th Century the Baltic became the main source of Hull’s timber imports. From the 1600s Hull vessels travelled further, to ports such as Reval and Narva in what is now Estonia (Reval is now known as Tallin), as well as the Latvian port of Riga, for their hemp, flax, timber, and other naval stores. By 1700 the balance of the mix of imported produce had changed, and timber became the main cargo from Norway and the Baltic. The Victoria County History states: ‘The country’s rising demand for iron, building wood, and naval stores gave powerful stimulus to this traffic in raw materials, which formed over half the volume of English imports by 1700. Hull was then second only to London as an importer of these goods, and its trade in iron and timber closely rivalled that of the capital’.

During the 1630s brothers from the Raikes family held much of the timber traffic between Norway and Hull; from c.1660 traders and merchants chose to specialise in certain cargo, and this was particularly so in the iron and timber trades. By c.1700 the town’s Baltic trade thus became dominated by a relatively small group of merchants who imported the majority of these goods in this area. In 1685 a large proportion of this business was in the hands of just eight Hull merchants, three of which were York based.

By 1700 the benefit and profits from Hull’s trade remained almost completely within the town itself. Hull had began to develop its own skills and industries to such an extent that it became one of the two great ports that served the country through the demands of the industrial revolution. Liverpool was the only other major port to achieve faster growth. The changing pattern of trade was also responsible for new methods of business practice. Norway imported little from England so merchants had to send silver in payment for their timber as the Baltic trade changed from simple exchange or barter of goods to actual payment. After 1660 Hull the smaller merchants had to make arrangements to pay for their purchases and settled their debts by bills of exchange, drawn on London, Hamburg or Amsterdam. The larger merchant such as the Maisters’ dealt directly with finance houses in Amsterdam often using exports to Holland to provide funds – some dealt solo, others in partnership. Many of the merchants lived and worked overseas, especially in their younger days, but most deals were done through factors at European ports. Several of the Maisters’ for example, lived and worked as factors in Stockholm and Riga (as early as 1636 a Maister was working out of Helsingor), but the head of the family was more often than not a merchant resident in Hull. This change in the pattern of trade, especially the Baltic trade, gave rise to some of Hull’s most famous and successful mercantile families – Maister, Mould, Crowle, and others.

18th Century

Norway was the perfect source of timber, with its vast forest coverage and ready water power, and soon became the principle source of wood in the first part of the 18th Century. Reassuringly, even at this time, Norway restricted its timber harvest due to concerns about the long-term stability of her forests, yet remained the principal supplier of deals (sawn boards).

Hull’s import of deals from all sources rose from 1,498 hundreds in 1702 to 4,530 in 1796. During the course of the century Hull’s timber came increasingly from Russia and Prussia and these cargoes consisted not of deals but of ‘common timber’, which served largely as pit-props. Measured in loads of 50 cubic feet, the quantity imported through Hull rose from 1,135 in 1758 to 14,813 in 1796 (Kent – see bibliography).

In ‘Hull in the Eighteenth Century’, Gordon Jackson gave a most concise summary of the timber trade during this period in Hull’s history: ‘Although ships from Norway reached a peak, at 54 in 1751 she had begun to lose her predominance, and the pattern of Hull’s trade slowly changed. While the total import of deals trebled between the sample years 1717 and 1768, the number of ships arriving from Norway actually declined slightly. Not until the demand for timber soared in the forties did they [Hull merchants] turn to the forests of the eastern Baltic. Between 1737 and 1751 the volume of imported timber rose from 25 to 1,343 loads, and it continued to grow. More importantly initially, were the masts and spars demanded by Hull’s own shipbuilding industry. While the larger trees under canvass were transformed into the most majestic of sights, the smaller ones – the uffers – were consigned to the builders yard, there to become the scaffolding poles for the rebuilding of England.

Hull rapidly assumed a dominating position in her new trade: in 1790 she took 40% of the deals sent from St. Petersburg to England, and 43% for the years 1795-1804. Since Britain was the major consumer of St. Petersburg deals, Hull was in fact taking 40% of the total exportation.

Hull showed little enthusiasm for timber before 1750. Then, quite suddenly, Hull merchants plunged into the trade. Between 1758 and 1768 the importation soared from 1,135 to 8,260 loads; by 1790 it was 30,515 loads, and the average for 1790-92 was 20,917. In common with other trades, timber was down at the turn of the century, averaging only I7, 895 loads for the years 1799-1802, although it had recovered to 33,849 loads in 1802. Another 'new' wood swelling the total importation was Russian oak, which began to arrive in quantity at a time when the old English forests were practically exhausted. From 123 loads in 1768, it rose to an average of 629 loads for 1790-92 and 1,065 for 1799-1802. In the older types of semi-processed wood there was little change, except for staves and masts. Staves were naturally in great demand for the casks and barrels in which practically everything, including ironmongery, was shipped. In the early years of the century the supply of casks was so short that the Pease’s (and presumably other merchants) had used their international connections to hunt out second-hand sugar casks for use in the oil trade.

The importation of staves had then been about a thousand hundreds per annum; by 1790-92 it averaged 3,408c. and 3,817c. in 1799-1802. The trade in masts experienced a tremendous boom, from about 100 per annum before 1783 to an average of 969 for 1790-92 and 843 for 1799-1802. Never before had such intensive mercantile and naval building coincided, and the importers of masts, like the importers of tar, appear to have benefited from the removal of the bounty on American produce which had previously favoured the west coast and London merchants with long-established trans-Atlantic connections. While St. Petersburg eventually became the chief source of deals, the wood trade as a whole was dominated by Memel, Riga, Narva and, latterly, Archangel.

Wray & Hollingsworth sent deals, raff, logs, staves and other forms of timber to customers in Leeds, Huddersfield, Barnsley, Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Loughborough, Birmingham and a multitude of less important places. Much of the timber was used for the extensive building which took place under the stimulus of an increasing population and expanding economy.

All but a fraction of Hull’s deals, battens, laths, uffers, staves and timber went into the hinterland.

Smuggling, however, extended even to such a bulky commodity as timber. John Holland, the yard-foreman of the Hull timber merchants Haworth & Stephenson appears to have been involved in it and if there were others like him the amount of timber arriving in Hull may have been considerably more than the official figures suggest’.

19th Century

The 19th Century timber trade is equally covered by the Victoria County History: ‘Imports from Germany and Holland, [pre1835] which probably accounted for about one fifth of Hull’s trade by volume, covered a wide range of products. Finished timber and manufactured wooden goods came in a variety of forms, such as staves, wainscot boards, oars, tubs, pipes, spouts, spinning-wheels, and household furniture.

Trade stimulated the growth of banking and insurance in Hull. Substantial advances to three timber merchants clearly represented the finance of one of Hull’s staple import trades. Messrs. Thompson’s borrowing averaged £5,979 between 1811 and 1813; Osbourne & Sons averaged £5,680 between 1809 and 1811; and from the end of 1809 to the middle of 1812 the average debit balance of Newmarch & Tealby was £3,748. 

The bulk of Hull’s import trade in 1840, and throughout the 19th Century, was in those raw materials which were traditionally imported from the Baltic … Hull’s timber trade stood to gain from the general economic conditions of the 1840s. The tariff of 1842 reduced the preference given to British North American timber, and the duties were further reduced in 1847 and 1848. The railway boom of the 1840s also stimulated the demand for timber. By 1843, when there was complaint of overcrowding in the docks, particular emphasis was placed on the great inconvenience caused by he expanded timber trade; timber was unloaded into the water in the docks, and remained there to obstruct traffic. Victoria Dock, opened in 1850, had a timber pond built nearby soon after, and another was added in 1863. Yet in 1853 Hull’s timber imports did not amount to a large proportion of the total import of the United Kingdom: 4% of the squared timber and 12% of the deals. Hull’s share of total imports later in the century was much the same, probably because the heavy costs of inland transport made it desirable to send timber to the port nearest its ultimate destination’.

The increase in the timber trade necessitated larger steamships and thus a demand for docks that were resistant to silting, and could therefore provide constant levels of deep water, and be workable even at the lowest tides. 

The only area that could accommodate such facilities was the land to the east of Hull. Hull’s timber imports therefore have gradually become situated at the eastern side of the city. Initially in Victoria Dock and following the increase in vessels, the competitive and independent Alexandra Dock of 1885. This brought the added problem of the cargo then having to be transported across the town to the railways, which had settled in the west of the city. The railways had provided free lighterage for goods transported by road from the docks in the west, but the concession was soon extended to the Hull & Barnsley Railway Company’s Alexandra Dock, which soon had its own rail link with the west.

Joyce Bellamy’s work on Hull’s trade in this period offers further insight: ‘Wood imports accounted for about a fifth of the trade tonnage of the port in 1843, but in value terms were only six per cent of the 1857 estimate. It was undoubtedly the requirements of this trade, which led to the building of Victoria Dock, of twelve and a half acres, opened in 1850; the seasonal arrival of wood cargoes had previously caused much dock congestion.

At a public meeting convened to discuss dock accommodation in 1836, a Hull timber merchant stated that as many as 20 vessels were in the port at a time and as each of them was expected to deliver from 80 to 100 pieces a day­ –  'it is quite impossible for 1,500 or 1,600 pieces of timber in one day to pass out of our docks into the Old Harbour where the timber yards are chiefly'. Competition from Grimsby and especially from Hartlepool was experienced in the late 1850s and during the 1860s, when the North Eastern Railway's unequal rates, to which reference has been made, caused some wood imports to be diverted from Hull to Hartlepool. Merchants were able to ship their supplies to the latter port at lower sea freights and also benefit from the lower landing charges there. But for these factors, wood imports at Hull might have been substantially higher; even so, by 1863, when an extension of Victoria Dock by eight acres was completed, they had exceeded previous levels and a steady upward trend was maintained to 1868. This coincided with a growth in local house and other building and a general upsurge of industrial activity in the British economy.

Between 1861 and 1876 the number of Hull timber merchants more than doubled, from 20 to 44, and of the latter number 12 also engaged in saw-milling. A decline in the supply of native-grown larch and fir created a rising demand for foreign timber and in the early 1870s hewn timber imports at Hull included large quantities of mining timber and pit props from Norway and Sweden. About 1860 Hockney & Liggins, local joiners, began to manufacture wood products for builders and joiners by using steam power and were pioneers of an industry, which became increasingly important in later decades. Population growth, which was considerable during the 1860s and 1870s, increased the demand for housing and industrial buildings, thus providing further stimuli for the wood trade of the port. From 101,185 in 1861, the population rose by 25 per cent to 125,943 in 1871 and in the next 10 years there was an increase of 32 per cent to 165,974’.

Cheaper freight rates from Hull to the northern cities provided an increase in the timber trade and a resultant 36% increase in timber imports in the period 1870-1878. A report produced by the chamber of commerce in 1885 listed timber-importing as the second most important in Hull in terms of capital employed. In 1876 81,000 loads of timber went to Hull’s saw-mills, and 197,000 in 1897. Sadly, decline was soon to follow, and by the end of the 1870s Hull’s timber imports were half that of earlier in the decade as Hull fell victim to the national economic depression. The 1880s saw resurgence in trade, and by the end of the 1890s levels of imports exceeded all previous figures. 820,000 loads came into port in 1899 alone, and hewn timber imports grew more rapidly than sawn wood, due mainly to the growth in saw-milling in Hull itself. Several new companies specialised in ready-made products for the building industry, which was also in good health. The other main area of supply was the mining industry and the movements of pit-props was at an all time peak.

At the turn of the century Hull’s general trade was under increased threat from Grimsby and Goole, whose growth had been exceptional in the last half of the 19th Century. Although a lesser portion of total imports, timber continued to be a staple of Hull’s annual import trade and had accounted for around 5% of Hull’s total imports on average during the 19th Century. 

20th Century - Pre-Second World War

Imports of hewn timber, which had reached a peak of 306,000 loads in 1910, went down to 164,000 loads in 1915, and new trading conditions brought about by the First World War caused extensive disruption to Hull’s timber trade. In 1917 just 40 ships arrived from Russia, compared with 757 in 1913. Some relief was felt in the increase of timber imports from Norway and Sweden, as their fleets being neutral, had received no enemy attack and were able to replace the decimated English fleets and thus maintain the trade. In 1917, however, the timber trade was brought under government control and sales restricted to permit holders; this and the threat of unrestricted submarine warfare in the same year brought another sharp decline. By the 1920s Hull provided only 10% of the United Kingdom’s imports of timber.

Post-Second World War

A promotional book produced by the Development Committee of the Hull City Council in 1950s reported the timber trade and related industries at the time: ‘The old-established Hull Timber Trade has roughly trebled in volume during the past half century, with the result that Hull is now the second leading wood importing centre of the United Kingdom. All sorts and descriptions of wood and wood goods are handled including red and white softwoods, hardwoods, pit props and mining timber, joinery and other wood-work. Some 80 firms are engaged in the business and the Hull market is one of the largest, most varied and well-stocked in Europe. Imports reach Hull from all parts of the world-softwoods and mining timber mainly from Scandinavia, the White Sea, and the Baltic, and hardwoods from America, Canada and other distant parts.

The port of Hull is well equipped for the importation, handling and distribution of wood goods. The Victoria Dock is almost exclusively set apart for the sawn timber trade, whilst excellent facilities are provided at the King George and Alexandra Docks for the rapid handling of hardwoods, pit props and mining timber cargoes. Fibre building boards have in recent years become an important item in the trade returns, and Hull's favourable position in relation to the Baltic and other producing countries is indicated by the figures which show the Port to be second only to London in the importation of hardboard and insulation board. Six hundred acres of open storage ground in and around the docks are available for the storage and seasoning of timber cargoes. The equipment for the distribution of landed goods is adequate.

In addition to siding facilities for loading to rails, much of the timber is dispatched inland by lighters via the inland waterway system. A large saw-milling industry is established near the docks and employment is given to over 5,000 work-people’.

The same publication also reported: ‘113 sawmills and wood-working establishments’, and ‘one group of timber processing factories occupies more than 23 acres and employs over 200 men on the production of joinery wood at one of its branches, and at another site is producing hardwood flooring. One firm, which occupies over 30 acres of land, besides wood block flooring manufacture and contracting, has installed a plant for the mass production of domestic woodware, tools, handles and shoe-heels. The shoe heel factory was one of the new industries introduced into the city during the industrial depression of the 1930s and this thriving industry now produces a very large proportion of the requirements of shoe-making in this country. The same firm were pioneers in the kiln drying of timber. The production of flooring blocks and other hard-wood products in Hull has in late years made a considerable contribution towards bringing the port into prominence as a hard-wood importing centre, and thus greatly assisting the general trade of the port with Africa and the Americas. The preservation of timber by impregnation with suitable chemicals is one of the facilities offered by specialist firms. 


The needs of the fishing industry have led to the establishment of many firms producing wooden boxes, certain types being lined with aluminium sheeting for hygienic purposes.


The establishment in this area of the Dutch system of intensive cultivation of vegetables was assisted by one timber and box-making firm whose experience has enabled them to develop a new industry for the supply of Dutch lights to all the vegetable-growing areas of this country and even to export overseas.


Large quantities of sawdust and wood chippings accumulate as a result of the saw-milling activities. Apart from the requirements of the fish-curing industry this waste material has usually been burnt and could not be converted into a useful product. This material is now ground to meet the needs of a number of industries, the finer grades being used as fillers in the production of plastics and linoleum, and the rubber, tin plate, foundry and explosives industries also provide outlets for this product. Markets for this new venture have been found in North America and on the continent’.

21st Century

In the year 2010 Hull retains its importance in the timber trade, being the most important port for the importation of softwoods into the United Kingdom. Hull and the Humber ports account for over 50% of the total UK imports of timber in an average year. Timber remains the predominant product on Hull’s many dock wharves and dockside storage yards centuries after the establishment of the trade.

Trade Directory references

Local trade directories give a good idea of growth in the timber trade in Hull; the following are samples from some early directories. Note that many merchants had yards on the north side of Queen’s Dock, which maps of the period show, was given over completely to ‘raff yards’. Many of these timber yards remained on the north side of Queen’s Dock, south of Dock Street, until the early 20th Century.


John Barnes, raff merchant & timber merchant, South End & Salthouse Lane
Middleton & Co, raff merchant’s & rope maker’s, High Street & Wincolmlee                
Samuel Thompson, raff merchant, Wincolmlee
John Wilson, raff merchant, Salthouse Lane


John Barnes, raff merchant & timber merchant, Humber Street & Lime Street
James Bing, raff merchant, North Side Dock
Simon Cook, raff merchant, Witham
Dodsworth & Peacock, raff merchant’s, South Side Dock
William Ekins, raff merchant, Grimston Street
Richard Harrison, raff merchant, North Side Dock ­ res. Dock Street
William Middleton & Son, raff merchant’s, Trippett
Richard Moxon & Sons, raff merchant’s, High Street
Thomas Parkin, timber merchant, Witham
George Peacock, raff merchant, Dock Street
Thomas Richardson, raff merchant, Dock Street
Shadrack Wride, raff merchant, Charterhouse Lane


Allinson & Co, Mahogany & raff merchant’s, West End Old Dock
John Barkworth & Son, raff merchant’s, Dock Street
David Barnes, raff merchant, 97 High Street
Thomas Brown, raff merchant, 11 Waltham Street counting house North Side Dock
Simon Cook, raff merchant, Witham
William Ecken, raff merchant, 9 Grimston Street
Hammond & Smith, raff merchant’s & ship owner’s, 31 Posterngate
Richard & John Harrison, raff merchant’s, North Side Dock c.h.
Simeon Malleys, raff merchant & Commission agent, 45 George Street c.h., North Side Dock
William Monday, raff merchant, 6 Jarratt Street c.h., & Yard N. Side Dock
Richard & William Moxon & Sons, raff merchant’s & ship owner’s, 20 North End
Newmarch & Tealby, raff merchant’s, Thornton Street
William Osbourne & Son, raff merchant’s, 35 Trippett
George Peacock, raff merchant, 1 Dock Street, yard Dock Side
Robinson & Foord, raff merchant’s, 15 North Street, Dock Side & c.h. 1 Dock Office Row
Thomas Staniland, raff merchant, 51 George Street, c.h. Dock Side
Thomas Taylor, raff merchant, 31 Prospect Street, c.h. North Side Dock
Robert Tealby, raff merchant, 11 Dock Street
Timothy Thorney, raff merchant, 10 Worship Street, raff yard N. Side Dock
B B Thompson, Widow & Sons, raff merchants, 1 Grimston Street
Christopher Wade, raff merchant, 42 Dock Street
Wells & Morley, raff merchant’s, 148 High Street, yard North Side Dock
Weston & Thornton, raff merchant’s, 43 High Street
Wilkinson & Thorney, raff merchant’s, 50 George Street, c.h. North Side Dock
John Wilson, raff merchant, 7 Worship Street, yard N. Side Dock
Winter & Sampson, raff merchant’s, 19 Mason Street, yard North Side Dock
Youles & Huish, raff merchant’s, Prospect Street, Yard North Side Dock


David Baines, timber merchant, Humber Street, residence 98 High Street
Barkworth & Spaldin, timber merchant’s, Dock Street
Thos. Brown, timber merchant & ship owner, Old Dock Side, res. West Parade
Ralph Clark, sawyer & timber dealer, 19 English Street, res. Parade Row
Simon Cook, timber merchant, Witham
Wm. Dauber, timber & slate merchant, West End Old Dock, res. 14 Bond Street
John Drewery, victualler Spread Eagle, 1 Castle Street & timber merchant, Queen Street
John Dunning, timber merchant (Mahogany), Old Dock Side
Rich. & John Harrison, ship owners & timber merchants, 49 Garrison Side
Joseph Holmes, mahogany merchant, Queen Street
John Hurst, timber merchant & ship owner, Old Dock Side, res. 24 Humber Street
Stephen Kirkwood, victualler ‘Opening New Dock’ ph & timber merchant, Queen Street
John & Edwin Lilley, Mahogany & hardwood merchants, North Side Old Dock, res. 6 Wright St. [John]
Maisters & Archbell, timber & oil merchants & seedcrusher’s, Trippett
Simeon Malleys, timber merchant, North Side Old Dock, res.45 George Street
Wm. Monday, timber merchant, North Side Old Dock, res. 6 Jarratt Street
John Newmarch & Sons, timber merchant, Thornton Street, res. 2 Charlotte Street
Wm. Osbourne, timber merchant, 5 Trippett, res. 22 Story Street
Dennis, John & George Peacock, timber merchant’s, North Side Old Dock & Dock Street, res. Great Union Street [Dennis]
Robinson, Foord & Smith, timber, deal & stave merchants, North Side Old Dock
Wm. Runton, timber merchant & joiner, Great Union Street, Witham
Wm. Shaw, Mahogany merchant, Old Dock Side, res. 6 South Street
Tealby, Dalton & Co., timber merchants & ship owners, Garrison Side
Elizabeth Tealby, timber merchant, res. Thornton Street
Henry Dalton, timber merchant, res. 18 Mason Street
Henry Thompson, timber merchant, 9 George Street
Timothy Thorney, timber merchant & broker, North Side Old Dock, res. 10 Worship Street
Abraham Wade, timber merchant, res. 28 Harcourt St.
John Wade, timber merchant, res. Summergangs
Richard Wade & Sons, timber & mahogany merchants, Garrison Side
Wells & Morley, timber merchants & insurance brokers, North Side Old Dock
Wm. Wells, timber merchant, res. 1 York Street
Winter, Simpson & Whaplate, timber merchant’s, North Side Old Dock
Richard Simpson, timber merchant, res. 11 Charles Street
T W Winter, raff merchant, res. 19 Mason Street
Wm. Whaplate, timber merchant, res. 14 Portland Place
Shadrack Wride, timber merchant, 11 Charterhouse Lane
John, Henry & Edward Youle, timber merchant’s, North Side Old Dock
John Youle, merchant, res. 3 George Street

Many other merchants were listed, and some must also have been timber merchants, e.g. Newbald, Newmarch & Tealby who were listed as merchants on the ‘North Side [of Queen’s] Dock’ in 1803, and are known as timber merchants.

A well-known local brand

The story of Horsley, Smith & Co is a good example of a long-standing Hull company, and one that will be remembered by many as one of those names that you just knew – if you came from Hull, a name that was subliminally re-enforced by their many vehicles travelling around the city and beyond. By no means an old company, timber merchants’ Horsley, Smith & Co were first listed in local trade directories in 1872 as ‘Horsley, Smith & Co, Queen’s Dock, North Side’.

Joseph Henry Horsley (1850-1917) and Alexander Smith (1849-1927) set up in partnership in 1871, and a formal agreement was signed in January 1872, leasing land for their yards and premises from the Hull Dock Company at Queen’s Dock, where their head offices remained (in Vernon Street) for over 60 years. Both men had been apprentices at one of Hull’s largest timber importers’ Bryson, Jameson, & Co, who were also ship owners and timber merchants – also based at Queen's dock, North side. In 1873 Horsley, Smith & Co expanded with extra land being leased from the Dock Company at Queen’s Dock, and land and part of a timber pond at Victoria Dock in 1874. It was at the Victoria Dock site that they erected probably the first timber storage shed in Hull.

As a child J H Horsley, the Hull born son of a west Yorkshire provision merchant, had attended boarding school in Wakefield, and later lived at the family home at no.64 Lister Street whilst an apprentice timber merchant (1871 Census – aged 20). During the 1870s, and independent, J H Horsley lived at Newington Villas, and later no.6 Albermarle Terrace – newly built on the north side of the developing Anlaby Road, just beyond Argyle Street (see right). The 1881 Census recorded a typical merchant’s move away from the grimy town, to the leafy lanes of Cottingham, where J H and his family were recorded at Southfield House, Thwaite Street (next to Thwaite Hall); Horsley remained here, having enlarged the property several times, until his death in 1917. Alexander Smith meanwhile, was the son of a Scotsman – recorded as a wharfinger in the 1851 Census, and Alexander’s early life was spent at the family home at no.7 Beverley Road. As Horsley left for Cottingham in the late 1870s, Smith took over his former home at no.6 Albermarle Terrace, where he was recorded with his family and staff in the 1881 Census. By 1890 Smith had moved to a new home, again away from the smells and noises of the rapidly enlarging town, at Woodleigh on the peaceful West Hill, in Hessle. Smith remained here until his death in 1927.

Like many of their counterparts Horsley, Smith & Co imported timber that was mainly intended for the building trade, as well as shipbuilding, establishing a reputation for supplying the best grade stock from Russia and Sweden. By 1878 they had a sawmill and stabling at a site off the Hedon Road known as the Baltic Sawmills, and continued to expand their business by acquisition; in 1881 they took over Ropkins & Co Ltd, a small timber importer with a wharf on the River Nene at Wisbech, and their subsidiary Whitehead & Co, which had a retail yard in Wisbech town.

The business was sold in 1901, for over £160,000, and became a limited company, whilst remaining very much a family-run company. Three of Joseph H Horsley's sons were directors of the company after his death in 1917 ­ remaining so until their own deaths in the 1930s. Joseph H Horsley’s daughter, Lucy Adelaide Horsley (1879-1957) married Alexander Smith's son, Alexander Alec-Smith (1877-1952), who was director of the company from 1901 to 1952, as well as chairman from 1927 to 1952. His son Rupert Alexander Alec-Smith, in turn became a director (albeit briefly) and was also the founder of the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire. Several other family members remained with the company until its closure.

Little can be added to the succinct summary of the company’s later history, as described in the 1971 history of the company (see bibliography) summarised here: ‘In 1903 Hewetson & Lambert in Hull was acquired and in 1912 T.F. Wood & Cos business in York acquired. Horsley Smith & Co. Ltd. was incorporated on 30 May 1901 and continued until 1927. Horsley Smith & Co. (London) Ltd, formed 1926. By this time the Hull firm had Abbey Street sawing and planing mills and creosote works with sidings from the main line. The firm also ran J A Hewetson & Co Ltd, Dansom Lane, sawmillers, hardwood, softwood and plywood importers (who made well-known mouldings) which company had been formed in 1903 to take over Hewetson & Lambert. This company`s business was made up largely of home grown timbers for agricultural needs and as public sawmillers, and had a good market for quality mouldings, picture frames, and imported hardwoods; a speciality was picture backing. The company was among the first to import the then new product plywood, and had drying kilns. Horsley Smith & Co (Floors) Ltd was incorporated on 3 December 1936 to operate in the south of England, and in November 1936 a 6½ acre site was bought at Hayes, Middlesex. 1952 Coronation shed built at Victoria Dock. R W Brooke & Co Ltd, an old established firm of flooring contractors based in Liverpool was bought in May 1966 and in March 1967 the business of S. Bennett (Floorings) Ltd. Horsley Smith Group Ltd 1965-1968 – the company went public. Horsley Smith & Co Ltd 1965-1971 – premises acquired in Birmingham, Leeds, Derby and Nottingham. In March 1967 the Docks Board announced that future plans for Victoria Dock would deprive the company of all but 3 of its 8½ acres, including the site of Coronation shed, the dock office and canteen. The company had envisaged this problem and had been buying up property adjacent to its Baltic and Abbey Street sites. Hull Corporation offered a further 5 acres at the rear of Baltic Mills, and the opportunity arose to purchase an 11½ acre site at Tower House, Marfleet, as a timber terminal for packaged softwood. It was ideally situated for the purpose, close to King George Dock, the most modern dock in the port capable of taking the large bulk carrier ships then in service. Two vast storage sheds were erected on the land behind Baltic Mill, to be known as the Pelham Street site, and at Tower House 10 acres were developed and a re-saw mill and covered loading bay erected. The Dock Labour Scheme allocated the firm 41 men as a Registered Port Employer when it had applied for only 25, however on appeal this was rescinded and the company used labour contractors until giving up tenancy of the Victoria Dock site in 1969. 1969 the Birmingham depot was transferred to the control of Horsley Smith & Jewson (Midlands) Ltd. December 1969 the last remaining stocks of timber were removed from Victoria Dock. In 1968 discussions took place with Jewsons of Norwich and on 23 September 1968 Horsley Smith Group Ltd., became Horsley Smith & Jewson Ltd. April 1970, the decision to merge with J. Gliksten & Son Ltd (the largest importers of hardwoods into the country) to form International Timber Corporation Ltd, the largest company in the timber trade in the UK.’

Many more changes have taken place in the intervening years but the trade set in place by the initial partnership continues to trade in its diluted form to this day. 

Sawyers & Sawmills

Joyce Bellamy noted: ‘Saw milling has probably been the most lucrative off-shoot of Hull’s large trade in timber and one that has enjoyed a related level of growth and success. Saw milling was probably the defining factor in the growth and stability of the timber imports in Hull during the 19th Century. Its early growth promoted a steep learning curve in terms of automation and the development of machinery within the industry. Prior to the Great Exhibition of 1851 woodworking machinery had remained primitive; planing and moulding machines had been in existence for many years; in 1776 Hatton invented an early planing machine but it was quickly superseded by the improved and more efficient machines of Samuel Bentham, the so-called father of saw-milling. His inventions provided the basis for the planing, boring, tenoning and mortising of wood throughout the late 1770s and well into the 1780s. Joseph Bramah improved upon Bentham’s planing machine in 1802 when he produced a machine that would also feed the wood through rather than remain static. The first band saw was patented in 1808 and was constructed like many of the previous inventions, by those carpenters who would eventually use them. Windmills powered most machines invented in this early period; historian Tickell described a wind sawmill in Wincolmlee in 1798 – belonging to Mr Alderman Osbourne, the first ever seen in this neighbourhood’.

Following the Great Exhibition of 1851 many more new machines and inventions propelled the saw-milling industry into a period of huge growth and many foreign sawmills benefited greatly from the British Exhibition. The inventions on display (mostly American) were adopted by countries that were soon to become rivals in trade; the next exhibition in 1862 saw many more English inventions. The local trade directories give an idea of the numbers in these trades, and the following are figures from each decade for comparison.

1814Two sawyers, John Miller No.2 Dock Street and Robert Snell, victualler & sawyer no.16 Fawcett Street.
1826Nine sawmills and hackney-saw pits and 30 timber merchants
183811 sawmills, two saw makers and 30 timber merchants
184212 sawmills, 22 timber & raff merchants
18516 sawmills, 28 timber & raff merchants
1863Four steam sawmills and 28 raff & timber merchants
186714 sawmills and 37 raff & timber merchants
187214 sawmills and 30 timber dealers & merchants
18852 raff merchants, 17 sawing mills and 45 timber merchants
18928 sawing, planing and moulding mill proprietors, and 52 two timber merchants & sawmill proprietors.
189528 sawmills and 42 timber merchants & importers (11 of which had their own sawmills included within the 28 noted)
190536 sawmills, and 63 timber merchants & importers (18 of which had their own sawmills included within the 36 noted)
1915Nine sawmills, and 55 timber merchants and importers (three of which had their own sawmills included within the nine noted)
1929Eight sawmills, and 83 timber merchants and importers (two of which had their own sawmill included within the eight noted).
1939Five sawmills, and 85 timber merchants and importers (two of which had their own sawmills included within the five noted)
1943At least four sawmills.
1967Six sawmills, 35 timber merchants and 33 timber importers (six of which owned the sawmills listed)
2001One small sawmill and 14 timber merchants listed in the local telephone directory.
2010Three ‘timber agents & brokers’, five timber importers, and eight timber merchants listed in the local telephone directory. 



A selection of saw-millers in Hull c.1904 taken from the Timber & Woodworking Machinery Annual

Anderson & Co

Principally preparing softwood goods for the joinery trade and building trade, including doors etc. Specialised in heavy mouldings to architect’ patterns, matched boarding in pitch-pine and oak as well as soft wood; also roofing board for Dutch barns etc. drying sheds and paving blocks.

Beecroft & Wightman Ltd

Established 1864 in Bradford. Main produce was high-class mouldings and builders goods. Following disastrous fire in 1897, which destroyed all works and stock, moved to more suitable mill and 7,740 square yards of works in Burleigh Street, Hull. Covered five acres in 1904. Forty to 50 planing, sawing and moulding machines for converting bought-in wood from rough to finished product. Additional yard and shedding bought pre-1904 for storage and seasoning of wood. Works connected to Hull and Barnsley railway with sidings running along both sides of mill, connecting works directly with docks. Main sawmill 220 feet long and 90 feet wide. Kiln-drying shed 90 by 45 feet, and four storeys high. Highly mechanised with conveyors for loading direct from machines and exhaust for removal of waste, which was fed direct to boiler that in turn fed the power boilers. Products included electric casings, oak picture mouldings and prepared joinery. Large trade in ordinary timber, and deals in the rough. Mill had special equipment for manufacture of paving blocks, which covered most of the main streets in the city centre. Maintained a presence in Bradford.

Braithwaite, Jackson & Co

Originating as G W Braithwaite changed to above in 1903. Speciality was Honduras mahogany, importing full cargoes at a time direct from Belize. Large stock of seasoned boards, newels, squares, handrails and scantlings always in stock. Another speciality was slating laths cut by a special machine for evenness.

R Canty & Sons

Recently built in 1904 in Dansom Lane. Principally devoted to wood turning.

E Good & Sons Ltd

Recently built in 1904. Modern high speed planing and moulding equipment capable of taking sizes up to five inches by 12, and having an average speed of 65 feet per minute.  A large horizontal saw with 40 feett travelling table for cutting timber up to 36 inches. An equilibrium deal frame for sawing deals up to six inches by 18, a lath cutting machine, double cutting radial arm-feed circular saw bench etc. etc.

Hollis Bros & Co

Erected a mill on Hedon Road in 1897 specialising in block flooring especially Maple. Prevented (with others) the possible widening of the road at this point for trams.  Also had large drying sheds on citadel estate. Traded with building trade, engineering companies and the railways.  Also had works in Leicester.

The Hull Timber & Sawmill Company

Specialised in oak but also dealt in floorings, mouldings and general produce. Oak imports included Crown wainscot billets, Stettin, Dantzic (sic) and Odessa oak butts and logs, and American planks and boards. Also imported softwoods including Quebec yellow pine, pitch pine deals and boards. Petersburg red and whitewood riven spokes, canary wood etc.  Sawmills situated on Hedon Road with entrances from Prospect Place and Thomas Street.  Sawing, planing departments, moulding shop timber and deal sawing machines, storage yards, drying sheds and offices. Four overhead cranes for heavy timber. Employed about 60 plus clerical.

Laverack & Goddard Ltd

Formed in Anlaby Road by Herbert Laverack in 1872; Edward Goddard becoming partner in 1876 at which point the mills in Great Union Street were erected. All works destroyed by fire 11 August 1887 but rebuilt in improved manner and augmented by Witham sawmill purchased from the Seward family. Became a private limited liability company following the death of Mr Laverack in 1892. Both sites added to in including a warehouse in connection with the door factory built in 1903. Works covered three acres plus yards. Drypool yard; planing mill for production of skirtings, floorings etc.; large mill devoted to mouldings; department for manufacture of doors, joinery works, wood-turning shops, blacksmiths’ and fitters’ depts. About 70 machines at both works in 1904; 17 planing and moulding, six timber frames and other saws for log conversion, 25 for deep cutting band and circular sawing, six mortising machines, numerous lathes, sand-papering and other tools and four power driven travelling cranes. Fifty-six rullies and other vehicles, 200 manual and 25 office staff.

John Mallinson & Co

Sawmill situated in Hyperion Street covering about 3,000 square yards in 1904. 

Martin & Co

Formed circa 1869 and ran by founder L Martin in Seward Street Hull until his death in 1898. Manufactured mainly boxes for soap, paint, varnish and high quality boxes for confectionery. Turning out 200 to 300 boxes a week.

Pickard and Geary

W H Pickard one of the then youngest members of the saw milling trade in Hull founded the business in 1893 in partnership with John Geary.

Rawson Brothers

Mills in Scott Street formerly run as a sawmill by William Thornham, and said to have been one of the oldest sawmills in Hull when in his hands. Established as Rawson’s from at least 1882. Principally supplying boxes, catering for mineral water, confectionery and dry salters. Also supplying small boxes for varnishes etc. with internal divisions.

William Sissons & Co

Situated within the large group of sawmills along Hedon Road having been at the Victoria Sawmills since 1858. A corner site with outlets to Merrick and Thomas Street, as well as Hedon Road. W A Sissons, the sole partner in 1904, was also proprietor of Sissons & White makers of steam pile drivers. Plant in 1904 included four planing machines, two moulders, two timber frames, rack bench, circular and band saws and general joinery.

R Wade, Sons & Co Ltd, Creosote Works

Renowned timber importers not essentially known as saw-millers but dealt mainly in creosoted wooden goods. Works acquired from Thomas Seward in 1887; larger facilities constructed circa 1890 enabling timbers of up to 90 feet in length to be handled.  Following the removal of the level-crossing on Hedon Road in 1902 the site was moved to Raven Street, a site with added bonus of railway sidings. In 1904 works consisted of three creosoting cylinders, a sawmill complete with machinery for conversion of fencing, paving blocks etc. Principal business was creosoting of telegraph poles for amongst others; the government, National Telephone, and leading railway companies.

Directly related local trades


Hull’s boom, and the huge growth in the population during the 19th Century, brought a huge influx of workers needing homes or lodgings, which had a direct effect on the number of jobs for – amongst others – joiners, roofers and slaters, lath renders, scaffolders and ladder makers

Ship & boat builders

Hull had six main yards c.1800, kept busy by the requirements of our hostilities with France and the demand for whaling ships. This increased trade caused increased growth in the ship’s mast, block and pump makers for example.

Hulls increased workforce in turn brought an increase in demand for other goods dependent on the timber trade itself; umbrella makers, undertakers (coffins), trunk and box makers, clock makers, wheelwrights, coach builders, cabinet makers and upholsterers, furniture makers, basket makers, billiard table manufacturers, brush manufacturers, patten makers, clog makers, toy makers, tool makers, spinning wheel makers, sedan chair makers, and the list goes on. Hull’s growth in manufacturing and processing (seed-crushing, paint & colour manufacture, soaps etc.) also created demand in other trades that were in some way dependant on the timber trade, e.g. – timber and raff merchants, sawyers and saw millers, patent log manufacturers, moulders, coopers and cask makers, thrashing machine makers, veneer makers, turners in wood etc.


Bow-stave: a shaft of wood, usually curved used to make a bow for shooting arrows.

Clap-board: thin wood used for coverings e.g. wooden house covering similar to modern lap-fencing. 

Deal: a board or plank (generally spruce or pine) of considerable length and usually at least seven inches wide, which was pre-sawn and required no further sawing.

Pit-prop: pieces of timber used to support the walls and roofs of tunnels in mining operations.

Raff: a term initially used to describe lower quality, rough-sawn timber and also later used to describe the fibre used to make raffia bags etc. and any ‘saleable rubbish’.

Sawyer: A person who worked in a timber mill or pit, sawing timber into boards.

Spar: A long piece of timber of unspecified thickness, often directly related to nautical usage i.e. for masts, booms, yards and gaffs etc.

Uffer: narrow diameter pole, made from smaller felled tree trunks, as opposed to larger poles that were used for telegraph poles etc. 

Wainscot: Boarding or panelling usually for the purpose of boarding a wall of a room and often of Oak.


Victoria County History of the County of York and the East Riding. Volume 1. The City of Kingston upon Hull. Edited by K.J. Allison, Oxford University Press for the Institute of Historical Research. 1969.

A History of Hull. E. Gillett & K.A. MacMahon, 1980 revised reprinted edition, Hull University Press. Hull, 1989.

Hull in the Eighteenth Century, a Study in Economic and Social History. Gordon Jackson, Oxford University Press. 1972

The City and County of Kingston upon Hull. Kingston upon Hull City Council guide. Undated, 1950s.

The Trade and Shipping of Hull 1500-1700.  R Davis, East Yorkshire Local History Society. Hull, 1964

The Trade and Shipping of Hull 1300-1500. W R Childs, East Yorkshire Local History Society. Hull, 1990.

The Trade and Shipping of Nineteenth Century Hull. J M Bellamy, East Yorkshire Local History Society. Hull, 1971

Timber & Woodworking Machinery Annual. Special edition, 30 March 1904.

The Saw-Milling Industry of the North East Coast of England. G E Toogood and E Wright.

Anglo-Norwegian Timber Trade in the 18th Century. H S K Kent, Ec.H.R. Second series, viii 63.

Cottingham Houses. K J Allison, Cottingham Local History Society. Cottingham, 2001

Horsley, Smith & Company 1871-1971. Anthony D.C. Smith, Horsley Smith & Jewson Ltd, Hull, 1971.

The records of Horsley, Smith & Co were deposited in the Brynmor Jones Library by International Timber Softwoods Ltd in September 1978 (now within the Hull History Centre) and cover almost 100 years of Horsley Smith and Co in Hull. Hull History Centre has further records of the company filed under ‘DHS’. 

© Paul L Gibson – Hull – June 2010

Archived by
the British Library