Total Pageviews

Thursday 10 November 2016

Fact 78. Seven Sea started in Hull.

It had long been known by fishermen that cod liver oil was very good for the treatment of bone disease, rheumatism and malnutrition, but the oil of those days was very different to today's. It tasted ghastly, was a very dark colour and smelled of rotten fish, as basically that was what it was! After catching the fish the livers were placed in a barrel and left to rot until the oil separated. It wasn't until around 1850 that steam was applied to heat up the livers and this gave a higher yield and a 'cleaner' oil. It was still, what they would today call, a niche market.

In the 1890's nine out of ten children in the UK had rickets, a bone disease similar to osteoporosis in older people. This indicated that much more research was needed to find the cause. By the 1920's it was found that it was caused by a lack of vitamins A and D.

Image result for rickets
Classic signs of rickets.

The cod liver oil produced at the time was not largely of medicinal quality, and what there was came mainly from Norway. By the 1930's trawler owners in Hull were looking to get more value from their fishing and experimented with fitting their trawlers with steam boilers to render the livers down at sea, whilst they were still fresh and store the oil in tanks to be landed when landing their fish. This gave a better quality, colour and with a less fishy taste and smell. The oil was pumped to the Hull Fish Meal Company and it was largely used for adding to animal feed stuffs and for vetereniary oils, as well as oils used in things like steel rolling mills and tanneries to make leather, especially for furniture and chamois leather.

The enterprise that became Seven Seas was conceived by Owen Hellyer and Tom Boyd, both Hull trawler owners. Owen had a great understanding of business and was keen to learn about the chemistry and technology required. He was a keen sportsman, but shunned publicity. Tom was a forceful character building his fleet from nothing, and also a keen sportsman. Along with Ernest Dawson, who had worked for Isaac Spencer & Co. in Aberdeen who produced fish oil, they set up British Cod Liver Oil Producers. (Hull) Ltd. Initialy the company took over the oil facility of the Hull Fish Meal Co. on the south side of St. Andrew's Dock. There was always a plan to build a new factory, and originally this was to be just west of the north end of where the Humber Bridge is now. However it was finally built at Marfleet, hygiene and cleanliness was the by-word, and opened in 1935.

Image result for seven seas marfleet factory
The factory at Marfleet in it's final guise. 

'Solvitax' was the first trademark used, and it is still in use today for veterinary products. In 1936 Earnest Dawson returned home and Kenneth MacLennan joined the company from Lever Brothers where he had been working of vitamin technology. He also set the company down the advertising road by pushing to build a decorated float for the Lord Mayor of Hull's parade. The idea of a cod on a lorry playing 'A Life on the Ocean Wave' became a well known sight all over the country, and abroad.

Image result for seven seas cod history
Advertising float for Seven Seas. It became known as 'King Cod'

At this time their main market was still non medical. It was Maclannan's plan to move into the higher quality field. It was he who came up with the brand name 'Seven Seas', and it was also his idea to put cod liver oil in capsules to make the oil easier to consume. The great expansion could have been halted by the coming of WWII as trawling was severely curtailed due to enemy action and the taking up of the trawlers by the Royal Navy. However the company were able to import oil from Iceland, and the Ministry of Food gave free cod liver oil to all children under 5 and pregnant and nursing mothers as a supplement to the rations. There were 400 hundred ladies involved in the bottling line. The bottles were returned from clinics and cleaned in Marfleet. Both of these ensured a good supply and market after the war was won, and the plant expanded by over 50% in 1948.

Image result for seven seas cod liver oil wwii history
Cod Liver Oil being given to orphans of WWII. In fact the subsidy for cod liver oil did not cease in the UK until 1971 as the Government realised that the generation that the children of the war were the healthiest ever in the UK.

After the war the company's range extended further. As wealth increased around the world meat production increased and fish oil was added more to animal feed to cope. The company also started to hydrogenate the oil for use in margarine and normal fish oil was used for 50% of margarine. They also became involved in refining vegetable oils too, and soon realised that being known as the British Cod Liver Oil Co was a bit of a hindrance and the name was changed to the Marfleet Refining Company in 1955. The British Cod Liver Oil Co continued to be used for the supply of cod liver oils however.

The company invested in research and sort to itemise the beneficial components of fish oil in order to market them separately as well as combined. The factory was producing 50 to 60 tons of oil a day. By 1965 they were processing about 100 million livers each year and sold their products in around 100 countries. Research started to show that fish oils assisted in lowering cholesterol, and also supplied 'brain' lipids and they started to separate these out and market them as well as Vitamins A and D. However they could not prove that cod  liver oil was a medicine. This led them to start marketing into the health products business.

Image result for cod liver oil production process
Time has moved on from rotting livers in a barrel and skimming the oil off the top!

In 1974 Imperial Foods bought the company and it changed from a cooperative company to 'big business'. However this did supply the capital to take advantage of the trend of health supplements etc and in 1982 the name Seven Seas was used to start the Seven Seas Health Care Ltd. supplying such products as vitamins, garlic oil, ginseng, wheatgerm and lecithin. Cod liver oil was still doing well in less developed markets. In 1996 Seven Seas was bought from Imperial by the German pharmaceutical and chemical company Merck. They were able to take advantage of further research into Omega 3 and fatty acids for health benefits and  now supply a range of products from mineral supplements to joint care and everything in between.

The factory on Hedon Road closed in August 2015, and the remaining Sales and Marketing office was moved to Merck's head office in London. This was almost the last industry that could be connected with the once great deep sea fishing from Hull. On the other hand it could be said that every time the names Seven Seas is seen on the shelves it is a reminder of Hull and the company's roots.

No comments:

Post a Comment