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Friday 27 March 2015

Fact 62. Reckitts started making starch in Hull.

The founders of Reckitts came from strong stock. Issac Reckitt was the founder of the business but his grandfather reveals the determination of the family. His Grandfather was called William and was born near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. He became a Quaker Minister and after preaching all over England and Ireland was called to do missionary work in America when he was 50. He set sail in 1756 and when just clear of land his vessel was captured by French Privateers. England was at war with France and William was imprisoned for six months before being exchanged. This experience did not deter him and a month later he set off again. After safely making it to America he traveled over 6000 miles in the space of  three years including areas where Indian wars were underway. In 1759 he decided to continue his preaching in Barbados and was again captured by French privateers. This time he was only held a few weeks before been landed. He then made his way back to Wainfleet where the family had moved in 1760. He went back to America  between 1764 and 1766 and one of his sons settled there. William died at Wainfleet in 1796.

One of Wiiliam's sons, Thomas, took over the farming near Wainfleet and he had a son called Thomas and  'our' Issac. Issac was born in 1792 and was later apprenticed to a corn factor in Bury St. Edmunds. We had come out of his time in 1814 and returned to Wainfleet to help hos Father and set up in business for himself. The first entry in his account book shows that he bought 7lb of wool from his elder brother, at 1/6d per lb, for 10/6d! Despite working hard and even having a partner for a time they never made much money trading in wool, corn, muslin and linen and even investing in lead mines in Derbyshire. His elder brother Thomas had moved to Boston and the two brothers, with financial help from family and friends built the Maud Foster Mill in 1819 that is still there today.

The Maud Foster Mill in Boston built by the Reckitt brothers Thomas and Issac in 1819.

Here Issac married Ann Coleby and this was a crucial factor the in the future company. Ann was steadfast in her help and assistance to her husband but also her sisters had married well which meant that there was financial support available when required. Most of their seven children were born in Boston. The mill did well for a few years but the harvests failed for several years and prices were adversely affected. Issac left the partnership in 1833 and by 1835 Thomas became insolvent and sold the mill. By this time Issac had tried his hand at being a corn factor again, this time in Nottingham and despite hard craft and lean times they never made any capital from 1833 to 1840. He was searching about for business opportunities around the country. One of his other brothers, John had moved to Hull and told him the place was booming and there were many openings such as opening up as a broker or commissioning agent, in the whalebone or colour business. There was a chance for working with his brother Thomas again but he moved to Manchester and opened a school. By July 1840 Issac had settled on buying a starch manufacturer and the family moved form Nottingham to Hull. He had no capital and at the age of 48 had a young family. To his credit he had an abundance of hard work and good family connections. 

Reckitts Starch works at Stoneferry, courtesy of Ron Turner.

The new project was a starch works that was been sold by a Charles Middleton who was allegedly leaving Hull to get away from his father-in-law! The starch works were built in 1835 to the east of Sutton Drain in an area that had housed windmills with seven in the area. Issac rented the works but purchased the stock from money lent to him by family members. His first sales were made on 15th December 1840. Things didn't go well and the works were flooded in 1841.  Issac's son managed to persuade his father to allow him home from school in Newcastle to assist. The sales were carried out through agents and their commission meant that he made little profit. To eke out a leaving he fed pigs on the wheat by products of the starch making and sold 45 in 1842. The eldest son, Charles, died of consumption at the end of 1842 adding to the stress on the family.

Isaac Reckitt
Issac Reckitt.

The family fortunes started to swing into profit when George came out of his apprenticeship at 18 and started with the business as travelling salesman. He had no salary and he saved the agents commission. He worked tirelessly around the company. Another good fortune was receiving the formula for making starch from sago in place of a bad debt. They also realised that concentrating on selling soluble starch was where the profit was. Starch had been made from wheat but as the price became very high been able to use sago flour meant that they could maintain their profits without raising their prices. The business was nearly curtailed when it was discovered that the starch works and the land were to be sold in 1847. Issac had no money to purchase them outright at the time. However negotiations dragged on and as Issac had managed to start paying off previous debts and that business had picked up he was able to secure the works and land for the sum of £1125 in August 1848.

In 1848 George was made a partner and son Francis came out of his apprenticeship and started as a traveller. George looking after the Midland and the south and Francis the north. Frederic, another son was experimenting with starch and was using arrow root to make drinks and different flours and formulas to make starch. At this time there were perhaps 25 girls working in the factory mainly packing etc. By 1849 business was doing so well that George was suggesting that they install gas and machinery to pack and label the packets. The youngest son James joined the business in 1850 and shared the north of England as a commercial traveler The sons had realised that advertising their products helped enormously to open doors for them so Reckitt and Son were early user of the media. In 1851 they managed to obtain recommendations from Louis Napoleon III and The Emperor of Russia to use.

All the time the company had dealt in other articles such as matches, candles, bath brick, glue and even cranberries. The big breakthrough came in early when they traded in some Ultramarine for laundry blue. Also in that year they started selling black lead for polishing fire grates and hearths that they bought from a company in London. It was to be 1855 before Reckitt  and Sons started making it for themselves. (As Francis had also become a partner in the business it had now become Reckitt and Sons!) However it wasn't to be until 1857 before these products matched that of starch. Business was doing well. George had been elected to the Hull City Council and the brothers were at head office having recruited and trained new salesmen. Numbers at the starch works had also increased. In March 1862 Issac died and a new era for the company began.

A biscuit factory had been built and provided a large turnover for the company but very little profit so it wasn't replaced when it burned down in 1866. The good name was sold to Peek Frean and Co and the biscuit invented by Francis appears to have been the Osbourne biscuit that is still made today. At around this time starch and blue were equal in sales for the company and black lead the same as them both together and contributed profits in the same proportion. The total profit was £4298. In 1868 a young man of 21 joined the company as private clerk to James Reckitt. He was to make a big impression on the company and in the City of Hull as a whole. In 1879 the partnership of of Issac Reckitt and Sons was dissolved and a private joint stock company started called Reckitt and Sons Ltd. The stock was all held by the family with Directors being Francis, James and George. The first Chairman was Francis and this was to alternate yearly with James as George had left the company earlier to move to London and no ran the London office. Sales were starting to be made overseas with the first to Montreal in 1864. They ventured into the making of ultramarine for the laundry blue in Hull and buying a pit in Germany to supply special earths for their polish, a graphite mine in Ceylon and a factory making methylated spirits in Ipswich. Everything was going so well that they needed more capital to expand so the decided to form a public company in 1888. The new company was valued at £450,000. T.R. Ferens was added to the board as were the works manager and some third generation of the family. By 1895 the company was valued at £1,326.670 which was a growth of approx nine times in 15 years. In 1894 James Reckitt accepted a baronetcy mainly for his services to the Liberal Party. Also as he had fought hard to provide free libraries for the public. Having lost he gave a libray from his own pocket for east Hull that still bears his name. James and Francis bought the railway hotel in Withernsea that had failed and gave that as the Hull and East Riding Convalescent Home. T.R. Ferens also bought and gave a plot of land near to the factory on Dansom Lane as a children's playground.

Sir James Reckitt.

At this time the 'power brands' we coming to the fore. Robin Starch, Reckitt's Blue, Zebra Black Lead. Brasso was added in 1905, Cherry Blossom shoe polish was added to the portfolio around 1912. Expansion abroad was also rapid. Being a Quaker family they had the welfare of their staff at the front of their minds and had started an early non contributory pension scheme in around 1920 and welfare for the workers was prominent with above average wages, rest breaks and rest rooms along with many sports and social groups and day and evening classes for them after work. In 1907 James Reckitt showed his concern for his workers by setting up a private company to buy a small estate to the east of the city to build houses for the workers along with facilities for them. This became known as the Garden Village. It had 600 houses and to this was dded almshouses, recreation grounds and hostels for girls etc. The Garden village still exists. Cadbury's Bournville is well known about but the Reckitts Quaker Garden Village are little known outside of the area. I aim to blog more about this in the future.

WWI passed with slight damage to the factory in Dansom Lane following a Zeppelin raid in 1915. Profits remained good and although a Quaker family they turned a blind eye to some of the ware work the company undertook such as making petrol cans for the War Office. They did provide two hospitals one in Hull and one in France. By the end of the war they had 1100 employees in the Forces and 153 had lost their lives. Sir James Reckitt may have been the instigator of the National two minutes silence on Armistice Day as he inaugurated a five minute break at work in their factories for silent prayer.

The interwar years were a search for new products and by 1933 Bath Cubes and the still famous brands of Windowlene (window cleaner), Karpol (children's medicine), Harpic (toilet cleaner) and Dettol (disinfectant) had been released on the market. Reckitts were enthusiastic users of advertising so as well as introducing new brands maintained there older brands. The pension was enhanced for the workers and a bonus linked to the dividend on the shares, so linking the bonus to the performance of the company. The bonus was shared out on the basis of length of service and remuneration. A swimming pool was built along with a laundry, a men's club a garage and another 56 houses. Money and land were donated for the building of Sutton Annex Hospital and also a large sum for Hull University College. At this time the relationship with Colman's was cemented as in South America the sales teams worked together to promote both companies products. Factories were set up all over. This was forced upon the company as many countries imposed punitive import taxes so exporting from the UK would have been impossible. Arthur Reckitt and T.R. Ferens were joint Chairmen but Arthur stopped standing as an MP in 1919 and died in 1927. Ferens passed away in 1930 and another generation started at the helm. The Prince of Wales visited Kingston Works in 1926 and King George VI and the Queen visited in 1937. For many years there had been pooling of effort with J & J Colman, and amalgamation had been talked of for many years. It had been agreed in 1931 but failed as the proportions for each company could not be decided. Finally agreement was reached in 1938 and Reckitt and Sons Ltd became Reckitt and Colman Ltd.

The factory in Dansom Lane was heavily bombed in WWII but work continued at sites that had been found around the country. After the war the company continued acquiring business and products until in the 80's it was realised that the company was so huge and diverse that it was not able to be managed effectively and several no core products and companies were hived off. This led to the selling of the Colman's food brands and the concentration on the household products side of the business. This meant that 80% of revenues were now from this sector rather than only 50% ten years before. The majority of sales, 36%, came from North America and 31% from Europe at this time. By the end of the 90's costs were rising and markets were difficult in Latin America and Asia where another 30% of sales derived. Pre-tax profits fell 25% and management were in the firing line. They turned to a merger with a Germany company Benckiser that had started in 1823 making industrial and household chemical products. The company was now called Reckitt Beckinser and continued to buy new brands and products but sold off those that did not fit in their five core areas of surface care, fabric care, dish washing, home care and health and personal products. In 2014 the name was changed to 'RB', making one wonder where it can go in the future. The company is huge  with around 36000 employees world wide and a revenue of £8.8 billion. 20 million of its products are sold world wide, every day!!
Just a few of the products that the company now make and market.

Although the company headquarters is now in Slough it has recently been announced that Hull 's 1200 jobs on the Dansom Lane site will be secured with the building of a Centre of Scientific Excellence for research and innovation. It should be open in 2018. I'm sure that it will not be lost that such a benefit to Hull is only the latest in a long line of  advantages that the Reckitt family and their business has bestowed on the City. It is a great example of a person persevering in their aims and believing in themselves and their family.

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