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Saturday 16 May 2015

Fact 70. Norman Collier was the 'Comedian's Comedian'.

Norman Collier was always a big thing. He was an eye watering 15lb 4oz at birth! Norman Collier was also born on Christmas Day in 1925 which is a pretty auspicious day to arrive.

Norman Collier in the 1960's.

Norman Collier was born to Tomas and Mary Collier in the centre of Hull. The family lived in a two up, two down terraced house with only a cold tap. By the end he was the eldest of eight children and once joked that five of the children shared a bed. Norman volunteered to join the Royal Naval at 17 towards the end of WWII. He became a gunner on an aircraft carrier.

After he was demobbed in 1948 he worked as a labourer. One evening he was at a club in Hull with a mate, Perth Street West Club, when one of the acts didn't turn up. It was normal in these circumstances that when this occured a call went out to the audience to see if anybody wanted to come up and do something. Norman put his hand up. It was this experience that made him realise he felt comfortable up on stage and really enjoyed a live audience which was some thing that stayed with him for his six decade career. This experience made him invest five bob (25p) in obtaining a Variety Artists' Association card so he could continue to perform. He started then appearing at a few local clubs and pubs. Later on, when working at BP Chemicals at Salt End just outside Hull we was caught making his work mates laugh whilst shifting scrap metal about. He thought he would be in trouble but his foreman realised that it was making the gang more productive in the tough job in bad weather so encouraged him. This led to him start appearing in a wider area of the northern club circuit and so his names started getting better known. By 1962 he was making enough money at his craft that he became a full time comic and continued to expand his fame through the 1960's.

Norman Collier's style was not the normal series of jokes in a set but took a normal situation and managed to make it into an absurd monologue. He did not resort to racism or swearing to get a reaction and he was able to make fun of the northern stereotypes by taking his audience with him rather than shocking them. His big break came in 1971 when he appeared on the Royal Variety Command Performance where he was the highlight of the night and the critics all acclaimed his act. He seemed to be very relaxed in the presence of the Queen when presented to her at the end of the evening. He had worked a very long 'apprenticeship' in the Northern Clubs and won the respect of his fellow comedians. It was Jimmy Tarbuck that dubbed him the 'comedian's comedian'. Following the Command performance he appeared on television frequently. However it may be that more wasn't seen of him as the trend was for short sharp pieces to camera. Norman's main sets were the long monologue that didn't really appear on TV until much later in his career. He continued to find loads of work all over through the 1970's and 80's.

Norman Collier was never wooed by the bright lights of London and always lived in the area of Hull. His wife, Lucy, would pack him up with a tin of sandwiches when he traveled the circuit. He has appeared all over the world but always returned to Welton to the west of Hull. Lucy and Norman had three children and that led to grand children and great grand children. Norman loved nothing better than being with his family. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease seven years before he died but kept it largely quiet as he didn't want to worry people. It was at a family barbecue where he fell and broke a hip that started his final decline. He died in March 2013 with his family around him aged 87. There were many obituaries from his fellow comics old and new. His great friends, Little and Large had given Norman one of the experiences that he enjoyed the most. He loved the pantomime when he was in front of family live audiences and his favourite time was appearing with Little and Large at the New Theatre.

His two most famous acts were the faulty microphone act and the chicken sketch. He was performing at the Wheatley Working Mens Club one day when the Chairman was calling out bingo numbers when the microphone socket wasn't fully pushed into the socket. He was doubled up with laughter and, when back at home, wondered if he could do something similar. It went down so well he kept it in the act ever since.

To watch the brilliant Norman Collier at work click on this Youtube link;

Norman Collier demonstrated  the best of the characteristics of the people of Hull and one day there will be a statue for him in the City.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Fact 69. Hull was a major whaling port.

The first whaling ship left Hull in 1598 just after Greenland had been discovered. This was mainly along the coast of Scandinavia and initially mainly it was walrus that was taken but whales were caught occasionally. The Dutch were the country must heavily involved and there was much competition for territory in the early days. Svalbard was a main fishing area and hence of competition. Here the various national interests occupied various bays. In those days the walrus and whales were caught and then taken to a beach where the blubber was cut of the carcass and melted down in big pots to reduce it to oil which was put in barrels and then floated out to the whalers anchored in the bays. In 1618 the Kind granted Jan Mayen Island, south of Svalbard as the fishing ground solely for the use of Hull Corporation.

Abandoned whaling station on Svalbard. 

Hull's part in the whaling fishery declined in the 17th century as the English Civil war was taking place and the 'Muscovy' Company of London exerted them selves. By the first half of the 18th Century things were once again starting to pick up with an expedition to the Arctic financed in 1754. The industry really took off when the South Sea Company tried to save their trade. The Government agreed and in 1732 they gave a bounty for whaling ships. This was 20/- per ton of the whaling ship so longs as it and the crew were well found etc. This meant that even if they trip came back with no whales at least some of the expenses would be paid so making the risk much more acceptable. The Government also placed a duty on imported whale oil and baleen so making British whaling more competitive. These measures didn't save the South Sea Company but the Arctic Whale fishery grew. By now the ships were looking at the coast of Greenland. The ships used were wooden commercial vessels of about 200 tons. Normally they would be crewed by about twelve crew but when whaling there would be over fifty aboard. If the ship was under 200 tons it would not be able to carry enough stores out and cargo back or house enough whale boats. Over 400 tons the vessel would be too expensive to fit out. When got ready for whaling the ship had to be strengthened to work in ice. This meant that the hull was doubled in thickness with the addition of extra timbers externally. Internally they would put large beams from side to side of the vessel to prevent crushing stresses. The method of fishing was to carry several small boats that once whales were sighted the small boats would be launched with a crew of about eight. They would be rowed or sailed to get close to the whales where the harpooned would strike into the whale. This was not to kill it outright. The idea was to stay in contact with the whale whilst it dived and tried to swim away. The line man would then pay out the line attached to the harpoon and and lines when required. Eventually the whale would tire and come to the surface. The dangerous part of the operation then occurred as the boat had to go close to the whale and try to kill it using lance between its ribs to try to find its heart. The boats then had to tow the whale tail first back to the mother ship which could be miles away.

The main whale that was hunted was the Bowhead whale. These whale were approx. 20 metres long and weighed around 120 tonnes. They were called Greenland Right whales as they were considered the right whale to catch. This was due to it being quite slow moving and not of an aggressive nature. It also had good quantities of blubber and baleen sheets.

The Bowhead looks a chubby whale so holds much blubber for the whalers. The balleen sheets can be seen it the whales wide mouth. These are used by the whale to filter out its food of krill from the water it swallows.

Whalers would try to stay in groups for mutual support in times of danger from ice and storms and this also helped to thin out the numbers very quickly in small locations.

The Hull Whaling Fleet of Sir Samuel Standidge ('Berry', 'Britannia' and 'British Queen')
Hull whaling ships owned by Samuel Standidge in 1769. The ships are 'Berry', 'Britannia' and 'British Queen'.

By the 1800's Hull ships had about 40% of the trade and employed 2000 men. They brought great trade to Hull as the the whale oil was in great demand for lamp oil and for oiling machinery. The baleen was used for anything that today we would use sprung steel or stiff plastic. Things like umbrella struts, corset stays etc. The River Hull was busy with the processing of this cargo. Once the whaling had moved to Greenland the rendering of the blubber had moved from on shore to on the boat. The whales were held alongside and the blubber cut off. Pieces where then placed in big pots that had a fire under them to reduce it to oil. The baleen was cut out and roughly cleaned off and stored aboard. The rest of the carcass was cast adrift.

Scrapping the sheets of baleen.

The high point of the Hull trade occurred in 1820 when 62 ships set out from Hull and returned with the products of 688 whales that brought in about £250,000. The smell of the these ships would have been terrible and the whale processing factories where kept well away from 'well to do' housing. In Hull the Greenland Yards were up the River and near to where the Whalebone pub is found today.

In 1821 nine vessels were crushed in the ice and investors withdrew so a third of the remaining fleet were withdrawn Again in 1822 a further six vessels were lost and eight returned with no catch at all. At this time the Government bounty was withdrawn so removing a further incentive to investment. The advancement in science and the discovery of the uses of mineral and vegetable oil meant that the market also reduced for the whale products. In 1868 two vessel left Hull for whaling operations these had been fitted with ancillary steam propulsion to make them more economic. They were the 'Truelove' and the 'Diana'. This was the last time vessels set out and in 1869 'Diana' was lost in a gale near the mouth of the Humber at Donna Nook.

The history of whaling from Hull is well represented at the Hull Docks Museum with exhibits regarding it's history. There are models of the ships and weapons and instruments as well as skeletons of whales and dolphins

Hull Docks Museum. whale skeleton and harpoon gun.

Polar bear at the museum.

The museum has a world renown collection of scrimshaw that was art performed by the crews of whale ships in their spare time on whale teeth, tusks and bones. The picture was scratched in and then coloured using inks or soot.

There is also a Inuit canoe that was found by the whaler 'Heartsease' in 1613. It also held an exhausted native who once rescued however soon died. The canoe is displayed at the museum but the inuit in it is not real so don't worry. In 1847 the Captain of the 'Truelove brought back to Hull a couple of 'Eskimo's' from Greenland, Uckaluk and Memiadluk. They were inoculated against smallpox but were displayed at various meetings dressed in their seal skins. The idea was to highlight the plight of there way of life. They survived their stay and in 1848 boarded a Scottish whaler to take them home again. Shortly after there was an outbreak of measles and having no resistance the girl, Uckaluk died. Memiadluk survived and returned home with many gifts from his stay in Hull.

Whaling is something that does not take place at all these days but at the time brought prosperity to Hull. It was another industry that Hull excelled at and led the country. A visit to the Hull Docks Museum is well worth it to learn more about this time.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Fact 68. Joseph Rank started out in Hull.

Joseph Rank was born in March 1854 at his father's mill on Holderness Road and was the eldest of four surviving brothers. His mother died in 1858 having never recovered properly from her last born. James, joseph's father was a hard task master and set his sons to work in the mill learning the trade, and as the eldest Joseph would have had the lions share to do. His father was a devout Methodist. He later re-married and they had another four sons and a daughter. James died in 1874 and despite an estate of £30000 Jospeh's share was £500 due to all the off spring. That same year Joseph set him self up in his own business leasing a mill also in Holderness Road and became the third generation of Rank's in the milling industry.

Joseph Rank, age 23.

In 1880 he married Emily Voase and this made him realise that his initial enterprise had cost him the loss of £200 of his inheritance and he vowed to redouble his efforts to care for his family. By 1883 he had seen the way forward as he had visited his first roller mill that used steel rollers rather than mill stones and realised that it was more efficient and would lend itself to automation. It was this same year that he had his religious conversion at a Methodist chapel in Hull and followed a more evangelistic mission path.

Joseph's first mill on Holderness Road, Hull (from Joseph Rank Trust website).

As he couldn't make a windmill earn money he decided to take a co-tenancy of the West's Mill also on Holderness Road and soon was making money and putting by for the future. There was great competition from America and Hungry and Joseph explored ways to compete with them. By 1885 he was ready to invest in a new mill and built the Alexandra Mill. The mill was engine driven and could mill 6 sacks of flour an hour using steel rollers rather than the more usual 1.5 an hour. He soon increased this to 10 sacks an hour.

By 1888 business was booming along with the city of Hull giving even greater demand for his products. He built a new mill by the River Hull. It was the most up to date in the country. It was powered by a triple expansion steam engine, the first such use of this in the UK. It also had a 20000 quarters silo for storage and the first discharging elevator in the UK. It had a capacity of 20 sacks an hour but this was soon increased to 60 sacks an hour. Demand was so high that instead of closing Alexandra Mill it was refurbished and ran at 20 sacks an hour.

Clarence Flour Mill with the discharging elevator working on a ship. The rounded roofed sheds are aligned along the River Hull entrance into Victoria Dock.

In 1899 Joseph Rank Limited was registered as a private company with Joseph as the governing director which remained until his death. Industrial expansion at the time meant there was much malnutrition at the time and this was illustrated by the Army having to drop standards of fitness to recruit for soldiers for the Boer War. The height requirement was dropped to 5 foot only! He was challenged to increase production so developed a plant with capacity of 30 sacks an hour and another of 40 an hour. He also established a number of agencies in order to more efficiently distribute the staple food around the company.

In 1902 he traveled to America to see the competition and on his return he set about to overhaul them. In 1904 Clarence Mill was expanded to 100 sacks an hour and mills and silos had been built in London and Barry in Wales. In 1912 a silo and mill was built in Birkenhead to supply Ireland and the North West of England. The company headquarters were moved from Hull to London in this year too. 

His wife Emily died in 1915 after they had had three sons and three daughters. He remarried in 1918 to Annie Maria Witty and the business went from strength to strength. When WWI came along Joseph was placed on the Wheat Control Board but fell out with their inability to look after large quantities of wheat as a large number of ships were lost. Rank used his own resources to buy and store wheat and increase production of his London Mill. During the War he had 3000 employed. most of the women.

After the war production of flour out stripped demand and Rank's were able to buy out many of the smaller millers buying out 15 companies in as many years. Each of the newly acquired mills was up dated and made more efficient. To assist in distribution he also created the British Isles Transport Company. Further mills were built in Belfast and Southampton and the company became public company in 1933 called Ranks Limited.

Joseph was a firm believer in self help but gave generously to the Methodist Church and others. He set up The Joseph Rank Trust that is still in existence today and partly for this he was made a Freeman of the City of Hull. This was the only honour he ever accepted despite numerous offers. He had said that John Wesley preached that one should make all they could, save all they could and give all they could and he would follow this and not leave a fortune when he died. On his death a minister said that he had written a cheque for £4700 for a new mission in London, but refused to buy a newspaper on the station as it had just gone up to 2d. A good Yorkshireman for sure. He was one of the first to advocate matched funding for charities etc as he believed in self help so would get them to raise money for themselves and then match it.

Joseph Rank, aged 80.

In 1938, with WWII looming Rank was secretly tasked with acquiring wheat to build up wheat stocks for the coming conflict. Much bomb damage was sustained by Rank's mills as they were situated at the strategic ports. On looking on at the severe damage caused by bombing to his first modern mill, Clarence Mill in Hull he must have felt a heavy heart at what the future held, especially as he was in his eighties by then. All he asked was if all the horses had been saved, as he had always loved horses since working with them at his father's mill. All had been saved and in fact my Mum tells me that some were brought to Annison's Undertaker's where she was born and raised to be housed in the stables on the premises.

Old Flour Mill Inside the abandoned Clarence Flour Mills, Hull
Steel rollers found in the Clarence Mill after closure in 2005.

Joseph died in 1943 and control passed to his eldest son James. The second son,  Rowland, had joined another millers in Battersea before he died in 1939. Reconstruction of the damaged mills was the first priority and then new mills were built in Gateshead and Leith. In 1952 James died and the youngest son Arthur took control. Arthur had already made his name with the J. Arthur Rank Company that were major British film makers and distributors. Under Arthur the company expanded into agriculture and bakeries. They earned a reputation for high standards of nutrition for human and animal products and their quality control was second to none with testing at every stage of the process. For the next decade the company bought other businesses to grow and in 1962 they bought Hovis McDougall to be come Rank Hovis McDougall. 

The Clarence Mill was rebuilt after WWII but incorporated some of the original mill. It became redundant in 2005 and is to be demolished to make way for a 23 floor hotel and casino.

Joseph Rank contributed to the growing reputation of Hull when it was developing and never lost his love of the city that gave him his start.