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28 Jan 2022
updated 28 Jan 2022

The timber industry in Hull


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.