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Roller flour mills

Rank, Joseph (1854-1943), miller and mill owner

  • Person

Joseph Rank was one of the great enterprising mill pioneers. Born in the cottage adjoining his father’s windmill on Holderness Road in Hull on 28th March 1854 he started his working life running a windmill, but was quick to see the potential of roller milling over traditional millstone milling. In 1883 he visited Ingleby’s Mill at Tadcaster which had just had its new roller mill system and commented:

"I saw at once there the great advantage to be gained by grinding with steel rollers in preference to millstones. Although at that time the mill was not automatic, and they had to move the products about in sacks, the flour was in every way better. Mr. Upton, who recently retired from Buchanan's, was at Tadcaster at that time, and showed me round; I came back fully convinced that I ought to have a roller mill, and I tried all I could to persuade Mr. West to put a roller plant in his mill, but he would not do so, and unfortunately I had not quite enough money to do it myself. However, I found my trade had begun to increase, and in 1885 I built and started a small roller mill of six sacks an hour capacity in Williamson Street, Hull. How I managed to do it with my limited means, I find it difficult to explain, as I had to finance the buying, yet I always succeeded in finding the money to pay cash when I could buy a parcel of wheat at threepence a quarter less."

After running the Alexandra Mill, his first roller mill for around four years he was walking home and met his mill manager returning from Gainsborough Market. Joseph asked him if he thought he could sell more flour if he produced more, undoubtedly was the response. He immediately started looking for a suitable site which had water transport available. A site became available and so the Clarence Mill was built.

He was a man who treated his workers well, as long as they did the job they were employed to do. He would often say that running a business was like riding a bicycle – you either had to keep on pedalling ahead or you just fell off, there was no stopping still or going backwards.

Two stories stand out reflecting Joseph Rank's unflappable approach to potential disaster. His lifelong close friend and architect, Alfred Gelder, once got news during the night of a fire at premises close to West’s Mill. He rushed round to the Ranks' house and banged upon the front door, But Joseph was a sound sleeper, so to wake him up Gelder threw stones at the bedroom window. The window was flung up, and Joseph angrily demanded to know what all the row was about. "There's a fire in Southcoates Lane", shouted Gelder, "and your mill's in danger; you'd better come down at once.' Joseph paused reflectively for a moment, and then asked: 'Which way is the wind blowing?' 'Well, at present it's blowing away from the mill,' answered Gelder. Whereupon Joseph exclaimed: 'That's all right then. Don't worry, I'm going back to bed'; and back to bed he went-and the wind didn't change.
Although Alfred Gelder was a close friend from his early milling career, living on the same street at opposite ends of a four block terrace, he did not mince words. Once in front of a group of notable people at a mill he said to Gelder “Don't have those twiddly bits put on the top next time - they're no use to the mill; they're only put there to help the reputation of the architect".

His greatest blow came, one that all millers dread, early in October 1941 when Clarence Mills were set on fire, all the mills were destroyed along with some of the warehouses and silos. Yet of the little group about him in the yard he asked only one question, in his blunt, Yorkshire way: "Did you get the horses out?" Yes - they had got the horses out, every one of them. That satisfied him. He had always loved horses, and could not bear to think of any of them suffering. As for the mills, turning back to the car, he exclaimed: "What's done can't be undone. It's no good thinking of the past. It's the future that matters. A few bombs can't destroy our work. After the war we shall build new and better mills". And he drove away without a backward glance.

Joseph Rank died on 13th November 1943. Many tributes were paid throughout the press, but to the people of Hull he was a man of influence, where he was regarded a leading citizen.