Blundell Spence & Company: The Longstaff Family and Exploration

Blundell Spence and Company, paint manufacturers and oil seed crushers, was one of Hull’s most successful nineteenth century companies. Blundell’s Corner, today the home of the Hull Daily Mail, is named after the firm which once had one of its main mills on the site. What is not so widely known today is the role that the Longstaff family, the main owners of the firm in the later nineteenth century, played in both funding expeditions in the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and as explorers in their own right.

Bust of Henry Blundell
Guildhall Hull Source: Robb Robinson)

The founder of Blundell Spence was Henry Blundell. Although some accounts suggest he was born in Lincoln it appears that he was christened in Hull on the 23rd July 1787, the son of Mary and Thomas Blundell. He started his working life as an apprentice brush maker but by 1813, however, he was already making paints and four years later his operations were large enough to move into new premises near the corner of what became Beverley Road and Spring Bank. The firm acquired the name of Blundell Spence when Henry entered into an association with his brother-in- law, William Spence, and was initially involved in both paint manufacture and oil seed crushing. Their business subsequently boomed, even though the original Beverley Road premises were destroyed by a fire in 1845 and had to be rebuilt. By 1848 Blundell Spence had also opened another mill on Wincolmlee.

The company’s fortunes were enhanced after George Dixon Longstaff moved to Hull around 1829. Longstaff practised for a number of years as a physician whilst also sometimes lecturing on medical and chemical issues He was one of the founders and first lecturers at the Hull and East Riding School of Medicine and Anatomy in 1833. He had a great interest in the practical applications of chemistry, and seems to have had much in common with Henry Blundell. Their working relationship blossomed some time after George married Henry’s eldest daughter, Maria, in 1833.

George Longstaff officially joined Blundell Spence in 1837 as head of London House and assisted his father in law before being made a partner in the business. He was soon resident in Hull once more and spent much of the rest of his life moving backwards and forwards between the town and the capital city. His scientific skills and judgement proved invaluable to Blundell Spence and the firm exhibited a range of goods at the Great Exhibition of 1851. By then the company was employing around 350 workers and exporting goods overseas as well across Britain and in 1863 Blundell Spence had an established capital of more than £150,000, a London office and had withdrawn from the seed crushing side of the business to concentrate on colour manufacture.

Politically, both Henry Blundell and his son-in-law George supported many liberal causes and Henry was an Alderman of Hull Corporation by the time he retired from the business in 1864 and had also served as Mayor of Hull. Henry had also been a founding member of Hull Chamber of Commerce and was president in 1847/8. He was replaced as a partner in the company by his grandson, Llewellyn Longstaff, George’s eldest son. Llewellyn had been born in 1841 and, like his father, took a keen interest in the local rifle volunteers, later becoming a Colonel in the First Volunteer Brigade, East Yorkshire Regiment. The firm continued to expand and in 1874 became a limited liability company with an authorised capital of £250,000. George Dixon, another grandson of Henry Blundell became a director at this time. In 1889 a new company structure was incorporated with a capital of £400,000, then a staggering amount of money and the principal shareholders were all family members. The Longstaffs and their relations had become very rich but they had already introduced a modest profit-sharing scheme and in 1887 made the first payments to staff, distributing £963 amongst 326 employees in Hull and London. By 1894 they employed 400 staff, the majority of which were based in Hull.

Lewellyn Longstaff
Courtesy of Hull City Archives

Although Llewellyn Longstaff travelled widely in Europe and America, he spent much of his life in Hull until the end of the 1870s. Like his grandfather, Henry Blundell, Llewellyn was a very active director of the Hull Chamber of Commerce and Shipping, occupying the post of president for two years in the mid 1870s. He remained closely involved with the town after he moved his main residence to London. He had similar interests to his father; both were long term members of Hull Literary and Philosophical Society and Llewellyn was a member of a number of scientific societies and was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1870 he also became a fellow of the Royal Meteorological and Zoological Societies. He was also a supporter of the Red Cross and did not hoard all of his wealth becoming an unostentatious philanthropist of many causes.

In his youth whaling ships had still sailed from Hull and there were then close links between whaling and many of the oil and seed crushing firms near Blundell’s works mill on Bankside. Indeed, Blundell Spence still produced some finishing products using whale oil as late as 1883. When a young man, Llewellyn probably knew several of the whaling captains personally and would certainly have heard of their exploits. Perhaps this stimulated his interest in polar exploration but he evidently took a keen interest which leads us to his crucial role in the expeditions of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. He was certainly still a fit man at the end of the nineteenth century and, according to one newspaper of the time, might easily be taken as an explorer, having the close cut beard and complexion of a naval captain.

In the late 1890s British interest in the Arctic was renewed and there were moves to mount an Antarctic expedition. A principal advocate was Sir Clement Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, and a native of the East Riding village of Stillingfleet. Finance and official backing was difficult to obtain but the success of the Southern Cross Expedition of 1898, which was led by a Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink and included the Hull man, Captain Colbeck, spurred Markham to renew his efforts. However, national enthusiasm for the project was at first lukewarm and by March 1899 he had still only raised £14000. There seemed every prospect of the project not coming to fruition until Markham was approached Llewellyn Longstaff who enquired whether a donation of £25000 would be sufficient to enable the expedition to start. Longstaff said this gift would give him the ‘peculiar pleasure to be able thus to contribute towards the advancement of our knowledge of the planet on which we live.’ Llewellyn’s backing at this point was undoubtedly crucial. With this sort of support, Markham was able to renew his appeal, attracting further private and some public funds. The National Antarctic Expedition thus came into being. The funding it made it possible to order the construction of the Discovery, specially built at Dundee and launched in March 1901. Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s appointment as leader had been confirmed in 1900.

Sir Enrnest Shackelton
Source: The Shackleton Centenary Expedition

Llewellyn Longstaff’s involvement with this expedition went as far as the personnel in one crucial respect. In March 1900 his son Cedric had been voyaging on a troopship to serve in the Boer War when he had struck up a friendship with one of the ship’s officers, Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton’s merchant navy background differed markedly from the Royal Navy career of Scott. Shackleton had started at sea as an apprentice but worked his way up to being an officer. Thanks to his friendship with Cedric, Shackleton later secured an interview with Llewellyn Longstaff who, impressed by his keenness and enthusiasm, recommended him to Sir Clement Markham, making it clear that he expected Shackleton to be appointed. In such ways Llewellyn Longstaff played crucial roles in launching the polar careers of one of the most famous Polar Ships, Discovery, and of Ernest Shackleton, one of the most legendary of the Antarctic explorers. Its also worth noting that Longstaff has a group of mountains, the Longstaff Peaks named for him in the Transantarctic Mountains, ES in 82*54’S, 165*42’E

Llewellyn’s involvement with polar expeditions did not finish here for he continued to take a keen interest and provided further backing for Scott’s expedition of 1912. Moreover, his eldest son Tom, born in 1875 on Holderness Road, Hull, blazed a pioneering trail in his own right. He trained as a doctor but his family’s wealth made him a man of independent means and he used his money to travel to distant parts of the globe. He was an accomplished early climber, according to his friend, the former Cabinet minister, Leo Amery, ‘his pirate beard blazed red against the Himalayan snows’. He first travelled to Tibet in 1905 and later made numerous first ascents of peaks and a number of discoveries, including the Siachen Glacier of the Karakorum.

He was also the first man to explore the rim of the Nanda Devi in the Indian Garwhal and whilst visiting the area in 1907 he climbed Trisul. The peak was 23,360 feet above sea level and no one attained a higher summit for another twenty one years. During his long life he made twenty visits to the Alps, six to the Himalayas and five to the Arctic as part of various expeditions. After serving in the army in the Great War, he took part in the Oxford University expedition to Spitsbergen in 1921 and was chief medical officer and naturalist to the British Mount Everest Expedition of 1922. He later returned to Spitsbergen, and took part in expeditions to Greenland and Baffin Island. In 1928 he was awarded the Founder’s medal by the Royal Geographical Society for his work in the Himalayas. In later years, he lived in the Highlands of Scotland where he died in 1964 at the age of eighty nine.

In 1960 the firm of Blundell Spence merged with Permoglaze Ltd of Birmingham to form Blundell Permoglaze Ltd and, after various changes, was bought out by Akzo Coatings, a division of the Dutch Akzo Chemical Group. The firm Akzo Nobel still (2008) work from the Bankside site purchased back in the 1840s by Mr Blundell.

Such is the story of the Blundell and Longstaff families: from business prosperity based on Beverley Road and Bankside in Hull to helping uncover and understand some of the most far flung regions of our planet.

Select Bibliography

J. Bellamy, The Trade and Shipping of Nineteenth Century Hull (UK: EYLHS, 1971).

J. Bellamy, ‘Some Aspects of the Economy of Hull in the Nineteenth Century with Special Reference to Business History’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (Hull University 1966).

Hugh Calvert, A History of Kingston Upon Hull (UK: Phillimore 1978)

Edward Gillett and Kenneth A. MacMahon, A History of Hull (UK Hull University Press, 1980)

Rebecca L. Johnson, Ernest Shackleton (UK: Carolrhoda Books, 2003) The Times, 23rd November 1918.

Ann Savours, The Voyages of the Discovery (UK: Virgin Books, 1992)

On-line References

The South Pole.Com. Ernest Shackleton