Howarth Timber Group and New Holland

In New Holland every lunchtime workers wearing their bright yellow jackets walk down the main street from the Howarth Timber group area to get fish and chips or a related meal, or go home for their break. At changes of shift cars come down the bypass and some down the shorter main street.

Howarth is one of the local employers that keeps the village alive. One part, Howarth (Timber Importing) Ltd., imports timber and the other, Howarth (Windows and Doors) Ltd., makes wooden framed windows and doors.

Origins and History

The origin of the firm is in Leeds at the time of a great increase in the use of timber during the industrialisation of Britain. William Hudson, originally a plasterer and lathe maker, became a firewood and then timber merchant, but because all of his six children died, members of the extended family inherited the business. After a buy-out and a death, John Henry Howarth and Charles Walker were left in partnership, if one never properly drawn up.

The buy out of partner Thomas Linley was expensive and timber prices which had recovered from 1887 slumped from 1892. However, more building in general and the Boer War improved matters for wood merchants as the century turned.

Saw milling was dangerous and many men died from rapid blood loss after themselves being sawn, and also timber fell on them causing injuries.

In 1900 the partnership became a limited liability company, a move intended to secure matters ahead of the death of one of the partners. The firm entered into a period of financial difficulty, due to overstocking compared with turnover, but survived withour major adjustment.

John Henry Howarth had signed a bank guarantee for his eldest daughter's husband in business in food provisions, and when that business collapsed in 1904 John Howarth had to sell 1000 shares to Charles Walker. After such a calamity, John Howarth went into semi-retirement whilst keeping the title of Chairman until his death in 1918. Son Charles Howarth was promoted, and soon Charles Walker's son George was promoted, and meanwhile the sons of Charles Howarth came up through the business.

Timber was in large demand during the First World War, and then shot up in price with the removal of price controls afterwards. Charles Howarth and George Walker were in charge, with Charles Walker retired in Bridligton until his death.

The firm grew until prices fell in 1921, the export trade slumped and the engineers had a strike. The firm was connected with the engineering industry in terms of its business which meant it did not enjoy the moderate prosperity elsewhere in the timber trade. Yet again the firm was overstocked for its turnover and the debt with the bank was too high for the business being done. This time the bank took increasing control over the business in property and instructions, but reducing the overdraft limited the business until the depression when it nearly collapsed.

The Walkers and Howarths in control had strained relationships. Costs were slashed, wages cut, and creditors were held over. When Charles Howarth asserted Jack Howarth's position regarding cheque issues, George Walker used his inherited majority shareholding to become Chair of the company and achieve control. The firm was run to keep the bank contented. The reputation of the firm suffered, especially because of how it had held off the creditors.

In the Second World War the company retained most of its workers and Leeds was relatively safe from bombing. Timber was home supplied. It was not a money making period and austerity followed with the severe winter of 1947 and dock strike of 1949. In 1951, when George Walker died, the firm had a lower turnover than in the 1920's.

Men worked outside in all weathers, often standing in mud. Wind ran through the covered shelter carrying through the weather. The men got cold, they were not well paid and rises needed to be asked for first.

After university (twice) and some teaching, and working elsewhere, Peter Stanley Howarth joined the firm. He wanted more control to change the firm's lacklustre state (with his father Stanley's support) and there followed a boardroom coup with Walkers and Howarths coming in and going out, putting Peter Howarth into the Chairman's position at only 26. He stayed there for 37 years. The Walkers retained the upper hand and strains continued. By 1959 Peter Howarth, on the basis of improving the firm, was able to persuade the bank to lend the Howarth family the money, at some personal risk, to buy out the Walkers. Stanley Howarth, Peter Howarth and brother Jack Howarth bought became the three permanent directors of Hudson and Co. with Peter Stanley Howarth the official Chairman.

Whilst the firm shifted from English hardwoods to foreign softwoods, the main thrust then was to connect the merchant business to the importing of wood. This was to break the stranglehold of the protected environment of the timber importers at the dock side. The all powerful importers might buy out merchants for access into the home market but this was the other way around. Funds were borrowed for a purchase of J. B. Stringer, an action which was necessarily secret until legislation in the 1960's forced disclosure. Other firms were acquired too. The main company became more profitable.

Modern Times and New Holland

New Holland comes into the history in 1964. J. B. Stringer was running at capacity and there was no more space in Hull. Futher expansion would mean contract labour. Strikes, congestion and the need to sort wood after arrival were continuous problems at Hull. Other merchants were also getting their own importing wharves.

Stringers once worked with Warren's shipyard at New Holland, and so this place was investigated as a possible new location for wood importing. After negotiations, British Rail granted a renewable lease on condition that the importing of timber and allied products was for Hudson and Co. alone. British Rail got out of this an easier scaling down of its operations, which was creating local unemployment (and now there is just a station and signal box and a two hourly passenger service left, although goods traffic is recovering). Howarth's woodyard from my house

Cranes were bought and men trained. Staff and costs were kept to a minimum. Timber was unloaded at Hull and brought over in lighter ships to New Holland, but in September 1965 timber from Sweden came straight to New Holland. Rising timber prices, the low cost and efficient importing of timber, and transferring directly on to lorries, made New Holland very profitable at first. Profits meant ongoing investment, with timber sheds (for joinery stock) erected in 1971, a garage and sawmill built in 1973, the dock dredged for larger ships, the sawmill expanded and a windows and doors factory set up. There was spare land too and the site could be and was expanded.

Then there was the strategic importance of New Holland as a locality, at least before the opening of the Humber Bridge (1981). New Holland was able to stay running during the National Dock Strike of 1972. Militant dockers in Hull needed to drive 70 miles to get to this side of the river to enforce the strike, especially because work was shifted to the night and ferries did not run at night. They had to rely on pickets from Grimsby visiting while the huge amounts of timber came through New Holland from Poland. When once the Grimsby men arrived, the place went quiet, and with only ship lights and one floodlight the dockers (without torches) went no further on to the site. The police came and the dockers left allowing work to resume. Hull was at a standstill, and New Holland was a strike-breaker. It had earned its place.

The firm has had a policy of not recognising unions, which may be forced to change under a Labour government. There has been little enthusiasm for them all around. However, labouring in wood merchants' yards continues to be potentially dangerous (my own brother in law lost part of his thumb when working with a sawmill - not Howarth - in Chesterfield) and the history of the firm shows difficult periods and strikes affecting its business.

In 1974 the Howarth name was applied throughout, replacing the Hudson and Co. name and others. It became the Howarth Timber Group.

Yet New Holland went on later to make a loss. Once again, in 1980-81, buying too much timber was the core of the problem. Stocks of softwood stayed outside for far too long financially (and for their own good). Merchanting companies subsidised the importing loss.

When British Rail was told to release surplus assets the Howarth Timber Group was able to purchase the site in 1983. The purchase meant that timber could be imported for other firms, and only a minority of imports are now for the Howarth Group itself. The sections of the group bought supplies internally.

Merchanting companies further subsidised the loss in New Holland in 1984-85 and this was also for still buying in too much timber for market conditions. So in the mid 1980's the group stopped developing the importing business and developed DIY and home improvement, a sector showing a lot of promise nationally. In 1984 a new wooden windows and doors plant was set up in New Holland, but production bottlenecks and little skilled labour led to losses there until 1988-1989. Elsewhere the Chairman decided to develop the manufacture of UPVC windows and doors and also glass supplies. The whole group made a loss in 1986 also fuelled by the collapse in the timber framed housing market after bad publicity.

The family firm with a decentralised structure acquired other family firms using bank loans and so the impact of the importing company at New Holland has declined comparatively. Decentralisation and informal control meant that group profits were not as high as they might otherwise have been. Another element was certainly the loose overall control for a firm of that size, and that it was a private limited company. Overall control might be regarded as "charismatic" and accessible but lacking the complete rigour that a public limited company might show.

In April 1987 Howarth (Timber Importers) Ltd moved its sales offices into the Lincoln Castle, a Howarth Timber Hotel, and once a hotel and refreshment place for the public travelling on and off the ferries. The public house/ hotel aspect ceased in the 1990's and the premises are no longer open for public use.

Peter Howarth died in June 1988 and Andrew and Nicholas Howarth took over, having experienced the business as children. The business changed to be less informally run with greater central monitoring and control. However, the various parts of the business are not over-dependent upon each other, and each part trades outwards beyond the group. Acquisitions are one intended method to develop the group's size.

Howarth is part of the timber trade in softwoods of various qualities. There is a further if general thought. The question remains why about 75% of the UK wood demand is supplied from abroad when more could be developed within the UK. More and more the requirement around the world is to develop and use ecologically sustainable forests and work with high standards of health and safety, where labour laws are good and unions can be positive and effective, and remove the stress all the time on the cheapest supplies of wood.


1847 William Hudson working as a woodturner in Leeds
1853 William Hudson & Co. woodturners and sawyers
1861 William Hudson & Co. timer merchant and sawyers
1864 - 1868 George Henry Varley partner
1872 Death of William Hudson, new partnership of John Henry Howarth, Thomas Jones Linley, George English, Charles Walker.
1904 Walker family controlling interest after financial disaster elsewhere in Howarth family
1951 George Walker dies, Peter Howarth, Chair.
1959 Howarth family acquire all shares and Walker family leaves
1964 Wharf at New Holland leased from British Rail
1965 First direct shipping of wood into New Holland
1974 Howarth Timber Group established (renaming a variety of firms)
1983 Wharf at New Holland bought from British Rail

Source: Watson, N. (1990), The Story of the Howarth Timber Group 1840 - 1990, Huddersfield: Howarth, Garion Press. This book, celebrating the history of the firm, and whilst in particular speaking of Peter Howarth in glowing terms, does, behind the gloss and sometimes flowery language, give a balanced account of the firm's development from which much of the content above is taken.

Illustrated is Howarth's timber yard (rather well stocked) from upstairs in this house (1996).

Views expressed are my own and there is absolutely no attempt to represent Howarth Timber Group.