Memories – Sunderland’s Robson’s Flour Mill

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Sarah Stoner looks at the life of a man who founded one of Wearside’s most successful family-run businesses.

A WEARSIDE landmark which dominated the skyline for decades was reduced to rubble in the demolition blitz of the 1960s.

BYGONE SCENE: Robson's Flour Mill in Chester Road.

BYGONE SCENE: Robson's Flour Mill in Chester Road.

But memories of Robson’s Flour Mill in Chester Road – which employed generations of townsfolk – live on through these behind-the-scenes photos.

“Many of the images were taken by my father Edward Robson, who was the great-grandson of mill founder Edward Capper Robson,” said Stephen Robson.

“We are fortunate that he took the opportunity to photograph the then commonplace surroundings of our family business and staff when he commenced work in 1938.

“Robson’s was a family business in the true sense as fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters worked there. The photos give an insight into a part of life in Sunderland.”

Edward Capper Robson, son of Quaker draper Thomas Robson, of 148 High Street, was born in 1812 and educated at Mr Cowan’s Academy in William Street.

“This was later known as the Grange School, and one of my great-great-grandfather’s fellow pupils was Tom Taylor, who went on to be editor of Punch,” said Stephen.

Edward’s interest in business was sparked at an early age, when he was sent for training to the Capper family drapers in Gracechurch Street, City of London.

He then went to work as a draper with his father Thomas until 1844, before switching trades and entering into a partnership with John Peacock as a flour miller.

A premises in Low Street provided the base for their first mill but, just a year later, the firm moved to Queen Street – where it remained for over 100 years, gradually taking over adjacent properties.

“Edward was living at 37 Frederick Street when he joined the flour milling business, but later moved to No 2 The Esplanade in 1855 – when it was newly built,” said Stephen.

“His first marriage was to Hannah Grace Mennell of Scarborough in 1842. Ten years later, following her death, he married Priscilla Tuke of York in 1852.”

Such was the success of the mill – once the highest building in Sunderland – that Edward became sole owner when Peacock retired, later welcoming his sons Stephen and Frank as partners.

His business interests were not, however, confined to flour milling. Indeed, he served as a member, and latterly chairman, of Sunderland Gas Company for 28 years.

“Edward was also a director of Sunderland and South Shields Water Company and a member of Sunderland Pilotage Commission for several years,” said Stephen.

“He was a member of the River Wear Commissioners from 1865 too, representing the Admiralty, and served for several years as chairman of the Works Committee.”

As his business grew ever more successful, so Edward devoted more time to helping out good causes – including serving as president of Sunderland Subscription Library.

“He was the driving force behind securing funds and building a library adjacent to Barclays Bank (then Backhouse’s Bank) at 52 Fawcett Street in 1879,” said Stephen.

“He was also chairman of Sunderland Provident Dispensary to 1890, and served on Sunderland Infirmary General Committee – latterly as chairman – from 1871 to 1890.

“He supported Sunderland Blind Institute, was a member of the Society of Friends and was recommended for appointment as a JP, but never concluded his training.”

Known as a “staunch liberal,” Edward also served as president of Sunderland Liberal Association – supporting candidates such as Henry Fenwick and Sir Henry Havelock.

Botany, languages, walking and the promotion of literature were among his interests too, as was public speaking – for which he had a reputation for refined humour.

“He had a knack of putting things in an epigrammatic form and emphasising the point by a jocose remark, which went home to his hearers,” according to archive reports.

Indeed, even Wearside historian James Watson Corder – known for his rather pithy, and sometimes extraordinarily uncomplimentary, remarks about people, wrote:

“He was in reality a witty, public spirited and well-read man and the most delightful company with whom the writer tramped many score of miles in bygone days.”

Although Edward finally passed away in 1893, his memory lived on in the business he created – which went on to expand by taking over Edwin and Frederick Richardson’s Mill at Chester Road.

“Employees felt they were working for a family firm, not some faceless combine, and most responded loyally to any challenge presented,” wrote Stephen’s father Edward in his memoirs.

“They knew also that in any serious matters they could always take their problems to the top and receive a sympathetic hearing from the boss himself in the private office.”

l Look out for more photos and history of Robson’s Flour Mill soon.