Hosken, Trevithick, Polkinhorn & Co Ltd.
The Families Who Controlled Cornwall’s Great Conglomerate
By Philip M Hosken
Hardback – NOW AVAILABLE!
Here we explore the backgrounds of these men, their personalities, inter-family marriages and abilities to command an expanding company that introduced new technologies to Cornwall. They were respected and popular but at odds with their financiers as they exercised feudal control over their enterprise and its devoted members of staff. We read of a hard, but sometimes exciting, life in Cornwall and we come across untold, intriguing facets of Cornish history and endeavour.
‘H.T.P., The families who controlled Cornwall’s Great Conglomerate’ Book Launch
For most Cornish people over the age of forty the initials H.T.P. are familiar, although many can’t quite remember why!
For about a century Hosken, Trevithick & Polkinhorn was a Cornish institution which traded through some of the most tempestuous times in human history. Philip M Hosken is a descendant of one of the founding families. He has a background in business and tells a good story in an always entertaining manner, drawing on copious records, newspaper coverage and personal research, materials which he manages with much editorial skill.
As you would expect from any conglomerate which included the name Trevithick, there was a profound engagement between the company and various generations of technology. HTP held fleets of traction engines, internal combustion engines, electric light and milling machinery. Most of all the company liked to build buildings, and its legacy to the heritage of Cornwall is significant.
Philip Hosken does not allow sentiment to get in the way of a hard-nosed critique of the business practice of the company. It was paternalistically feudal and organisationally inept. It spent more than it needed to, and lost income through incompetence or sentimentality. The Board was not strategic and did not seem to quite grasp the diversity and purpose of the company. However, it kept farming going through the Great Depression (which for farmers began in the early 1920s). It provided new machinery to the industry which helped it to increase yields during World War 2, and it eventually involved itself in the motor vehicle revolution. Hosken breaks the news gently!
As a councillor I helped to save the former HTP mill at Malpas Road which has been handsomely converted to flats to become HTP Apartments, one of Truro’s architectural landmarks. As a householder I have bought furniture from The Wear House, which now occupies the old HTP showroom, designed by Truro architect, Alfred Cornelius, beside the Prince’s House, home of founder director, Sam Polkinhorn, which later became HTP Headquarters. As a player in rock bands I’ve passed many a loud night at the (sadly demolished) Penmare in Hayle. I buy many things in the Pannier Market, which was the first HTP motor engineer’s workshop. Also designed by Cornelius, this large utilitarian building undertook vital war-work (which the author promises will be included in Volume 2 of his opus), and is still a hub of enterprise, endeavour and good personal customer service. And I have known all my life the grand old Loggans Mill standing in varying degrees of neglect and refurbishment to welcome one and all to Copperhouse and Hayle.
HTP tells a complicated corporate and family history tale with clarity. Hosken’s style is witty, direct and rooted unswervingly in the facts. Many readers familiar with HTP may find his critique quite harsh, but his views are fair and well evidenced. Structurally, the interplay between dry Board Room minutes and a plethora of newspaper cuttings is handled extremely well. Hosken is amused and, like a good Cornish yarn spinner, always seeking both the moral and the humour in his story. He acknowledges that many staff came from generations of a small number of families, and that they, together with long-standing customers and shareholders, regarded the company with deep affection. He suggests that some of this affection may have derived from the slackness of management in serving invoices or in directly overseeing a widespread network of disparate enterprises and outposts.
Neither HTP, nor its equally famous offshoot, Farm Industries, are any longer going concerns. HTP remains a vivid and characterful facilitator of late nineteenth and twentieth century life in Cornwall. We must hope that this book may inspire other corporate histories to be written, to join this one and the eminent Harvey’s of Hayle by Edmund Vale. HTP was a pioneer as much as it was an upholder of Edwardian tradition. It was curious, innovative, compassionate, inward-looking and complacent, but it kept much of Cornwall going, it was never afraid to invest or to make mistakes – a venturesome company, run in a perfectly Cornish way.
Philip Hosken’s new history of HTP is eminently readable – I’ve been reciting bits over breakfast! He is a clear-minded reporter, an elegantly uncluttered writer, and a man with both a yarn to tell, and a personal stake in the subject matter – a passion which keeps the narrative running magnetically along. He is a portraitist who finds many human moments, and leaves us with pictures of some of the dominant characters – Sam Polkinhorn, William ‘ Willie’ Hosken and company secretary, J S Broach, in particular, coming alive through his text. Overall, having explored HTP through Philip Hosken’s eyes and pen, no reader’s life will be quite the same again.
The story of HTP is a remarkable history of Cornish enterprise, three prominent Cornish families and the business empire that they built between 1890 and the 1930s. Through its employees, farmers, customers and shareholders, HTP touched the lives of thousands of people in Cornwall.
The Hosken family were mill owners at Loggans Mill Hayle. They had extensive interests in milling throughout west Cornwall and were also cattle breeders. The Trevithicks, also from Hayle (descendants of the famous inventor Richard Trevithick), were ship owners, millers, and shopkeepers, while the Polkinhorns, based in Truro, were wool merchants and millers. According to Grace’s Guide they became ‘one of the largest trading concerns in the West of England’.
This book is far more than a commercial and family history. It covers a wide range of subjects and is divided into sixteen chapters. These include detailed accounts of farming, mills and milling, the wool trade, steam traction engines, Cornwall’s early motor industry, shops, bakeries and biscuit factory, shipping, haulage and property. Much of the book’s focus is on the families’ business holdings at Hayle and Truro, but it also discusses business ventures in many parts of Cornwall and Devon and much further afield. Kelly’s trade directory indicates that by the 1920s HTP had branches in Truro, Hayle, St Austell, Penzance, Penryn, Tregony, Helston and Wadebridge, and large mills at Plymouth and Tavistock.
The first few chapters paint a picture of Hayle during the nineteenth century, before the days of HTP. They give the reader a harsh impression of Cornish life in a small industrial town. It examines individual members of the three families during the nineteenth century, their business interests and inter-connections through marriage. Chapter 5 records the creation of HTP and in the following chapters is a decade by decade account of their growing and diverse empire. These include sections on prize-winning cattle, the unsuccessful bid to enter the sugar beet industry and the lack of staff and government restrictions during the First World War. At Hayle they did not only produced flour from their mills, but also opened a bakery and established the Cornish Cornubia Biscuit Company in a new factory at Foundry designed by Redruth architect James Hicks. At one time the factory produced 31 varieties of biscuit.
Their milling enterprises required the transport of large quantities of grain, some from local farmers and the remainder imported from other countries. This led to the development of a maritime division of the company, with ships collecting grain from North America and coastal vessels travelling between Liverpool, Bristol and Hayle. Taking the grain from port to mill involved steam traction engines, lorries and wagons, and the author notes the many incidents and accidents associated with them. Later in the twentieth century, the company had a fleet of 18 lorries solely for HTP business.
I found this book fascinating and have learnt a great deal about these families, their businesses, buildings, and associations in Cornwall. There is something for every reader in this volume, whether you are a local historian interested in the history of Hayle or Truro, or a genealogist researching family history. Industrial archaeologists and engineers may enjoy the sections on mill machinery, steam road locomotives, their Haulage Company and motor industry. For those interested in maritime history there is a detailed account of the company’s shipping interests, including the names of many vessels, tonnage, cargos and destinations.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the buildings the families leased and owned, many of which still survive as a visible legacy of HTP. The headquarters of HTP was in the grade II* listed Princes House, owned at the time by Sam Polkinhorn, but originally built in 1739 as a town house for William Lemon. Next door, the Wear House was designed in 1888 by Silvanus Trevail, as Polkinhorn’s wool and seed processing shop. In 1936, the art deco HTP garage and showrooms on Back Quay was built; today this houses the city’s pannier market. On Malpas Road is the New Mill, designed by Alfred Cornelius. This is a distinctive tall building faced in red brick, with the date 1911 and HTP & Co Ltd on its pediment. At Hayle, Loggans Mill where the HTP first started still survives, as well as the impressive Cornubia bakery.
Sprinkled throughout the book are many interesting contemporary reports from newspapers about events and incidents associated with HTP and the families involved.
For author Philip Hosken this book has been a life-long passion, which has now finally come to fruition. He has extensively researched the story of HTP through contemporary newspaper reports and notes compiled by family member John Rosewarne during the 1930s, as well as a mass of primary source material from company letter and account books. Even though the author is a distant relative of the Hosken branch of the business empire, he does not flinch from discussing the failures as well as the successes of this multi-faceted company.
The last chapter records the companies’ AGM’s, their profits and losses, and although a rather dry subject and more for the specialist, the author teases out the flaws in the company and their strengths.
The book is well-illustrated throughout with black & white photographs and illustrations, it lacks a bibliography and index, which would aid the reader, nevertheless this is a rare and important social and historical record about an extraordinary group of companies.
The Oblivion of Trevithick
Down through the ages many brave men tried to tame the strange power released from boiling water. Long ago they were seen as alchemists who practised the dark arts of their dangerous pastimes. It was not until the early C19th that Richard Trevithick demonstrated his successful cylindrical boiler and tamed the Devil within. It was Trevithick who invented the steam engine we all recognise and love, the engine that powered most of the Industrial and all the Transport Revolutions; the one found today, with little fundamental change in power stations and nuclear submarines.
In these pages, Philip Hosken has turned detective to discover the reasons behind Trevithick’s obscurity. He has examined the lives of other inventors. He has answered whether James Watt was the thorn in Trevithick’s side, what parts did his family and friends play? Trevithick put his trust in the highest in the land, why did they deceive him? What could they hope to gain by carelessly damning this poor, hardworking Cornishman to oblivion?
Engineering genius, Pacific pearl fisherman and family man, there is no story like that of Richard Trevithick. He deserves a better place in history.
Genius ~ Richard Trevithick’s Steam Engines
In this book Philip Hosken explains the skulduggery and deception in high places that deprived Trevithick of recognition until now.
The achievements of Richard Trevithick are seldom taught in schools alongside those of James Watt, George Stephenson and Isambard Brunel.
Yet it was Trevithick’s ingenuity and determination that provided the power to drive the Industrial and Transport Revolutions.
Acknowledged by Watt and adopted by Stephenson, Trevithick’s steam engine and boiler were radically different from Watt’s and the boiler is the basis for nuclear, oil and gas powered electrical generation today.