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23rd July 2020

Watching shipping on the River Humber has been a popular pastime for generations. The owners of ships often display flags and paint funnels in company colours. But which companies own them and what do they do?

Student volunteers from the University of Hull's Hull History Network have researched objects in our collections plus the companies behind them and uncovered some interesting facts, characters and stories.

In this blog Laura Dean looks at JR Rix and Sons

In 1873 sea captain Robert Rix was trading out of Hull. Rix was not alone; Hull was a lively port in the 1800s, with its position on the Humber estuary providing opportunity for trade across the world, particularly to Northern Europe. However, Rix grew tired of the seafaring life and decided it was time to start a new business. He set himself up as a shipbuilder on the banks of the River Tees in nearby Stockton. This marked the beginning of what would become J.R. Rix and Sons, a successful company with business in many areas, including shipping, oil, and even holiday homes.

None of that was in Robert Rix’s mind when he started his shipbuilding business. He was busy building small ships, such as the S.S. Pert. It was a modest business and this is how it stayed until the 1900s, when he bought two pairs of steam ships. Rix named these Magrix, Robrix, Jarrix, and Ebbrix, all names ending in his own surname. All the family’s ships since have had names ending ‘rix’. These ships were used to transport all sorts of goods, but the business wasn’t a major name yet. The company didn’t find real success until 1927, when they began shipping oil for tractors, which were developing swiftly after World War One.

The SS Pert, built by Robert Rix

This trade in oil marked a new, successful direction for the company. In the 1940s, following the Second World War, restrictions on the trade of oil and petrol were lifted and the company took full advantage. By this point Robert Rix was no longer in charge, having passed the business on to his eldest son, John Robert Rix, also known as ‘Old Man Robert’. John decided to rebrand the company as J.R. Rix and Sons, the name by which it is still known.

They continued shipping oil but also moved towards supplying diesel fuel to customers throughout Yorkshire’s East Riding. This led to them establishing the area’s first petrol filling stations. The company continued to grow in the 1950s and 1960s, benefitting from the growth in popularity of car ownership, as well as increased use of oil-powered central heating. Cars are now commonplace and central heating is found in most households, but back then they were both still new for ordinary people.

In 1977 Rix purchased the Hull-based shipbuilder J.R. Hepworth & Co Ltd, forming the new company Hepworth Shipyard Ltd, which specialised in building small craft on the north banks of the Humber. This reflects the early beginnings of the Rix empire, in a small shipyard on the nearby River Tees.

This drawing by FS Smith is in the collections of Hull Museums. It shows the River Hull around 1885. Rix’s ships would have navigated this busy harbour.

The company continues its shipping traditions to this day, running a fleet of cargo vessels trading across the North Sea and into the Baltic, however their empire stretches far beyond that. They’re still proudly led by the Rix family, though, with the current chairman being the great grandson of Robert Rix, the sea captain and merchant adventurer working out of Hull, who decided to settle down on the banks of the River Tees.

JR Rix and sons