THE NORFOLK MILLER’S DAUGHTER – written by John D Slater.
“A wife in ten-thousand” – that’s how Sir James Reckitt described Ann, his mother – but many would say she was a wife in a million and Hull’s unsung heroine.
If it hadn’t been for Ann – a Norfolk miller’s daughter, Hull would have been a poorer place and thousands upon thousands of people would not have had steady jobs.
This biographical novel is her untold story; from a childhood, when her mother was left a widow with six daughters – to being the wife and mother who held the family together thus ensuring the prosperity of the business enterprise, now known all over the World and bearing the name Reckitt.
Up to the year 2014 few people in The British Isles – and others world wide, would have not been able to go to their medicine cabinet, the cupboard under the kitchen sink, or to a shelf in the utility room and not find at least one product bearing, somewhere on the label, the name Reckitt. Amongst many others, it could be Dettol, Harpic, Gaviscon, Cilit-Bang, Calgon, Finish, Strepsils, Nurofen, Airwick and now Scholl products.
From 1840 – to 1938 the company was known as Isaac Reckitt and Sons, and then simply Reckitt and Sons. From 1938 – to 1999 it would have been Reckitt & Colman and from 1999 to 2014 Reckitt Benckiser. Alas, from 2014, the name Reckitt disappears from the label and the company has simply become RB; though now probably one of the biggest domestic and pharmaceutical product manufacturers in Europe – and throughout the world. But if it hadn’t been for a miller’s daughter from Norfolk, it’s probable that, none of it would have happened. She was born Ann Colby in 1798 – met Isaac Reckitt in 1817 and became Ann Reckitt in 1818. From then on she was to be Isaac’s strength and stay, upholding not only him, in all aspects of the ups and downs of his life but her son’s and daughters as well.
Ann was described by her son Sir James Reckitt as a wife in ten thousand. He also referred to her as a heroine. From their humble beginnings she had a practical interest in the well-being of their workers; at one time even taking classes in reading and writing for employees who lacked the basic skills. Few families from the Hull area would not have, at some point in time, at least one member of their family involved in the manufacture of Reckitt products; to have a job with Reckitts was thought to be quite something and Reckitt’s treated their workers very well. Sir James Reckitt was said to have announced to the board one day that he considered it a poor show, that when they lived in quality houses, their workers lived in comparative squalor; and so came into being Hull’s Garden Village – decent housing for their workers. It is still today one of the prides of Hull.
In 2001 the author met Isaac & Ann’s great grandson, Basil Reckitt – then aged 96, whose books, kindly loaned to the author, have revealed much about his great grandparents; though much had been written about the company and its growth, it was from this meeting that the seed of an idea was planted to tell Ann’s story. At that time the author was living in a house on the banks of one of Lincolnshire’s many waterways; a little further along that waterway, known as The Maude Foster, was a windmill – still in operation producing flour to this day; it was one of Isaac Reckitt’s early endeavours. Isaac and Ann were to spend the first 11 years of their married life in Boston, place of the mill and where the first four of their children would have been born.
It’s a long way from the French Riviera town of Menton, the place where our story opens and where Ann and Isaac’s son has been taken to see if he can be cured of the dreaded disease consumption, which eventually came to be known as tuberculosis. The year is 1862 and Ann has just had the news delivered to her by telegram, that her beloved husband Isaac, who had previously been with them at Menton but returned to Hull, subsequently becoming ill and has died.
Much of the research for this book has been gleaned from a journal which Ann kept whilst they were staying on the Riviera; some of the words in the story being taken directly from her own writings. Other material has been gleaned from visiting the various locations. Where the facts have been available, they have been used but the colouring of the story and filling the gaps are from the imaginings of the author.
**Price £7.50 – on sale at “Hull People’s Memorial” – Whitefriargate Hull also The Georgian Antique Centre, High Street, Bridlington. Or by post £8.50 Inc. shipping – contact John on 01262 601462 for further information. It’s also on the shelves of some Hull and East Riding libraries.