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Friday, 7 August 2009

Frank Hills and his numerous relations

Some of the most important by products are those which arose from the waste products of various purification processes. Lime based purification had caused many problems. As the gas industry developed, manufacturing chemists began to look at it as a source of raw materials. The career of Frank Hills - and other members of his family - is closely bound up with the gas industry in London and beyond. Biography and gas industry history are inextricably mixed in the ensuing pages.

This is big business made out of gas industry by products - business which spread around Britain and Europe and into industries not usually connected to gas or chemicals.


For a Kentish parish church that of St. Luke, Chiddingstone Causeway is exceptionally modern. It dates from only 1898 and is a memorial to Frank Clarke Hills.1 He was one of many London industrialists who having made their fortune on the London riverside retired to the Kent countryside. His home was Redleaf, on the hill above Penshurst Place. In the 1990s only the elegant gateposts and lodge remain. Designed by the prestigious gardener, J.C.Loudon, they had been commissioned by Frank's predecessor at Redleaf, William Wells, the shipbuilder. The families of Wells and Hills had been around Penshurst a long time - in 1700 a Richard Hills of Underriver rented a field in Kemsing to a William Wells.The Wells family were shipbuilders, industrialists and politicians. When Frank Hills came to live at Redleaf in the 1880s he had also become a builder of battleships.

When Frank Hills died in May 1893 his death was not reported beyond notes of two or three lines in local papers. It was not until 29th July of that year that The Times carried a report of his will, which had been copied from Illustrated London News. It had been discovered that this unnoticed south London chemical manufacturer had left a personal fortune £1,942,836, 11s. 11d. When W.D.Rubenstein analysed rich men of the Victorian era in 1977 he listed only forty between 1809 and 1914 who left over £2m. Frank Hills was very close to being included in this list. In the period of 1880-99, sixty-nine British millionaires died. Only three of these were chemical manufacturers.4 Frank Hills is not known to have inherited great wealth - no will has been traced for his father, Thomas. His elder brother, another Thomas, who died in comfortable circumstances, left only £3,657; another brother left £20,909. Frank's accumulation of wealth must indicate some remarkable individual enterprise. The discovery three years after his death that the buildings and site of his main factory were not his to leave, removed only £1,583, their current value, from the total.

Piecing together Frank Hills' life has been a difficult exercise. He was only one prominent member of a family. There were several brothers, sons, daughters and nephews. Their father was a Thomas Hills. In 1811 a Thomas Hills moved into the Bromley by Bow Steam Mills on the River Lea in east London. It can be deduced that this is the right man because of a letter written in careful large letters on squared paper and addressed to Bromley Steam Mills. Frank must have been about eight when he wrote it in 1815.

Although the roots of the Hills family seem to have been Kentish it is far clear what Thomas Hills had done before his arrival at Bromley by Bow. Frank's eldest brother was born in Lyme Regis, while another brother was to marry a girl from Lyme. Perhaps, their mother, Sara, came from there - she had been a Miss Clarke and the Clarkes are a Lyme family that goes back many centuries. In the eighteenth century Lyme was not only a romantic naval seaport and holiday resort. It had a considerable chemical industry and was the source of the clay used for Coade stone - the terra cotta used all over London, the recipe for which was said to be 'secret'. Was Lyme the place where Thomas Hills got his training as an industrial chemist?

Thomas Hills had a brother, Robert - another very common name.10 Although he has not been identified co-incidental evidence points to a Robert Hills who was a City of London based merchant with some connections to the world of South American metal mining - full of European fortune hunters and sleazy finances. There is even some suggestion that he might have been in South America himself. The evidence for this is circumstantial and is based on a book written by a Robert Hills whose address was 'St.Michael's Alley, Cornhill'. This is in an area that contains many buildings used as accommodation addresses. It may be co-incidental that this the address that appears on Thomas Hills, Jnr's 1833 patent and also the address which Frank used as his City office up to the 1880s. The Hills family had a continuing interest in metal mining and they also had enough capital to buy a substantial property in the 1820s. Was there a family member with experience in the Mexican copper mines that became a source of capital, expertise and support? Many years later South American guano was used by Frank Hills at Deptford.


  1. One of Frank's sons was Arnold F. HILLS born 1857. Arnold was Managing Director of Thames Iron Works where he ecouraged the formation of what was to become West Ham United Football Club. He was also prominent in both the temperance movement and vegetarianism.

  2. Arthur Hills was my maternal great, great grandfather. He had 11 sons and two daughters. He was married to Ann Jane Gastineau, daughter of a well known Victorian artist, Henry G Gastineau. One of Arthur's sons, Albert Edward Hills, amassed a fortune in Steel Tubing [Perfecta Seamless Steel Tube & Conduit Co [1923]Ltd., Aston, Birmingham. He endowed a gallery [Hills Gallery] to house Henry Gastineau's paintings in the Birmingham Art Gallery now just a couple of rooms you have to visit by appointment. I have old board photographs of all of the above along with photos of Arthur's family and their house at Hammerwich.
    I, along with another relations of Arthur Hills, are researching the family and you mention having had help from a Patrick Hills. Would it be possible to get in touch with him to share what we know?
    I am trying to piece together if there is a link between Arthur and Frank Clarke Hills and Charles Henry Hills in Anglesey. Arthur was also an industrial chemist but there seems very little about him except that after he died his companies, Cannock Chase Chemical Works at Hammerwich, Stafford and Wepre Brook Chemical Works at Wepre, Flint along with his house, Hammerwich House all went into liquidation [London Gazette, April 1877].
    Regarding the name Anglesey Works in London, the only link I can think of is via the Marquis of Anglesey who had property in Dorset -could be Lyme Regis - Hills family], Stafford [Arthur ended up here] and Anglesey itself. Maybe the works were named after the Marquis? - a long shot!
    If Patrick Hills is prepared to share information he can contact me at
    Many thanks