Smith & Nephew – Made In Yorkshire – Volume 17

We take a look at Smith & Nephew, finding out the origins of the humble sticking plaster.

In 1856, 30 year old Thomas James Smith opened a dispensing chemist’s shop on North Churchside in Hull’s old town area, describing himself as an ‘Analytical and Pharmaceutical Chemist’. As a member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, which had been formed 15 years earlier, Smith had a great interest in the curative properties of medicine, and was a wholesale supplier of cod liver oil.

By 1875, he was selling over £3,000 worth of cod liver oil, supplying major hospitals such as Guys and Great Ormond Street. He developed his own refining and blending process to ensure his cod liver oil was of the highest quality, and it was these high standards that won him a gold medal at the International Fisheries Exhibition of 1883.

In 1896, nearing his 70th birthday, his health was starting to deteriorate, which made him realise that he could no longer run the business on his own. Thomas decided to take on his 22 year old nephew, Horatio Nelson Smith. He renamed the company T J Smith & Nephew just three months before his died, leaving his share of the business to his sister Amelia Ann. A few years later, not wanting to be part of the business, she transferred her share to Horatio for an annuity of £260. By the turn of the century, Horatio had become sole owner of the business.

Having worked in the textile industry prior to joining his uncle, Horatio decided to bring this knowledge to the pharmaceutical industry, and bought a machine from Germany for cutting and rolling bandages. In an effort to expand business further, Horatio traveled to North America, where in 1906 he was able to win a contract to supply bandages to Canadian hospitals.

By the following year, they had become a limited company, Smith & Nephew Ltd, moving to larger premises at 5 Neptune Street in the dockside area of the city. By 1912, the company had expanded further, purchasing a sanitary towel manufacturers; and were supplying bandages to the Turks in their war with Italy.

The company was to expand greatly during the First World War as demand grew for their bandages. They opened a new manufacturing plant in Canada, as well as cutting out the middle man by buying their own textile mill in Lancashire. During the war, the workforce expanded from 50 before the war, to over 1,200. As the war ended though, so did demand for their products – the workforce went down to less than 200.

Not to be deterred, Horatio focused on the overseas market, opening the first independent overseas branch of Smith & Nephew in Canada in 1921. It was in 1924 that was to really boost the company’s fortunes, when the British government passed an Act calling for the provision of First Aid equipment in commercial premises. Naturally, Smith & Nephew started producing their own range of First Aid Kits, and a range of commercially produced plaster of Paris.

The company’s biggest break came in 1928 when Horatio bought into the development of a process for creating elastic adhesive fabric which would revolutionise the treatment of varicose ulcers and become one of the world’s leading support bandages. Elastoplast was so successful that despite it remaining a trademark of Smith & Nephew, in the English Language (especially in UK, Canada and New Zealand) it has become a generic term for an sticking plaster, much as its main rival Band Aid has done in the US.

By 1937 a new public company, Smith & Nephew Associated Companies Ltd was formed, concentrating on product development, manufacture and supply. During the Second World War, the government again called on Smith & Nephew to ensure troops were supplied with sufficient supplies of bandages.

After the war, the company began a programme of modernisation, as demand for Elastoplast had surpassed  supply. Throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century, the company acquired a number of global pharmaceutical and specialist medical companies. Today, they are a major world force for research and development in several areas including wound management, orthopedics, trauma products, clinical therapy and minimal invasive surgery. They have been consistently listed in the FTSE 100 top listed company on the London Stock Exchange and remain one of the largest firms to come out of Yorkshire.

View from the outside of a Smith and Nephew property, Photo credit, Ian S, Geograph, Creative Commons
View from the outside of a Smith and Nephew property, Photo credit, Ian S, Geograph, Creative Commons

In 2009 they opened a new factory in China, where some of their production is now being relocated to. However, those who travel down the Clive Sullivan Way regularly will know that the company is very much still present on the banks of the Humber Estuary, where it is now a centre for the research and development of new products.

In the next post in this series, we will look at Reckitts.