For much of the 20th Century the port of Liverpool was one of the United Kingdom’s largest centres for the production of animal feedstuffs (AFS) compounds, known as oilcake, reaching a peak in the 1950’s when over two thirds of the feed milling industry’s manufacturing capacity was still centered on major ports. A number of large seed and kernel crushing facilities, along with compound cake manufacturing plants such as Bibby Mills, had been established in Liverpool making it the most important in the country, product being distributed coastwise to other ports.

The Seed, Oil and Cake Trade, as it was known, providing feed mainly for cattle, pigs and sheep, was one of the major factors in the pre-eminence of the port of Liverpool, with up to 800,000 tons of material imported each year. In the year to 30th June 1956 a total of 535,767 tons of cargo specifically designated as AFS, plus 256,810 tons of “seeds or nuts for expressing oils” and a quantity of molasses, was imported in the Mersey.

The oilcake, which was formed as a bi-product from the oilseed crushing process from which soap was manufactured, was a good source of protein and energy in animal feed. It was mixed with grain and other additives such as molasses or palm oil to produce a range of balanced animal feeds known as ‘compound feed’ sold in hessian sacks.

An important local compounder was Edward Billington and Son, established on Wirral in 1858, which has traded from Liverpool for the past 150 years. The company first entered the market for the manufacture of cattle cake in 1902. A mill was established in the old bedstead manufacturing factory of Billington Brothers on Great Homer Street under the name of Criddle and Co. Ltd. As Bibby, who would be a direct competitor to the new company, was one of Billingtons’ biggest customers at the time, Billingtons used the Criddle name, the existing Billington & Criddle partnership manufacturing treacle and syrup until 1938 when the operation was sold to Tate & Lyle. By 1959 Criddles relocated from Liverpool to a much larger site in Ellesmere Port which, at its peak, manufactured 50,000 tonnes of animal feed per annum but closed in 1978.

Due to the popularity amongst farmers during the 1960’s for this kind of feed, shipped in jute sacks and attracting a low freight rate, the volume gradually grew into large “parcels” of bagged cargo, of little interest to the British cargo liner operators whose primary business was to serve the United Kingdom’s export markets, and was from the early 1970’s shipped in bulk.

During the 1970s the supply of vegetable oilseeds, such as cottonseed, rapeseed, flaxseed (linseed), sesame seed, sunflower seed and soybean, mainly came from northwest India with copra (coconut) from Kerala State in the southwest and, increasingly, rice bran loaded at Kakinada on the east coast. Groundnut (or peanut) was also sourced from West Africa and cottonseed from East Africa while, from the 1980’s, China became an important supplier of oilseed and some tapioca was imported from Thailand. In 1984 there was a change in agriculture policy, with the abrupt introduction of milk quotas, quickly reducing the market for feed by a million tonnes, leading to declining production tonnages and the closure of dockside mills.

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