Display tells story of iconic city company

Dave Mark THEY made their fortune on the ocean floor, tempted by stories of lost Spanish gold and untold riches beneath the waves.

William Dent Priestman and his brother Samuel failed to locate the hidden fortune of Vigo harbour – but the winch and grab mechanism they created to aid the search for a lost galleon in 1876 helped them create a company that lasted more than 100 years. It took them from a humble yard in Hull to the top of their fields and an international reputation.

A new exhibition at Hull Maritime Museum tells the Priestman story and explores, for the first time, the inner working and history of one of the city's biggest-ever firms.

The director of the museum, Arthur Credland, said: "The physical display is only possible because the huge company archive has been preserved. The name Priestman is well known to older people locally, as thousands of men and women worked there, or were suppliers, relatives or friends.

"The huge cranes, excavators, drags and dredgers could be seen daily, passing through the city centre on their way to the docks.

"The idea of producing a display covering the interesting Priestman story, from 1870 to the present, started some four years ago.

"Today it is with great pleasure that the museum can present this story, about how two young Hull men started a small company that grew into an internationally known name, with products that sold all over the world, for an amazing range of applications.

"With the strong Quaker traditions behind them, the Priestman bothers were highly respected and their support and care for their workforce was widely known and respected."

The story began in 1876 when William Dent Priestman, who had founded an engineering firm in Hull six years earlier, was asked to build a winch and grab for work off the west coast of Spain, in an attempt to locate lost gold.

Though nothing was ever found, the mechanism that William Dent created was found to be equally effective at dredging mud and silt in docks, rivers and harbours.

It was used soon after at Hull Docks – with such success that it was soon in demand all over the world.

Success after success followed, before the firm went into liquidation in 1895.

Restructuring followed, and Priestmans began to shine brightly once more.

By the First World War, its cranes were being used to rebuild French villages , and by 1921, a small "ditcher" for field drainage was produced, followed by funding from the Ministry of Agriculture for further developments.

In 1928, Priestmans produced the first of their "animal-named" excavators. Such names as the Lion, Tiger and Panther would later become synonymous with Priestmans.

Work started on their Marfleet base in 1950. It would eventually cover 63 acres in Hull, and by 1963, when the firm embraced hydraulic power, it had long been a household name. In 1970 it merged with a North-East firm, and in 1976, began building offshore cranes for North Sea platforms.

Today, what is left of the firm trades in Bradford under a new owner – but in Hull its legacy will live on.