Soap opera: R S Hudson

Robert Spear Hudson introduced the first commercial soap powder in the world in 1837. The business he established later introduced the Omo and Rinso detergent products.

Establishment
Robert Spear Hudson (1812 – 1884) was born in West Bromwich in the West Midlands of England. His father was the pastor of the local Congregationalist church.

Hudson was apprenticed to an apothecary, and opened a chemist’s shop on West Bromwich High Street from around 1830.

Hudson was possessed by a restless energy, and had a firm commitment to hard work. Through trial and experimentation he introduced Hudson’s Dry Soap, the first commercial soap powder, from 1837. The basic formula for the product is believed to have consisted of dried soap combined with sodium carbonate.

Hudson also invented a new baking powder, the formula for which he gifted to George Borwick (1807 – 1889), his brother in law.

Image used with permission from the Wellcome Collection.

Borwick acted as the London agent for Hudson’s Dry Soap from 1844, and from that year the product was used by the Royal Household of Queen Victoria.

Hudson employed a staff of ten girls in 1854. This had increased to two men, four boys and 19 girls by 1861.

Demand became such that Hudson had to subcontract soap production to William Hunt of Wednesbury from 1864.

R S Hudson enters into mass production
Hudson’s Dry Soap entered into mass production from 1870. From this time the supply of stock soap was contracted to William Gossage & Sons of Merseyside.

Hudson succeeded due to his thorough nature, and his ready appreciation of the importance of advertising.

A much larger second factory was established at Bank Hall, Liverpool, in 1875. The head office was transferred to Bank Hall. The site was convenient for the imported raw material of vegetable oil, and also had excellent railway, canal and dock links.

Robert Spear Hudson died in 1884. His personal estate was valued at over £295,000. He had been a generous benefactor and a keen Congregationalist throughout his life. He was succeeded as head of the business by his son, Robert William Hudson (1856 – 1938).

120 million half-pound packets of soap powder were sold every year by 1888. The business spent £20,000 a year on advertising.

1,000 people were employed by 1908.

Acquisition by Lever Brothers
Lever Brothers, a large soap manufacturer, acquired R S Hudson in 1908. The price paid was undisclosed, but The Times described the figure as “a staggering amount”. R S Hudson was converted into a limited liability company with a capital of £500,000.

R S Hudson was continued with the same management. However new product lines were introduced; Omo for bleaching clothes in 1908, and Rinso washing detergent from 1910.


Supply of stock soap for the dry powder was immediately switched from William Gossage & Sons to Lever Brothers, a major blow for the rival business.

The two Hudson factories were modernised in 1927. Electricity replaced steam power, and automated product-packing was introduced.

Lever Brothers gradually transferred production to their large factory at Port Sunlight. The R S Hudson factories in Liverpool and West Bromwich were closed in 1935.

Robert William Hudson died in 1938 with a personal estate in England valued at £234,146.

R S Hudson was merged with John Knight, another soap manufacturer controlled by Lever Brothers, to form Hudson & Knight in 1945.

Hudson & Knight was integrated into Unilever, the successor to Lever Brothers, in 1964.

Omo and Rinso are still sold around the world.

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