140 Years of Johnston & Jeff – a Brief History

1880 – Johnston & Jeff is Born

We begin life as an agricultural seed, grain and pea merchant at 52 High Street, Hull.

The business was set up by George Gilchrist Johnston and Richard Hunter Jeff who, in the early days, specialised in selling peas to pigeon fanciers. However, George and Richard soon noticed that miners kept canaries too and spotted an opportunity to supply canary seed and millet seed.

WWI – Food Scarcity

During WWI, we continued to supply pulses and seeds, but due to the scarcity of food, this was turned over to human consumption.

However, this has left a legacy that underpins the superior quality of our products to this day. Since then, many of the raw ingredients we buy are human grade, meaning the feeds we create are among the most nutritious available.

1921 – Alan Takes The Reins

In 1921, after 41 fantastic years of service, George Gilchrist Johnston retired and was succeeded by Alan, the second generation of Johnstons to run the business and the grandfather of our current managing director, Richard.

Richard Hunter Jeff had already retired before this and with no family interest in the business, he sold his shares to George, ending the involvement of the Jeff family in the business.

WWII – Disasters Strikes

By WWII, we’d outgrown our original premises and now occupied 61-64 High Street. 61, 62, and 64 were the mills, and 63 the offices. However, disaster was soon to strike. Hull was heavily bombed during the war and we didn’t escape as our premises took a direct hit.

We moved to a temporary location and it wasn’t until 1952 that the rebuild of High Street was finished and we returned there.

1947 – The Third Generation of Johnstons Joins

Ian Johnston, the grandson of George, served in the Royal Navy during WWII but was demobbed in 1947 and joined the family business. His uncle, Howard, also worked for us and they ran the company together.

1964 – Incorporation

In 1964, we were incorporated as a limited company, and a year later, Ian succeeded his father, Alan, as managing director. Under Ian, we began a period of modernisation and innovation.

1970s – A Time for Innovation

Under Ian’s leadership, we achieved a number of industry firsts. For example, in the mid-70s, we became the first company to ship peas and canary seed in bulk containers from New Zealand and Australia.

As part of Ian’s drive for innovation, we also invested in machinery to ensure our bird feed blends were the cleanest on the market.

1980s – 100 Years and Counting

1980 was our centenary – 100 magnificent years of producing the cleanest and most nutritious bird food on the market. In 1986, Alan’s son, Richard Johnston, joined the business to become the fourth generation of the Johnston family to do so.

13 years later, just before the turn of the century, Richard succeeded Alan as managing director.

2001 – Disaster Strikes Again

In 2001, nearly 60 years after our High Street premises was bombed, tragedy befell us again. A huge fire tore through the offices and mills, all but destroying them. Luckily, however, the 1952 rebuild had been done to such a high standard, including a safe room for important documents, that everything we needed to continue trading survived.

And continue trading we did! By the afternoon of the day the fire broke out, we’d found temporary premises in Hessle and were up and running.

Production began again just three days after the fire, an unbelievable achievement given the severity of the situation, and one that will always remain testament to the hard work and loyalty of the Johnston & Jeff team.

2002 – A Change of Scenery

Rather than rebuilding High Street for a second time, we decided to relocate instead and in 2002, moved to our present base in Gilberdyke.

We named the new buildings in honour of High Street, where we spent so much of our life, the Baltic Buildings.

2007 – The Parrot Society UK

In 2007, we began a long-term relationship with The Parrot Society UK to help to resurrect their flagship show, the National Exhibition Show.

The show closed down in 2001 when the Foot and Mouth epidemic stopped the movement of livestock and we wanted help breathe new life into the event with sponsorship deal. We’re immensely proud to say it continues to thrive to this day.

2013 – Launching our Woodshop

We opened our dedicated woodshop in 2013, where our team of master craftspeople make a range of wooden products by hand from sustainably sourced timber.

They create beautiful bird tables, nest boxes, animal hutches, poultry coops, and dove cotes that make cosy homes for birds and animals, as well as fantastic ornaments for gardens.

2015 – 2019 – Major Investments

Since 2015, we have been making major investments in equipment to ensure we can meet market demand efficiently. These include:

  • A pouch filler in 2015
  • Our first multi-head weigher/VFFS in 2017
  • A sampling spear/testing lab in 2018
  • A second multi-head weigher/VFFS in 2019.

Under Richard’s leadership, these investments enabled us to thrive and to grow and set the scene for our 140th year.

During this period, we also took steps to reduce our carbon footprint. In 2016, we stopped importing canary seed from Australia and Canada, and now source it from a grower less than quarter of a mile from the factory.

In 2017, Maddy Johnston, the fifth generation of the Johnston family to enter the business, began working for us full time.

2020 – Still Going Strong at 140!

2020 saw us celebrate a phenomenal 140 years of business! What an achievement, something we’re all incredibly proud of.

How did we celebrate? By investing £1m in expanding our factory and offices, including two new computer-controlled multi-head weighers, a new bagging line, and a palletising robot which loads sacks on to pallets.

The Future

So, that’s what the first 140 years held for Johnston & Jeff. Here’s to the next. Whatever happens, we’ll be updating you here!

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