Brief history of

John Dobson

(Milnthorpe) Ltd.

The earliest available record of John Dobson (founder of the company) is when he moved from London to York in 1704 and began making hair combs from animal horn. However, there is a belief that the business was carried on in London prior to 1704.

Why did he move to York? Well York had a long tradition of Horn craftsmen, with the earliest mention of a ‘Horner’ being in 1309. In the latter half of the 16th Century there was a decline in the Horners craft. However, around a Century later from 1676, the York records began to refer to Horn-breakers, Horn-pressers, and Horn-turners in conjunction with Comb-makers. (e.g. a business described in 1676 as ‘Horn-presser & Comb-maker’). There was clearly a revival in 18th Century York, as the number of Comb-makers jumped from about 15 in 1741 to at least 89 in 1841.

The term ‘Horner’ was used to describe the general practices of ‘Horn-breaking’ ‘Horn-pressing’ & ‘Horn-turning’. Horn-breaking (or horn cutting) was the practice of cutting & opening the horn to make it useable.

The History of John Dobson from the York records is a little sketchy, but he was apparently a friend and associate of the Rougier family whilst in York and they kept in touch down the generations. The Rougier family came to England from France in 1686 and opened Hairdressing shops in Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland. It isn’t clear how or why the family eventually spread to York. There is a record of a Joseph Rougier starting a workshop in York in 1794 described as a ‘Horn-turner & Comb Manufacturer’.

After arriving in York in 1704, John Dobson’s as a business moved to Bradford with William Dobson in 1760, Kendal in 1840 and finally it’s present location (Bela Mill) in Milnthorpe in 1886. Buildings on the current site date back to at least 6th Jan 1460, when the earliest local records refer to Bela Mill(s) along with a paper mill 300 yards down river, as “anciently belonging to the Church”. It is known from a map of 1741 that the present mill used to be 4 separate mills, involved with Paper, Corn, Log-Wood and Cotton. These 4 mills were connected to make one mill in 1810. From 1816 to 1884 Flax and Hemp Spinners used the site for Twine and Linen Thread weaving, Sack and Bag making, and Sail making.

Comb making on the site began in 1886 with the arrival of John Dobson’s business. Cow horns were used as raw material for the combs and these horns were transported from the local Railway Station by horse and cart. Horn was used for comb making because good quality horn is a very resilient material. If not overly flattened it will not bend, break or warp. Also, two pieces of horn can be welded together under pressure. The various comb designs were cut out of the prepared horn by using saw cutting machinery – hence the term ‘Saw Cut Comb’. The machinery was powered by a 19 ton undershot water wheel, 12 feet wide and 14 feet high, which created approximately 67 H.P. The original water wheel is still in position in the building to this day and was in use until 1960.

Original animal horn began to be replaced in 1927 with the arrival of Casein material. This was an artificial horn made mainly from sour milk. In addition to Caesin, Cellulose Acetate sheet material was also used (primarily to achieve a Tortoise-Shell effect) for cutting into Pocket, Dress and Tail combs. By 1940 animal horn was no longer widely in use for comb making and by 1946 Injection Moulding became the normal method.

The company continues to manufacture millions of combs every year. The brand names of BELA and LANGDALE were superseded by the now worldwide brand name of DURALON. Under the DURALON brand name, the company supplies a targeted range of fast selling ‘Impulse Purchase’ products, sought after and distributed by Wholesalers and Retailers around the globe. Product groups include: Chemist ‘Sundries’, Plasters & Bandages, Nail Care, Hair Combs, Hair Brushes, Haberdashery, Sewing Accessories, Shoe & Boot Laces, Stationery Items, Electrical Accessories, Household & D.I.Y. Goods.

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