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Final chapter in Boulton & Paul story

PUBLISHED: 08:00 31 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:44 06 July 2010

The closure of the Jeld Wen factory next year is a body blow for Lowestoft and it marks the end of the road for one of the most famous names of all time on the industrial map of East Anglia - Boulton & Paul.

The closure of the Jeld Wen factory next year is a body blow for Lowestoft and it marks the end of the road for one of the most famous names of all time on the industrial map of East Anglia - Boulton & Paul. Derek James reports.

IT was a jewel in the Norwich industrial crown, a business which helped to build the region and a name which became highly respected all over the world, a symbol of craftsmanship - Boulton & Paul.

B&P, the Rolls Royce of the world of steel and wood, exported its products, from fire buckets and sheds to aircraft and huge metal cutting machinery, to all corners of the world and the name stood for style and perfection.

This week came the sad news that the company which bought the firm a decade ago, Jeld Wen, will be closing its Lowestoft factory in the New Year with the loss of 194 jobs.

As GMB Union representative Ivan Mercer said: “This is a blow for the whole town, not just the workers. It's a real kick in the teeth for Lowestoft.”

Jeld Wen, which processes, mills and treats wood to be made into doors, window frames and stairs at the company's other factories, will be closed in phases next year.

It will be the final chapter in the extraordinary Boulton & Paul story which started in Norwich back in 1797 when a young man opened an ironmongers shop in Cockey Lane (Little London Street).

His name was William Moore and he had left the family farm in Wareham to try his luck in Norwich. It proved to be a wise move.

Soon after arriving he went into partnership with a man called Barnard and they starting making stoves and grates…William also threw himself into civic life becoming Sheriff, Mayor and an Alderman. He was also given the Freedom of the City.

William died in 1839 and Barnard set up in business with William Staples Boulton and in 1853 they took on a 12-year-old apprentice by the name of John Joseph Dawson Paul - a young man with a vision.

In 1864 the business was going well and it moved into large premises in Rose Lane. Dawson Paul was made manager and paid £100 a year. He was worth every penny.

The company started making agricultural and horticultural implements and then opened a department producing wire netting…business was starting to boom. It started to exhibit at shows abroad and returned with full order books.

By 1874 Dawson Paul was made a partner and the company re-named Boulton & Paul. The name it retained after Boulton died in 1879 leaving Dawson Paul to run it his way.

An astute businessman, he also played a major role in the life of Norwich and when he was made Sheriff in 1885 he presented 10 cwt of coal, a quarter of a ton of tea and half a ton of sugar to be divided amongst the poor.

He was elected Mayor five years later.

Wire netting production was in full swing and in Australia around 7,500 miles of B&P netting was used to control wild rabbits.

Structural steel and engineering departments were added to the factory and it also started making engines for marine craft - in 1907 it was responsible for the DollyDo motor boat built and raced at Lowestoft - the fastest in the country.

The company also made the sledges for Scott's ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic.

But it was the start of the First World War which put B&P on the world manufacturing stage and paved the way for plane making.

A few months into the war it received 11 orders for complete camps for 6,000 men and stables along with a PoW camp in Jersey.

It also made hangars for the Royal Flying Corps (which became the RAF) and 5,372 miles of wire netting for the blood-soaked trenches in France.

In 1915 B&P started to make aircraft and the first made its maiden flight from Mousehold Heath.

The following year, to meet demand, B&P moved to Riverside to build aircraft. It had bought 12 acres of land from Colman's for £12,000.

By the end of the war B&P had built more than 2,500 aircraft such as FE2Bs, camels and Snipes. It had also built flying boat hulls and many hangars - including 15 hangers and 21 large storage sheds for aircraft on Mousehold.

And all eyes were on B&P when it produced exhibited the first British all metal framed aircraft, the P10, at the Paris Aero Show in 1919.

After surviving the early 1920s slump when workers and bosses took a pay cut, it opened branches in Australia and in Birmingham and started work building giant air ships.

In 1927 B&P aircraft performed at the opening of The Norfolk and Norwich Aero Club on Mousehold Heath. The P25 Bugle and the P9 giving joyrides.

Many firms went to the hall in the depression of the 1930s but B&P carried on, although in 1934 aircraft manufacture switched to Wolverhampton and many skilled craftsmen left the city with their families for a new life in the Midlands.

It was in 1936 when Jean Tresfon, a Dutch South African millionaire, gave it a future by investing huge sums of money into B&P and eventually took it over.

Thousands of men and women were working at the huge Riverside Works during the Second World War which was attacked by the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940.

Several people were killed and many more injured but production carried on. B&P made produced wooden fuselages for planes and gliders, tank transporters and more than 85,000 Morrison air raid shelters.

After the war the company continued to producing an array of products - from holiday camp pedalos to massive automatic metal drilling machinery, invented in Norwich by the brilliant Lionel Measures, and sent all over the world - from America to Japan.

There were occasional commercial flops, such as the wooden fridge - that didn't go down too well!

In 1963 it built a new factory at Lowestoft - 42 acres - so it didn't have to ship wood up the river to Norwich.

B&P continued to turn out huge numbers of metal and wood products during the 1950s, 60s and 70s before it was slowly broken up and sold off. Various departments and offshoots were shut with jobs trickling away.

The year 1984 marked the beginning of the end with all the steel stock, 20,000 tons, sold off. Two years later the last 240 manufacturing jobs in Norwich were axed and in the following years the steelworks and the joinery works were closed and the site sold off to be re-development and turned into the Riverside we have today.

The massive Riverside Works where thousands of men and women once worked is long gone and all we have to remind us of this pioneering company is a steel statue near the Novi Sad Bridge.

With thanks to Boulton & Paul historian Bran Holmes.

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