Another nail in industry's coffin

As another of the major employers in Ipswich prepares to pull production out of town, PAUL GEATER looks back at how our manufacturing industry has shrunk, and recalls some of the names which were cornerstones of the community just a generation ago.

By Paul Geater

As another of the major employers in Ipswich prepares to pull production out of town, PAUL GEATER looks back at how our manufacturing industry has shrunk, and recalls some of the names which were cornerstones of the community just a generation ago.

IPSWICH is a town whose prosperity and very existence as a regional centre was based on manufacturing - and in particular engineering.

But with the announcement that Crane Ltd is to cease manufacturing valves and fluid systems from its Nacton Road foundry next year, another nail has been knocked firmly in the coffin of the town's engineering sector.

Now there are just two well-known large engineering firms left in the town, and they employ just a fraction of the numbers they did in their heyday.

The largest engineering company is now Ransomes Jacobsen, based on Europark industrial estate at the end of Nacton Road.

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The company still specialises in the products that made its name during the last century - specialist grass-cutting equipment for large users.

Its equipment is used on golf clubs and other sports fields across the world. But mechanisation means it now only needs a comparatively small workforce compared with previous years.

The other large engineering company left in Ipswich is Compair Reavell which is now based on the Whitehouse industrial estate after leaving its Ranelagh Road works last year.

But again the number of people it employs has shrunk dramatically over the last 30 years.

Ransomes and Rapier was one of the biggest engineering firms in Ipswich for well over a century, making everything from railway equipment to massive cranes.

It eventually closed in 1988 after being taken over by Robert Maxwell's Hollis group of companies.

The company grew during Victorian times and helped build the first railways in both China and Australia.

Railway turntables were one of its specialisms - and these can still be seen at preserved railways across the country with the distinctive Ransomes and Rapier plaque.

During the 20th century its main products became cranes and heavy drag-lines which were exported across the world from its Waterside works in Ipswich.

Cocksedge and Company was a heavy engineering company based on Wherstead Road which went into receivership in 1982.

Hundreds of people lost their jobs at the height of a recession, adding to gloom in the town. Its site is now part of the Waterfront redevelopment.

Bull Motors made specialist electric dynamos at its plant in Foxhall Road, Ipswich, until 2000 when production was switched to the Birmingham area.

The site, together with the neighbouring former Celestion factory, is now part of the Barratt housing development.

Celestion itself moved out of town - but not so far. Its headquarters are now at Great Blakenham.

Manganese Bronze, based in Hadleigh Road, was a major employer for many years - and its successor company Cerro remains on the site.

However the number of people employed there has fallen significantly over the last few years.


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ENGINEERING is not the only sector to have contracted in Ipswich over the last 30 years.

Churchman's tobacco was a major employer, eventually being taken over by John Player, until the early 1990s.

The association with the town was immortalised by the south stand at Ipswich Town being known as “The Churchmans Stand” because it stood next to the factory - those were the days before major sponsorship!

Food manufacturing and malting was important around the docks - with Pauls and Cranfields being major employers.

Their former sites are now at the heart of major redevelopment in the Waterfront area of Ipswich.

Ipswich was famous for the beers that were produced in the town by two major breweries - Tollemache and Cobbold before they came together to form Tolly Cobbold in the late 1950s.

The company was eventually sold to multi-national businesses Brent Walker and then Ellerman in the 1980s and 1990s before Cliff Quay brewery reopened.

Sadly beer production did not last here, eventually the company merged with Essex brewers Ridleys, which was in turn taken over by Greene King.

WHILE the death knell was sounded for manufacturing at Crane Ltd this week, its neighbour Ransomes Jacobsen is looking forward to a bright future.

The company's plant in Ipswich was under serious threat of closure four years ago as its American owners the Textron group looked to rationalise production around the world.

However the decision was eventually taken to retain the Ipswich factory and invest in it.

Now the 300 people employed there have an essentially new plant, and job security.

Company spokesman Peter Driver said: “The equipment we manufacture here is sold over much of the world, from Iceland to India.

“Our main customers are golf courses and local authorities who want to maintain playing fields and verges. There is a very good market now in the Middle East.”

Golf equipment is sold under the Jacobsen name while Ransomes-branded equipment is used to cut and prepare sports fields.

Many Premier League clubs use Ransome's equipment - and the local element is very important to the company.

“We have a very close relationship with Ipswich Town,” said Mr Driver. “Alan Ferguson (head groundsman) is something of an ambassador for us and the club helps test some of our new lines.

“And we have a similar relationship with Ipswich Golf Club - they try out our new equipment to see if it is just right for courses around the world.”

But Mr Driver had one warning for employees from Crane who might look for a job down the road.

He said: “We don't have a very big staff turnover. We get a few people leaving or joining us each year, but most people seem to stay. They like working here and don't feel the need to move on.

“We have spent between £2.5 and £3 million re-building the factory over the last few years and it is now a very attractive place to work

FORMER Ipswich mayor Albert Grant heard the news about the end of manufacturing at Crane Ltd with an especially heavy heart - he worked at the firm for 36 years.

He said: “I started there in 1960. I began after I came out of National Service and I stayed there until I retired in 1996.”

When manufacturing ceases next year, 210 people will lose their jobs . . . but that is a tiny fraction of the numbers employed there in previous years when the company was the largest private-sector employer in Ipswich.

“When I started at Crane there were well over 2,000 people there and they were always looking for more,” said Mr Grant.

“You knew that if you walked out of your job anywhere in town you could walk into a job at Crane. It was a huge business.

“It's shrunk a great deal over the years, but it is still an important business in the town and I was very sad to hear the news this week,” he added.

WITH the closure of Crane Ltd, the future of engineering manufacturing in Ipswich may look bleak - but Dick Calvesbert from the Chamber of Commerce does not think the outlook is all gloom and doom.

He said: “It is sad to see the end of manufacturing at Crane, but the fact is there have been many more devastating job losses in the town over the years, it has already contracted substantially.

“People who lose their jobs when it does close may need retraining, but many will have skills that will be in demand by other employers.

“Engineering is an important industry - but there are not the huge companies there used to be, they are smaller niche operations.”

Mr Calvesbert said there was a need for engineers in the transport and related industries, and felt many of those who would lose their jobs with the closure of Crane Ltd could retrain.

“I suspect many of them have skills which would be of use in the motor industry - although whether they see that at the moment I don't know.

“I think about a quarter of those who leave Crane will find jobs fairly easily and another quarter will probably take early retirement.

“The others may need some retraining, but there is a jobs fair in Ipswich early in the new year at which they can find out about opportunities.

“I know this is a worrying time for them - and I would ban firms from making redundancies in the run-up to Christmas - but I think most people will be able to find appropriate jobs in the area eventually.”