Ipswich Icons: The history of Ipswich’s Tibbenham’s

Number three, Buttermarket, Ipswich, was rebuilt by Frederick Tibbenham’s firm in the early 1930s in

Number three, Buttermarket, Ipswich, was rebuilt by Frederick Tibbenhams firm in the early 1930s in mock Tudor style. Picture: VIA JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

Avid readers of this newspaper will recall a photograph of the girls at Tibbenham’s making propellers during the war – a photograph so often reproduced you can be forgiven for thinking this is all they did.

A worker planing a propeller at Tibbenhams. Picture: DAVE KINDRED

A worker planing a propeller at Tibbenhams. Picture: DAVE KINDRED

Actually, the female employees’ main role was to add the leading-edge brass strip and then polish and balance the props. Tibbenham’s war-time output included Bren gun stocks, butts and carrying handles from kiln-dried walnut, as well as an experimental wooden bullet which was rejected by the British Army.

Frederick Tibbenham was a cabinet maker and entrepreneur born in Ipswich in 1884. By the time he was 18 he had started on his own, initially as a picture framer but later producing furniture.

The company was founded in 1904 and incorporated in 1912. Between the wars it grew in size, at one stage employing hundreds of craftsmen.

As well as reproduction, they were engaged in the restoration of older pieces of furniture, made panelling for use in the restoration of old houses and were specialists in carved oak for internal and external work.

Their skilled workforce obtained a reputation for quality in ecclesiastical woodwork, and a number of Suffolk churches have altar tables, lecterns and communion rails made by Tibbenham’s.

Their main factory was in Turret Lane, opposite the junction with Rose Lane – a collection of older buildings demolished in the early 1960s to make way for the East Anglian Daily Times, who were moving from Carr Street. The printing press occupied the space previously the joinery workshops.

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Archant’s printing has subsequently moved to Norwich and the site between Turret Lane and Lower Brook Street cleared (again), this time for retirement apartments. Tibbenham’s also had a production facility at 45 Foundation Street.

Of particular interest to this column, however, was Tibbenham’s involvement in the production of timber-frame buildings, usually in the Tudorbethan style. They exhibited at the 1926 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition (architect Stanley Hamp). Some of their houses still exist: a Tudor house at Norwood, and a pair of oak-framed houses on the Copsewood Estate, also in Norwood, Middlesex.

Tibbenham’s also built the clubhouse for Ipswich Golf Club on Purdis Heath (1927), built on a not-for-profit basis for £3,200.

There was an ambitious plan to create an Art Deco housing development on 200 acres of land between Frinton-on-Sea and Walton-on-the-Naze, a showcase of British design.

A new company was formed in 1934, Frinton Park Estate, and Frederick Tibbenham was on the board. He introduced architect Oliver Hill to his fellow board members and the first 20 plots were sold.

Unfortunately, the estate was never finished. By 1936 only a couple of dozen houses had been completed, including the circular show house, and the company collapsed, owing £81,000 – a considerable sum at that time.

After the Second World War the only furniture Tibbenham’s could produce and sell were (basic) “utility” pieces. These were not their forte and by the mid 1950s Tibbenham’s had all but ceased production, closing Turret Lane.

The business was transferred to a much smaller unit on Farthing Road but there was little of the old company left and they finally closed in 1981.

Just to complicate the story, there is an entry in Kelly’s Directory in the 1970s of Tibbenham’s making furniture in a workshop at the rear of 22 Kemball Street; workshops that were later to become Dickson’s Furniture Makers. Perhaps you can update our records?

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