Industrial giants down on the Waterfront

EMPLOYMENT in Ipswich was once dominated by engineering works.

David Kindred

EMPLOYMENT in Ipswich was once dominated by engineering works. One of the largest was Ransomes and Rapier, whose vast site on the west bank of the River Orwell in the Stoke area of Ipswich employed thousands of people. Many followed their fathers and grandfathers through the gates of the works. Through the 1980s the company went through difficult trading times and was taken over and closed. By 1990 most of the site had been demolished and cleared for redevelopment.

Kindred Spirits reader Mr B Talman, of Harebell Road, Ipswich, recalls how the works site once dominated life “Over Stoke” with the sounds and smells of industry. Mr Talman said: “I grew up in Purplett Street. I lived a stone's throw from the works and although very young at the time I have many memories of this great part of Ipswich history. I toured Ransomes and Rapier many times, thanks to the family open day held on a Saturday morning once a year. Although I had no family working there I still managed to get plenty of entrance tickets. My brothers and I would take it in turns to go to the lodge and ask for tickets for the open day; the men in the office were very friendly and always obliged with several. We liked at least three tickets each as there were three stubs - one for an ice-cream, one for a packet of biscuits or a drink and the other a tour around the factory on a trolley pulled by a truck. Three tickets meant three ice-creams and three rides around the factory! A very nice way to spend a Saturday morning!

“The workmen would be at their huge fearsome-looking machines to give demonstrations of their work. I remember one machine in particular. It was a huge press. You could give the operator an old one-penny piece; he would then place it on a very thick metal tray and a huge weight would be powered into the air and come crashing down on the penny. The operator would give you your penny back, completely flattened.

“Another memory of R&R was the hundreds of bicycles which filled the roads around the factory before opening time in the morning and dinner time. The greatest majority of the workforce cycled to work, so it was quite a show. Ten minutes before work was due to start a very loud hooter went off as a 10-minute warning. This was called a bull horn; it could be heard all over Stoke and beyond.

“Unfortunately I felt the full force of these bicycles one dinner time. I used to go home for dinner from Luther Road Primary School and the bull horn was my cue to go back to school. One day I just rushed straight off to school right into the road without looking and right into these hundreds of bicycles. It looked a right mess, with me lying on the road along with dozens of cycles. The workmen looked very concerned, but it turned out not for me: they were worried they would be late for work and get docked half an hour's wages!

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“I am pretty sure these cyclists that worked at Ransomes were used in a scene for the film The Angry Silence. I remember cameras being set up on a piece of wasteland on a corner of Purplett Street and Kemp Street and filming began as soon as these hoards of cycles went past. It would be great to hear from some older readers who might remember more!

“It wasn't until after waterside works was demolished that I began to find out the fascinating history of R&R, like making the first steam locomotive to run in China for the construction of the first Chinese railway. Ransomes not only made the locomotive but constructed and supplied most of the things needed for the whole rail network. Refrigeration plants, swing bridges, designing and making weapons for both wars are just a few of the products invented, designed and made by R&R.

“Ransomes were building the railway in China when a train ran down a local man. The legal documents from the resulting court case arrived complete with the man's bones in it. I was lucky enough to visit the then Post Office tower in London when it was open to the public. I visited the revolving restaurant and was fascinated to find out that workings of the revolving tower were made by Ransome & Rapier. When I lived in the Stoke area of Ipswich as a youngster, they were designing and constructing the world's largest walking dragline cranes.”

- What memories do you have of Ransomes and Rapier? Write to Kindred Spirits at the Evening Star or e-mail

Ransomes and Rapier was formed in 1869. The company took over the railway engineering business of what was the Ipswich company Ransomes Sims and Head, so that the parent company could concentrate on agricultural equipment. In the 1970s the company had a difficult time with the then owners, the Newton and Chambers Group of Sheffield, threatening closure. In the 1980s R and R was taken over by a company owned by Robert Maxwell, who flew into Ipswich, with his helicopter landing on R and R's canteen lawn on July 13, 1987, to tell the remaining staff he was closing the company.

- Scenes for the 1960 film The Angry Silence were shot in Ipswich. The film, starring Richard Attenborough, was about a young factory worker who decides to stand up against his work-mates and fellow union members when they want to hold a wildcat strike.