Ransome’s -our Town’s engineering giant

The Robert Ransome, to most people, in Ipswich is now just a busy town centre pub.

The Robert Ransome to most people in Ipswich is now just a busy town centre pub. The building facing the Tower Ramparts bus station is a few yards from where Robert Ransome founded a company that had a huge influence on the history of Ipswich and the lives of thousands of families.

Rod Cross, who lived in Clifford Road, Ipswich, before moving to near Southampton, tells us the history of this company and how his family like thousands of others had generations working there.

Rod said: “Traditional rivalry would probably prevent most Ipswich folk ever admitting that anything good had ever come out of Norwich. However, in 1789, a young engineer Robert Ransome left Norwich where, four years earlier he had set up a small workshop, and travelled Ipswich.

“Ransome was from a Quaker family and turned his back on his native city in favour of Ipswich, which was more tolerant towards non-conformists and allowed Quakers to live and work in comparative peace. When he arrived Ransome had just �200 in his pocket. He founded Ransomes and Co; obtained a patent for making cast-iron ploughshares; and began production in a disused maltings in St Margaret’s Ditches, now Old Foundry Road.

“From these humble beginnings the largest plough and agricultural implement manufacturer in England was to emerge. “By 1849 Ransome and May’s iron foundry, as it had then become, employed over 1,000 workers and had moved to the new and bigger Orwell Works in Duke Street. This had the advantage of being on the dockside, thus giving easy access to London and facilitating imports of raw materials and export of manufactured goods.

“Charles May left to form his own company in 1854, and was replaced by William Sims. The firm then went through various changes of name, but after the arrival of John Jefferies in 1884, eventually settled on Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies Ltd.

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“As expansion continued, Ransomes was to become a revered name in the world of engineering and mechanical innovation. Not only did it develop agricultural machinery, but extended its range to include steam engines, fork lifts and trolley buses and, during World War One, munitions and aeroplanes and even a prototype motor-cycle.

“By 1961, the company, now concentrating on the manufacture of ploughs, harvesters, lawnmowers, horticultural tractors and electric trucks, was exporting all over the world. This was the heyday for Ransomes, which now had 3,200 employees and had moved its base to more modern premises at Nacton Works, near Ipswich Airport.

“Sadly, from that peak, the company went into slow, but steady decline. By 1989, the whole of the agricultural implement business was sold to Electrolux, leaving Ransomes solely as a manufacturer of lawnmowers. Within a decade, the company had accepted a take-over offer from Textron Inc, USA and their independent existence ended early in 1998.

“It was a sad ending for Robert Ransome’s company which, for over 200 years, had been at the forefront of the engineering industry in Ipswich. It had long been the leading employer in the town and generations of the same family found employment there.

“This was true of my family. My father, Walter Cross, spent his entire working life for Ransomes, first in the stores in the electrical and trucks department, then as a lathe operator, whilst his brother Harold worked as a die-sinker in the forge and press area.

“Their father was apprenticed as a toolmaker during the early part of the last century and his father before him was employed as a sheet iron worker in the foundry and later as a ‘tinman and coppersmith’. My father initially served under his own grandfather as an apprentice.

“My mother’s father was also employed by Ransomes, in the lawn-mower works at the bottom of Cavendish Street, whilst his son spent his working life in the plough works. Going further back in time, many of my forebears lived in the nearby Potteries and St Clement’s areas of Ipswich and with occupations such as furnace man, smith’s striker and iron turner were almost certainly Ransome’s employees also.

“My earliest childhood memory of Ransomes in the 1950s was of the bullhorn that summoned workers both in the morning and after lunch. Although we lived two miles away, its plaintive wail could be heard clearly, first at 7.15, time for my father to pull on his work boots and begin the walk down Back Hamlet; then at 7.25, the five minute warning; and finally at 7.30, you should be here NOW! Employees were given three minutes grace. Arrive at 7.33 and the main gates remained open; one minute later and once admitted, quarter of an hour’s pay was docked.

“The men and women during the war years then worked for five hours with a ten minute mid-morning break. During this time my father would have a snack and a cup of tea from his thermos flask and read his News Chronicle, purchased en route from Mr Canham at Hanks newsagents in Duke Street.”

n I will continue Rod’s memories of RS&J in Kindred Spirits nest week. Do you have memories of the company to share? Write to Kindred Spirits at the Evening Star 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail info@kindred-spirit.co.uk

n Robert Ransome retired in 1825 and died in 1830 and was buried in a Quaker burial ground in College Street, the area was demolished in 1995. Roberts’s grave was obliterated although there is a blue plaque in Old Foundry Road marking the site of his early foundry.