Businesses and Industry in Suffolk

Business records are often the most under used archives and yet they represent some of the richest sources available to historians.  The extensive business collections held by Suffolk Record Office are no exception and they can be an invaluable resource for those researching the history of companies.

Surprisingly, considering its remoteness from raw materials such as coal and iron ore, Suffolk developed a successful engineering industry. Originally founded to supply local agricultural machinery, by the outbreak of World War I many of Suffolk’s engineering firms were exporting the greater part of their production.

In 1982 the Fund for the Preservation of Scientific Material helped Ipswich Record Office purchased the records of Richard Garrett and Sons (HC30), who were large exporters of agricultural engineering machinery, including steam traction engines. Their Long Shop assembly hall, now a museum, was one of the world’s first flow-line production lines. Ipswich Record Office receives numerous requests from enthusiasts throughout the world who are preserving Garrett and Sons’ machinery and want copies of the original blueprints that form part of the collection.

Suffolk also attracted businesses who wanted to take advantage of lower labour costs and cheap land. Two such enterprises whose extensive archives are held by Suffolk Record Office are Clays Ltd of Bungay (1289) at the Lowestoft branch and British Xylonite Ltd (HC410) at the Ipswich branch. In 1876 Charles and Richard Clay purchased a small printing company which today is a company of national importance in the printing and publishing world. The company printed the first four Harry Potter novels and recently printed J. K. Rowling’s debut novel as a crime writer, The Casual Vacancy. In 1887 British Xylonite purchased land at Brantham and became a world leader in developing plastics. Margaret Thatcher worked as a research chemist for a subsidiary of the company in the early 1950s.

During World War I large numbers of women were recruited to fill jobs left by men who had gone to fight. A photographic album held at Ipswich Record Office shows women working at Tibbenhams (HC403) a manufacturer of aircraft propellers who were based in Ipswich.