Peter H. Nunn
Some Historical Notes on Blackbourne Works
This article appeared in the Elmswell Newsletter in May 1993
One can perhaps imagine a walk along Green Road in the early 1830’s before the industrial revolution and before the Eastern Union railway line invaded its serenity in 1845 on a track wandering through many waterlogged wastes and at varying levels, widths and conditions. There still remain several houses and old thatched cottages along this road that can help one construct what must have been a tranquil rural scene.Set in the middle of this village green (believed to have been known as Buttonhaugh Green) was a blacksmith’s shop. The discovery of a Sale Catalogue dated 1848 in the Public Records’ Office at Bury St. Edmunds lists Lot Number 24 as an ‘exceedingly desirable property consisting of a neat cottage dwelling with blacksmith’s shop, cow-house, garden and orchard in the occupation of Mr. Wm. Spencer as yearly tenant at an annual rental of £11.15s.0d.’ The Sale was of various lots all parts of the estate of Sir. G.H. Smythe, Bart. and took place in the Capital Free Public House then known as The Lion (now the home of Mr. & Mrs. M. Catton) the subject of another Lot Number and the only inn in the village at that time. Both the 1841 Census and the 1846 White’s Directory of Suffolk list Mr. Wm. Spencer as a blacksmith. In 1841 he was 41 but it is not known if he was self-employed running a business or an employee of the Smythe estate.Our cover picture this month shows the original blacksmiths buildings on what is now the site of Thurlow Nunn Standen, Ashfield Road. The stile in the foreground leads to the footpath which now runs between Thurlow’s and the new Fairclough Estate.
It is not known who purchased Lot No. 24 at the sale. Relevant deeds indicate that a certain Nathan Warren (then aged 50) who lived at Wetherden purchased the property in 1876 although he could have previously been a tenant of another owner. The 1881 Census quotes Nathan Warren as employing seven men and a boy so it must have been a busy blacksmith’s enterprise. White’s Directory of 1885 makes the first reference to Blackburn Ironworks (note spelling). The name was no doubt taken from the small river which rises behind the parish church and runs through the early Suffolk County administrative area originally known as the Blackborne Hundred (spelling).
Little factual information can be found about the works until the business was sold to Frank J. Nunn in 1909 following Warren’s death at the age of 82 the previous year. Although Warren did become well known for the manufacture of his well known horse hoes and a range of arable harrows things had then reached a bad state and the locals called the new owner a fool who could not possibly last six months. The foundry had ceased to function because of the difficulties in obtaining suitable moulding clay. One old man who died many years ago claimed that because of jealosy over the affections of a local barmaid there was sabotage in the foundry shed and a roll-ring mould exploded. Apart from the damage to tiles on the roof it brought down so much accumulated dust that the job of clearing up was beyond the inclinations of both staff and management. Frank Nunn was the youngest son of a blacksmith in Drinkstone. He had obviously received training from his father and from an older brother who ran a cycle repair business. He had for a few years chauffered the local doctor and with a young wife, the daughter of a local farmer, had lived above the old surgery in Woolpit. He enjoyed telling the tale that at the age of sixteen he had sought employment at the works, was rejected, but at twenty-six he returned to the establishment. He also said that if he had five pounds in his pocket at the end of the week he had enough to pay the wages of four or five employees and provide housekeeping money for his wife for the next week. The deeds of the sale defined Frank Nunn as an engineer — one had to have more than basic engineering skills to keep a car on the road in those times. He was never a wheelwright as an earlier article in this magazine suggested. However, four of the employees at the time of purchase were named as Bob Leech and Ted Nicholls, who were blacksmiths together with Bob Nunn (no relation) and Edgar Oxborrow who were wheelwrights.
From then onwards the business activity centered around shoeing working horses, repairs to farm implements and the continued and successful manufacture of Warren horse hoes, harrows, tumbrils and waggons. The World War I focussed attention on the home production of food and a pair of Fowler Steam Ploughing Engines with the ancillary tillage equipment were purchased in 1919. This system was considered the best in heavy land cultivation and drainage. The late 20’s and 30’s were difficult years although the need for expansion persuaded Nunn to purchase an adjacent property known as ‘The Laurels’ which had been built with Woolpit white bricks in about 1895. Twice he did this only to be forced to re-sell to improve business liquidity. In 1929 he purchased The Laurels for the third time and it soon became the family home. The original thatched house referred to as a ‘neat cottage dwelling’ in the second paragraph of this article and the birth-place of Nunn’s five children was demolished. My birth certificate gives my place of birth as Blackbourn House (spelling). A new building was erected on this site in 1930 which provided a showroom as well as parts’ and office accommodation.
In 1935 several old and dilapidated sheds were replaced by a large steel-framed and asbestos-clad building situated directly behind the showroom to be used as a modern workshop for the repair of farm machinery. In 1937 a second set of Fowler Steam Ploughing Engines was brought into service. By this time tractors were being accepted and sold from the works as an essential and inevitable replacement for the Suffolk Punch horse. The years of World War II heralded a rapid increase in farm mechanisation with the sale of greater numbers of tractors, balers and combine harvesters, many being brought across the Atlantic from America under the Lease Lend Plan. This lead to the demise of the contracting business with the eventual sale of all that equipment in 1941.
The original blacksmith’s shop with its four forges was eventually demolished in 1946 and a new building was erected on that site to contain a specialist spare parts’ department. Frank Nunn died in 1959 failing by only a few months to complete five decades of business activity at Blackbourne Ironworks. No significant structural changes occured until 1970 when the agricultural interests of George Thurlow & Sons Ltd., of Stowmarket were merged with those of Frank J. Nunn & Sons, Ltd. with the creation of Thurlow Nunn and Sons Ltd. This marriage brought together two long established family businesses. So as to accommodate the increased activity a completely new workshop was built over The Laurels garden, the house became a block of offices and the old workshop was taken over for increased parts’ stocks. At the same time, and much to the annoyance of those that adored the typical English country thatched cottage, one adjacent and a long time in the ownership of the company named ‘Homefield’ was demolished. This provided extensive car parking space.
In 1978 an additional office block was built to house staff of a central computerised parts’ stock control system, provide a canteen, a boardroom and more adequate toilet accommodation. At that time more than fifty were employed on the site. In recent years that number has substancially reduced because of the recession in agriculture and the centralisation of certain administrative activities elsewhere in the Thurlow Nunn Standen group of companies. 1990 saw some cosmetic changes to the roadside frontage timed with the introduction of a ‘Groundcare’ division.