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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
In the ultra-modern Riverside area of Norwich stands two oddly striking pillars – a memorial to an almost forgotten piece of industrial history .
Riversides history presents a very different face. The river was once Norwichs main highway and link to the coast, so industries naturally grew up nearby to be close to this transport and supply hub. From its origins as an ironmongers in the late 18th century the firm later to be known as Boulton and Paul progressed through making agricultural machinery to becoming pioneers of military aviation. Its role later made it a target for second world war bombing.
In 1797 William Moore set up an ironmongery business in Cockey Lane. His partner was John H Barnard, who also established the business of Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, whose works included bridges still standing in the city. The retail and wholesale ironmongery grew steadily; some 40 years later, on Moores death, Williams Staples Boulton became a partner. In 1853 a 12-year-old boy named John Dawson Paul joined as an apprentice and history was in the making. A decade later he became manager of the business, on a salary of 100 a year .The business of WS Boulton and Paul came into being in 1869, after the death of Barnard, by which time the business was in a new foundry at the junction of King Street and Rose Lane. A decade later the firm was reconstituted as a limited company and Paul was in sole charge; a leading citizen of Norwich, by 1900 he was city mayor.
From ironmongery the firm moved in to agricultural and horticultural tools and iron buildings for farms. Boulton and Paul also made stone grates, kettles and mincing sausage machines. It made wire netting for farms on machines invented by Norfolks Charles Barnard in 1844, and was an innovator in Norwich industry a city which had until recently relied on textiles, a trade in decline by the early 19th century. The firm gained a reputation for reliability and versatility, working with wire, wood and iron. By 1879 some 350 employees worked at Rose Lane. At the dawn of the 20th century the future was bright, as Boulton and Paul transformed itself by taking on larger building projects. The company produced the huts for Scotts Antarctic expedition, and also made motor boat engines and structural steelwork. Its innovative spirit saw it experiment with steel production, something that had been revolutionised by recent inventions. It moved to the other side of the river to a new site at Thorpe Yard, near the railway station.
As the first world war threatened, Boulton and Paul was asked asked to make aircraft. In 1915 its first prototype FE2B flew from the airfield at Cavalry Drill Ground on Mousehold Heath, reaching a top speed of 60mph .The famous Sopwith Camel fighter aircraft was built in Norwich, so named for its hump-shaped fairing covering the machine guns. Boulton and Paul made 28 Camels a week at the height of production, and a total of 2,500 military aircraft in all during the war. Initially all looked well for the aircraft arm of the company after the war. Under chief engineer John North, B&P produced an all-steel P10 biplane that was a great success at the 1919 Paris air show. Its Sidestrand bomber entered RAF service in 1929. Meanwhile B&P got involved in airship design .In the 1920s and early 1930s hopes were high these lighter-thanair vessels could be the passenger aircraft of the future. B&Ps innovative R101 airship easily crossed the Atlantic several times. When, in 1930, a B&P-made ship took off for a long-distance flight to India it could have been the beginning of the big time for air ships and the Norwich firm. VIPs Lord Thompson, the Air Minister and Air Vice Marshall Sir Sefton Brancker were on board. Sadly, the craft crashed into a French hillside en route; the two VIPs died along with two other passengers. Although B&P was exonerated of blame by an inquiry, there was no future for airships, something underlined when the Hindenburg went up in flames in America in 1937. Nor was there a future for aircraft manufacture in Norwich. The firm moved its aircraft arm to Wolverhampton, along with most of the 800-strong highlyskilled workforce. The firms Defiant fighter bomber featured in the Battle of Britain.
During the second world war B&P took on the unglamorous, but vital, role of making prefabricated buildings for the armed forces. Many of these were shipped to the USSR by the notoriously dangerous Arctic convoys. Later they were important in supplying the equipment for troops at the D-Day landings in Normandy. This manufacturing made Norwich a target for German bombers; 100 of the workers became casualties in terrifying air raids which hit the city hard. In the post-war era the firm made a contribution to energy conservation, with its double-glazed high-performance windows. B&P also built Norwich Citys South Stand at nearby Carrow Road in the 1950s.
Boulton and Pauls engineering works at Thorpe Yard shut during the late 1980s. For much of the 1990s it presented a forlorn sight along with British Rails derelict sidings as the city entered a period of relative economic decline. By 1994 Norwich City Council, along with private stakeholders, presented the first renovation plans for the area. It cost 75m to first decontaminate the site, then raise the ground level to prevent flooding from the Wensum. Today, though not universally popular, Riverside has spearheaded the citys successful bid to become a retail and leisure centre. Gazeley Properties put up plush executive flats in the area once dominated by industry remembering the workers of previous generations with those two engraved pillars by the Novi Sad pedestrian bridge.