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How Sir Terence Conran’s design revolution began in Thetford

PUBLISHED: 11:56 16 September 2020 | UPDATED: 12:05 16 September 2020

The Conran furniture factory in Thetford, pictured in October 1966, where Sir Terence Conran began building his Habitat empire. Picture: Archant Library

The Conran furniture factory in Thetford, pictured in October 1966, where Sir Terence Conran began building his Habitat empire. Picture: Archant Library

Archant Library

It was at a factory unit in Thetford that Sir Terence Conran’s revolutionary design empire began to take shape.

Habitat founder Sir Terence Conran, who has died at the age of 88. Picture: PA ImagesHabitat founder Sir Terence Conran, who has died at the age of 88. Picture: PA Images

The Habitat founder, who has died at the age of 88, had already created Conran Fabrics and Conran Design Group by the time he relocated his furnituremaking business from London to Norfolk in 1962.

The company, then named Conran and Co Ltd, was based primarily on Burrell Way, but proceedings also stretched to old maltings on Station Road and Croxton Road.

Workers pictured leaving the Conran factory in Thetford in October 1966. Picture: Archant LibraryWorkers pictured leaving the Conran factory in Thetford in October 1966. Picture: Archant Library

With him, Sir Terence took almost 80 workers before launching Summa, a furniture range comprising flat-pack products made on home soil.

Bryan Skull, who worked as production controller and later as director of Conran Fabrics, recalls making the move to Thetford when he was just 23 years old.

Bryan Skull worked at the Conran factory in Thetford during the 1960s, where Sir Terence Conran began building his Habitat empire. Picture: Courtesy of Bryan SkullBryan Skull worked at the Conran factory in Thetford during the 1960s, where Sir Terence Conran began building his Habitat empire. Picture: Courtesy of Bryan Skull

“I joined Terence in his furniture factory down in Camberwell, knowing he was going to move to Thetford,” said Mr Skull, 81.

“When I arrived I was in charge of laying the factory out and deciding where everything would go.

Workers pictured leaving the Conran factory in Thetford in October 1966. Picture: Archant LibraryWorkers pictured leaving the Conran factory in Thetford in October 1966. Picture: Archant Library

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“It pleased lots of people who lived and worked in London, to come and have a garden and more space - including me. Another single guy and myself had a council house at Kimms Belt.”

Sir Terence Conran with The Duke of Edinburgh in 2016. The Habitat founder has died at the age of 88. Picture: PA ImagesSir Terence Conran with The Duke of Edinburgh in 2016. The Habitat founder has died at the age of 88. Picture: PA Images

In 1964, the first Habitat store opened on the capital’s Fulham Road, allowing Sir Terence to sell his stylish designs.

From there, the retailer went from strength to strength, unveiling further stores during the 1960s including its best-known branch on Tottenham Court Road.

Workers pictured leaving the Conran factory in Thetford in October 1966. Picture: Archant LibraryWorkers pictured leaving the Conran factory in Thetford in October 1966. Picture: Archant Library

But back in Thetford, disaster struck in 1968 when the warehouse and cutting premises on Station Road was gutted by fire, causing £200,000 worth of damage.

Habitat had, by this point, merged with stationery retailer, Ryman, and was soon in the news again as staff staged a strike in September 1969.

A major fire devastated one of the Conran warehouses in Thetford in 1968. Picture: Archant LibraryA major fire devastated one of the Conran warehouses in Thetford in 1968. Picture: Archant Library

A year later Habitat broke away from Ryman, which retained the Thetford premises - a move that saw dozens of factory workers made redundant.

Mr Skull, who chose to depart in 1969, looks back on his experience working under Sir Terence with fondness.

Workers at the Conran factory in Thetford staged a strike in September 1969. Picture: Archant LibraryWorkers at the Conran factory in Thetford staged a strike in September 1969. Picture: Archant Library

He added: “When the factory closed and workers were made redundant, Terence helped people set up their own businesses and bought from them to support them.

“He could be demanding, but he was fair.”


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