What did we use before vacuum cleaners? Norwich brushes

Cooks busy brush shop in Davey Place, Norwich.

Cooks busy brush shop in Davey Place, Norwich. - Credit: Archant

Imagine life without a vacuum cleaner and welcome to the world of the humble brush...

Life in the brush factory

Life in the brush factory - Credit: Archant

It was back in 1814 when Cooks were established in Norwich making a huge range of brushes, large and small, in the days when there were at least 15 brush makers in the city – and others across the county.

Everybody needed a brush in those candle-lit days and there were also many people in the towns and villages making them at home.

The biggest factory was the one belonging to S D Page and Sons at the Haymarket in Norwich and at Wymondham. They employed more than 600 people. There was also a big factory at Diss.

At the Haymarket – the factory is long gone and Next now sits on the site – there were five floors where men and women worked hard making every kind of brush you can imagine. From big old garden brooms to small paint brushes.

Life in the brush factory at the Shadwell Street works.

Life in the brush factory at the Shadwell Street works. - Credit: Archant

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These glorious old pictures take us into Cooks' factory and give us a rare look at what life was like for the workers.

For many years it was a job for the men but, following a series of strikes, women were 'allowed' to work in the factories.

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At the Haymarket the women worked at benches where the wooden stock was held in a vice and they drew bristles through drilled holes using thin copper wire.

The men sat around a central container of boiling pitch with prepared bristles which would be tied at one end and dipped into the pitch before being inserted into a hole in the broom stock.

The huge range of Norfolk brushes were sent across the world... from posh silver quills to golf course whalebone fairway brooms suitable for all tractors.

Cooks set up business in Timberhill, Norwich, more than 200 years ago, and their brushes quickly sold. The company opened a Brush Works in Shadwell Street in the city which was later demolished to make way for the maternity block at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

And their goods were on display and snapped up at a busy shop in Davey Place in Norwich...business flourished.

These photographs were sent to me some time ago by Tony Pitt, whose father Alfred, was the last managing director at the factory which later moved to Vulcan Road before it was sold.

Cooks also made industrial footwear including maltsters boots which workers wore in the factories saying: 'Cook's hand-lasted men's and women's footwear is a boon to specialised industries. Light – durable – comfortable.'

'The Mixing Room,' said the company in their brochure, 'is the laboratory of the brush factory, where you can find bristles from the wild and domestic pigs of Russia, China and India.

'Hair from the wild horses of South America; fibres from the forest trees of Africa, Madagascar, Ceylon, South America and India, all waiting to be mixed or treated for Norwich brushes.

'The fifth important centre of the old brush industry, Norwich, still retains its status. Many so-called new industries have not destroyed the old, but have only roused the old city to fresh activity and have shown new and unexpected vigour.

'After every change, destructive and hostile, the beauty and charm of the ancient city still remains.'

Wise words from the old brush maker.

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