What was one of the most common jobs in Norfolk in the 18th century?

The Briton Brush Company's annual Summer outing to Skegness from Wymondham station c.1935.

The Briton Brush Company's annual Summer outing to Skegness from Wymondham station c.1935. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

Where do you work? In days gone by the answer was often…at the brush factory. A way of life for generations of men and women across Norfolk.

Thousands of people worked at the factories  across the county where brushes of all shapes and sizes were produced for the national and international market.

And it was a tough job.

Names changed, there were various takeovers over the years, and finally the large factories disappeared. 

S.D.Page & Sons' factory at Lady's Lane, Wymondham, in 1899, twice rebuilt after fires of 1890 and 1894.

S.D.Page & Sons' factory at Lady's Lane, Wymondham, in 1899, twice rebuilt after fires of 1890 and 1894. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

The story starts with Samuel Deyns (1720-1806) who established a small basket-making business and is then thought to have gone into partnership with Francis Allen and set up a business at the Haymarket in Norwich.

Samuel, who became a Freeman of the City and later an Alderman, bought the business when Frances died in 1762 and started making baskets and brushes at the Haymarket.

The United Society of Brushmakers had been formed in the 1740s and it provided help for the 'journeymen' who 'tramped' the circuit of the brushmaking centres looking for work.

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At Norwich the clubhouse was at the York Tavern in Castle Ditches where they could get a bed and some food and drink to help them on their way,

In Christine Clark’s excellent book A Brush With Heritage: The History of Hamilton Acorn Norfolk Brushmakers since 1746, published in 1996, she tells how the tramping route went on to include five East Anglian outposts: Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Diss, Norwich and King’s Lynn.

Sanding paint brush handles in the 1950s. 

Sanding paint brush handles in the 1950s. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

Norwich was at the forefront of brushmaking because of the abundant supply of timber in Norfolk. In the early days the raw materials used were Russian bristle, horsehair, finely cut whalebone and local wood. Beech was the most popular.

There were almost 20 brush makers in the city and more dotted around the county.

At the huge Page factory overlooking the Haymarket - where Next stands today – hundreds of men and women worked hard making brushes large and small on five floors. From paint brushes to road sweepers.

Samuel Deyns went into partnership with members of his family and the firm became known as S D Page & Sons in 1860.

The company gave up making baskets to concentrate on brushes, winning contracts to supply the armed forces and local authorities and opened a printing business.

It was time to expand.

Trimming paint brushes in the 1950s.

Trimming paint brushes in the 1950s. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

Because Semmence’s wood-turning business was based in Wymondham they decided to build a factory and sawmill in the town….it was a move which played a leading role in the development of the town.

One man who has written much about the brush works is historian Philip Yaxley, who said that in 1890 the factory opened in Lady’s Lane.

Four years later it was destroyed by fire but was soon re-built and by the early 1900s brushmaking was flourishing in the town and hundreds of men and women were employed at Wymondham and Norwich.

Machines were taking over from hands. In 1920 Page’s became  the Briton Brush Company and seven years later the Haymarket works were closed and the business moved to Wymondham.

The town would become the centre of brushmaking in Norfolk and over the next 40 years Briton brushes became famous with its slogan 'Briton brushes sweep the world' and they did just that.

Workers from London moved up to Wymondham to work in the factory and in 1916 the company opened its own railway siding. Materials arrived and brushes left.

The "making" shop at Wymondham decorated for George V1's coronation in 1937.

The "making" shop at Wymondham decorated for George V1's coronation in 1937. - Credit: Philip Yaxley Collection

It was a good place to work with a great atmosphere. The 600 employees had canteen and welfare facilities and there were a host of sports and social clubs and even a  dance band called The Herbs.

Other factories opened, business was booming but cheap imports were making their mark. In 1969 the Briton Brush Company became Briton Chadwick, then the Windmill Brush Company before closing in 1985.

There was also the Aldrich Bros brush factory at Diss which was built in the early 1900s and demolished in 1992 to make way for houses.

The paint brush factory established in Attleborough by Britons (later Hamilton Acorn) continued until its closure in 2017.