Home   Bury St Edmunds   News   Article

Subscribe Now

From sugar to ale: A look back at the industries that shaped Bury St Edmunds and the surrounding area



More news, no ads

LEARN MORE


In 1999, SuffolkNews' sister paper the Bury Free Press published Millennium Memories – a fond look back at the region's past as we entered the 21st century.

We have delved into the archive publication to discover the history of industry in and around Bury St Edmunds and gain a picture of the industrial landscape at the turn of the century.

The Bury area is rich in history and charm, but apart from agriculture it could hardly be described as industrial.

Millennium Memories of industry
Millennium Memories of industry

However, over the centuries a variety of industries sprung up in this part of East Anglia, from the winemaking of the Abbey's monks to the high-tech firms of 1999.

In the Middle Ages the wool trade flourished in South Suffolk and pottery-making has featured in the north around Wattisfield.

Workers from Ridleys coal and iron merchants, formerly of Northgate Street, on an outing in the late 1940s
Workers from Ridleys coal and iron merchants, formerly of Northgate Street, on an outing in the late 1940s

In more recent times the multiplicity of different businesses which have flourished are a testimony to local enterprise and ingenuity.

Apart from farming no single activity has dominated the industrial scene and it would be impossible to embrace all the businesses which have provided local employment.

This picture, taken after the sugar beet factory opened in 1925, shows the reception area where beet lorries went in
This picture, taken after the sugar beet factory opened in 1925, shows the reception area where beet lorries went in

Irish labour brought in for beet campaign

Built in 1925, Bury St Edmunds Sugar Factory, in Hollow Road, has not always enjoyed the sweetest of relationships with the local populace.

In the past, many people were less than pleased with the odours emanating from the plant during high production.

The sugar beet factory lights up the skyline over Bury St Edmunds
The sugar beet factory lights up the skyline over Bury St Edmunds

But while industry does not always sit happily beside residential areas, the factory has undoubtedly played a major role in the region's prosperity.

By 1999, in an average year it paid 1,400 growers who supplied beet to the factory about £75 million, while a further £620,000 was payable in business rates.

It employed a permanent workforce of 90, rising to 180 during the process campaign which lasted 24 hours a day for around 140 days.

With a capacity to process 12,000 tonnes of beet a day, the factory's daily output of sugar was about 1,300 tonnes.

One of the more colourful periods in its history was when the factory regularly brought over Irish labour for the annual campaign, which also brought financial benefits for the local pubs.

With greater mechanisation this practice has long since stopped.

A power station built in the 1990s using the latest gas turbine technology provided power not only for the whole site but enabled British Sugar to export 50Mw of electricity to the National Grid.

Staff at Robert Boby are pictured in 1958 about to set off on a visit to Bass Ratcliffe Ltd Maltings, with whom they had contracts
Staff at Robert Boby are pictured in 1958 about to set off on a visit to Bass Ratcliffe Ltd Maltings, with whom they had contracts

Robert Boby's legacy to town

One of the prominent names in industrial history was that of Robert Boby.

When he died in 1886 he left an industrial legacy which would make its mark on Bury for generations.

He founded his engineering works in the mid-19th century but it was in 1855 – when he applied for patents for his acclaimed corn dressing and winnowing machine – that the factory really took off.

From that point thousands of workers were employed at the huge St Andrew's Street works of Robert Boby's – probably the closest Bury got to the industrial Midlands.

On the death of the founder, his son showed little interest in the business but the firm carried on under the leadership of his nephew C M Mumford.

In 1897 it was sold to a new company but the original name was retained.

The factory probably had its finest hour during World War One, when orders from Vickers had the workshops producing armaments to supply the increasing demand from the front.

In 1915 it escaped serious damage during a German Zeppelin raid in which a nearby house was hit and a man killed.

In 1927 the company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the industrial plant Vickers and extended its range of products through malting equipment, grain and seed cleaning machinery and other large specialist orders.

It closed in 1971, leaving only the name as a reminder to the town.

Waitrose supermarket is now located in Robert Boby Way.

One of the original long shops has been dismantled and relocated at Stowmarket's Museum of East Anglian Life (which changed its name to the Food Museum in 2022).

One of the men affected by the Boby plant closure was Reg Biggs, who worked there for 22 years.

"It was devastating for the workforce and the town," he said. "Even though we were the smallest factory within Vickers we were the biggest profit-maker per head of the workforce."

Rob Cockle on an old manual printer at Dennys
Rob Cockle on an old manual printer at Dennys

Dennys

From humble beginnings behind the family house in Fornham Road, Denny Bros printers grew into an internationally-known company.

It was started in 1945 by brothers Douglas and Russell Denny and grew into one of the town's big employers, with a staff of 150 by the millennium.

It later moved to premises on the corner of King's Road and St Andrew's Street, where it retains its shop.

The large printing premises was located in Lamdin Road in 1999, before moving to Suffolk Business Park.

Douglas's son Barry said: "My father and uncle started off with lots of enthusiasm but not much money. But they certainly achieved a lot."

Turn of the 20th century Woolpit Brickworks workers in front of a kiln
Turn of the 20th century Woolpit Brickworks workers in front of a kiln

Woolpit bricks

A bridge in India and a 20th century extension to Windsor Castle were two projects to have links with the village of Woolpit.

Woolpit's brickworks is known to have been in operation for at least 400 years before its demise in 1948, but it was probably going for even longer.

In its heyday around the turn of the 20th century the works probably employed more than 200 people.

Woolpit Brickworks engine Haro Haro in 1915
Woolpit Brickworks engine Haro Haro in 1915

The industry started as a result of the clay left at the bottom of a dried-up lake which straddled the Elmswell boundary and was found to be ideal for making bricks.

In 1900 a rail link from Elmswell was created and a purpose-built works was put up to cater for the increasing demand from the building industry.

An automatic brick-making machine was installed in 1935 to speed up the process, but just before World War Two the works was closed by the Ministry of Defence.

It reopened shortly after the war but its new lease of life was short-lived.

The Woolpit Brick and Tile Company was acquired by the London Brick Company in 1948.

Brewer's centuries in the town

No history of Bury industry would be complete without mention of Greene King, probably the town's most famous business.

The company entered the 21st century having far outgrown its status as a family business.

Its story began in 1799, when ambitious trainee Whitbread brewer Benjamin Greene took over and reopened Wright's brewery in Westgate Street.

His son Edward entered into an amalgamation agreement with rival brewer Frederick King of the nearby St Edmund's Brewery in 1887 and the new company Greene King was created.

At the millennium, the company employed around 7,000 people with an estate of 1,300 pubs.