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How lost Bury St Edmunds firms Robert Boby and Barber Greene left a lasting legacy in the town





For decades two companies were a lynchpin of the Bury St Edmunds economy.

Robert Boby and Barber Greene provided hundreds of jobs and their factories were a vital cog in the town’s community.

This year marks key anniversaries since the firms shut and Colin Green, who worked for both, has shared his memories of their lasting legacy.

The former Robert Boby offices, now Neptune, in St Andrew's Street South, Bury St Edmunds
The former Robert Boby offices, now Neptune, in St Andrew's Street South, Bury St Edmunds

“Back in 1961 when I left the Silver Jubilee School at 15 there were not many choices,” said the 76-year-old, whose parents used to run The Blackbirds pub in Bury St Edmunds.

“My father encouraged me to get an apprenticeship and Robert Boby had a good reputation for giving very good and varied apprenticeships – they always had 50 to 60 on their books.”

The ironmonger’s factory was based in St Andrew’s Street for more than 100 years, and had a separate Northgate foundry, producing thousands of seed cleaning machines, malt mills and ground nut grading machines.

Colin Green, who worked at Robert Boby and Barber Greene, grew up The Blackbirds pub in Bury St Edmunds which his mum and dad used to run - he is holding a painting of the pub. Picture: Mecha Morton
Colin Green, who worked at Robert Boby and Barber Greene, grew up The Blackbirds pub in Bury St Edmunds which his mum and dad used to run - he is holding a painting of the pub. Picture: Mecha Morton

The firm manufactured complete maltings and produced the first round kiln for malt in the world, which was installed into the old Associated British Maltsters factory in the 1960’s.

The St Andrew’s Street site consisted of three large workshops – the machine shop, heavy plate shop and the sheet metal shop.

“In addition there was a wood shop, large tool room, a forge with two blacksmiths and large stores and large packing area,” Colin said.

Boby's staff v works cricket match taken in 1965 at the Victory Ground in Nowton Road, Bury St Edmunds
Boby's staff v works cricket match taken in 1965 at the Victory Ground in Nowton Road, Bury St Edmunds

“We did 18 months in each and we also attended the Bury Tech College one day a week.

“We had a great apprentice supervisor, the late Jack Bishop. Robert Boby had some of the best tradesmen in the country.

“In the machine shop, Nobby Clarke looked after all the apprentices on the capstan, turret and centre lathes and we all worked on all three.”

In the heavy plate shop, Colin remembers working with many skilled tradesmen including Herbert Emmison, Ted Smith, Rege Norman, Derick Bird, Alfie (Smiler) Eaton, Bill Meads and Les Arbon.

The shop foreman Percy Harrold was ‘always puffing away on his pipe’.

Boby’s unbeaten second division champions of Bury Sunday league season 1966-67, who played the Division One champions Priors Utd, also unbeaten at Bury Town's King's Road ground in August 1967, the Boby’s team won 3-1 in front of 650 crowd
Boby’s unbeaten second division champions of Bury Sunday league season 1966-67, who played the Division One champions Priors Utd, also unbeaten at Bury Town's King's Road ground in August 1967, the Boby’s team won 3-1 in front of 650 crowd
Boby’s cricket awards in 1964 - left to right, Jeffrey Peck, Michael Parker and Colin Green
Boby’s cricket awards in 1964 - left to right, Jeffrey Peck, Michael Parker and Colin Green
Boby’s six aside champions in 1967
Boby’s six aside champions in 1967

In 1967, he was offered to move into the works office dealing with the drawing office, commercial office and account department on one side and the supply line to all the various workshops including the electrical department and research and development department.

“After one year in the works office I was promoted into the new production planning department headed up by the late Tom Felgate who later became a well known local artist and went on after Bobys closed to work at Denny Bros,” said Colin.

Boby’s cricket and football clubs were ‘very well supported’ and its rifle club had a range under Greene King.

“How times have changed – as a 17-year-old I could visit this rifle range unattended, pick up a .22 rifle and shoot off 10 rounds at a target (no supervision),” he said.

Colin was later assistant manager to Bernard (Spike) Hughes, who oversaw all the outside site erection teams, setting up large malting plants, cement factories and many other jobs. Colin looked after several UK sites.

In 1970, he saw an advert for skilled people to work in South Africa, sent an application and left Bobys in October 1970.

“I worked for Weighing and Packaging Systems run by British M.Dire George Oliver,” he said.

“I set up their production planning department, reorganised service and sales offices.

“I was involved with the South African Bureau of Standards Metrication Department in Pretoria changing all our imperial weighing machines to metric. It took two years from 1972 to 1974.”

The last managing director at Bobys was Captain Creed and the works manager was Fred Clements, assisted by Alec Clarke.

In December 1972, Colin returned home for his sister Beryl’s wedding, by which time the Robert Boby St Andrew’s factory had closed but the front office and the drawing office were still open and he popped in to see his old friends.

The Vickers Group finally closed Robert Boby in March 1973.

“Bobys closed as they could no longer compete,” he said. “The Vickers Group failed to modernise the St Andrew’s Street works which was still using pre-war machinery.

“To visit after the works had long closed was tinged with sadness knowing all these skilled tradesmen were now traffic wardens, hospital porters and labourers. What a waste of skills.”

Barber Greene at the NEC Public Works Exhibition in 1987 one year before closure
Barber Greene at the NEC Public Works Exhibition in 1987 one year before closure

After returning from South Africa in April 1976, he joined Barber Greene, which employed more than 650 people in its heyday at its Western Way factory manufacturing Asphalt plants.

The American company was based in Aurora, Illinois and it moved to Bury St Edmunds in 1962.

Colin began at Barber Greene as a sales engineer on June 1, 1976.

In 1978, he was promoted to UK and Ireland sales manager and became export sales manager in 1983 covering Africa and the Middle East.

Fond memories include winning the best Bury float for three years running and the many trade exhibitions they attended at the NEC Birmingham.

Among his colleagues were his boss Michael Kelly, sales team David Baker, David Letley, Peter McHardy, Paul Gueran and John Fryer.

There was also Keith Atkinson, Jeff Allum, Colin Howe, Tony Steggle, Jock McClelland, Dick Oakley, Alan Green, Kingsley Young and Alan Corlett.

“Barber Greene had a very good sports and social club,” he said.

“I played football and cricket for them until closure in 1988. I also captained the darts team in the Orby Wood Cup which we won three times.”

The firm had to sell off its Western Way factory and move to Saxham in 1985.

The last Barber Greene SA 41 paver produced at Saxham works in 1986
The last Barber Greene SA 41 paver produced at Saxham works in 1986

In late 1986, the Barber Greene US parent company was bought by Astec Industries and in March 1988 the Suffolk factory went into receivership, finally closing its doors in June 1988.

After it closed, Colin was offered a job with Barber Greene overseas, working from home, covering Africa and the Middle East until 2000 when he left to start his own company, Colin Green & Associates, selling road marking equipment.

“I worked (for Barber Greene) until it closed including the last three months working for the receivers selling off equipment,” he said.

“I had mixed feelings when it closed. It was tough seeing all your colleagues being made redundant.

“I was lucky being offered an export manager’s job with overseas and working from home – a pioneer in 1988.”