Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Brian Dyes, local historian, writer and archivist to the Ipswich Transport Museum to the Parish Room to tell us the incredible story of the world beating engineering companies that made so much history in Ipswich.

To set the scene, Brian told us some of the early history of the town, which began as a Saxon port handy for the sea but sufficiently inland to be secure. And what were people making at this time? Pottery, now known as Ipswich Ware, which was the first wheel-made pottery produced in Britain since the end of Roman rule, and the only indigenous Middle Saxon pottery with a widespread distribution outside of its production hinterland.

                                              Ipswich Ware

By 1290 Brian told us the town had grown significantly and was trading with Europe, Suffolk cloth in exchange for barrels of Bordeaux wine, which were then bottled for local distribution. Ships went all over the world at this time, and with some built on the river bank in Ipswich.

By 1780, the first detailed map of the town was printed showing four shipyards on the Orwell where ships for the East India Company - known as East Indiamen - were built.

Brian’s story then moved onto Robert Ransome, whose legacy continues today. Born in Wells, Norfolk, the son of a schoolmaster whose grandfather was a miller in North Walsham and a natural engineer. On leaving school Ransome was apprenticed to an ironmonger, starting his own business in Norwich with a small brass-foundry, which afterwards expanded into an iron-foundry. Possessing inventive skill, he took out a patent for cast iron roofing plates in 1783 and published Directions for Laying Ransome's Patent Cast-iron Coverings in 1784. In 1785 he took out a patent for tempering cast iron ploughshares by wetting the mould with salt water.

In 1789 Ransome moved to Ipswich, laying the foundation of a production site - the Orwell Works - where the shipyards had been. Following a happy accident in 1803, when liquid iron was spilled (*) onto the floor, he began chilling the underside of ploughshares by casting onto an iron mould, with the upper part comprised of sand. This chilling of the underside of the share made it harder than steel, whilst the upper part remained soft and tough. With the upper part wearing away faster than the lower, a sharp cutting edge was maintained, and the necessity of continually laying and sharpening wrought iron shares was avoided. This invention was at once adopted

(*)        The accident occurred through the bursting of a furnace, which gave way; all the molten metal ran out and some of it ran on to some iron plates and cooled rapidly, much more quickly than that which ran on to the sandy ground of the foundry. When the metal had cooled down it was broken up, and he observed that wherever it had run on to the iron plates, it had changed its character; the surface which had come immediately into contact with the iron plates was "chilled", and very hard and white in texture for quite a good way into the metal.
Reminiscences of George Arthur Biddell

Brian now began a whistle-stop run through some of the many hundreds of items manufactured at the Orwell works site. Ransome’s lawnmower odyssey began with the manufacture of the world’s first mower in 1832, under license from Edwin Budding’s 1830 patent. They made a great many different sizes, and in 1902 produced the first commercially available motor lawnmower. Mowing machines became a huge business, so Ransomes continued to improve their mower range, producing the first mains electric mower in 1926, and larger gang mowers for parks and aerodromes.

                                          The first powered lawn mower - not sure I would want to drive it!

Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies evolved out of the original Robert Ransome company, as follows:

  • 1779 Thomas and Robert Ransome
  • 1785 Ransome and Co
  • 1808 Ransome and Son
  • 1818 Ransome and Sons
  • 1825 James and Robert Ransome
  • 1829 J. R. and A. Ransome
  • 1836 Ransomes and May
  • 1852 Ransomes and Sims
  • 1869 Ransomes, Sims and Head (*)
  • 1880 Ransomes, Head and Jefferies
  • 1884 Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies

(*)   Ransomes and Rapier were formed as branch of Ransomes, Sims and Head, to concentrate on the railway side of the business and other heavy works; they established the new company on another site on the River Orwell.

Ransome was from a Quaker family and he turned his back on Norwich because Ipswich was more tolerant towards non-conformists, allowing Quakers to live and work in comparative peace. From these humble beginnings the largest plough and agricultural implement manufacturer in England began to emerge.

By 1849 Ransome and May’s iron foundry, as it had by then become, employed over 1,000 workers and had moved to the new and bigger Orwell Works in Duke Street. This had the advantage of being on the dockside, giving easy access to London and facilitated imports of raw materials and the export of manufactured goods.

                                                                                The Orwell Works

Charles May left to form his own company in 1854, being replaced by William Sims. The firm then went through various changes of name, but after the arrival of John Jefferies in 1884, finally settled on the name Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies Ltd.


                                                            Thrashing machine advert - 1885

                                                     Advertising the huge range of products available for purchase

In 1888 the company issued a catalogue on portable, traction, semi-portable, fixed, horizontal & vertical engines and boilers, portable pumping engines, steam-powered presses, centrifugal pumps, winding engines and gear, mills, circular saw benches and log frames - in other words there wasn’t a lot they didn’t make. A little later in 1903 they developed a prototype tractor with a 20 HP engine and a three-ratio gearbox. By 1905 the company employed 2,000 people.

                                                                                       A pair of 1898 adverts      

                                                                          Traction engine advert - 1899

In 1911 at the Smithfield Club Show, they exhibited a 4 HP compound light tractor, two traction engines and other items. By 1914 they were making portable and traction engines, stationary engines of all kinds, high-speed vertical engines for electric work, boilers of all kinds, thrashing machines, corn mills, tea machinery etc, and employed 2,500.

In August 1916, during the Great War, the company was asked to make aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps with another Ipswich company, Frederick Tibbenham, and a new factory was built off Cavendish Street; during the war Ransomes also produced munitions including: 790 aeroplanes, 650 airship sheds and aircraft hangers, 3,700 aircraft bombs, 440,000 shell cases, 300,000 shell and fuse components, 5,000 general service wagons and 10,000 bombs for Stokes guns. This was a mortar which became the standard for the British Army during the war and was designed by William Stokes, who at the time was Chairman and Managing Director of Ransomes & Rapier.

                                                         War manufacture during the Great War

              William Stokes with his mortar

In 1920 the company showed the new motor plough called ‘The Boon’ at the Darlington Agricultural Show, a petrol-paraffin engine of 20 HP at 800 rpm; in October they exhibited at the Commercial Motor Exhibition at Olympia, with batteries from Batteries Ltd, a 3.5 ton electric tipping wagon and a 2 ton electric chassis.

                                                                                  'The Boon' motorised plough

When the last electric tram was taken out of service in Ipswich, the Corporation ordered a fleet of 30 trolley buses, half produced by Ransomes Sims and Jefferies and half by Garretts of Leiston. They also produced bodies for motor buses built by Daimler.

                                                   Ipswich's first double decker trolley bus - the Ransome 48 seater - 1933

In 1936 the MG2 tractor was introduced, a miniature crawler machine which was aimed at market gardeners and was produced for about thirty years.

During the Second World War they manufactured parts for the De Havilland Mosquito, and in 1942 the engineering department manufactured their last steam engine. In 1955 they ceased to service steam engines, and a year later the steam engine part of the business was sold to Robey and Co. With many of the male staff serving in the armed forces during the war, more women were employed in what traditionally had been male roles, with some recruited from the Women’s Industrial National Service scheme. The start of the war saw production of most lawn mowers stopped, and the workshops were used to produce bomb trolleys and trailers for 25-pounder guns.

Post war, the company developed their large range of battery-operated trucks with some success.

                                            1945 October Electric truck advert

                                          1952 February electric fork trucks advert

As expansion continued, Ransomes became a revered name in the world of engineering and mechanical innovation, developing agricultural machinery, steam engines, fork lifts and trolley buses.

                                                            1974 Combine Harvester

By 1961, concentrating on the manufacture of ploughs, harvesters, lawnmowers, horticultural tractors and electric trucks, the company was exporting all over the world. This was the heyday for Ransomes, which now had 3,200 employees and had moved its base to more modern premises at Nacton Works, near Ipswich Airport. Sadly, from this peak, the company went into slow but steady decline.

At the 1974 International Mechanical Handling exhibition at Earls Court, they showed a new battery powered industrial tractor, T12A, but in 1989 the whole of the agricultural implement business was sold to Electrolux and merged with their subsidiary Overum, leaving Ransomes solely manufacturing lawn mowers under the Westwood and Mountfield mower brands.

By 1989, the whole of the agricultural implement business was sold to Electrolux, leaving Ransomes solely as a manufacturer of lawnmowers, and within a decade the company had accepted a take-over offer from Textron Inc, USA and their independent existence ended early in 1998.

This was a sad ending for Robert Ransome’s company, which, for over 200 years had been at the forefront of the engineering industry in Ipswich. It had long been the leading employer in the town and generations of the same family found employment there. The history of company is the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, Suffolk.


Ransomes and Rapier was founded, in 1869 by four engineers, to build railway equipment, machinery and other heavy works for railways and all kinds of public works. Chairs, points and rails were made, along with steam and breakdown cranes, portable and stationary engines.

In 1875 Rapier personally took the leading part in the negotiation and construction by Ransomes and Rapier of China's first railway, the Woosung Road (or Woosung Railway) from Shanghai to Woosung, and in 1876 three small locomotives were made and exported to China. The railway opened in 1876, but was dismantled by the local government the following year because it had not received the necessary approvals.

After 1880 the company acquired the patent rights to sluices invented by Francis Goold Morony Stoney, an Irish engineer noted for his work on sluices, and they became involved with hydraulic engineering and water management projects. Such sluices were erected on the Manchester Ship Canal. Wilfrid Stokes improved their design by protecting the rollers from scour when open, by making them completely watertight and by preventing vibration of the rollers. Their sluices were subsequently used for the Aswan Dam on the Nile and for the Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile.

                                                                                   River Clyde sluices - 1895

In 1897 two 30-ton travelling steam cranes were built for construction of Vera Cruz Harbour, and in 1904 5 sets of the largest hydraulic buffer stops were installed at Kings Cross station in London and another 5 sets at the Central Station in Glasgow.

                                Hydraulic buffer stops in Argentina - 1927

By 1914 they were manufacturers of hand, steam, petrol and electric cranes, traversers and turntables, capstans, tanks, water cranes and pumps, bridges, hydraulic buffer stops, castings, contractors' and railway plant, Stoney sluices, ice and refrigerating plants, concrete mixers etc. They also started building two small Steam shovels as a result of a customer request, the rope operated crowd system they built for this was patented and later sold to Bucyrus - more later.

After WWI demand for excavators increased, and in 1924 they reached an agreement to build Marion draglines from 1 to 8 cubic yards capacity. In 1927, they built Type 7 1 yard and Type4 60 1.5 yard models. The deal to build Marion machines ended in 1936, so R&R began building their own designs with the Type 4120 followed by the 4140 of 3.5 cubic yards.

The earliest known walking dragline was from Ransomes & Rapier in 1939, using the patented Cameron and Heath walking method, the model W170 which had a 4-yard bucket.

In 1958 the Ramsomes & Rapier division was sold to Newton, Chambers & Co. Ltd (NCK, where K represents the US license holder Koehring) of Sheffield, which was combined with their NCK Crane & Excavator division to become NCK-Rapier. The walking dragline division of NCK-Rapier was acquired by Bucyrus in 1988. By 1961 R&R were specialising in contractors' plant, mobile cranes, excavators, walking draglines, railway plant and equipment, sluice gates and water control machinery, with some 2,000 employees.

1965 saw the cessation of walking drag lines because of the rise of oil and consequent reduction in the use of coal. The market for draglines began shrinking rapidly after the boom of the 1960s and 1970s; this lead to mergers and today P&H and Caterpillar are the only two remaining manufacturers of large draglines.

                                            The massive 1981 W2000 walking dragline - Big Bob - weighing in at just under 2,000 tons

In 1972 the group was taken over by the industrial holding company Central and Sherwood; they kept the Ipswich works and in 1976 Ransomes returned to making walking drag lines in view of the increased use of coal. Bucyrus-Erie took over R&R in 1988, continuing to use their method of propulsion for these gigantic walking land machines (Rapier had built the world’s largest walking draglines throughout the 1960s).

                                                   R&R Interlocking signal frame

Sadly Ransomes and Rapier closed in 1987, with Bucyrus-Erie acquiring the dragline assets of the company in 1988; Bucyrus was then itself acquired by heavy equipment and diesel engine maker Caterpillar in 2011.


Other Companies mentioned by Brian included the following:


Reavell and Co was established in Ipswich in 1898, to construct a specialised steam engine, before the company moved onto building compressors in 1908. The next year they began building vertical four stroke engines for driving generators before gradually moving on to becoming air compression specialists; by 1961 they employed 750 people. In 1969 the company was sold to International Compressed Air Corporation and became Compair-Reavell, before being taken over by US corporation Gardner Denver in 2008. Sadly in 2012 they switched production to Redditch, and the plant on the Whitehall Industrial Estate was closed.


E, R and F Turner was founded in Ipswich in 1837, to manufacture stationary steam engines, and then: portable engines of all kinds, roller mills, dressing machines, grinding and crushing mills. They then specialised in flour milling machinery of every description, both for roller and stone systems, wheat cleaning, washing and conditioning machinery, corn crushing and fodder preparing machinery of all kinds.

By 1961 they were engineers specialising in flour and provender milling machinery, maize flaking machinery, grain handling and drying equipment, and "Bull" electric motors and dynamos.

                                                      1980 Rolling Mill

                                     And a more modern version of the same machine

                                                  1919 Flaking Mill and

                                                2019 Steam Chest

In 1969 the company was purchased by W G Gosling & Sons.  The original Company at Foxhall Road changed its name to Bull Motors Ltd, the trade name for their electric motors. During 1970 the first flaking mill made by the new owners was sold to a South African Company, since when larger and more sophisticated mills were designed, leading to over 400 Flaking Mills being manufactured and shipped all over the world. The J. Harrison Carter products acquired with E R & F Turner Ltd resulted in the manufacture of numerous crushing & grinding machines, and when a competitor, Miracle Mills Ltd became available, it was bought in January 1986 and relocated to Ipswich. In May 2002 Christy Hunt Agricultural Ltd of Scunthorpe was bought, relocated to Ipswich at the end of that year and added to the other group companies of E R & F Turner, Miracle Mills and W G Gosling & sons. To simplify company administration, Christy Hunt Agricultural, E R & F Turner, and Miracle Mills were combined into one company - Christy Turner Ltd - in April 2004, supplying spares and new machines for the brands of E R & F Turner, Christy & Norris and Miracle Mills. Happily the company is still going strong in Ipswich, and long may it continue to do so.


By the end of Brian’s talk, the 35 plus audience, who had loved every minute, had been wonderfully reminded of just how much the engineering companies of Ipswich contributed, both to the UK and to the world; sadly we can only wonder at what might have been if Robert Maxwell had not asset stripped and then closed one of Ipswich's engineering giants in 1988.

To conclude this review, Brian wonderfully showcased his great love of engineering, and his journey through hundreds of photos was a very happy meander down memory lane for those who’ve lived in the area for more than 30 years or so, and a very great and informative pleasure for all the rest.


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

11th December: Cakes, Ale and Partying by Dr Kate Jewell

We are delighted to welcome Kate back to the Parish Room once again, to tell us all about feasting and fundraising in Medieval Suffolk - perfect for getting us all into the Christmas spirit.

15th January: Broad Stripes and Bright Stars by Anne Grimshaw

The Stars and Stripes that flew over a Baltimore fort in defiance of the British, and was also the inspiration for the US national anthem (The Star-Spangled Banner), actually began life in Cross Street, Sudbury. Hear about this and other amazing facts at our annual MEMBER ONLY event, but before coming, do read the words of the anthem.

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                       17th November 2019