The history of industry in Glemsford is varied. Below you will find the information we have gathered so far.
The place of an engineering company in village history
E.W. Downs Ltd, today best known for its products in the area of potato harvesting and grading, the company has been active in Glemsford (just off Fair Green) for over 150 years.
The company can be traced back to the work of a blacksmith, using his ingenuity and skill to repair and modify various items crucial to the work of local farmers. Typical of that sort of work, Mr Downs was called upon to carry out other tasks too; several church towers around Suffolk contain bells hung by Mr Downs. Glemsford's own church (of St Mary the Virgin) had its own bells completely re-hung in 1863. Other examples are to be found in Long Melford and Chevington.
From the 1840s, the original Edward Walter Downs turned his hand to manufacturing new pieces of agricultural machinery. Suffolk, however, was never a county solely dependent on agriculture, being, as it was, one of the leading cloth manufacturing areas in th e country from the middle ages onwards. Villages like Lavenham and Kersey are world-famous, but Glemsford too had its wealthy clothier community as is witnessed by the number of prosperous hall houses in the village.
However, as the Industrial Revolution took hold, and the focus of the cloth industry shifted to the developing towns and cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire, so the traditional weaving centres of East Anglia declined in importance. One of the effects in a village like Glemsford was the concomitant development of the mat-making and silk industries, providing a form of employment for the people of the village, often within their own homes. The mat-making industry used coconut fibre as its raw material, and Downs found new work in the manufacture and repair of the various machines used in the process. (Evidence of the importance of mat-making to the village is further demonstrated by the fact that the original "seal" for the village school, opened in 1874, was a combination of a matloom and a palm tree, and, of course, Richard Deeks famous account of the Long Melford riot of 1885 is called "The Matmaker and the Magistrate".).
By referring to company documents and illustrations, Mr Rodger-Brown highlighted this early change in Downs' fortunes. At one time, there were 9 separate mat-making operations in the village. Samuel Downs (son of the original E. W. Downs) developed the work of the company, often demonstrating his skills by creating bespoke pieces of equipment to suit individual customers particular needs.
Foreign competition hit the company badly, particularly as native producers of coconut fibre began to get involved in the manufacturing side of the industry. At the end of the Great War, Downs had reached a low ebb, which is when the business was acquired by Mr Rodger-Brown's father. The revised business maintained its interest in the matting industry - in fact, expanding into carding and shearing machines, as well as producing "plantation" machinery such as were needed to remove fibre from husks. A further connection with the past was maintained with the employment of W. H. Playle, a cousin of Samuel Downs, as senior foreman.
Upon the death of Mr Rodger-Brown, senior, in 1955, the company was kept going by his wife - Donald's mother - with the help of just 4 employees. The company then began a gradual transition back towards its agricultural origins. In 1967, it produced its first piece of farm machinery since 1860 - a powered hopper for stock feeding, designed by Donald himself, and in 1968, Downs produced the first piece of potato machinery, a line for which the company is now so well known. Despite ups and downs in the agricultural market, and the fortunes of the company, the story continues to develop. Downs now employs 45 people on its site in the heart of the village. Annual sales now exceed £3 million. It has been rewarded with gold and silver medals from the Royal Agricultural Society of England; purchasers have included the former Soviet Union and the present Czech Republic - in fact 40% of its sales are for export. Its products have ranged from the relatively humble potato harvester to giant elevators for grain storage and a "banana tractor", designed to run on an aerial cableway.
Most recently, the story has turned full circle, because Downs were again commissioned to re-hang the bells in Glemsford's own church tower.
Glemsford Local History Society is most grateful to Mr Rodger-Brown for his contribution to the activity of the Society. It proves just how much the activity of historians is the activity of the present. It also shows quite forcefully the extent to which Glemsford is still a living village.
This photo, of the workforce there in the 1950s, gives an indication of just how important British Flax was as an employer in the area.
We know quite a lot about the Horsehair, Coconut Fibre and Silk industries in the village but Val Ost's work refers to the old Flax Factory on Lower Road, where the Avent works is now.
Together, the photos suggest some sort of continuity of an industry which has left a mark on the village.
The traditional view has been that the production of Flax, and Linen, was an irregular occupation, growing in importance in wartime, when extra linen was needed for sheeting, bandages and such-like.
Certainly, we know that there was an influx of Land Girls during the Second World War, to work in the Flax Industry.
This older photograph on the right, shows employees at another Flax Factory in the village - The Croft, off FLAX Lane.
The Old Wheelwrights
The old wheelwright's shop on Tye Green, for long the home of the Hartley family.
In 1980, Richard Deeks published The Matmaker and the Magistrate. In many ways, the book broke entirely new ground in the history of Glemsford. It is, specifically, a study of the 1885 Riot, but has broader importance. Before its publication, little had been done to investigate the history of the village in any detail, with the exception of the Reverend Glass' s broad-sweep Ice Age to Now study, A Short History of Glemsford, published in 1962.
After The Matmaker and the Magistrate, many, including Richard himself, began to look in something approaching academic detail at this great village, and it is no exaggeration to attribute to Richard the foundation of Glemsford Local History Society and, in turn, this web site.
In his opening chapter, Richard talked about the background to the various textile industries - particularly horsehair and coconut fibre - that existed in Suffolk in general, and Glemsford in particular.
The Silk Mill
A wonderful view of Glemsford Silk Mill, with the huge pond apparent. Silk weaving has happened in Glemsford since the 1820s.