Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Wanted: memories of Boulton & Paul


PICTURE the scene. It’s 1997 and a young reporter for Anglia TV is covering plans to revive a rundown part of Norwich with new flats, pubs and a cinema. The land is so contaminated that the media have to wear steel toe-capped boots, voluminous yellow overalls and safety glasses. It’s this particular reporter’s debut “piece to camera” and he looks suitably awkward, not to say ridiculous, as a result.

The soil on the site ran thick with the waste of several decades of heavy industrial use, some of it from the railway, much more from a famous Norwich name – the manufacturers Boulton & Paul. Thousands worked here over the decades. The contaminated land would become the Riverside development (pictured above) and guess who the young reporter was? The yellow uniform meant it would take me months to shake off the “tellytubby” nickname in the newsroom.

Boulton and Paul

This photo from Norlink shows how huge the site was. I’ve written a short potted history of the company, but I could really do with the memories of an employee. The last guys left in 1986 so I’m hoping there are plenty of B&P pensioners out there. If you can help please email me at

In the meantime, here’s my first draft:

The company grew from a small ironmonger’s shop set up in Cockey Street (now London Street I think…) in 1797. By the late 1860s it had passed through several owners to come under the control of William Boulton and Dawson Paul.

A wire-netting machine on a factory in Rose Lane was one of its early innovations. It was said that the complicated equipment had to be kept going day and night simply to keep up with world-wide demand. You can see a similar machine in the Bridewell Museum in Norwich.

Boulton & Paul took the Riverside site in 1915, having been asked to build aircraft for the government during the First World War. Amid today’s bars and apartments it’s strange to think that more than 1,500 Sopwith Camels were built here. Not a bad name for one of today’s Riverside pubs I’d have thought. …Beats Norwegian Blue for sure.

After the war the company diversified into more domestic but equally bulky items – everything from chicken houses to cricket pavilions. Those posh greenhouses you see in the grounds of stately homes will normally have a small Boulton & Paul sign embossed in the wrought iron somewhere. And because Riverside had more space, the company soon abandoned Rose Lane to concentrate its efforts on the banks of the Wensum. They even helped build the doomed R101 airship. Famously, the airship crashed over France in 1930, and all hopes for airships as the transport of the future died with her. B&P was always keen to stress that no blame was attached to any of the parts made in Norwich.

The Second World War saw the company employed to make everything from factories to air raid shelters. According to historian Joyce Gurney-Read they made about £13million worth of goods for the war effort. They were also bombed by the Luftwaffe on several occasions.

The post-war years saw a slow but steady downturn which gathered pace from the late 1960s. The last workers were made redundant in 1986. The site lay unused until the late 1990s when the blueprint for today’s mix of shops, pubs and flats slowly emerged. Many of us were sniffy about the warehouse bars and the could-be-anywhere design. But, truth be told, we’re probably slowly being won round. Millions were spent both decontaminating the soil and raising the ground to avoid flood risks. What was once a miserable wasteland now hosts a supermarket, a swimming pool, a cinema and more than 200 apartments, The city council argues that it has fought off the out-of-town threat as a result. And, crucially, we can walk alongside the river from the station right down to the football ground. If that walk ever continued to Whitlingham it really would be “job done”.

* Much more on the always-authoritative HEART heritage site here.

1 comment:

  1. The Copped Hall Trust has several Boulton & Paul greenhouses(which it is gradually restoring) in the four acre walled garden of Copped Hall, near Epping in Essex. An Orchid House, an Orchard house, Vine house and a series of large lean-to houses. I think one goes back to 1870