Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies and Ransomes & Rapier
Nobody knows what persuaded a 35-year-old Quaker iron founder to move from Norwich to Ipswich in 1789. All that is known is that he migrated to the Suffolk town with just £200 capital-half of it borrowed from the Quaker bankers John and Henry Gurney-and a single workman.
Perhaps he believed there would be advantages to be gained from settling in a seaport, even though Ipswich was suffering one of its periodic economic downturns. Possibly he considered that the market for his agricultural implements would be better in Suffolk, but he could hardly have foreseen the export trade of the later 19th and 20th centuries that would make the name of Ransome known all over the world.
Robert Ransome was the son of Richard Ransome, a Quaker schoolmaster at Wells, which at the time of his birth in 1753 was a small but not insignificant port in North Norfolk. He was apprenticed to an ironmonger in Norwich and subsequently set up what was reputedly the first iron foundry in the city, and with another in Cambridge the first in eastern England. Quickly gaining a reputation as an innovator, he obtained a patent in 1783 for 'iron and other metal plates, for covering houses and other buildings,' and then in 1785 another, much more important, patent for 'making plough-shares of cast-iron, which are tempered after a peculiar manner so as to stand the strictest proof.' He was advertising his cast-iron shares in Suffolk as well as Norfolk as early as September, 1786, one of his agents being at Ipswich.
Whatever his reasons, in 1789 Ransome set up a foundry in premises opposite St Mary-at-the-Key Church. It is possible that he made use of the premises occupied earlier in the century by John Dole, who might well have been the first Ipswich ironfounder. Before long he moved to a former malting in St Margaret's Ditches (now Old Foundry Road), occupying a site between the old town ditch and Carr Street, where he and his family set up home in a quite modest house with its front door on the street and its back door opening into the works.
He was most likely welcomed to Ipswich by fellow Quakers, whose meeting house in College Street was not far from where he first set up in business on arrival in Ipswich. Among them were members of the influential Alexander family, bankers, merchants and shipowners, whose bank stood in Bank Street close to the junction of Foundation Street and Lower Brook Street. They and Robert Ransome were among the people who, towards the end of the 18th century, called for an improvement in the Orwell. The river had silted up so badly that vessels drawing more than eight feet were unable even to reach the town's dilapidated quays, and their cargoes had to be unloaded into lighters in Downham Reach, three miles below the town.
In 1803 Robert Ransome obtained a patent for making and tempering cast-iron ploughshares and other items for agricultural use; a piece of iron inserted into the sand mould chilled the under-surface of the share and produced a hardened surface. Earlier cast-iron shares wore away too fast, and as the first edge was worn off the share tended to 'lose its hold of the work' and to pass over weeds without cutting them. The new process provided a hard underside about an eighth or a sixteenth of an inch in thickness; as this wore much more slowly than the soft metal of the upper part of the share, a constant sharp edge was provided in everyday use.
No less important was the introduction of the cast-iron plough body. Even after an inventive Suffolk farmer had brought into use a cast-iron plough-ground or bottom, the wooden plough was still an inconvenient and not altogether satisfactory implement. As a later member of the Ransome family wrote in 1843, 'scarcely two workmen would make them alike, and sometimes one plough would work well and easy to the holder, while another made by the same hand would be inferior in these respects.'
The use of cast-iron meant that 'parts requiring nicety in their form could be multiplied to any extent, with the certainty of their being always alike.' Ransome took out a further patent in 1808 for the manufacture of interchangeable plough parts, something that would have been quite impossible without facilities for iron founding. The significance of this development was that Ransome was able to produce a wide range of ploughs adapted to local needs and preferences while using interchangeable mass-produced parts.
What was probably the first steam engine in Ipswich was set to work at Ransome's foundry in February, 1807. Erected by a Cornish engineer, it was employed in working the bellows for the smithies and in operating grindstones, lathes and other machinery.
In 1817 the younger Robert Ransome, his brother James and John Talwin Shewell, the Tavern Street draper, put up £2,600 between them to supply Ipswich with gas. Aided by William Cubitt, who was at that time working with the Ransomes, they installed a gasmaking plant in a corner of the foundry in St Margaret's Ditches. The first domestic gas lamp in Ipswich was in due course lit ceremonially, if extravagantly, with a £1 note at Mr. Allen Ransome's home in Carr Street.
Robert's eldest son James was apprenticed to his father in 1795, but having learnt his trade he went off to Yarmouth to set up his own foundry there. He returned to Ipswich in 1809 to go into partnership with his father, and three years later the Norfolk-born engineer William Cubitt took on the role of engineer to the firm, helping it cope with the agricultural depression that came with the end of the Napoleonic Wars by expanding into such trades as bridge building and millwrighting. During Cubitt's first four years at Ipswich work valued at nearly £5,000 was gained which, it was claimed, 'would probably not have been undertaken without him.'
Several cast-iron bridges built by the firm still exist, one of them at Brent Eleigh and another at Clare, but the iron Stoke Bridge at Ipswich built in 1819 to replace the old stone bridge washed away by a flood a year earlier was itself replaced after little more than a century. It is doubtful whether the ironwork for these bridges was cast at the Ransome foundry; certainly the castings for Stoke Bridge were made at Dudley. It might be that the Ipswich foundry was unable to handle such large castings at that time. The bridge destined for the Stoke crossing was actually erected in Dudley, and Cubitt went there to approve its construction before it was dismantled and sent by canal boat to Gainsbrough on the Trent, where it was loaded into a seagoing vessel which brought it to Ipswich.
Robert Ransome's second son, the younger Robert, also trained as an apprentice under his father and became a partner in 1818, at which time the firm became known as Ransome & Sons. This title was kept until the elder Robert retired in 1825, when the firm became J. & R. Ransome, though sometimes referred to unofficially as Ransomes Brothers. The two brothers were both six-footers, and James in particular had the figure to go with his height. One of the workmen wrote of the celebration in Christchurch Park in 1845 of James Ransome's jubilee year in the business:
There, side by side, in the midst of their men, stood these two brothers, James and Robert, each fully six feet in height, the former conspicuous for the noble dignity of his manly, stalwart figure, the latter also characterised by qualities above the average; a pair of brothers at once honoured and respected wherever they went. . .
A member of the third generation proved just as much an innovator as his forebears and contributed a great deal to the later success of the company. James's son James Allen Ransome was apprenticed to the firm when a boy of 13 or 14, and his acceptance as a partner at the age of 23 resulted in another change of name, to J., R. & A. Ransome. For almost a decade James Allen lived at Yoxford and managed a branch that the firm set up in the village, perhaps in an attempt to compete with the Leiston firm of Richard Garrett on their home ground. While at Yoxford he helped establish a farmers' club at which members discussed practical matters of concern to the agricultural community.
A practical man, he played a leading part in the development of new implements and the improvement of existing ones, and when the Agricultural Society of England (later to be granted the prefix Royal) was established in 1838 he became an active member. Thus it was that Ransomes exhibited at the society's first show at Oxford in 1839, and came away with the society's Gold Medal.
The journal of the Agricultural Society of England reported later:
The Society, at the recommendation of the judges, awarded the gold medal to the Messrs. Ransomes, of Ipswich, who contributed largely to the exhibition, having sent up their waggons laden with more than six tons of machinery and implements, the superior manufacture and variety of which commanded universal approbation.
After five years of very active retirement the elder Robert Ransome died in 1830, having seen his grandson begin to play a vital part in the work of the firm. In his retirement Robert had taken up copper-plate engraving and had made himself a telescope, for which he ground the lenses himself.
In the year of Robert Ransome's death a very capable engineer, Edwin Beard Budding, employed in an ironworks at Stroud in Gloucestershire which was largely involved in the construction and installation of machinery used in the woollen mills of the West of England, invented the cylinder lawnmower. His lawnmower design adapted the rotating cutting cylinder used in a machine for the shearing of cloth to the mowing of grass. The circumstances under which J.R. & A. Ransome acquired a licence to manufacture Budding's Patent Grass Cutting Machine are not known, nor is the name of the far-sighted person who opened negotiations for the acquisition of that licence; all that is known is that the firm acquired a licence in 1832.
Ransomes were soon advertising the new 'Machine for cutting Grass Plats &c.' in East Anglian newspapers. 'This machine is so easy to manage, that persons unpractised in the Art of Mowing, may cut the Grass on Lawns, Pleasure Grounds, and Bowling Greens, with ease.'
Although in the early years the demand for these cumbersome machines with their heavy rollers and exposed gearing was minimal and no more than 70 or 80 machines were produced each year, the implications for the future of the company cannot be denied. By 1866 lawnmower production had reached more than 200 machines a year, and the following year it soared to over a thousand. From then on Ransomes were one of the 'big three' of lawnmower makers.
The Ransomes were fortunate in the employees they attracted to their works in St Margaret's Ditches, some of whom spent their entire working lives with the family. In 1835/6 James Ransome compiled a list of about a hundred men in the firm's employ, one of whom was William Rush, son of the workman of the same name who had in 1789 moved from Norwich with the elder Robert. 'William Rush has now lived with us, with only a short intermission, for 42 years - He first worked for my father, he afterwards went with me to Yarmouth in 1804, was afterwards a short time with another Founder in Beccles and then came back to us at Ipswich in 1810 - He is now on the decline, but has been one of our best and most faithful workmen, has been our principal Mould Maker for Shares and Ploughs, and for many years was our foreman in all heavy fittings of Cast Iron Work.' In the margin James added a note: 'W Rush's father lived with RR Nor'ch in 1782 and never left our service.'
Though James' generous nature shows through, there were some workmen who seem to have been less than satisfactory and suffered his criticism. There was, for example, John Clarkson: 'This man was a Labourer on the Parish-and taken from that into our Employ - He made a capital Warehouseman and is a good Share Trimmer, but he is sometimes so beside himself and given to break out that it is not always easy to keep him in tolerable bounds-He has received a wound in his head and to this some allowance may be made-He was with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar and likes to keep up the remembrance of it.' In spite of his 'breaking out' he had been with the firm for some 17 years, and so had a labourer of whom James noted: 'A poor and muddling chap-cannot say much in his favour therefore the less we talk about him the better.' This manuscript list of employees is now in the collection of the Ipswich Transport Museum, along with other records of the firm.
A particularly valuable employee was William Worby, who was foreman in the 1830s and rose to be works manager. The Ransomes were quite prepared to allow him to use his initiative, and perhaps it was this that caused problems when a new partner, Charles May, joined the firm in 1836. Whatever the cause, William and the new partner did not get along together.
When in 1837 the Ransomes decided that the firm was expanding beyond the capacity of the premises in St Margaret's Ditches the opportunity occurred to separate the two protagonists, but poor William thought he was being given notice to terminate his employment, as he recalled later.
One morning in March 1837, I was summoned to the presence of Messrs Robert and James Ransome in Mr Robert Ransome's room, which was then an upper room in the offices in St Margaret's Ditches. Mr Robert Ransome told me that they had sent for me to find a place for myself. I asked if they wanted me to leave them, whereupon Mr Robert Ransome said, 'By no means-we mean that you should go and hire malt offices or some such place, where you can take some of the men and some of the work, forming a sort of branch works, as we are getting too thick here, and we do not want you and Mr May together.'
Worby found what he was looking for in a building, possibly a former malting or else part of the St Clement's Shipyard, on the bend of the Orwell a couple of hundred yards below the Common Quay. It is to be seen, between the site of St Clement's Shipyard and an inlet, on the carefully drawn panorama of the riverside produced by Edward Caley when the Wet Dock scheme was proposed in 1837, with 'Orwell Iron Works' painted on the end wall to announce the new ownership. Also visible on the drawing is an iron crane, perhaps made by Ransomes, standing on the adjacent quay. Without a doubt Worby knew just what he was doing; the new dock would provide unrivalled facilities, enabling raw materials to be unloaded right outside the new works and, as trade grew and implements began to be exported, enabling Ransomes' products to be loaded into ships at what amounted to the firm's own quay. It is not to be wondered at that the Ransomes and Charles May were among those who were involved in bringing forward the dock scheme.
As work went ahead on the construction of the dock and while the Cobbolds were concerning themselves with bringing the railway to Ipswich Ransomes made the decision to build a new works on the riverside, to the south of the temporary premises occupied by William Worby's branch works. It was to be known as Orwell Works.
Almost certainly it was the increase in trade brought about by the railway work to be described later that brought about the decision; the firm had long outgrown the somewhat restricted premises between St Margaret's Ditches (in future to be known as Old Foundry Road) and Carr Street. The first of the new buildings were occupied in 1841, and over the next eight years more and more activities were transferred to the new site as further workshops were erected. James Ransome took charge of the new works, Charles May remaining at the Old Foundry in St Margaret's Ditches.
The beginning of the move coincided with the building of Ransomes' first steam engine, a little portable engine with a vertical boiler that was shown at the Royal Agricultural Society show at Liverpool in 1841. Following its return from Liverpool the engine was made self moving by the addition of a chain drive to the rear axle, and in this guise it was exhibited at the 1842 show in Bristol. It was not really the forerunner of the traction engine, for it was merely self moving and not intended to haul other vehicles, though it did carry a small threshing machine on a platform.
The judges at the 1842 show reported that the little Ipswich-built engine, which was of the so-called disc type patented by Henry Davies (an early attempt at producing a rotary engine), 'travelled along at the rate of four to six miles an hour, and was guided and manoeuvred'-by a horse in shafts attached to the front wheels-'so as to fix it in any particular spot with ease.' They awarded it a prize of £30, but no more is heard of it.
Ransomes exhibited another self-moving engine, made not in Ipswich but at the Railway Foundry of E.B. Wilson & Co. in Leeds to the design of Robert Willis, at the 1849 Royal Show at Leeds. It carried off first prize at the Royal and was afterwards employed in threshing in Suffolk, spending some days on two farms at Bramford and then moving on under its own power to a farm near Freston. Alas, the rough roads of early Victorian East Anglia shook it to pieces all too quickly, and another pioneer disappeared from the country scene.
The firm completed the move to the new Orwell Works in 1849, the event being marked by a dinner given by the partners to some 1,500 guests, these including the entire workforce.
By 1850 steam power was becoming accepted in the fields as it had been years earlier in the mill and the factory. 'The use of fixed steam engines, of from four to eight horse power for impelling threshing machines, is now common on large farms in the north of England and the south of Scotland; and the use of both fixed and portable steam engines, of two, three and four horse power, for impelling the several machines of the farmery, is pretty general in many of the best parts of the centre and south of England,' said the writer of The Rural Cyclopaedia, published in 1849. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park Ransomes showed not just a selection of their farm implements but also a fixed engine and a portable.
In later years the firm was among those that designed classes of engine specifically for service in what would today be termed the developing countries. John Head, who joined the firm as an apprentice in 1848, invented an apparatus which enabled straw to be burnt as fuel in the firebox of portable and traction engines. This development, made in collaboration with a Russian engineer named Schemioth, proved a very useful one in countries where there was no wood available for fuel and where coal had to be imported at great expense.
The Head-Schemioth system involved the provision of extra-large fireboxes and an apparatus, driven from the crankshaft by a strap, for feeding the straw into the firebox. The system, which was also used by other engine manufacturers, had obvious advantages where engines were used to drive threshing machines, for they consumed no more than five or six per cent of the straw from the crop. The same system could also be used to burn reeds, cotton or maize stalks, bagasse (sugar cane refuse) or indigo refuse, brushwood and other similar materials.
There came a time when the erecting shops at Orwell Works were full of engines under construction, and engines by the dozen can be seen in various stages of erection in old photographs of the works. Portable engines destined for overseas countries were packed in crates, their wheels, flywheels and various other large components being packed separately before despatch. On arrival at the port of destination it was a small matter to unpack the wheels and axles and fit them to the still-crated engines for onward haulage.
Quaker business acumen, energy and principle contributed much to the development of the Ransomes business. Links through marriage, friendship and religion between Quaker families in different parts of the country did much to assist the evolution of the firm.
The first newcomer to Ransomes was Charles May, who joined in 1836 and shouldered most of the responsibility for the railway work that became so important to the family firm. Between the time of his joining the firm and 1851, when he left it, May took out eight patents, some of them in conjunction with members of the Ransome family. Four of them involved the construction of railways and two were concerned with agricultural machinery. The significance of the railway trade is indicated by the company's balance sheet for 1851 which shows nearly £87,000 for railway and general engineering work compared with only £35,000 for agricultural work.
Following the departure of Charles May the Ransomes invited his nephew William Dillwyn Sims to join the firm as a partner. William's aunt Ann was the wife of Richard Dykes Alexander, the Ipswich banker and philanthropist, and William himself married Eliza Curtis May, while in 1892 old Robert Ransome's great-granddaughter Mildred married John Dillwyn Sims, William's son, so it is possible to see a complex web of relationships growing up. In 1865 another of the founder's great-granddaughters, Mary Ann Ransome, married John Jefferies, who had been an apprentice at Orwell Works, and in due course he too became a partner in the firm. Each time a new partner was taken in the firm changed its name; over the years it had ten different titles, ending up in 1884 as Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies.
It was undoubtedly the Quaker connection that brought a certain John Fowler to Ipswich in the early 1850s. John came of a long line of Friends, for the Fowlers had been among the earliest disciples of George Fox, founder of that religious movement, and it was through family links with the leading Quaker families in the North of England that in 1847 John became an apprentice with a Middlesbrough engineering firm. When the Friends decided in 1849 to send a delegation to Ireland, then suffering severely from the potato famine and the resulting widespread destitution, to discover what might be done to alleviate the situation John was invited to go along to give the delegation the benefit of his engineering knowledge.
Realising that economical drainage of the Irish wetlands could increase and help diversify agricultural production, John set out to develop a means of mechanising the laying of field drains, up to then a laborious and expensive manual process. He turned for advice and assistance to Ransomes and to their works manager, William Worby, whom he first met one fine summer's evening on Brighton beach. It is recorded that on that summer's evening the two men spent two hours 'very seriously talking and calculating on the subject and came to the conclusion of its being impracticable. . .'. The development work to which Ransomes contributed so much was eventually to lead not just to the successful use of steam power for land drainage but to the evolution of steam ploughing.
When Fowler's system of drawing a mole plough by a man-powered windlass, with a rope attached to the mole to drag wooden drain pipes into the drain, was first demonstrated at the Royal Agricultural Society's meeting at Exeter in 1850 the mole plough had been built by Ransomes and May. In 1852 Fowler patented a steam draining plough, but this ingenious machine proved too heavy; in further experiments he used a portable steam engine with a windlass driven by belt from the engine's flywheel to haul the mole plough by cable which won him a silver medal at the Royal Agricultural Society's Lincoln meeting in 1854.
Fowler and those working with him had already given a great deal of thought to cultivation by steam, and in the following year he devised a steam engine with a drum mounted under the boiler. The engine that he demonstrated was made by Clayton and Shuttleworth, of Lincoln, with the windlass and drive supplied by Robert Stephenson & Co of Newcastle, but it is almost certain that in later years Ransomes provided portable engines for this purpose. The mole plough used in the demonstration was made by Ransomes and Sims.
When Fowler performed his first experiments with steam cultivation the same year the problem arose of reversing the plough at the ends of the furrow in such a way as to lay all the furrows in the same direction. At the beginning of 1856 he discussed the problem at Ipswich with William Worby, who suggested the use of the Kentish turnwrest plough, in which the mouldboards were changed alternately from side to side. This was, however, too complicated. Fowler's associate David Greig had the idea of a balance plough mounted on a two-wheel axle; the right-hand plough bodies were mounted on one arm of a seesaw frame, with the left-hand plough bodies on the other arm. Worby immediately saw the advantages of this and set to work to produce an experimental plough carrying three mouldboards on each end.
Worby reported back to Fowler at a meeting of the Society of Arts. In a letter which Michael Lane found among the Fowler archives Worby described what happened.
Consequently I met Mr. Fowler with a favourable report at Adelphi Place when Mr. Fowler read his paper to the Society, after which much discussion took place on the subject of steam culture by the gentlemen present and several papers were read which were sent by persons interested who could not be present. The room was also lined with diagrams and drawings of various plans which I conceived had been tried. Some of the above were by a gentleman who said that he had lost much time and spent £2000 in experiments. He also said that he had come to the conclusion of its being useless to attempt steam culture with less than 40 H.P. Mr. Fowler and I were sitting together at the time this remark was made. He said, 'What do you think of that idea?' I replied, 'My experiments lead me to think that I could make one of our 7 H.P. engines plough on light land, nearly, if not quite, one acre per hour.' Mr. Fowler said, 'if you believe this I will give you an order home with you to make a set of tackle at once.'
Mr Fowler and myself slept at the Great Northern Hotel and next morning went to Hainault Forest to the draining done there. We breakfasted together, I then came home with an order to Ransomes and Sims to make a set of tackle. I made a 4-furrow balance plough, stationary windlass, rope porters, etc.-and set it to work on the 10th April 1856 on a farm at Nacton, the property of Sir George Broke Middleton, in the occupation of Mr Farrow and we ploughed at the rate of one acre per hour. Mr. Fowler was highly satisfied with the trial, so was his father who came with him. Mr. J.A. Ransome was there, also Mr. Biddell of Playford, who was pleased with the quickness it was turned at the end of the furrow.
In 1856 Fowler and Worby jointly obtained a patent for a specially adapted steam engine with an integral double- drum windlass, two of which were ordered from Ransomes and Sims early the next year. It seems to have been at this time that Fowler considered the double engine system that was later to be so successful, though it appears that he considered the capital cost of two engines to be too high for the ordinary farmer. Although these two engines were not entirely successful Fowler had four further engines built for him by Ransomes and Sims, which he took to the Royal Agricultural Society's meeting at Salisbury in July 1857. There Fowler found himself in competition with three other aspiring designers of ploughing engines and systems, one of whom upset the judges by 'the extreme discourtesy of his language and conduct'. Although Fowler failed to win the £500 prize the judges did say that 'No one who saw the work performed by Mr. Fowler's plough could doubt that in its use at least, steam ploughing as such had attained a degree of excellence comparable in point of execution even with the best horse work'.
It was with a Ransome 10 h.p. portable engine and a Ransome four-furrow balance plough that Fowler at last won the Royal Agricultural Society's £500 prize in trials at Chester in 1858. The collaboration between Fowler and Ransomes continued even when the former set up his own works in Leeds which produced its first pair of ploughing engines in 1862.
First works manager of the Steam Plough Works was an Ipswich man, Jeremiah Head, who had been articled to Robert Stephenson & Co. in Newcastle at the age of 17 in 1852. Head, a relative of the John Head who became a partner in Ransomes, had played an important part in the development of the steam plough and had at one point been assigned full time to work done by Stephensons in producing windlasses for Fowler. It has been said that while John Fowler was the team leader and innovator he was greatly indebted to those who worked with him, including Head and Worby.
In view of these local connections it is not entirely inappropriate that the Ipswich Museum should have become the home of a one-tenth scale model of a Fowler 14 nhp ploughing engine made in 1864 to the order of Prince Halim Pasha, who had purchased a number of full-size Fowler engines for use in the Egyptian cotton fields. It seems the model was never delivered, for at the beginning of this century it was rescued from the office loft in Leeds by a Fowler employee, Percy Robinson, who spent many years restoring it to its original condition.
As early as 1817 Ransomes established a relief society for their workmen which became known as the 'Old Sick Fund' and was succeeded by other similar 'clubs' providing for employees unable to work through sickness or injury. In the late 1840s a workmen's hall was founded at Orwell Works in which those who lived too far away to go home for meals might eat. It also provided a meeting place for the Mental Improvement Society, a form of evening class actively supported by the Ransomes on its formation in 1836.
John Glyde when writing of this society commented that 'The employers have very wisely abstained from any interference in the management of the Society. They have sought to cultivate the feeling of self-dependence in the men engaged at the works. . .'
To what extent were such efforts on the part of the employers appreciated by the workers? 'The ignorance in which the great mass of the working classes is sunk, is frequently and bitterly lamented by the few intelligent working men,' Glyde wrote, pointing out that although Ransomes employed as many as 1,200 men at times the average membership of the Mental Improvement Society was no more than 300, although the subscription was only a penny a week.
The Ransomes were also supporters of the Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1824 for 'the instruction of the members in the principles of the arts they practice. . .and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge'.
Always seeking profitable products that would carry the firm through periods of agricultural depression, Ransomes turned to producing a variety of railway materials that went into the construction of lines not only in this country but also abroad.
A visitor in the 1860s saw the chairs in which the rails were fixed being cast by what he called 'a quick and ingenious process':
One part of the floor is occupied by a very narrow semicircular railway on which small wheeled frames are made to travel round the curve from the sand-heap at one end to the pot of molten metal at the other. In these frames the moulds are hung on pivots, so that by a touch they turn upside down at pleasure. A boy reverses a mould and rams it from the under side full of sand. The mould rights itself; the orifice is opened, and a boy at a run pushes it to the opposite end of the railway. There the men with the big ladle immediately pour in the liquid iron, and in a few seconds a solid railway chair is formed. By this time another boy has run up with another mould; and so it goes on all day, filling and casting, and turning out tons of chairs every week.
Trenails for fastening the chairs to the sleepers and keys or wedges to hold the rails tight in the chairs were also produced at Orwell Works, along with much else that was required by the engineers and contractors who were constructing lines across the world. For many years the railway work provided the greater share of the firm's income, at least until the 1860s when there was an upsurge in the export of farm implements, leading the partners to seek space to expand the capacity for agricultural work.
The decision to turn over the railway work to a new company, and a new works on the other side of the New Cut, provided some of the extra accommodation needed at Orwell Works, which was itself being expanded from the original six acres to ten. That decision might also have been influenced by the need to specialise to a greater extent than before, since steel was taking the place of chilled iron and it was vital the railway department should not fall behind the current developments.
In 1862 Richard Rapier, a Northumbrian who had been apprenticed to the Newcastle engineering works of Robert Stephenson & Co., became manager of Ransomes railway department. With the formation of a new company in 1869 Rapier became a partner with Robert James Ransome, and Ransomes & Rapier was soon to make a name for itself that was second to none. In the 1870s it took a leading part in supplying equipment for the Welsh narrow-gauge slate railways, and also for similar railways on sugar plantations far across the sea.
Richard Rapier was indeed an enthusiast for narrow gauge, writing a book on Remunerative Railways for New Countries, and he had an ambition to build the first railways in China. That undeveloped country could, he believed, be opened up to profitable trade by the construction of a network of steam-operated narrow-gauge railways.
Early attempts to break into that little-known country were frustrated by political and diplomatic objections, but Rapier's opportunity came when in 1872 the firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co., one of the leading China merchants, obtained permission from the Chinese authorities to build a quay, jetty and warehouses at Woosung, on the Yangtse River some 12 miles below Shanghai, and to construct a road from Shanghai to Woosung. The object was to avoid having to navigate large ships up the difficult and hazardous reaches of the Yangtse to Shanghai. Ransomes and Rapier suggested to Jardine, Matheson that instead of building a road they should allow R & R to lay a narrow-gauge railway along the same route.
After much discussion between the two companies the proposal was accepted, and in the autumn of 1873 work began on the design of a tiny locomotive to be used in the construction of the line. The little 0-4-0 tank engine Pioneer was ready just over a year later, and tests on a circular track in the Waterside Works yard and on George Tomline's tramway at Felixstowe showed that though it weighed no more than 1 ton 2 cwt it could do considerably more than pull its own weight; during the Easter holiday of 1875 it hauled a train over Tomline's tramway with no fewer than 80 adults in the open trucks, and achieved a speed of 12 mph.
All the same, various alterations and improvements were made before the Pioneer was shipped off to China; the original 4in. cylinders were increased to 5in. bore and the gauge was increased from 2ft. to 2ft. 6in. In the autumn of 1875 the little engine left England in the steamer Glenroy, along with five R & R workers who were to construct and then operate the line. Those five were John Sadler, the foreman; Will Jackson, chief working engineer; David Banks, the second engineer; John Sadler, jnr, second foreman; and his brother George, general assistant.
Conditions in China were by no means pleasant, and severe extremes of weather, the attacks of mosquitoes and long hours of arduous work soon created health problems for the railway builders, but in spite of the difficulties construction went ahead. By 14 February 1876 the Pioneer was running over the first three-quarters of a mile of track, and a passenger service began on 30 June the same year between Shanghai and Kangwan, the halfway point, using the Ipswich-built 0-6-0 tank engine Celestial Empire and a number of four-wheeled carriages also shipped out from England. A second, similar engine, the Flowery Land, was put into service the following year.
The conditions under which the five men were living and working took their toll, and foreman John Sadler became seriously ill; he died on 15 September 1876. Then George Sadler became ill, and it was feared that the coming Chinese winter would end his life. He was sent home to England under the care of his brother John, leaving just two stalwarts to carry on the operation of the line.
The agreement for the building of the line had included an option for the local mandarins to purchase it. In October 1877 the mandarins acquired the railway and immediately announced that the line would be closed on the arrival at Shanghai of the 7pm train from Woosung that same evening. It must have been with a mixture of emotions that Jackson and Banks left for home early in 1878.
For some unknown reason neither of them returned to employment at Waterside Works. David Banks joined the Continental Department of the Great Eastern Railway as a fitter in the Marine Workshops at Parkeston Quay and William Jackson became locomotive superintendent on the Southwold Railway. The stories he told of his life in China must be behind the persistent legend that the engines and rolling stock from China found new life on the line between Halesworth and Southwold; this legend has been embroidered to tell how the engines ran through the Suffolk countryside with Chinese dragons emblazoned on the side tanks-though photographs taken in Shanghai show that they were not decorated in this way at all.
Just what became of the first railway in China is something of a mystery; what is certain is that the engines did not return to Britain. Ransomes & Rapier went on to make equipment not only for railways in Britain but for lines in India and other parts of the world, to manufacture sluices for the Aswan Dam and for other water control schemes, and to build the biggest walking dragline in the world.
The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the Orwell Works turn from ploughs and lawnmowers to munitions. No fewer than 1,600 Ransomes employees joined the forces, their places being taken by women workers entering an engineering works for the first time. In the course of the war 130 of those men gave their lives; one who survived, Sgt. A.F. Saunders, won the V.C.
Ipswich was twice attacked by German Zeppelins, the first time on 30 April 1915. The second attack, on 31 March 1916, had more serious consequences, as one of the bombs dropped by L.15 fell at the back of the Custom House, killing a man who was standing outside the Gun public house at the bottom of the Lower Wash. Some of the aircraft used on anti-Zeppelin patrols were built by Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies at premises erected in the brickearth pit of the Trinity Brickworks which after the war was used as the firm's new lawnmower works. The White City, as this works became known, turned out large numbers of FE.2b fighters and also 400 Airco D.H.6 aircraft, known to pilots as the Widow Maker because of their unsavoury reputation. Ransomes were also to have built the twin-engine Vickers Vimy bomber, but this order was cancelled at the end of the war. Altogether 790 aeroplanes were built before production ceased. According to a letter sent to Ransomes the first FE.2b built by the company was involved in the shooting down of the Zeppelin L.48, which crashed at Theberton on 17 June 1917.
Peace came at last, and great was the rejoicing in Ipswich. News of the signing of the Armistice reached Ransomes' Orwell Works by telephone at 9.30 am on 11 November 1918, and the works closed at 11.30, the employees nevertheless being paid for the entire day. The company diary tells the story:
The news was conveyed about the town by the sounding of all the buzzers. The employees flocked into the yard and there was a good deal of excitement and cheering. The town was soon covered with flags and a good deal of rejoicing took place in the vicinity of Cornhill.
More than four years of war had proved costly not only in terms of human life but also in commercial terms. Ipswich industries that had thrived on exports to all parts of the world found their markets gone. Ransomes, which had had a depot in Odessa for many years, lost heavily as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution; not only was that lucrative market closed but the firm received no payment for goods supplied before the Bolshevik takeover.
Men who returned after service in the armed forces, some of them broken in body and mind, did not find the Land fit for Heroes that they had been promised. For many of them there was no work; in 1921 Ransomes had to close three departments and 1,500 men lost their jobs, the rest of the workforce being put on short time. The womenfolk who had taken work in engineering works including Ransomes found themselves cast aside.
Within 20 years the outbreak of the Second World War saw Ransomes producing gun carriages and components for tanks while continuing to turn out ploughs and other agricultural implements that were essential to the drive to increase home food production. Again women were recruited to take the place of men conscripted into the forces, but this time the firm's work did not extend to aircraft. After the war Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies moved from their old sites in the town out to a new Nacton Works on the town outskirts, where they built everything from lawnmowers and ploughs to large diesel engines for use in submarines.
As the 20th century neared its end Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies sold off its agricultural implements division and became simply manufacturers of grass machinery, eventually being taken over by an American company. The firm of Ransomes & Rapier was closed down after being acquired by Robert Maxwell.