Exhibition: history of Norfolk’s brush-making industry

PUBLISHED: 13:40 23 July 2018

Women at the brush filling machines in Wymondham, c1900; photograph Wymondham Heritage Museum

Women at the brush filling machines in Wymondham, c1900; photograph Wymondham Heritage Museum


During Victorian times, brush-making was at the heart of south Norfolk’s economy and social prosperity. Now a new project celebrates the legacy of this once thriving industry

At 8am prompt, the sound of the factory hooter echoed across the rooftops. For the people of Diss, it signalled the beginning of another working day producing brushes of all shapes and sizes to be shipped off around the world. From its heyday in Victorian times through to the mid 20th century, the brush industry dominated the town and nearby Wymondham.

Not only did the large factories in the two towns provide steady employment for hundreds of local people who trooped to the production line each day, the industry was a key part of the communities’ social and economic identity.

This month sees the launch of a major heritage project ‘A Brush with the Past’ to celebrate and bring to life the towns’ brush-making past. Running from July 4 to September 15, the Heritage Lottery funded project, co-ordinated by Eastern Region Media (ERM) Community Interest Company, will see a range of exhibitions, events and activities happening across the two towns. School pupils from Wymondham, Roydon and Diss have also played a key role in the project, working with historians and artists to learn more about the history of brush-making.

Pupils at Wymondham College work on a communal piece of art work for the exhibitionPupils at Wymondham College work on a communal piece of art work for the exhibition

“The idea was developed last year by ERM directors Tim Edwards and Fiona Muller. They realised there was a really interesting story to tell about the brush industry and its economic importance and also the place it has in people’s hearts,” says project co-ordinator Jess Johnston. “Wymondham and Diss had two huge brush factories and would have employed hundreds of people. Interestingly, that industrial heritage hasn’t always been something that people have been that interested in but because things have changed so much in today’s society and we feel so removed from that time, people are realising it is something which needs documenting and exploring.”

Initially the skilled trade originated in small workshops, but during the early Victorian period the industry grew, with brushes of all shapes and sizes made for very specific tasks. Before the advent of modern electrical gadgets, brushes were essential tools in keeping a house, work place and all manner of goods clean.

“Prior to the Victorian period there was a history of brush making in the area with journeymen moving between towns to get work and this was part of their brush making tramping route. Norfolk also had a good supply of the wood used for the brush backs.”

Wire drawing bristles to brush stocks, Diss c1950; photograph from Diss MuseumWire drawing bristles to brush stocks, Diss c1950; photograph from Diss Museum

As manufacturing techniques developed and demand grew, S D Page and Sons, which started in Norwich’s city centre, moved to larger premises in Wymondham, later becoming Briton Brush Co, and Aldrich Bros Ltd opened a factory in Roydon, near Diss.

Both remained at the heart of the area’s economy for decades, becoming the largest employers with many workers cycling in from surrounding villages.

The two factories focused on different areas – at Wymondham the factory focused on paint brushes and household brushes, whereas at Diss they made brushes for industrial and household uses.

Women around the pitch pan, DissWomen around the pitch pan, Diss

“The factories were importing materials from all over to use in the manufacturing process, such as hogs’ hair and many different types of grasses, and they were then sending these brushes out worldwide. At Wymondham they were making more than 2,000 different types of brushes.

“At Diss, some of their best sellers included the famous Jolly Farmer, which was a big broom used in farm yards, the Venetian carpet brush and also the churn brush, used for cleaning the inside of the milk churns. It also made matting and they supplied mats for everyone from 10 Downing Street to the Hippodrome circus in Yarmouth.”

Jess says part of the project involved exploring the stories of those who worked in the factories and lived in the area.

Maz Jackson's art work - The Brush Maker, part of the Brush with the Past exhibitionMaz Jackson's art work - The Brush Maker, part of the Brush with the Past exhibition

“The hooter in Diss which would call the workers in the morning and signal lunch hours could be heard everywhere, people would set their watches to it and even if they didn’t work there, lots of people remember that sound as part of their childhoods and it showed how entwined people’s lives were with the industry.”

“The oral histories show what it was really like to work in those factories. It wasn’t very well paid, but it did offer provide a regular job and the stories talk of the camaraderie.

“But it was tough work. There were a lot of woman working on the line and the conditions were often dangerous, such as dipping the brushes in boiling hot pitch. There were a lot of burns. For the young people it was really interesting to hear about the realities of that life and to understand that it really was not that long ago.”

Brush up on history

There are events and exhibitions happening throughout the summer in both towns. Diss Museum and Wymondham Heritage Museum will also be displaying items which were made or used in the local brush making factories.

Here are a few highlights:

A Brush with the Past exhibition

Diss Corn Hall, upper gallery, July 4 – September 15, free.

The exhibition is the culmination of the work of local school children and students inspired by the history of the brush industry. It features vibrant and diverse artwork, animation and film from Wymondham College, Roydon Primary School and a youth group from Diss.

Maz Jackson – Wild boar and coconuts

July 4 – September 15, Diss Corn Hall, Waveney room, free.

Internationally acclaimed artist Maz Jackson has created a series of striking egg tempera art works incorporating imagery with historic references and materials celebrating the brush industry.

Heritage trail

A trail will take you around Diss, starting at the Corn Hall and finishing at Roydon Village Hall, taking you to key historic locations and making plenty of discoveries along the way. Pick up a map and start exploring.

For more details of events see thecornhall.co.uk

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