Thomas was born in 1819 in Norwich, the son of weavers John and Susan Smithdale.
In 1847 he established the St. Ann's iron foundry in Norwich. Situated on River Wensum at Saint Anne’s Wharf, the works were at the end of Saint Anne Lane off King Street. Some will remember this (with mixed feelings) as the garages and workshops of Norwich Brewery, and more recently the location of new Landscaped Courtyard Apartments as part of the St Anne’s Quarter Riverside Development.
In 1853 Thomas took over the business of Charlotte Buttifant & Son, employing John Buttifant to continue his Millwrighting work.
The company grew from strength to strength and by 1861 was employing 25 men and eight boys producing a wide range of machinery, engines and castings, with customers including the Gas Light Co and Great Eastern Railway.
In 1869 he had a new, purpose built foundry and house built at Panxworth, near Acle. With cavity walls and cast iron lintels and windows it can still be seen abutting onto the B1140, now converted into residential units. Although the two works were run together, St Anne’s tended to work the heavy engineering and engine building and Panxworth the millwrighting.
Thomas was evidently a bit of a character; not only was he summoned to Court for assaulting his apprentices more than once, after 20 years making mustard processing machinery for J J Colman, in 1877 he set up the ‘Gothic Mustard Works’ producing “Beehive” Norwich Mustard in direct competition!
He was far from all bad though, the Norfolk Chronicle of 29th May 1875 reporting his rescue of a seven year old boy from the river “He at once jumped in and brought the lad out, just as he was disappearing beneath a wherry. This is the second time Mr. Smithdale has rescued persons from drowning.”
The reasons for the company’s unexpected financial difficulties are not clear, but probably the ‘mustard war’ with Colmans turned against them or a long protracted legal case began. The Panxworth works, house and even furniture were put up for sale in 1879 but remained unsold. In 1883 the mustard business closed and Panxworth failed to sell two more times, but the company went into liquidation and the following year both Panxworth and St Anne’s were to be sold at auction without reserve.
In 1897 the firm moved to new premises in Acle and three years later opened another branch at Ramsey St Mary, Huntington.
The company continued to operate until 1974 when the contents of the Acle works were sold at auction and Cecil Smithdale, Thomas’s grandson retired.
Throughout his Millwright training, Paul Abel was keen to reconnect the Smithdale name and Millwrighting in Norfolk as a sign of respect for his ancestors, and in 2016 he was able to do this when he and his father Mark decided to establish a more supportive Millwrighting service.
Thomas Smithdale & Sons operated as metal founders and Millwrights in Norfolk for over 100 years between 1853 and 1967.
Harold Smithdale 1902-1986
Mark Abel wrights:
My uncle Harold Smithdale was Thomas’ grandson. He farmed along with his brother and lived opposite his cousin Cecil in the centre of Acle. I remember Cecil
moaning about the
getting called out
onto the marshes
in the dark and the
rain; he maintained
that if they all fell
down at least the
cattle wouldn’t get
stuck in them!
I also remember the foundry sale - I went to it with my father and Harold and we bought some bits and pieces, which is how this present company, named in memory of Harold, Cecil and Thomas, still uses some equipment made or supplied by the old Smithdale’s !
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