Walking around the present-day city, it is sometimes difficult to realise how much manufacturing industry formerly existed close to the very heart of Norwich. One such firm was F.W. Harmer, a clothing firm of the first rank, with its factory on the site of today‘s multi-storey car-park.
The ancestors of the men who were to bring the firm into being lived in the neighbourhood of North Walsham, from the beginning of the sixteenth century. There are records of Hermers living in the area much earlier. A Harmer of Antingham died in 1517 and there are many entries concerning Harmers in the parish registers of North Walsham and the adjacent villages between 1500 and 1800. Many of the family seem to have migrated to Norwich and thirty-seven Harmers were Freeman of the City between 1688 and the early twentieth century. Some of the Norwich family devoted themselves to the textile trade, which was the great staple of the city. They are described from 1693 onwards as worstead weavers, wool combers, yard makers and merchants. With this background, it is not surprising the founders of F.W. Harmer and Company should establish themselves as cloth merchants and their descendants develop into clothing and hosiery manufacturers.
In 1825, William Harmer entered in to partnership with a Mr. Rivett and they traded as Rivett and Harmer. Thomas, the son of William, joined the business and the name was changed to Rivett, Harmer and Son. With the retirement of William, the name reverted to Rivett and Harmer. A significant change occurred in 1850 with the retirement of Mr. Rivett and Frederick William Harmer, the son of Thomas, joining the business. Indeed Frederick became the owner of the business and changed its name to F.W. Harmer and Co., the title that was to endure.
In the early days, the firm was mainly concerned with the sale of Manchester and Bradford ‘Piece Goods‘ and Frederick William would set off by coach periodically to Yorkshire and Lancashire to buy goods which in due course, and sometimes after a long interval, were delivered to Norwich by horse-drawn wagons or by sea. The materials were sold on to the many tailors existing in every town and parish. It has to be remembered that, in these early Victorian days, ready-made clothing was unheard of but shortly after 1850, Harmer heard of a French invention for "...the stitching together of materials by machine...." He promptly bought two such machines, deciding he would make up his own materials and sell garments at a lower price than hand-made articles. These sewing-machines were some of the first to reach England. They were chain-stitch machines, resembling large fret-saws worked by treadles, and operating at about twenty stitches per minute. It was said, "The stitch would dribble out if the thread broke". It was this dramatic technological advance, and the driving energy of Frederick William Harmer at its head, that created the basis on which the company was to thrive. A factory was established in Bethel Street, in premises that were to be demolished in the 1930s to make way for the new City Hall.
In due time, Frederick William‘s own son, J.A. Harmer, joined the business and took some of the weight of responsibility from his father, leaving him time to pursue his interest in public affairs. F.W. Harmer was made an Alderman and Magistrate of the City of Norwich and took a very important place in the affairs of the city serving as Mayor in 1887. None of this meant the older man‘s interest in the company had in any way lessened and, shortly after his Mayoralty, F.W. decided the site in Bethel Street was too small for the firm. He bought another site in St. Andrews Street. Here was built a large clothing factory, which became the main base of the company‘s activities until destroyed by enemy action in 1943.
The design of this grand new factory, which was to be a feature of St. Andrew‘s Street for the next fifty years, was entrusted to a young architect, recently qualified and returned to his father‘s business in Norwich, brimming with new ideas. His name was E. T. Boardman and he was given a free hand - at the start of a career destined to leave its mark on the city. F.W. Harmer realised the potential of electric lighting and the new factory was one of the first in the district to have this form of illumination, albeit a primitive system by modern standards with the carbon filaments giving a rather poor light. It is interesting to note that next to the factory, in Stamp Office Yard, W.H. Scott of Laurence, Scot and Electromotors fame, had his dynamos in a generating station providing power for the city. Norwich at this time was not short of innovation. Trade was growing and changing; the made-to-measure suit was coming in and Harmers were among the first in the field. The increasing popularity of the company‘s products necessitated opening a London warehouse, first in Milk Street and later in Wood Street. This too was to be lost to bombing in the Second World War. The First World War was to be significant for the company: in 1912 with the government of the day seeing the danger of an approaching war, Harmers were asked to contract for a trial order for khaki trousers and tunics. When war came, the company was able to step up production quickly and, in addition to their normal commitments, was sending about two tons of clothing daily to government departments. This period saw the greatest development in the history of the company to that date.
The achievements of the first war were to be mirrored in the second. By 1938 with war again threatening, contracts for uniforms were obtained, including part of the first contract for the famous Battledress. During the war, a total of nearly two and a half million garments were made for the Armed Forces and Civil Defence Services, a record all the more remarkable because of the difficulties under which the company had to work.
On March 18th, 1943, a lone raider dropped one large incendiary bomb in to the middle of the factory and destroyed it. It is said among the property consumed by the fire was enough worstead cloth to have covered the distance from Norwich to London and back. As in the retail trade, with burnt-out stores opening again in the premises of their competitors, so the manufacturers helped each other. Some cloth and linings had been saved, as had conveyor belts and trousers- presses in another part of the factory. Good friends in the north of England rushed in with offers of machinery and increased deliveries of cloth. Chamberlins lent their cutting room for night-work and, by working a double shift, production was again moving. A lease was obtained on Bowhill and Hubbards factory, which had already been burnt-out and by September sufficient reinstatement had been done to allow the cutting room and twelve conveyors to be started, together with cloth storage. The end of the war did not mean the end of difficulties, the owners of rented buildings quite naturally wanted their premises back. Harmers moved temporarily into the Drill Hall on Aylsham Road and a disused Baptist Chapel on Unthank Road. By such methods and with a dedicated and faithful staff, the company survived and prospered.
Rebuilding was obviously a priority but not without its problems: The City Corporation did not favour a city-centre site and, in a time of strict licensing, Board of Trade approval was needed. Gradually the difficulties were surmounted, the Corporation agreed to sell a site and the Board of Trade was sympathetic to the firm‘s needs. On Good Friday, 1946 all those concerned for the firm‘s future had the thrill of seeing the markers set for the new factory at Havers Road and by mid-1947 production was in full swing again.
In 1975 Harmers celebrated its 150th anniversary, with the chairman of the time, Richard Harmer, vowing to keep the firm as a family concern. Harmers was then one of the largest privately-owned clothing manufacturers with, in addition to its main Norwich base, other factories at Diss, Fakenham, Stradbroke, Syleham and Watton. In 1983, Harmers exhibited its range of trousers and school blazers at the International Men and Boys Wear Exhibition in London and also invested £100,000 in a new computer which prepared work for the cutting room. By 1984, the company was having difficulty in finding skilled workers or people suitable for training as machinists. In 1987, the company decided to close the blazer-making production line and concentrate on trousers. The following year saw 32000 pairs of trousers being produced each week. In November of that year, Harmers received the National Training Award, one of only seven to be awarded in the east Midlands and East Anglia.
Harmers broke with tradition in January, 1989, when Frank Short was appointed Managing Director, the first time this post had been held other than by a member of the Harmer family. Mr. Short found himself at the head of a company in decline: the country was in recession, foreign competition was increasing, and a declining work-force was housed in a large factory building with high running costs. The firm suffered badly and eventually went into voluntary liquidation. By August 1990, the bulldozers had moved in to demolish the factory, its site later to be used for housing.
So ended a firm, born of enterprise and innovation that had played a distinguished part in the story of Norwich manufacturing industry.
I am indebted to John Ogden of Norwich, formerly Sales Manager of F.W. Harmer and Company, Ltd. for much of the information contained in this essay.