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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

John Copeman & Son

John Copeman & Sons Ltd 

John Cozens, the 20 year old son of a farmer of Westwick, near North Walsham, and brother-in-law of Jonathan Davy (who built Davey Place in 1812) came to Norwich in 1789. With the assistance of Davey he bought Newman‘s old established wholesale and retail grocery business on Gentleman‘s Walk, and for a time the business was known as Cozens and Davey. By 1801 the business was prospering and takings were about £400 per week, three quarters of which was from the wholesale trade.

Hogshead and puncheons

Account books of the period make interesting reading, with references to hogsheads of sugar, puncheons of molasses, sperm oil, whale oil and other oil in casks, soap, tea, hops, coffee, cheese and a limited range of dried fruits - not forgetting snuff in bladders! There were few of today‘s proprietary brands, most of the goods came in very large packages, or in sacks. Road transport was difficult and hazardous - most goods being brought up the river Yare by wherry from Great Yarmouth.

Jonathan Davey relinquished his share of the business in June 1792 but John Cozens appears to have prospered despite the steady decline in the local weaving trade and the consequent unemployment of many skilled workers.

John Copeman

John Copeman, who later gave the firm his name, was born in 1778 at Horstead and first appears in the accounts in 1802 when he was paid £1. By 1804 the books show that he had invested money in the business, and by the end of March, 1809, he was a full partner, the firm becoming Cozens & Copeman. John Copeman‘s wife had died earlier and he married Cozens‘ wife‘s sister, Elizabeth Hawkins. Trade grew and by the early part of the 19th century profits had reached around £1,000. It was important to secure the future of the business and in 1827 John and Elizabeth‘s son, John the Younger, was apprenticed to a grocer in Martham for four years, his father paying a premium of £60. At the end of his training the son joined his father‘s business, often travelling by coach to different parts of the country to sell their goods. When Cozens retired in 1837 the father and son became partners and changed the name of the firm to Copeman & Son. They enlarged the buildings on Gentleman‘s Walk installing a new shop front and rolling shutters. Another son, Jonathan Davey Copeman, also became a partner, but left in 1847 to seek his fortune elsewhere. The younger John Copeman married in 1849, and two years later Henry John Copeman was born. John‘s father died in 1866, aged 87, and he became sole proprietor.

 

It appears that the wholesale side of the business became more and more important and in 1873 the retail premises at 21 Gentlemans‘ Walk were sold to Charles Underhill & Company. At around the same time further alterations and improvements were made to the wholesaling building and in 1874 Henry John Copeman was admitted to full partnership with his father. Two years later Copemans were registering their brand names of ‘Copeman‘s Parisian Coffee‘ and ‘Royal Exhibition Coffee‘, said to have been the first coffee packed in tins. ‘Star Baking Powder‘ also made its appearance, and the firm registered an eagle device which adorned their cheques until the 1940s.

Riders and delivery by cart

In 1884 Henry Charles Laycock joined the firm as an office boy at a salary of 4 shillings per week. For all the innovation of the Victorian era, there had been little alteration in the conditions of the grocery trade. The company‘s travellers were called ‘riders‘ , a reminder of the fact their journeys were carried out on horseback. Goods were still being received in bulk. The hogsheads of sugar had to be dug out with a shovel, the dried fruit was rough and was ‘dressed‘ by hand in a wire bottomed sieve, and syrup came in 12 to 14 cwt. puncheons. Long hours were worked, especially during the Christmas period. Office hours were 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a ‘half day‘ which started at 5 p.m. on Thursdays.

Local transport was by two-wheeled carts, which were used to deliver orders within Norwich, and carriers based at the inns in Norwich would transport the country orders, which had to be packed in stout boxes or casks to withstand the rigours of the rough journeys. Mr. Henry Copeman would journey once a year to Holland to buy Edam and Gouda cheese, and a butcher was employed for boning and rolling the meat.

In 1895 Charles Copeman, the son of Thomas Parker Copeman and nephew of John, became a partner. He had been with the firm since leaving school fifteen years earlier and had travelled extensively for them. John Copeman‘s death in 1899 at the age of 87 marked the end of an era.

New Premises

By this time it had become apparent that larger premises were required and these were purchased adjoining Davey Place and Castle Street. Mr. Laycock, the warehouse manager organized the transfer of the firm‘s stock, something like 200 tons, to temporary buildings in Bethel Street, no easy task using horse-drawn vehicles. They moved to their new premises in 1903, and now had extensive cold storage equipment, an electric lift, a spacious loading dock and custom made offices.

The First World War brought obvious challenges to the grocery trade. Shortly after its commencement the War Office requested that the company supply rations for part of the first expeditionary force being assembled in North Norfolk. They organised canteens for army units stationed around Norwich so successfully that they were encouraged to continue this work in other parts of the country. They diversified into other commodities, dealing with such items as beer, tobacco, cigarettes, vegetables, cake, kippers and sausages, and Mr. Laycock was made responsible for ordering the goods and seeing they arrived in good order and on time. The Army Canteen Committee eventually took over, but Copeman & Sons were at one time supplying rations and running canteens for 30,000 troops.

On 6th June 1917 a private company perpetuating the name of the first Copeman in the firm, was incorporated, called John Copeman & Sons Limited, with the two cousins Henry and Charles as sole directors. They were joined in 1921 with the appointment to the Board of Charles‘ brother John Lacy Copeman, and William Oliver Copeman, a son of Charles, who was a chartered accountant. Subsequently Mr. J. W. Longstaffe was a director for a few years. Mr.Charles Copeman died in 1925, on the day after the birth of his grand-daughter, the first of a new generation of Copemans.

Mankroft

The inter-war years brought fluctuating fortunes for the firm. John died in 1935, aged 83, and Mr. Longstaffe departed, leaving Henry and William as sole directors; but they were joined in 1936 by Charles Laycock, who had by then served the company for fifty years, and by Clifford Copeman Makins, a nephew of the Chairman. The General Strike, the increase in the use of motor transport, the availability of a greater range of imported goods, all had an effect on the company, but they survived and prospered, maintaining the traditions of reliability, good quality and value for money, begun in the 18th century. They frequently exhibited at Exhibitions, and their stand in the Norwich Agricultural Hall may be remembered, small packets and samples being freely distributed to eager children clutching their paper carrier bags. In 1931 they purchased the old established grocery business of Thomas Bacon & Co. of Muspole Street, and formed a subsidiary company, Mancroft Food Products Limited, using the ‘MANKROFT‘ trademark.

Mr. Henry John Copeman, Chairman and Governing Director, died on 21st July 1938, having been an active member of the company for 64 years. W.O.Copeman took over Henry‘s duties, and in 1943 the Board was further strengthened by the appointment of Harry William Englebright who had been employed as a clerk, traveller and buyer, for many years.

The move to Duke Street

The premises in Castle Street and Davey Place were no longer adequate for the expanding business. Premises were purchased in Duke Street and extensive alterations were carried out, giving warehouse, garage and office space, the move being completed in July 1939, just six weeks before the Second World War began. The main warehouse building comprised a ground floor area of 14,000 sq. ft., and there were first and second floors each of 10,000 sq.ft., together with docking bays, and an electric lift and conveyors to take goods to upper floors. Separate rooms were provided for the blending of tea, coffee roasting and grinding, the manufacture of baking powder, and the pre-packing of other commodities. Cold storage facilities were installed, and a special bacon room with ham cooking equipment adjoined the main ground floor of the warehouse. The garage, entered from Colegate, was large enough to house all the company‘s lorries and cars, and contained workshop facilities.

The war brought an immediate escalation of demand for commodities of every description, and Copemans had to contend with permits, allocations, rations, not to mention endless Government forms! The number of rules and regulations ran into thousands. Part of their premises was taken over by the Ministry of Food, and housed hundreds of tons of essential foods in connection with the Ministry‘s scheme for dispersal of stocks. Mr. W.O. Copeman was appointed Chairman of the Eastern Area Provisions and Groceries Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Food. In recognition of this work he received the O.B.E. in 1943.

Copemans were fortunate to escape with limited damage during the war years. During the Norwich ‘blitz‘ surrounding buildings were engulfed in flames; Harmers in St. Andrews, St. Mary‘s Chapel, and many other properties nearby were either totally destroyed or badly damaged. Copemans were fortunate, and although a dozen or so incendiary bombs fell on the Duke Street premises, the prompt actions of their fire guards, and other members of staff, soon extinguished the flames without outside assistance, so that the damage, mainly to office machinery, was confined to a single room. The call-up of men into the Armed Forces also caused staffing problems, and during the course of the War 40 men and women joined various branches of the services. Fortunately all but one survived

The arrival of MACE

After the war rationing still continued, and brought consequent problems, but conditions slowly returned to normal, and as more and more goods became available Copemans were again able to supply the retailers with a wider range of merchandise. In 1948 Mr. W.O. Copeman visited Canada and the United States to study developments in those countries which had not been affected by food rationing. He was impressed with the voluntary group system and in 1954 Copemans were among the first British wholesalers to form such a group with a relatively small number of retail grocers throughout East Anglia. MACE Marketing Services Ltd were launched in East Anglia by Copemans in 1960, and as the wholesale membership expanded to cover most of the United Kingdom and nearly 5000 affiliated retailers, it became the largest group of its kind in the country.

Drayton Road

Steadily increasing trade made yet another move to new premises almost inevitable, and in the Spring of 1964 building was commenced on new purpose built premises on a 3 acre site facing Drayton Road. It provided 36,000 sq.ft. of floor space on one level with a special asphalt finish designed to exploit the use of the fork lift truck. Adjoining the warehouse a secondary block housed the 4000 sq.ft. provisions department, with its specially constructed rooms for handling bacon and cheese, two bacon smoking stoves and 9600 cubic feet of refrigerated store. The offices were approached through the Main Entrance from Drayton Road. The Reception Area flanked by showrooms and a printing department, gave access to the principal offices, the staff canteen and welfare rooms. A smaller block providing garage and workshop space was entered from the main vehicle court.

In 1966 Grimwade Ridley & Co. (Ipswich) Limited joined with Copemans under a. new parent company, Copeman Ridley Limited. On 21st October, 1970, disaster struck - fire destroyed the warehouse and part of the office block. Copemans immediately rented a large hangar at Fifer‘s Lane, Norwich, and within three weeks were re-stocked with goods and continuing their business. It took just nine months to rebuild their new premises on the same site on an even bigger scale than previously.

On 23rd October 1987 the Copeman/Ridley organisation was purchased by Booker plc. who continued trading on the same site for a time before moving to Liberator Road off Fifers Lane in Norwich. They did not retain the Copeman name and therefore, sadly, the family name that had been known and respected throughout the trading circles of the city and county for nearly two centuries has disappeared.

Joyce Gurney-Read

1987

Revised by Nick Williams March 2008