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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

John Youngs Builders

John Youngs & Son - Builders 

Youngs were a Norwich firm founded in the mid-19th century like so many other family based businesses. The founder, James Youngs came from Alburgh and is thought to have been a bricklayer building railway bridges for the Eastern Counties Railway. Three years after his arrival in Norwich he set up on his own account as a carpenter and joiner, in Chapel Field Road, and in 1851 laid the foundations of a large and extensive firm.

The expansion of Norwich in the 1850s was the great age of speculative building. During the his first few years in business Youngs built over 1,000 houses in this way, particularly in Heigham Street, West Wymer Street and Trory Street. Subsequently he was rewarded by consistent commercial success.

The Youngs‘ works faced Chapel Field Road, bounded on one side by Essex Street, and on the other side by Bristol Terrace. The premises were expanded to include timber sheds, mason‘s shop, machine room and paint stores, together with plumbers‘, carpenters‘ and joiners‘ shops, and an ironmongery store. Glass was securely packed in large cases in a warehouse adjoining the paint store, and nearby were additional sheds for the storage and seasoning of large quantities of walnut, oak, mahogany, pitchpine and other woods. Cement stores and nail house were in separate departments, the latter containing tons of nails. Stables adjoined the workshops and the store yard behind the United Methodist Free Church was full of timber, scaffolding and other builders‘ materials.

In 1870 James was joined by his son John (1855 - 1929) who sixteen years later became a full partner. Educated at Gurney House School, Magdalen Street John Youngs was a Councillor for Nelson Ward for many years.

Shoe factories and hotels

Gradually, domestic house building gave way to the construction of commercial and municipal structures. The first big block of factories was built by Youngs for Howlett & White, facing St. George‘s Plain when John Youngs was just 21 years old. Curiously enough, in 1909, enough the firm completed a further block when John‘s son, James, came of age. James Bernard Youngs, born 1888, has left eloquent testimony of his early days in the firm. ‘Up-to-date machinery was not then available. Consequently, sawing, planing, mortising and moulding had to be done by hand. I had to fall into line with other tradesmen and was at work at 6.30 a. m. My wages for the first year were 3s. a week, rising to 10s. per week at the end of five years. ‘

By 1910 the firm had completed a great number of buildings, many of which became prominent landmarks in Norwich for many years. In particular, in July, 1884, work began to replace ‘the cheerless, dismal, heterogeneous collection of shanties‘ (Thorpe Station), at a cost of £60,000. The work was completed in time for the official opening on 3rd May, 1886. The old Royal Hotel in the Market Place was pulled down and the site turned into one of the prettiest and most up-to-date Arcades in the country; the building of the new Royal Hotel on Bank Plain costing £23,905, was completed in fifteen months.

Other landmarks included the Higher Grade Schools in Duke Street; the Training College in College Road, (later a victim of the bombs); a large chocolate factory for Messrs. A.J. Caley & Sons; The Grand Hotel at Cromer, and many other seaside hotels, county mansions and Halls, and the Hippodrome at Great Yarmouth.

In the years after the First World War, now directed by James Youngs (known as Jim or J. B.), the firm continued to build many memorable features of the Norwich skyline: notably the 300,000 gallon reinforced concrete water tower for Norwich Corporation. This progress was only temporarily impeded by a disastrous fire at the Chapel Field premises, necessitating a move to City Road, taking over the business and premises of builders, J.S. Smith & Son.

During the Second World War the Youngs‘ works were severely damaged by enemy action. They conducted their business from wooden sheds on their bombed site and new premises were built on an enlarged site in 1947.

Youngs played a prominent role in the rebuilding of the city: Mackintosh‘s factory; Bonds in All Saints Green, and much of St. Stephens, rose again from the crumbling remains of war-torn Norwich, to become part of the new city. The new Wincarnis factory was built in Westwick Street. It was, together with a new furniture factory at New Mills Yard, one of the first barrel vaulted buildings to be erected in Norwich.


To mark their Centenary year in 1951 Youngs & Son held a dinner for their 350 employees at the Lido Ballroom in Aylsham Road, and a business Reception at the Assembly House. A B.B.C. concert, staged at the Lido to coincide with their celebrations, starring Max Wall, Betty Huntley Wright and the Burt Twins, was recorded as a ‘Workers‘ Playtime‘ and went out on the Midland Home Service.


By this time the firm had acquired a new Director, Michael John Youngs (b.1919), who joined the firm on leaving the army, where he had won the Military Cross and been mentioned in Despatches. It was he who guided the firm‘s post-war operations. In particular in the 1960s he decided that it was wasteful to have their own plant standing around idle and set up a plant hire company. An old caravan was obtained and placed in front of the City Road Works. Morris Sillett, a young man working in the Costing Office, was asked to run it. He did a marvellous job, and from those humble beginnings evolved a Company that almost took over the site, and diversified and expanded. The boy from the Costing Office became the Managing Director of a large plant hire business.


In 1967 John Youngs existence as an independent company ended as it became part of the R.G.Carter Group.

In 1970 they built Prospect House in Rouen Road, home of Eastern Counties Newspapers, yet another landmark building for the city, on the site of the old Golden Ball public house. Youngs was much involved with the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, building the new Diagnostic and Treatment Ward, and continued working on the site for eleven years.

It was felt an opening existed for non-standard doors, and from 1971 these were produced in tandem with general joinery. The joinery side was phased out in 1977, to be superseded by a specialist unit, Youngs Doors which became a highly specialist production unit supplying most of the major contractors in the United Kingdom with non-standard flush doors. Orders were obtained from many parts of the world including the supply of 120 doors, made from prime teak, inlaid with wood, brass and bronze, for the £600 million Kuwait Conference Centre.

Michael John Youngs, who retired from the building scene in 1972, was awarded an M.B.E. in the New Year Honours List. His father had received the same honour exactly thirty years before. It was very evident from the length of time that many employees have served this company, sons often following their fathers into the business, that it was a happy work place.

A personal view

On 23rd March 1951 an employee wrote to J. Youngs & Son as follows:-

‘Dear Sirs - I esteem it a great privilege of you giving me the invitation to come to your Centenary Event of Youngs & Son Builders and Contractors. It will be long remembered in years to come by all who was there at that gathering at the Lido. I think they all enjoyed themselves. I did - that was a good dinner with drinks - one of the best to be had. Thank you all for the same.

I started to work for the firm over 60 years ago in 1879 as a boy at 3 pence an hour - long hours them days too - we used to work longer hours - 64 a week. Money was 6d an hour for best men, 3d per hour for labourers. In them days houses were built in Bartholomew Close, Nelson Street for Watson, Heigham Hall - he used to give us beer - how many men - 20 all grades - 40 pints, two pints each. They worked then, no slacking, houses in Heigham Street built as well I work on all of them. Now we come to more houses in Stafford Street - a waste piece of ground there - new road were made there - rows of houses were built round these roads. I work on all of them being built by your father and grandfather. Now. we come to Clarendon Road and Unthank Road. Nearly all the houses were built there all around them roads by J. Youngs & Son - I work on them.

Now we come to Chapelfield Road, the Chapel was erected there and houses as well. J. Youngs & Son give us employees all a good outing to Yarmouth when we built the Chapel and paid for everything good. Now we come to Caleys, Coburg Street, the first factory being built there. Caleys gave all the men one pint of hot cocoa for breakfast every morning beside 3d a day and when the Factory was finished the men all of them were given a present of money - I done the carting there. Now we come to Noverres Rooms, Theatre Street. A job well done and carried out satisfactory to all concerned and they gave us all a good dinner and I was there and took part in it. Good people them days. Now we come to St. Stephens, Buntings, Curls, The Arcade, and the best of all, the Royal Hotel, a landmark, pride of the city - I done the carting. Now Thorpe Station - I work there on the mortar mill. And now the Grand Hotel, Cromer - when complete John Youngs give us all a good dinner‘.

In 2008 John Youngs remains a part of Norwich based R G Carter Group.

Joyce Gurney-Read 1987

Revised by Nick Williams March 2008