Today when so many of those employed in Norwich are engaged in financial services, it is easy to forget what a significant manufacturing city it was at the end of the second World War - and for years afterwards. Surrounded by a great agricultural county, many saw the city as mainly existing to serve and to provide a great market for the agricultural industry. This it certainly did but it was so very much more. Thirty or so shoe factories were in the city, with an emphasis on ladies‘ and children‘s footwear; Colmans were producing mustard, and much else, of international renown; Boulton & Paul were on Riverside; and at Hardy Road was to be found a large and celebrated firm of electrical engineers, Laurence, Scott & Electromotors, or more simply LSE.
In 1944, as the War moved towards its final stages, the firm employed 3000 people. In the works at Hardy Road, electric motors of varied sizes were made, and it was a great sight and sound when the largest were put through their paces on the test bed. Much work was done for the Admiralty which had its inspectors permanently based at the works. The Switch Works and Foundry were at Thorpe Road with the Accountancy Department, under the redoubtable Charles Beales, at Kingsley House opposite the Switch Works. There was a large Drawing Office at Hardy Road with the main administrative departments and the offices of the Chairman and Company Secretary. The Company had offices in London, Birmingham and Manchester. It was a most impressive - and important - place, a fact brought home to one of its very junior employees, when as a young soldier en route to India in 1947, he found all the winch-gear on the Cunard M.V. Britannic, bore plates with the familiar words thereon, "Laurence, Scott & Electromotors, Gothic Works, Hardy Road, Norwich". Hardly a cure for homesickness!
How had all this come about? The firm had its origins in the late nineteenth century when there was much interest in the new electric light, an advance made possible by the invention of the filament bulb by Edison and/or Swann. Running alongside this was the discovery of the principles of electromagnetic induction and the many experiments by such as Ferranti, Weber, Gramme and the Siemens brothers to perfect the dynamo, the source of the electricity itself. The City of Norwich was interested and in 1879 there was a demonstration in St. Andrew‘s Hall, by an American company, for the Town Council (as it was then known). A generating station was set up (close to the Blackfriars‘ Crypt) with coal from Derbyshire brought to the wharf at the back of Elm Hill, to fuel a semi-portable 20 horse-power steam engine. In the event, the scheme was not successful, partly due to the large arc lamps and the bare copper wires for distribution proving unsuitable for the city‘s narrow streets. The city was actually to wait for another thirty years for a system to be installed. But the possibilities had been seen. One of the firms at intervals making application to the Council to set up a lighting system was the Hammond Electric Light and Power Supply Company. One of their engineers, Mr. E.A. Paris, when in Norwich, came into contact with Mr. J.J. Colman. Colman wanted electric light in his mill. He already had a well-equipped workshop, what he wanted was an electrical expert to supervise the work. Paris did not claim to be the man for the job - but he knew a man who was. He persuaded William Harding Scott to design a dynamo for Colman, who would then set them up in business, pay them salaries, provide them with facilities and some capital. The dynamo was completed in 1884, Scott and Paris left Hammonds and moved to Norwich to begin trading as Paris & Scott, Ltd.
Inexpensive premises were found at 107, King Street, known as Gothic Works, former owned by Messrs Skipper and Whitley, biscuit and mustard manufacturers, and here Scott set about improving the dynamo he had made for Colman. Paris was the business partner who looked after the order book and the finances generally. Perhaps this was the reason his salary was £4 per week, £1 more than Scott the engineer.
Some desperately needed investment arrived in 1887 with Mr. R Laurence, who put £6000 into the business. J.J. Colman took 3000 of the £1 shares and Paris and Scott were given 3000 each. Laurence, Paris and Scott were up and running. It was the prolific Scott around which everything revolved: he produced accumulator switches, automatic cut-outs, starting switches and a patent automatic fuse. He also, in partnership with a Mr. Sabberton, a local engine builder, made portable generating sets. Scott was convinced an electricity undertaking in Norwich would be an invaluable proving ground for his ideas and in November, 1888, the company issued a scale of charges for the supply of motive and lighting power. A generating station was sited in Stamp Office Yard, of St Andrews Street. An early customer was the city itself when the Council agreed to pay £90 for the lighting of the Free Library, followed shortly after by the lighting of St. Andrew‘s and "the Asylum" for £200. Stamp Office Yard was soon to prove inadequate for the demand placed upon it and a new generating station was sought. On 25th January, 1890, the Norwich Electricity Company was registered and land on the site of the Duke‘s Palace Ironworks was bought and a station planned. During these early years a contracting business had been built up at 2, Redwell Street with a turnover of approximately £5000 per annum. In 1889 the stock and goodwill of this business were sold to Mr. Mann - who later went into the horseless carriage business with a Mr. Egerton.
At King Street, 25 employees were busy with orders from France, South Africa and Russia, Scott‘s inventive mind kept the firm at the forefront of development and, as the century neared its end, came the move to Hardy Road with the factory established on land formerly owned by Colmans. The firm and the workforce expanded steadily and there were over 500 people on the payroll in October, 1914. With the War, the firm did much of its business direct with the Admiralty and in 1915, with the help of Boulton & Paul, built new shops to help with the shell shortage. 3 inch and 5 inch shells were made at a rate of 250 shells per day for the duration of the War.
After the War, expansion continued with control-gear being made at premises purchased at Thorpe Road where a Foundry was also established. The marine business grew and in 1924 4000 horsepower of equipment was supplied to the Canadian Pacific "Empress of Britain". The firm suffered the loss through death of Mr. R Laurence in 1923, whose efforts had done much to place the firm on a sound financial footing. This was as well, as the firm was to have some difficult years in the early 1930s, not least when work on the Cunard liner, Queen Mary, was suspended. The staff suffered a salary cut. To compensate for the loss of the Cunard order, the control gear works diversified into the manufacture of traffic-lights and at Hardy Road equipment was made for diesel-electric locomotives. In 1936 with the contracts for the "Queen Mary" approved as work began again, the firm was busy with orders. In 1938, when W.H. Scott died, 3000 people were employed in three factories making equipment ranging from fractional horsepower to well over 1000 horsepower.
This was the firm that rose superbly to the challenge of the Second World War, making switchgear for submarines, controllers for tank-landing craft, and for the leg-lifting motors of Mulberry Harbour pontoons - and so much else. Although in recent times the firm had decreased in size, it is still a place of fine engineering and it constitutes a story of which Norfolk and Norfolk can well feel proud.