Characteristically, the Victorian entrepreneur was a rural man who moved townwards in the great mid-century migration. In 1842 Abraham Pank left his native village of Bawburgh, with his wife and Richard, his one year old son, to set up business in Norwich as a brass worker, gas fitter and bell hanger. His first premises were at number 100 and 123 Pottergate, but in 1858 he purchased property in Bedford Street for £525, and in 1874 a further adjoining property was acquired for £640. Both properties were inherited by Richard in 1877, and he, in turn, left the properties to his three sons Richard Arnold, Abraham and Arthur Robert. (He also had four daughters, Connie, Mollie, Henrietta and Clara).
The Norwich Postal Directory of 1879 the shows:
PANK & SON. Gas engineers and fitters, bell hangers and metal workers, lamp, beer-engine, bath and hot water apparatus manufacturers, ventilating and sanitary engineers, Bedford Street, St. Andrews.
When, in 1885, Abraham, the second son, reached the age of 15 he was apprenticed to Richard Robert Riches and Charles James Watts, Gas Engineers and Fitters. A hundred years on his indentures make interesting reading. His father had to pay a premium of £100 in four instalments, and Abraham was to receive a weekly wage of four shillings during the first year, six shillings during the second, and eight and ten shillings respectively for the third and fourth. During the 5th year he would work in the Drawing Department under the personal instruction of Mr. Watts but would not receive a wage. He worked long hours, starting at 7 a.m. on Mondays, but at 6a.m. on the other days. He finished at 5p.m. except on Saturdays, when he left at 2p.m. He was allowed half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for lunch, except on Saturdays when he merely had the breakfast break.
Abraham still found time to get married, to Ethel Heyhoe, a girl of eighteen whose father was in charge of prisoners at the Bridewell. By 1900, when his apprenticeship ended, they had a daughter Kathleen, and a son Herbert. Later three more children were born: Philip (who became a Quantity Surveyor), Betty (who married a Mr. Brett), and John. Kathleen, their first born, married a Mr. Larking. After finishing his apprenticeship Abraham, now a fully qualified engineer, went to sea, firstly in the ‘North Tyne‘ and in 1891/2 in the ‘Congo‘.
Kelly‘ s Directory of 1896 shows that Panks had extended their field of operations:
A P ANK & SON. Gas, electric light and sanitary engineers, drain testers, plumbers, electric bell, telephone and gas fitters, medieval and general metal workers, contractors to H.M. Office of Works, district agents for Crossley gas and oil engines. Nos. 8, 10 & 12, Bedford Street.
In 1902 Panks gave public proof of their growth by purchasing the old established firm of Holmes & Sons, Agricultural Implement Makers and Engineers, of Prospect Place Works. The proprietor Mr. F.R. Holmes had died, the business discontinued and much of the equipment and machinery disposed of. Panks purchased the goodwill of the business but did not buy part of the property on Castle Hill until 1906. Pank & Son would continue to manufacture and supply the various machines and parts for the engines, turbines, pumps, machines, implements, etc. hitherto made by Holmes.
By 1905 Richard Arnold Pank had moved to Great Yarmouth and opened branches in Howard Street, Albany Road and Southtown. (The Howard Street business continued until the last war, the property was finally sold in 1946).
In the years after the First World War the firm made several significant moves. They purchased the goodwill of the firm of Riches & Watts, Engineers and in 1926 they started an auto-electrical department. Three years later they purchased Messrs. C. & E. Gates, Electrical Engineers, and moved the central heating, electrical installation and refrigeration departments to 29 St.Giles Street, under the control of Clifford, son of Arthur Robert Pank, who was joined by his brother Michael in 1940. Meanwhile, Herbert and John took an active part in the Norwich firm and in 1929 Herbert took over the engineering side, and John, the radio business, opening a branch at Orford Place.
As technology improved, electrical and engineering firms had to diversify to survive. By 1933 Panks were advertising themselves as agricultural, electrical, wireless, mechanical, heating engineers and contractors, mill furnishers and church furnishers, providing electric lighting for country houses, and were official repairers of C.A. V. batteries, and district agents for Crossley‘s gas and oil engines. The Engineering department were heavily engaged in maintenance work at the Pockthorpe Brewery of Steward & Patteson.
By 1944 the Bedford Street premises had been sold to Curl Brothers for £10,000, a large sum of money in those days, and work was concentrated on the Castle Hill Works which housed modern electric and acetylene welding apparatus and possessed a well-equipped machine shop. The installation and maintenance of pumping plant and water supplies were a speciality, and well-boring and tube-driving was carried out by members of the firm‘s own labour force. The branch at St. Giles dealt largely with wireless installations and housed a staff of service mechanics who specialised in all radio repairs.
Plainly, there were limits to diversification but the firm operated as one company until 1950, although trading on several different sites. It was then split into A.Pank & Son Limited, Panks (Castle Hill) Limited, and Panks (Radio) Limited. Panks Electrical carried out many large contracts: undertaking the wiring at Felbrigg Hall: installing a Luminous Indicator Call System throughout the whole of the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, whereby any number of persons, up to a total of 90, could be informed by flashing silent indicators that they were required: and installing a similar system at the Technical College on Ipswich Road. Elsewhere, at Boundary Park Greyhound Stadium, Panks undertook the first installation of floodlighting in the area to enable football to be played after dark.
In these years heating and lighting contracts were carried out at Norwich City College gymnasium, and also for the Norwich Maddermarket Theatre. Many and varied were the contracts awarded to Panks of Norwich, they included boilers and central heating plant for the Norwich Union, and for private houses, re-tubing of large loco type steam boilers, farm water supply systems, boreholes, pumps, work at maltings, factories, houses and shops.
Meanwhile, Panks Radio, run by John Pank and his son Richard, who joined him in 1953, saw the demand for records, record players and radiograms increase, and the radio business expand. The coming of television in 1954 provided further opportunities and by 1967 they had shops at Orford Place, Davey Place and at 105 Prince of Wales Road.
A footnote to the history of the firm was provided by an event in April, 1974 when Waters & Son, Auctioneers, of Acle, announced a sale at The Foundry, Acle, of important millwrights‘ and foundry equipment, including about 1,000 19th century patterns, a steam engine, a millwright‘s old fire boiler, and heavy engineering equipment belonging to the firm of Smithdales. Peter Pank, who joined his uncle Herbert in 1960, and was then head of the Engineering Company, was a keen historian, very interested in the history of the City and of his company. He went to the auction and managed to purchase several interesting items, formerly the property of Holmes & Sons. One of them, a wooden pattern with the name ‘Holmes, Engineers‘ he kept at the works. He says that when purchased the pattern was embossed with brass letters but unfortunately, when collected, these had been removed.
With an expanding company and parking difficulties in the City centre, Panks Auto-Electrical decided to look for other premises. They purchased property on the south side of Heigham Street which had been an old cigarette warehouse, demolished the ruins of 14 cottages and built new workshops. And then in 1982 the Old Tannery on the opposite side of the road came onto the market. It was an excellent opportunity to acquire a one and half acre site just outside the old city walls, and Panks were delighted to make the move. They took with them to Heigham Street the attractive, ornate cast-iron lettering that had surmounted the Castle Hill premises.
The current business, based at Heigham Street provides a range of services including pump sales, and providing pumps for borehole drilling and pumping, treatment of water and dirty water and food processing whilst having a large workshop and stores.
Revised by Nick Williams March 2008