Robert Ransome was the son of a Quaker, born in Wells-next-the-Sea in 1753. Wells was still a centre of Quakerism a hundred and fifty years later, when my wife’s grandmother moved there and became an enthusiastic member of the congregation. The town was not however home to a conventional brand of Quakerism; instead of opting for silent worship the Wells Quakers were namely for their singing. Indeed in the nineteenth century it was known that members of the Quaker community attended Church of England services in order to sing in the parish choir!
The Society of Friends (their official title) had met in the town since the very first flowering of the denomination in the middle years of the 17th century. The community bought the Meeting House (on its present site) for twenty pounds and one guinea in 1697. Robert Ransome’s father was a teacher, instructing the children of Quakers in the town. When Robert himself left school he was apprenticed to a local ironmonger. Even while still at Wells his inventive nature was apparent. From Wells he moved to Norwich where he established a foundry, and his first patents were granted. In April 1786 Parson Woodforde went round Mr Ransome’s new iron foundry in Norwich and was very impressed by what he saw.
Norwich had a number of flourishing Non-conformist denominations, including Unitarians and Baptists as well a Quakers, but Robert seems to have found that the Cathedral city stifled his religious convictions. Ipswich had been a hotbed of Puritanism in the 17th century, and this put the Suffolk town on a collision course with the Quakers, but by the 18th century this animosity had subsided. In 1789 Robert Ransome moved his business to Ipswich.
Quakers being both industrious and frugal became one of the wealthiest religious communities; the Barclays who founded the eponymous bank were Quakers, and other old Quaker names still appear in the field of business (think of porage oats). Ransome was no exception and his capital was £200, a considerable sum in the early years of the 19th century. He and one employee established a foundry at a disused maltings in St Margarets Ditches. As result of a mishap in his iron foundry a hot casting came into contact with cold metal, resulting in an extremely hard product. Ransome patented this discovery which he put to use in making ploughshares. Agricultural machinery became the company’s bread and butter, although railway equipment was also made by an associated firm.
In 1845 the firm moved to Orwell Works, whose riverside location provided access to the sailing ships and steamers which carried their burgeoning export trade across the globe. The following year Ipswich was connected to the growing railway network, which opened up further the national market. One of my relatives was an engine driver for Ransomes in the 19th century; the firm had its own network of lines to transport goods from Orwell and Waterside Ironworks to the docks and railway station.
After over two hundred years it is not surprising that independent existence of the firm came to an end in the late 20th century, but the name Ransomes survives. They still make lawnmowers in Ipswich. The first mowing machine was made in 1832; before then any lawns had to be mowed by hand with a scythe, or else grazed to a smooth appearance by sheep. In the past the firm had a much more varied product range, from traction engines to large astronomical telescopes. During WW1 they made aeroplanes; by then the firm must have abandoned its historic links with pacifist Quakerism.
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