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Hebden Bridge Local History Society

A History of the House of Thornber

Speaker: Ann Kilbey

Saturday, 29 January 2022

Many in the audience at the latest meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society recalled the little red vans belonging to Thornber Chicks which used to be seen around the valley. There was a real rags to riches story to be told about the family firm and Ann Kilbey, Society member and local historian, who had worked for the company in the 1960s, was the person to tell it. What began as an enterprise with just a few broody hens in orange boxes became a company who were world leaders in the hybridisation of poultry.

Born in Mytholmroyd in 1888, the son of a fustian dyer, Edgar Thornber was by the age of 12 at work as a half-timer as a cotton twister and by 13 had left school to work full time in a local mill. For most boys of his class that would have been his life. However, the Thornber story is punctuated by national and world events which led to new opportunities, and the Thornber poultry business was incubated in the fustian weavers' strike which started in 1906. Poultry keeping and breeding for showing was a popular hobby and Edgar Thornber had the foresight to turn a hobby into a business. He purchased twelve broody hens and built a hatchery from orange boxes at the back of their rented cottage in Mayroyd. Soon, he and his brother had built up a business, with 300 broody hens, and were advertising and travelling the area to find more broody hens and to sell their chicks. He never returned to work in the textile industry.

The ambitions of the young man were constrained by the dependence on broody hens to incubate the chicks which were the source of the profit, and Edgar Thornber was keen to try out new ideas which would enable his business to grow. The Gloucester Artificial Incubator relied on oil or gas to provide the right temperature for incubation, and could house 390 eggs. Forced to move on from Mayroyd, the family rented Newhouse Farm, and the barn became the incubation room, where more incubators were installed. Some canny business sense (cash with order meant he had capital to play with) and the growth of the railway infrastructure (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways enabled fast delivery) contributed to the success of the enterprise and by 1913 the Thornbers were able to purchase New House Farm.

Also around this time the focus of interest for the business moved to producing appliances for egg production, with their own design of 'Silver Hen Brooder' and the association of sheet-metal worker Ben Stansfield. The war gave the firm other obstacles to overcome with severe grain shortages, as well as lack of raw materials needed to construct the brooders.

In the 1920s things took off again, and an increase in the number of poultry keepers was met by the clever marketing strategy of a Thornber Annual, full of advice and of course advertising. However the General Strike of 1926, which paralysed transport, presented an urgent problem of what to do with the chicks which couldn't be sold quickly. There was no facility for the rearing of chicks beyond one day, so most of them had to be sold through local auctions. Determined never to be caught out like this again, Thornbers moved to develop a different kind of brooder, an innovative battery brooder in which stacks of trays held 400 chicks per unit.

The focus on hardware wasn't the only innovation at Thornbers. If you want to sell chicks for egg laying, you have to be able to distinguish between male and female chicks, a notoriously difficult procedure. Japan had come late to egg production, but was at the forefront of researching this area, and in 1925 found a tiny difference that enabled day old chicks to be sexed. Edgar Thornber brought Japanese chicken sexers to teach the method to his workforce. Skilled workers could sort over 800 chicks per hour and claimed 95% accuracy.

The Second World War again caused problems of supply and delivery, and the appliance manufacturing was turned over to the war effort. In 1944 Edgar Thornber died, leaving his son Cyril to run the business. He soon turned his attention to finding the perfect egg producing hen breed, using techniques developed in America. Hybridisation of different pedigree breeds was conducted in a meticulous scientific way, with thousands of birds and more thousands of records pointing to the most productive birds. This work was almost scuppered by a serious outbreak of Foul Pest in England which required the slaughter of the entire flock. Cyril appealed directly to the ministry, and was able to negotiate a short reprieve to allow the birds to lay and their eggs to be gathered so that the hybridisation could continue. The most popular bird was number 404 of which 250,000,000 were sold.

A demand for cheap food after the war led to other innovations, such as battery cages, and special environment controlled buildings for egg production. Eventually these were sold all over the world. In the United Kingdom, Thornbers seems to have been ubiquitous, with an army of sales reps, each issued with the red van bearing the Thornber name, to deal direct with poultry keepers. After hatching, the chicks were delivered all over the country within one day. Designs for hygienic new incubators were copied from innovations in America to be produced locally, and the data generated from hybridisation as well as sales saw the introduction of early computers fed by punched paper instructions.

The Thornber empire was de-railed rather suddenly by the lifting of import restrictions which had protected the business from competition. New hybrid birds from abroad rapidly came to dominate the market, and in the late 1960s the Thornber poultry business was wound up. A third generation of Thornbers however have continued in a different sphere, being major providers of business premises in the Calder Valley through their business parks.

The next meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society will be at 7.30 in Hebden Royd Methodist Church on Wednesday 9th February. Murray Seccombe will speak about Managing Space, Managing People, looking at the role of the constables and highways in 17th Century Sowerby. Visitors welcome.

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report