The story of chick empire

FROM a dozen hens in orange boxes in a backyard in Hebden Royd to the biggest company of its kind in the world - that's the amazing story of Thornbers, the Mytholmroyd-based business that transformed the Calder Valley into a chick-breeding empire.

The sheer numbers involved are mind-boggling: in 1930 Thornbers hit the first of many records the company was to set producing a million chicks a year in its vast hatcheries. By 1937, by which time the company had diversified into ducks, the output was three and a half million birds annually despatched to all corners of Great Britain - later, the world.

A railway magazine noted, in 1946, that every day 2,000 consignments of chicks were leaving Mytholmroyd Station. To put that into context 25 tons of poultry appliances, 120 tons of blankets from Moderna and around 50 tons of textiles and ready-made clothing a month also left by train. To cope, the station - today unmanned - had a staff of 41.

Recalling those heady days from the past when the Calder Valley was at the heart of much more than the traditional textile industry, and Thornbers in particular set the standard in the fiercely-competitive world of poultry breeding, Ann Kilbey enthralled a packed audience of Hebden Bridge Local History Society members, regaling them with a meticulously-researcned story of inspiration, innovation - and sheer, dogged determination.

Given access by the family to Thornbers records stretching back to the early years of the last century, Ann has put together a detailed history of three generations whose endeavours are a remarkable testament to Yorkshire grit and persistence. In the process she talked with family members and many former employees: This is a remarkable tale of an enterprise that started in a very small way but developed into a world leader, at its peak employing nearly 1,500 people; a dynasty which has lasted 100 years," said Ann.

It all began in the most unpromising of circumstances - the strike, in 1906/7 of Hebden Bridge fustian weavers dissatisfied with their wages, which dragged on for two-and-a-half years. Edgar, son of Robert and Lattice Thornber, born at Laneside in 1888 and a mill-worker since the age of 13, was not prepared to sit around waiting for the strike to finish. He had other ideas and decided to turn a popular hobby of the times - poultry keeping - into a business.

"He acquired a few orange boxes, 12 broody hens and some eggs, and set these up in the backyard of the family home at Mayroyd. Soon the number of hens increased to 300; once the enterprise was launched he was never to work in the mill again," Ann declared. "There were times when he was hard pressed to find the money, and his mother dipped into her purse to help, but it is a proud boast of Thornber House that a total of no more than 25 was invested in the company, and everything, apart from modest living expenses, was ploughed back into the business."

In 1911 the family moved to Newhouse Farm where a barn was converted into an incubator room and four acres of land were dotted with dozens of breeding pens. Brother Ralph was now involved and Ben Stansfield a partner in local sheet metal business and a friend of Edgar's, designed the "Silver Hen" chick rearer and other equipment so that by 1913 the appliance side of the business had been added to chick breeding.

The brave slogan during the First World War - "Business as Usual" - flew in the face of the immense problems the firm faced but Edgar was undaunted. "The speed with which the business expanded from its very humble beginnings showed that Edgar Thornber was no ordinary man," said Ann. By the early 1920s demand had increased so much that larger premises were required and Square Works in Mytholmroyd, previously occupied by Maude Clogs, was acquired."

Disaster struck on 13 July 1928 when fire broke out in the gas producing plant but recovery was swift Edgar diversified into duck production and a unique brooder house, 120 yards long and two stories high, was built on the Elphaborough Estate. Within two years a million ducks a year were joining the chicks on trains travelling ail over the country.

Cyril Thornber joined the company in 1937, learning the business the hard way from the floor up. Sadly his skills were put to the test in 1944, when Edgar died aged 56. But the son had inherited much of his fathers entrepreneurial spirit and under his directorship progress continued at a remarkable pace, despite setbacks such as a serious outbreak of fowl pest in 1953.

After visiting America, Cyril produced the first "hybrid” chickens in the UK and Thornbers were also pioneers in the use of hen battery cages. In 1962 the company bought an Elliott 803 computer costing around 30,000 - one of only 211 sold throughout the world - and embarked on yet another ground-breaking phase. "It was an example of Thornbers being way ahead of their time," Ann explained. A computer department was established, work being taken for other local businesses too.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 1967 the future looked bright but no-one could have guessed what lay in store: the government lifted restrictions on the import of poultry, and Thornbers, already struggling, was faced with an unbeatable challenge. "By the late 1960s the writing was on the wall and it did not help that there were two disastrous fires, at the egg-packing station at Redacre Mill and the hatchery. Soon after the company was wound up and its assets disposed of."

But that's not quite the end of the story. "Cyril, who died in 1991, was able to purchase certain of the fixed assets and that is where the next chapter began," added. Ann. The sequel of a hugely influential company whose presence in the valley is still evident to this day remains to be told.