The Forge Restaurant (situated at the rear of our High Street department store), is often noted for its distinctive architecture along with its excellent food. With its high ceiling, braced with heavy, wooden beams the restaurant has the feel of a great industrial hall. Decorated as it is with all sorts of ironware such as shovels, hoes, garden forks & spades, you would almost think you are in fact sitting not in a restaurant merely named “The Forge” but in an actual iron foundry - and you would be right for thinking so.
For over a century the Biggleston & Sons Foundry supplied its wares not just around Kent or even just England, but across the breadth of the five continents. Situated at the end of Jewry Lane in Canterbury it was the beating heart of a successful family business that survived from before the reign of Queen Victory through the first & second world wars all the way in to the mid-1980s.
Founded in 1835 by John Drury & William Henry Biggleston, the foundry produced everything from the garden implements that hang above the restaurant today, to iron stoves and copper pots which it sold in its retail shop near where the Odeon Cinema stands today. They also produced much larger items under contract, such as the pipes for Canterbuy’s first water main, the gas works in the surrounding villages and even some of the machinery used in the first abortive attempt to construct a channel tunnel from England to France in the 1880s.
One of the first contracts the company secured was the construction of a clock for the tower of St. Georges church in Canterbury. This clock, with the replacement of its brackets in 1906 by William Biggelston’s grandson, Herbert, survived the blitz of the second World War (unlike most of the church it was attached to) and lasted in to the first decade of the 21st century, eventually being replaced in 2010.
In the 1850s Biggleston’s foundry supplied the South Eastern Railway project with girders for bridges & cradles for sleepers as well as the water tanks necessary to top up the boilers of the steam engines of the time. Later they also supplied the same to the railway lines constructed between Ashford, Margate & Deal. Other successes for the company include it becoming one of the first major producers of tin nibs for fountain pens & later the Lining Machines used to paint white and yellow lines on roads of towns & cities across the world.
Another landmark for the company was when it was hired to construct the casings of the world’s first modern Torpedo for naval warfare. The weapon was tested in Herne Bay where it’s premature detonation caused hundreds of windows across the town to shatter. Despite this set-back however the eventual success of this device lead to its adoption by maritime military forces across the world and its widespread & devastating use in the first & second world wars.
In 1908, after the company had passed in to the hands of William’s grandson Herbert, the Foundry gained international renown when Herbert was approached by his old friend Hayde Harrison of the Electric Street Lighting Apparatus Company. After developing a new type of brighter electric street light reflector these two companies partnered to replace the old gas powered lamps of Marylebone, Croydon, Kingston on Thames & Chester with new electrical reflectors. Later they were awarded the contract to construct Street Lights in Southampton, Wolverhampton, Swansea, Bedford & the Isle of White before accepting further contracts as far abroad as New York, Hong Kong & the Holy City of Jerusalem. In fact, it was even boasted that: “Within a twelve-mile of Charing Cross there were enough of the Firm’s Appliances to light a road from Canterbury to New York, and another to John O’Groats”
Canterbury of course could not be left out of the electrical lighting revolution and Biggleston street lamps can be found to this day along the walls of the Dane John public gardens and throughout town.
However, it wasn't long after this that war broke out across the world. 1914-to-1918 brought many changes to the company. With the younger men away in Flanders, a large women workforce was hired for the duration of the war to make munitions, such as shell casings for artillery pieces & bombs. However, the company still continued to supply castings to the waterworks, tannery & coal mines throughout the war.
Unfortunately, while the company managed to remain relatively successful during the first world war things took a darker turn following the outbreak of the second world war in 1939. On June 1st 1942 the Luftwaffe brought the Blitz to Canterbury. During one of the infamous “Baedeker Raids” intended by the Nazis to tear out the cultural heart of England, the Luftwaffe missed their intended target of Canterbury Cathedral but still managed level huge sections of the city centre.
St Georges Church took a direct hit leaving only its clock tower (and the Biggleston clock) still standing. Meanwhile, though the foundry itself remained unscathed save for a few broken windows and continued to produce Ack-Ack shells for anti-aircraft guns for the duration of the war, the Biggleston company’s Retail Shop and warehouse where both levelled by German bombs.
But this was not to be the end of the Biggleston’s woes. Tragedy struck again soon after when Herbert’s Son, Desmond, a captain in the Royal Artillery was killed just before the second battle of El Alamein that autumn.
Herbert died of natural causes on January 12th 1944, with his Nephew Geoffrey (who left for a time to serve in the RAF) inheriting the retail arm of the business, at this point situated in a corrugated Iron shed on upper bridge street until the store could be properly rebuilt. The shop would remain open in its rebuilt premises until Geoffry’s retirement in 1986, however the foundry would not last nearly so long.
With the death of his heir, Herbert’s business partner, an accountant named J.J. Leggatt took over the running of the Foundry along with his brother, a musician, whom Leggatt appointed Works Manager. However, as neither were engineers by trade with none of Herbert or his family’s flair for business the company soon floundered when it was unable to adapt to the ever modernising world of post war Britain.
As the Biggleston company shrank, Frederick Nason steadily bought up their now unused buildings behind his high street shop to use as offices and warehouse storage until, in 1968, the foundry finally closed its doors for the last time.
Later, when Fredrick Nason decided to expand his growing department store he had the various buildings the made up the Foundry connected in a large construction project in order to create one large department store in the centre of town. This is why today you can walk from our furniture section that was once the Forrester’s Guild hall, and in to our restaurant beneath the roof & rafters of this once mighty, and historic centre of industrial Britain.