It is commonly known that the Broad Plain complex was originally a soap factory before Gardiner & Sons occupied it in the 1950s. Discover the exciting history of this iconic building.
The Fripp Soap Factory
In 1745 the soap company Samuel Fripp and Co. was established by Samuel Fripp and Henry Davis. The company went through many name changes, for example, in 1771 when it changed to Fry, Fripp & Co. with the addition of Joseph Farrell, John Vaughn, Joseph Fry and William Jones. (Photo Right: One of Bristol’s Oldet Industries. Christopher Thomas & Bros. Ltd. Broad Plan Soap and Candle Works. Established 1745. Courtesy of Bristol Records Office)
It wasn’t until 1783 that they acquired the Broad Plain complex in St. Philips. In 1787 the name changed again when Fry died, as three out of the five partners were Fripps, to Samuel Fripp & Co. As further changes occurred, the company was William & James Fripp & Co. between 1810-1819, William Fripp & Co. between 1819-1827 and finally, Fripp & Co. from 1827 onwards.
In the 1820s-1840s Bristol was the third largest manufacturing centre for soap and in 1825, Fripp was making half of Bristol’s soap. Fripp & Co. remained a family business until they merged with T. Thomas & C. J. Thomas in 1841. The Thomas family were originally from Llangadogg, Carmarthenshire, but had set up manufacturing soap in Castle Street.
A Soapy Partnership
The Thomas’ soap manufacturing company was established in 1823 and was made up of Stephen Thomas and his son-in-law John Jones, calling it Jones, Thomas & Thomas, only then to rename in 1831 to T. Thomas & C. J. Thomas (the two sons of Stephan Thomas).
It was Edward Bowels Fripp Sr. who invited the Thomas brothers to form a partnership with his son E. B. Fripp Jr. at Broad Plain creating Thomas, Fripp & Thomas. In 1855, when E. B. Fripp Jr. retired the company became known as Christopher Thomas & Bros. This was a partnership made up of Christopher, Thomas, Herbert and Charles Thomas. However, when Thomas died in 1872 and Christopher died in 1877, Charles, the youngest, became the leading light of the company.
The ‘Golden Era’ of Soap
The years 1856-1889 were the ‘Golden Era’ of soap with the scrapping of soap duty in 1853. Furthermore, the years 1865-1867 saw the development of Broad Plain. (Photo Right: Christr. Thomas & Bros. Ltd. Broad Plain Soap Works from the Air, 1916. Courtesy of Bristol Records Office)
William Bruce Gingell built the current iconic building in 1865, he based the design on a trip to Italy. It is an example of the Bristol Byzantine style. An observer commented that “In viewing the premises of the manufactury, one is struck with the unique chimney towering high above one of the principal additions to the other buildings. This is said to be an exact copy of the Tower of Palazzo Veccio, the great Town Hall of Florence’’. By 1881-2 the whole works were re-built by Charles Thomas who preserved the Italian style.
Unfortunately, the ‘Golden Era’ came to end. In 1886 profits began to decline and some family members wanted to release their capital. So, by 1889 the company became a limited private company, by 1897 the company went into voluntary liquidation and became incorporated. (Photo Left: Employees of Puritan Soap sheltering from the bombing. Courtesy of the Bristol Records Office)
With competition from the Lever Brothers and ‘Sunlight Soap’ in 1898 the company tried to make similar olive oil soap under the name ‘Puritan Soap’ and in the early 20th century Christopher’s son Herbert Russel turned the factory from steam to powered by electricity to save the business.
A Devastating Fire
Sadly, a fire in 1902 resulted in the loss of much decorative brickwork and the reduction of the chimneys. By 1912, the Leaver Brothers absorbed Christopher Thomas & Bros. Ltd. and the brand. During WWI, the factory switched its production from soap to dynamite glycerine for military explosives. They continued to sell ‘Puritan’ Soap until 1953 when the factory announced their closing statement and ceased to produce soap in 1954. (Photo Right: Artist’s Impression of the Broad Plain fire 1902. Courtesy of the Bristol Records Office)
- John Penny, Bristol at Work (DB Publishing, 2005), pp. 74-79.
- Featured Image: Christr. Thomas & Bros. Ltd. Puritan Soap, 1951. Courtesy of Bristol Records Office.