Charles Burrell is one of the famous names of traction engine manufacture. So what was a traction engine? Originally these were self-propelled steam engines weighing many tonnes and designed for driving farm machinery and hauling equipment from farm to farm. Most burned coal but a small number burned wood and were exported to countries like Australia. The term traction engine is now used for a number of other types of engine as well, including the even larger Road Engines, Ploughing Engines and decorated Showman´s Engines, used for powering Fairground equipment. Many traction engines still exist, 403 from Charles Burrell alone. This world renowned manufacturer of traction engines and agricultural machinery took the power of steam from rural Norfolk across the globe.
Charles Burrell only produced steam engines and never diversified. The range comprised Portable engines, Traction Engines, Road Locomotives, Tractors, Road Rollers, Ploughing Engines and Steam Wagons. Marine engines, tramcar engines and stationery engines were also made. Constantly experimenting, the company rarely produced two engines alike. They also produced accessories such as thrashing machines for attachment to their steam engines. A range of these can be seen in the Museum at Thetford.
The Museum, housed in the Old Paint Shop of the famous St. Nicholas Works, tells the story of the Charles Burrell Company, the people who laboured there, and the wonderful machinery they produced. The past is captured through a recreation of works processes, such as the foundry, and the display of Burrell engines and other agricultural equipment. It opened in 1991 through the hard work of Burrell enthusiasts who were all unpaid volunteers who wished to see the Burrell heritage of Thetford preserved.
The Charles Burrell Museum attracts many traction engine enthusiasts. Charles Burrell engines are often brought here by their owners on goodwill visits. Of the 403 that still exist, 37 were made before 1900. The 366 built after 1900 and before 1928 reflect more than 20% of the total production. This high rate of preservation reflects the value placed on the engines by their owners. Burrell´s were not the largest manufacturer but produced high class engines of stylish appearance and unique mechanical qualities.
The St Nicholas Works buildings were last used for manufacturing steam engines in 1928 and since then have seen new uses as a motor garage, a wartime assembly factory and a fruit and vegetable cannery that finally closed in 1980. In the mid-1980´s the heart of the factory between the river and Minstergate was cleared for redevelopment. Fortunately, several of the original St Nicholas Works buildings survived including the original Paint Shop and the buildings between Minstergate and St. Nicholas Street. The Paint Shop dates from around 1890 and is an architecturally important building with a very early Belfast Truss roof. It is Grade 2 Listed.