Made in Lancashire - ESSE stoves from Barnoldswick

PUBLISHED: 10:23 27 August 2015 | UPDATED: 15:44 21 October 2015

One of Esses beautiful cookers

One of Esses beautiful cookers

not Archant

Lancashire is home to the makers of an internationally famous stove and cooker brand, writes Martin Pilkington. Factory photographs by Kirsty Thompson

Esse WoodburnerEsse Woodburner

It may surprise some readers that stove and cooker manufacturer Esse is a Lancastrian company, or even that it’s British at all. Managing director Martin Ashby’s family has owned the Barnoldswick business since the 1980s, and it has been in existence since 1854, yet he can still lament: ‘One of our problems is that there are two big makers of cast iron cookers in Britain and everyone has heard of our competitor!’

Things could have been much worse. Founder James Smith almost died as he was setting up the business. An adventurous soul, he walked from Edinburgh to Greenock docks seeking work, then shipped out to New York and spent seven years apprenticed in a metal works.

Smith set up on his own stove and cutlery maker’s in Mississippi, prospered, married the girl he left behind, then after seven children in nine years her health failed and they returned to Britain to start another stove-making factory here. Sailing back to America to sign over his Mississippi works to his brother Robert, James’s ship SS Arctic hit French vessel Vesta off Newfoundland. Hundreds died, but James floated for two days in a miniscule tin laundry basket and was rescued. The basket and the shirt he wore in it are displayed in Esse’s museum today.

Smith established the company in Glasgow in 1854 with family friend James Wellstood and foundryman George Ure. ‘He’d got a lot of ideas for stoves when he was in Jackson, Mississippi, from seeing what settlers moving west were doing,’ says sales director Mark Blewitt. ‘The Mrs Sam model had its origins as a camping stove, not exactly a primus, but it could have wheels and hooks to lash it down on ships or wagons.’

Both Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton used that model in the Antarctic, so Mark was delighted recently when Esse was offered one (being replaced with one of their newer models) from a former pub undergoing refurbishment.

The name Esse – which perhaps does sound more Scandinavian than British – came in Victorian times when they sold a line with French names like Jeunesse, and the suffix became the brand name. The Barnoldswick connection was via an additional foundry in the town that served Esse and made castings for open fires. When the company rationalised in the 1970s Barnoldswick was chosen as the plant to continue the business, which nowadays employs 70 people in the town.

‘Design and innovation have always been important for Esse,’ says Mark. ‘In this country our stoves traditionally used anthracite or coal, but we developed our first woodburner in 1910, with a secondary manifold to re-burn smoke, a bit like a jet engine re-burns fuel. And when I came back from an exhibition talking about a competitor’s new product with a fire basket that swings out to be filled and inside to burn I was shown one we’d made in the 1860s!’

More recent developments include electric versions of their cooking ranges, and a very stylish outdoor oven with a clever attachment to use the embers for barbecuing. ‘It does pizzas and loads more besides,’ says Mark. ‘Put a lamb shoulder in for four hours and the meat is fabulously tender...’

The factory is run on lean manufacturing lines, with Japanese elements like Kanban parts stations to speed production, but as Mark Ashby explains, there’s plenty of craft skill involved alongside the industrial organisation.

‘The enamelling, for example, is still largely done by hand. After the metal is shot-blasted to get a perfect surface to bond the glass to there’s a very limited window before it starts to oxidise, and the enamel has to be just the right thickness to cure correctly and to expand and contract precisely with the metal so it doesn’t crack.’

In their despatch area hundreds of stoves and burners stand boxed up and waiting to be shipped throughout the UK and to some pretty far flung export markets.

‘Australia and New Zealand are both very big for us – we now sell a lot of our outdoor stoves to the Aussies,’ says Mark. The markets have expanded, the products have changed, as have many of the methods used in making them, but the company remains very proud of its origins and the philosophy of its founder.

On the warehouse wall a poster quotes his words: ‘Orders punctually attended to and faithfully executed.’

Oven chips

James Bond cooked on an Esse in the movie View to a Kill - perhaps they should have called it View to a Grill?

Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton both took Esse stoves on their expeditions

There are today 17 Esse stoves known to still be in the Antarctic

Florence Nightingale used Esse stoves at her hospital in Balaclava during the Crimean War

Back when the railways ran on time a compact Esse stove, The Bogie, heated guards’ vans

Celebrated art deco designer Betty Joel created new models for Esse between the wars

If you’re a River Cottage fan you’ve seen TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cook on his Esse

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