Even in the eighteenth century the site of the Phoenix was a place of manufacturing: osier beds provided for basket making.
The first John Every had established an ironworks in 1832 and in 1861 his son John William Every moved the growing works to this site. In the nineteenth century Every’s were the largest employer in the town expanding into engineering and steel work and they only sold the business in 1951. It then continued as the East Sussex Engineering Company until 1976 when steel work ended on the site.
A fire at the Works in 1948 destroyed the patterns used for casting iron, and also the company records. Only a very limited paper archive survives in the East Sussex County Archive at The Keep Archive Centre. A small foundry (Coxheads) only finally closed on the site in 1986 before the present variety of small businesses began to take up residence. Thus the Phoenix Iron and Steel Works, and the East Sussex Engineering Company which succeeded it, represent a large part of the industrial history of this town. The remaining buildings not only represent that history and the working lives of so many townspeople, but they also offer present, and the possibility of future, manufacturing space so that Lewes may continue to make things.
The evolution of the Phoenix Works can be read in parallel with the industrial, and even imperial, expansion of the country. A catalogue, undated but of c1912, refers to the Works being ‘established for over 70 years’ and ‘entirely reconstructed and greatly enlarged, to cope with the rapid expansion of business’ as steel work and engineering was added to cast iron. The catalogue noted ‘structural work for railway companies a speciality’ illustrating cast iron columns at Moorgate station for the Metropolitan Railway.(p.85). Many examples of their work can be seen between Lewes and London, Norwood Junction being a particularly complete example as well as Lewes Station itself.
The steel framed buildings Every’s built at this time allowed for large scale manufacture of structures such as Eastbourne pier and bandstand and ‘all kinds of iron and steel framed buildings’ and were themselves examples of it (p.92). The catalogue notes ‘structural work riveted up by hydraulic plant on most modern system’ (p.89). It illustrates designs for ‘steel roofs and steel framed buildings for gas & water works, markets, town halls, railway stations, engine houses, workshops, warehouses, &c, &c. (p.90).
Customers are referred ‘for other illustrations of Roof Work &c’ to ‘the various Shop Views’ of their own Works. (p.89). These have been carefully touched up so the details of construction are clear and can be seen in the surviving buildings.
The archive of Edward Reeves, the photographers established around 1855 and still continuing, provides us with photographic evidence here and also of the variety of products made including small items, such as the rolling machine of 1919 and the sewer manhole cover removing device of 1933. The catalogue also illustrates the wide range of their manufacturing including ‘millwork and machinery of all kinds’ (p.84) and that they repaired as well as made ‘Machinery of all kinds’ including ‘Cranes and Lifting Apparatus’ some of which remain in the buildings on the site.(p.2)
Every’s also worked to order, offering ‘structural iron and steelwork’ to be ‘furnished on the designs and specification of Engineers, Architects, or public bodies, at the shortest notice.’ (p.2). They made the prototype Simplex petrol driven tramcars and also light rail carriages. The Simplex engines were significant later in their use in the First World War in the light railways used to supply the frontlines. Simplex first used these engines in trams in Karachi, and later in carriages for the South Indian Railways, which were made for them in Lewes. Reeves have a photograph of one of these carriages which though it appears to be intended for South Indian railways is photographed occupied by Kitchener’s army recruits who had gathered in Lewes and were given space at the Phoenix. They could presumably use the facilities provided for the workers at the Works, recorded in an article in The Sussex County Magazine of 1935, as a ‘mess room for those unable to get to their home for meal during the working day’ and also ‘baths which any member can use at will.’ This article also observes; ‘Few foundries –even in the industrial north – are so well equipped.’(p.723)
The Simplex records survive, unlike those of the Phoenix, and are drawn on in The Early History of the Motor Rail and Tram Car Company, (which was their early trading name), published in 2008 by W.J.K. Davies. He records that at least 30 trams were built for Karachi and one or two for Italy before the war prevented any further demand. Other companies may have still have records of dealings with Every’s.