The Charles Burrell Museum opened in 1991 within the former Burrell, grade II listed, Paint Shop in Minstergate, Thetford. We are run by volunteers and funded through kind donations.
Discover the history of Charles Burrell’s Works, founded in the late 18th Century in Thetford. Charles Burrell, was a renowned Industrialist during the golden age of engineering and agriculture. Learn about the family history, the people who worked there and the machinery produced – almost 4000 steam and traction engines were built, up until the Works closed in 1928.
The era of steam power is captured through static and working exhibitions within the original Burrell Paint Shop, one of the three remaining Burrell factory buildings here in Minstergate, Thetford.
Burrell steam engines had a variety of purposes, from agricultural uses such as harvesting and threshing, to the era of travelling showmen towing fairground attractions. Burrell’s also produced steam wagons for the Boer War and the First World War.
The Charles Burrell Museum owns and maintains three working Burrell engines, usually housed within the Paint Shop, but can be seen outside in full steam at our Grand Opening and End of Season days every year.
- Burrell SCC 2479 built in 1902. Spent it’s working life in Norfolk, secured for display in the Museum by Lottery grant in 1997.
- Burrell 8NHP DCC 3833 ‘Queen Mary’ built in 1920. Left to the Museum by the late Viv Kirk. During 2015 the front axle was replaced and crankshaft bearing repairs costing £7500
- Burrell DCC 4061 8 Ton Road Roller built in 1927. Donated to the Museum in 1992 by Tarmac Ltd, extensive work has been carried out by volunteers.
The engines now also often feature at public events in the town and visit community centres and schools.
All the beauty and excitement of the steam era can be seen in our static and working exhibitions.
The Burrell Works began in 1770, set up as a forge in Thetford repairing and making small agricultural tools. By the early 1800’s they were advertising chaff engines, drill rolls and machines. James’s two brothers joined the business and his nephew Charles assumed complete control in 1836 aged only 19.
Burrells built their first portable engine in 1848, followed 8 years later by a pioneering self-propelled engine. Over the next decades of 100’s of traction engines of various types were constructed – portables, general purpose, road haulage, steam rollers, a few ploughing engines and a few steam wagons. They were perhaps best known and specialised from the 1890’s in making road locomotives and showman’s engines, and from 1908 also producing one-man operated steam tractors. Burrells had a reputation for quality and appearance, building their engines to the customers specification. They exported to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – as well as other countries.
The company acquired limited liability status in 1884 becoming Charles Burrell and Sons Ltd. At its height in the decade before the First World War (producing over 104 engines in 1913) it employed up to 400 men (including indentured apprentices) which, with the businesses and services supported by them, meant about 1/4 of Thetford’s population relied on it for an income. It was central to the economic life of the town. During the war production was given over to munitions but many engines were still produced.
The Works occupied 3 acres next to the river in Minstergate and St Nicholas Street comprising 15 separate parts. The surviving buildings are of architectural interest, particularly the former paint shop, which now houses the museum. Dating from 1844/45 it is Grade 2 listed and features a Belfast truss roof, one of the oldest examples left. This pattern was subsequently commonly used in aircraft hangars and large depots.
Burrells went into decline after 1918. A surplus of second-hand engines from the war, a growing number of internal combustion vehicles and a poor economic situation caused a downturn in orders. The factory workforce was reduced to a 4-day week. The company joined the Agricultural and General Engineers (AGE) group in 1919 attempting to shore up its position but this proved a disastrous move. The end was in sight by the 1920’s with the factory finally closing in 1928, the last orders for engines being completed by Richard Garrett & Sons of Leiston.
The buildings decayed, many were demolished for redevelopment.
In 1987 the donation of a set company engine drawings and other archives lead to the council initiating a museum dedicated to preserving and highlighting the importance of the company to the economic and industrial history of Thetford – the Charles Burrell Museum.
The Charles Burrell Museum also owns and preserves an extensive archive collection, which when donated was the impetus to forming the museum. Many of these items are contemporary to the company’s time detailing the works, engineering drawings, business documents and works photographs, showing buildings, engines and staff. The museum has been open since 1991 and is a gateway attraction to the town, being the nearest to the bus station. It is the spiritual if not actual home to the hundreds of Burrell engines that survive in preservation and a unique asset to Thetford.