Norfolk business that began by mistake still making waves after 200 years

Jeckells Wroxham

The oldest photo that of Jeckells factory, taken circa 1914 to show the first electric light bulb in a factory on the east coast. The little boy is Chris Jeckells' grandfather and the man behind the sewing machine in the flat cap is his great-grandfather. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

It was a business that began by mistake - but almost 200 years later a workshop in the Broads is still making sails for boats all over the world.

Jeckells the Sailmakers, located in Wroxham, was established in 1832 by William Thomas Jeckells, a fisherman based in Great Yarmouth.

"He wasn't very good at fishing though," explains his descendent Chris Jeckells.

Samantha Curtis and Chris Jeckells at Jeckells the Sailmakers in Wroxham.

Daughter and father Samantha Curtis and Chris Jeckells at Jeckells the Sailmakers in Wroxham. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

"When his sails got worn out he couldn't afford to buy a new set so he decided to make new sails."

After he'd put the new sails on his boat he was the last to leave port but the first to return.

Inadvertently, he'd made faster sails.

"It wasn't until he was regularly the first fisherman back to port did he realise that he had made his sails with the panels running in the wrong direction, according to thinking at the time," says Chris.

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"But he was bright enough to realise he was better off making sails than trying to be a fisherman."

Chris Jeckells, 62, is among the seventh generation of the family to work at the business and is its current managing director.

In the early years they continued to service the fishing fleets of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth until the 1900s.

By that time smacks had started to decline, but when pleasure sailing took to the Broads around 100 years ago, the family opened a workshop in Wroxham.

Jeckells sailmakers

The bench shop (called because the workers sit on a bench.) The man with a pipe in his mouth is Chris Jeckell's grandfather. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

During the Second World War they made camouflage netting, gun covers and latrine screens for the services.

Jeckells the Sailmakers in Wroxham in the 1960s.

The spreading floor at Jeckells the Sailmakers in Wroxham in the 1960s. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

Chris started working in the business in 1973, stacking tins of paint, but his big moment came in 1981 when his father called him into the office and said computers were the way forward and he was to learn how to use them.

"We were one of the first in the east of England to get a Mackintosh computer.

"This enabled us to look at sails in three dimensions, which hadn't been possible before," says Chris.

CAD Jeckells

This is how sails are designed nowadays using the latest CAD equipment and software before being cut using a laser cutter. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

In 2004 the company moved into new premises, where a map of the world displays the places their sails have gone: India, Japan, Australia and lakes in the middle of Africa.

Chris' daughter, Samantha Curtis, 36, represents the eighth generation of the family to work there.

Jeckells the Sailmakers

The 'new' factory where all the sewing machines are set at floor height. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

But will the business continue to be family-run?

"I would like to say yes," says Chris, "but I don't know whether she would want it.

Laser cutter at Jeckells the sailmakers

Josh Segalo, apprentice with Jeckells the Sailmakers in Wroxham, at the laser cutter. - Credit: Supplied by Chris Jeckells

"Who knows what the future holds?"