Bata Factory East Tilbury

In today’s corporate environment you wouldn’t get a mission statement like “Living Separately – working together” but that was the slogan of Bata shoes. Tomas Bata a Czech began with a cobbler’s shop in Zlin but developed it into one of the big multinational retailers. In 1932 he opened a shoe factory in a remote part of the Thames. He followed in the tradition of social reforming industrialists, such as, Titus Salt who built Saltaire on the Aire in Bradford, William Hesketh Lever who built Port Sunlight on the Mersey. They wanted to improve the living conditions for their workers with good housing plus a range of social and educational facilities. East Tilbury was built by Bata in the international modernist movement style. It had everything you would expect to see in a town: shops, cinema, sports facilities, garage, post office, newspaper the thing that made it different was that it was all owned by Bata. The factory began to decline in the 1980s and was closed in 2005.

House Martin nests

House Martin nests

Walking around the town now it still has a distinctive and different feel than most towns. There is the factory complex consisting of 13 large buildings in different states of repair. The three largest buildings on the factory site are the leather factory (1936) the rubber factory (1938) and the central office and administration block (1933), which is a listed building. The administration block is newly painted and well maintained. In one of the empty blocks house martins have made their nests along the roof line. You get the distinct feeling that if there isn’t more intervention this will revert to nature. Some of the other blocks are now used by other industries but mainly as archives and storage. This area is now called the Thames Industrial Estate.

Tomas Bata statue

A few metres outside the factory gate there is a statue to the founder Tomas Bata. It is surrounded by lawn and the path leading up to the statue as rows of roses along the border. Across the road is Memorial Park and in the centre is the War Memorial. This is a distinctive design quite unlike other memorials and the inscription is to “ Those of British Bata Shoes Co Ltd who lost lives in World War ll”. At some point the names of the fallen heroes would have been on two plaques on the sides of the memorial but, sadly, these have been removed. The sound of children playing in the close by infant school reminds you that the estate is still alive and has a future generation.

Bata factory
The social facilities were located in the Community House which has since been renamed Stanford House. Built in a similar design to the factory this was a link between the factory site and the housing estate. There are still shops in this block and I had lunch in Nancy’s cafe which is a run of the mill greasy spoon. An unexpected rush of customers, eight in total, resulted in the owner dashing next door to buy bacon and tea bags.

What is fascinating is the order and hierarchy built into the design of this utopian estate. Migrant and single people were housed in Community House which was known as Bata Hotel. Families were provided with rented houses. The oldest houses are in Bata Avenue. There are larger properties with integral garages and these were for the Bata managers. Throughout my visit I kept thinking about Workers Playtime and the concluding words of the programme “Good luck, all workers!”

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