Wednesday, January 30, 2013

East Tilbury, Essex


Deep in eastern Moravia, in the Czech Republic not far from the border with Slovakia, lies Zlín, the factory town of the Bat'a shoe company, built in the period between the two world wars. It's the brainchild of the shoe magnate Tomáš Bat'a, who was expanding his business on the back of rich profits from supplying boots for the Austro-Hungarian army and wanted his workers to live in comfort in a modern environment. So Zlín has tree-lined streets of flat-roofed houses in the modernist mode. The city is zoned – houses here, civic centre there; parks here, factories there. It all owes something to the utopian ideas of the garden city movement, and something else to the modernist Cité Industrielle proposed by the great architect and urbanist, Tony Garnier of Lyon. In spite of this, though, Zlín is Czech through and through. Its principal architects were František Gahura, and Vladimir Karfik.

Bat'a's business boomed and Zlín spawned satellite cities around the world, in Canada, India – and Essex, where at East Tilbury a concrete, steel and glass factory was constructed and streets of flat-roofed houses were put up for the workers. Whereas the houses in Zlín are mostly brick, in East Tilbury many of them are pale concrete, so the place looks even more modernist than its Moravian parent. It still surprises me that this place not far from London, where thousands lived in the kind of modernist planned town that is often said to be alien to Britain, is not better known.

The first Bata factory at East Tilbury was built in 1933, and it was soon followed by shops, a cinema, sports facilities, a school, and streets of houses for the influx of workers who came to live and work here. As at Zlín, the style of the buildings was modernist – in fact it was the work of the company's own Czech architects including Gahura and Karfik, and it's said that even many of the components for the houses were shipped in specially from Central Europe. The people who lived here in the early days were a mix of Czechs who relocated to the UK and locals who were pleased, in the hard times of the 1930s, to find a job with a decent wage and a house. After World War II and the coming of communism, the Bat'a business was nationalised in Czechoslovakia but the rest of the company continued independently around the world. The factory at East Tilbury continued making shoes until 2005, when it closed as the company moved production closer to its main export markets. By this time this odd modernist town had functioned for over 70 years.

East Tilbury, though never as big as Bat'a intended, and nowhere near the size of the large city of Zlín, was a viable factory town in its day. With the factory gone and many buildings unused, it's a shadow of its former self. But it's a fascinating, and early, example of modernism in Britain, and an interesting example of a coming together of two cultures, Czech and British, that had previously had few close encounters. There is nowhere else in the country quite like it.

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East Tilbury was featured in Jonathan Meades's latest television programme, The Joy of Essex (BBC4), available for a few more days to those who have access to the BBC's iPlayer site.

Linguistic note: In Britain, the company was always known as Bata and is therefore not incorrectly pronounced by Brits as "barter". In Czechoslovakia, and now in the Czech Republic, however, it is spelled Bat'a and the pronunciation comes out as something like "BAT-ya". 


worm said...

Lovely Philip, was great seeing the buildings on JMeades last night, some of the buildings he stood in front of in Frinton looked amazing!

I have been down to tilbury fort plenty of times, we have a business in castlepoint (below where JM was standing next to the ruined castle) - next time I go there I must make an effort to see the Bata stuff

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Worm. And I must go to Frinton, a place I've never visited.

Jon Dudley said...

Thanks for putting the icing on the cake of Jonathan Meades' excellent documentary. What a serendipitous opportunity for you to be able to share two of your interests in the same post!

Like most of us growing up in the 1950s, we always pronounced the name 'Barter' and had no idea of the Czech origins.

As you say, a virtually undiscovered modernist town within striking distance of London. Frinton's another 'must see' many jokes and even a comedian named after the place.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Jon. Yes, my various interests come together there. It's certainly odd, walking the streets of Prague or Cesky Krumlov, to come across Bat'a shops that recall the shoe shops of one's youth. The bright red lettering of the logo is still recognisable too, although it has gone through various changes over the years.

Anonymous said...

Looking on Google streetview it looks like most of the modernist houses have been spoilt with dodgy PVC windows and breezeblock extensions unfortunately...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: The march of progress, alas. There's a conservation area now, though, so such changes are much less likely in the future.

premier paving said...

I live in Romford, not to far away from tilbury and must say it deff is not a joy of Essex,,,

Driveways essex

STAG said...

Nothing is left of the Bata factory town in Ontario Canada except lonely sidewalks that lead up to non-existent houses and Czech names in the nearby graveyard.
The town is being covered with a new suburb and soon there will be nothing left of the legacy that Thomas Bata created back in the day. The town is "Batawa", and can be explored via google earth.

Philip Wilkinson said...

STAG: Thank you for your comment. When the factory goes, the impact on a factory town can be devastating. The danger of a place having all its eggs in one basket.