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".