In the late 1930s, a family called the Vaclaviks left the Czech town of Zlín, travelled to Africa, then moved to a house in Essex. At the time, they had no idea how distinctive their new place was, or would become. They were just happy to live there. Golf-mad Alois Vaclavik was particularly taken with the garden, where he would practise his putting, while his wife Jarmila made Czech cakes in the kitchen.
Alois Vaclavik was an employee of the Czech shoe giant Bata and the house was part of the estate – actually more of a town – that the company built in East Tilbury in the 1930s. His cuboid-shaped home and the other houses around it still feel both self-contained and spacious, cosy and civilising – a bridge between the toil of the worker and the intellectual idealism of the age in which they were built.
May Rippingale, one of the Vaclaviks’ children, is sitting in the shaded part of the garden where she used to play as a young girl. She bought the family home in the 1980s when the estate was put up for sale. A couple of years ago, she says, I had a group of 20 architects visit. They went round the house and told me what was wrong with it! That the bannister was dangerous for children and the balcony wouldn’t be allowed.
As an entrepreneur, Tomáš Ba?a mimicked Henry Ford’s conveyor-belt system in his shoe factories, but allied it with a utopian vision of community living. Though Ba?a died in a plane crash in Switzerland just months after buying the land in Essex, he had left explicit instructions as to how the project should unfold.
Construction began in 1932. As well as the chequerboard of workers’ houses, there was a Bata supermarket, a Bata shoe shop and a Bata farm that supplied bacon, eggs and milk for guests’ breakfasts at the Bata hotel. There were tennis and netball courts, a swimming pool and full-size football pitches provided for workers’ leisure (West Ham trained here and played an annual charity match against Bata’s team, which Bata once won, according to local lore). Scooters and motorbikes lined up outside the espresso bar, which opened in 1963 complete with a coffee machine and jukebox.
These days, the purpose-built cinema is used as a village hall, while the hotel ballroom, where Tom Jones once played, has been transformed into the post office, its original parquet floor now wearing down to the bitumen. East Tilbury library, tucked away round the back of the old hotel on the edge of the largely intact estate, doubles as the Bata Heritage Centre.
A team of volunteers – former Bata workers or retirees whose parents once worked there – will be giving tours of East Tilbury during the forthcoming Essex architecture weekend. Part of Focal Point Gallery in Southend’s ongoing Radical Essex project, this series of architectural tours and talks aims to shine a light on the little-celebrated story of Essex modernism, from Romford in Greater London, to Frinton on its northeastern coast, to Crittall Windows’ model village in Silver End. Rippingale is opening up her house during the weekend.
East Tilbury, like all Bata towns, followed the blueprint of the industrial garden city of Zlín, a fully realised 45,000-strong worker town complete with a 16-storey-high HQ by the time the second world war started. It was designed by a pupil of Le Corbusier, František Lydie Gahura, and by Vladimír Karfík, who had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. Under this rational mechanism, said Le Corbusier on a visit to Zlín, I perceived a much more valued and effective factor – the human heart. The same sentiment echoes around accounts of East Tilbury in its heyday.
If you had a Bata apprenticeship, you could get a job anywhere
Mick Pinion grew up on the Bata estate. His father already worked at the factory when he became an apprentice engineer straight out of school in 1966. You were dropped in at the deep end – you had to learn on the job, says Pinion. If you had a Bata apprenticeship, you could get a job anywhere. The Essex factory employed 3,000 people at its peak in the 1960s and 70s. Czech management moved there, as well as immigrants from all over the world. Some elements of the Bata way might seem intrusive by today’s standards. People knew if their garden was overgrown they would be pulled into the office and asked politely to sort it out, says former employee Graham Sutcliffe. It made them respect the town a bit more.
Despite Ba?a’s original vision, his Essex outpost only reached a third of its planned size after Bata was nationalised by the communists in the wake of the second world war. Decline set in during the late 1970s and, by the new millennium, there were only 200 employees left in East Tilbury. Bata closed the factory in 2005, moving most of its manufacturing to Malaysia.
Rippingale and her siblings resisted following their parents into the footwear business. She became a secretary and moved to London, only later buying the family home. Once teeming with workers who clocked in to music piped out of speakers at the company gates each morning, the listed factory buildings are now owned by a storage company, and the estate is looking a little rundown.
Despite this, East Tilbury has generated a steady and growing interest among architects. The Bauhaus foundation has paid a visit, says Pinion, and the last piece of Bata Trust land was sold recently to a developer, Cogent Land, which has built a portion of new housing faithful to the original modernist designs. The whole Bata estate is a conservation area and there is talk of the houses being listed in line with the factory buildings.
Although the place needs investment, residents are trying to maintain a semblance of the old Bata standards. On a patch of grassland outside the old hotel, locals have installed two rosebeds and various plants (though someone keeps nicking the conifers). Volunteers have been to speak to schoolchildren about the town’s heritage but they are worried history is being forgotten.
Radical Essex’s talk of the county as the cradle of modernism is an attempt to to get a grip on its sprawl. As Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in his 1954 book The Buildings of England: The county is too big and varied to be taken in as one. Characterised by rivers, creeks, marshland and an abundance of overpopulated A-roads, rather than by any particular architectural style, the Essex look has flitted with the political wind: from weatherboarded houses to Barratt estates, early 20th century plotland bungalows to mid-century new towns later sold off under Thatcher’s right to buy.
What floors visitors to East Tilbury are the juxtapositions: the concrete grids and clean-lined houses are a mirage in the bewitching marsh landscape. Bata wasn’t even the only company to build a worker town along the southeast Essex estuary. Kynochtown was built to house workers who made gunpowder and cartridges during the first world war at the Kynoch explosives factory downriver from East Tilbury; it became Coryton when the Coryton oil refinery took over the site. Other more experimental communities thrived on the marshes and fields during the 19th and 20th centuries: one of the first naturist colonies in the UK, for example, was a Tolstoyan community a few miles away in Wickford.
Artist Sam Williams grew up in Wickford. His video work Until they feel – ahead of them – a barrier will be exhibited at Tilbury Cruise Terminal during Estuary festival, a fortnight-long event put on by the Southend arts organisation Metal. Like Radical Essex, Estuary is supported by the Arts Council, which realised a decade ago that south Essex was lacking the kind of cultural infrastructure you might find in other British regions.
Williams filmed his work in marshland locations between Canvey Island and Tilbury docks, an area pockmarked by industrial ghosts and huge new logistics operations such as the DP World London Gateway megaport that dwarfs the older port in Tilbury. The area around the new port looks like an Essex version of the Grand Canyon, he says. A strange, mountainous landscape, these huge man-made piles of churned-up earth.
In the EU referendum, Essex voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. In East Tilbury’s borough of Thurrock, the leave figure was 72.3%. It’s not surprising that everyone voted Brexit and it’s not because people are stupid, says Williams. It’s about being marginalised.
The idea of a company town like Bata seems odd in today’s era of disrupted, deregulated working life. Amazon is building a new delivery warehouse (or fulfilment centre) in Tilbury to cope with the upturn in imports deposited by the bigger cargo ships now arriving at the port. Construction, it says, will create 1,500 jobs. But it’s hard to imagine Jeff Bezos engineering an Amazontown round here any time soon.
News Source TheGuardianNews