East Tilbury on the Thames estuary in Essex is a piece of the old Czechoslovakia planted in England. It was here in 1933 that the Zlín-based shoe empire Bata opened its first English plant. As well as the factory, the company also constructed its own small town for workers following the Czechoslovak model. The plant lasted until 2006, but in many respects it is still carries on. The Bata estate and factory have been designated a conservation area. A reminiscence and resource centre was opened in 2002 to serve as a sort of museum and focal point for the memories of this unique community. We spoke to centre leading light Mike Ostler about its operation, the continued links between Essex and South Moravia and why he became involved in the first place.
The main factory building
“I live down the road in Grays. I have no direct family linkage to the Bata organisation as such. But I was asked if I would come in as a sort of local historian interested in heritage and to give some input. And once you get sucked in it is a very clingy sort of operation. Once you have been to Zlín once, you want to go back there again. Don’t ask me why. It is just a lot of old buildings isn’t it. But it is that sort of thing. I could never be as supportive of a football team as I am of this mid-European shoe operation which is no longer in mid-Europe. Ours is a very intriguing operation. A couple of volunteers keep an eye on the website. It is getting bigger and bigger every minute. The amount of information on Batamemories.org.uk is surprising.”
And people are still bringing in items and there is still a lot of interest in the community.
“Yes, yes. To be slightly cynical about this, as people pass on their children arrive and think we have to clear these houses built to a slightly strange design. You see, you have not got a loft in a flat-roofed house. So I wonder where they put the stuff where we lesser mortals living in normal houses with a pitched roof put in the roof. But you cannot do that with an original Bata house. Maybe you have a cellar, yes. They find all these things. And if they see the word Bata written on it and they know their parent or whoever they are clearing up after had some Bata connection, and they are still living in this area, then they naturally brings things in. Think about it ― in the ballroom, which was on the ground floor of the Bata hotel, hostel and community house now called Stamford House ― in the old days they used to have a ballroom and they had big parties and big events there. Lots of the young ladies, it would appear, used to take home glasses in their handbags for all sorts of funny drinks. What was it? Babycham, that was the one with the very large shaped glass. You would think that if it had Bata Hotel written on it, it would stay at the Bata Hotel. Oh, no. We have got virtually a whole set of Bata Hotel Babycham glasses which have come in from different places. And we have almost got a complete set of sherry glasses. We currently have enough cups and glasses to have a tea party.”
About the East Tilbury site, what is it that is unique for the Bata operation in Britain.
“Well, it was just one of several sites that they had. They had lots of ancillary sites which provided certain things. It was also headquarters for Bata UK Limited. They had the national administration here so that everything would come here from Zlín to East Tilbury and then East Tilbury would disseminate it around as required to the smaller sites.”
The Zlín concept was also built here, obviously on a smaller scale.
“Yes. The original plan was to make quite a large site. I would think that probably before the end of the Second World War they had only built around 30 percent of their overall plan. It was not envisaged to build more factory blocks but to build more housing. Because when they were in their heyday the bulk of the workers were having to come in on the train or bus from other villages around or even out as far as Grays and Tilbury itself. So that meant that an awful lot of time was wasted in Bata eyes with people travelling backwards and forwards. You could get more out of people if they lived on the site and they did not get away and have other attractions and find other jobs because there was a job on the doorstep in Stamford or Corringham and they would suddenly give up and go to that one.
So there were advantages of having more people living, like in Zlín, around. And between the existing Bata estate and the River Thames, which is only a mile down the marshes, that area was scheduled to be housing. We have got the plans of how it was going to be, even right down to the river. And then, I believe, the long term plan was to put a dock on the river there so they could ship stuff straight off from here, Bata UK, to Europe. That never happened. The Second World War intervened. The after the war housing was a national problem rather than a specific problem for Bata’s.”
But this is the only site in Britain where Bata housing and the Bata model went ahead.
“Absolutely. In the places where they were using existing factory space for the small industrial processes they had to do, people just lived adjacent. Here at East Tilbury it started as a farmer’s field. Having bought the farm, it was called St. Clare’s farm in the early days, then came the Bata factory, houses and hostel cum hotel ― that was this place here.
They set that up and it was basic Bata architectural design, no doubt about it. The plans we have got are signed off from Zlín by whoever the appropriate house architect was at that time. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom did this model occur. That is why it happens to be not only unique in the UK but it tends to be unique in Europe because most of the others on mainland Europe had bombs dropped on them by someone or other. We managed to survive over here apart from a couple of incendiary attacks.”
If I understand correctly, the Zlín connection continues today because both units here and in the Czech Republic are now mostly unused and you are trying to get some inspiration from Zlín about what to do in the future.
“I think it is a two-way process actually. When I was over there at a conference early in the year, one or two people were getting me a drink and chatting to me and finding out what we were doing with our buildings here. So I think I was being pumped for information. And I said I have come over here to find out what you are up to. They are a little bit ahead of us.
Building 21 got a lot of money from Europe, that is in Zlín, to be made into a regional government centre. The other building we were interested in got money from Brussels again for a development with the local university and there were lots of other ideas in the same building. They cut atriums down through the roof to let light into it and they had broken it into smaller units. There were lots of ideas there that would fit well with the buildings that we have got here at East Tilbury. Over here we have got one, two, three big buildings here. Each one has got a small nub of something going on in them but very, very little and very low key. The old hotel, hostel, community house building has already been converted into flats so that is a start. So one now has to hope that someone has got the vision and the money to do that with the other buildings on the other side.”