James Thorne wrote (in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”) in 1876: “East Tilbury is curiously out-of-the-way and old world like…”. It retains its feeling of being out-of-the-way, but no longer looks old world. Apart from the church, its rectory, and the fort, there are four cottages dated 1837. The rest of the buildings are much newer. The same goes for the village’s only pub, The Ship, which was rebuilt in 1957 when it looked the same as it does today. There has been an inn on its site since the 18th century, and maybe earlier. I had a mediocre lunch in the pub. I thought that was nowhere else to eat in the small village, but later discovered that the Fort (see below) has a café.
The flint and rubble gothic church of St Catherine contains much fabric dating back to mediaeval times, back to the 12th century. When viewed from the north or east, the church does not appear to have a tower. The reason is that the tower and part of the south aisle were destroyed by naval artillery in a battle between the British and the Dutch at Tilbury Hope in 1667. According to contemporaneous church records, by 1667 the tower was already in a poor state. Some say that it might have collapsed without the help of military intervention.
From the south side of the church, you can see an ugly square-based stone addition to the old church. This stump is all that was built of a replacement tower begun in the First World War by men of a garrison of the Coalhouse Fort (see below). It was to have commemorated those fallen in WW1. However, the authorities stopped the building works because the builders were not following correct procedures. Across the road from the church, stands the Rectory, an elegant brick building with large windows. It was built in the early 1830s to replace an earlier one which had been badly damaged in the battle mentioned above.
The village’s only thoroughfare continues downhill, almost to the north bank of the Thames. It ends at the car park for visitors to the Coalhouse Fort. During the early 15th century following an infiltration of the Thames by the French, King Henry IV allowed the inhabitants of East Tilbury, at that time classed as a ‘town’, to build defensive ramparts. In 1540, King Henry VIII ordered that a ‘blockhouse, be constructed at Coalhouse Point. This point on a curve in the Thames is so-named because by well before the 18thcentury coal was being unloaded from craft at this ferry point close to the village. The coal was transported westwards towards Grays and Chadwell along an ancient track known as the ‘Coal Road’.
In 1799, when it was feared that the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte would try to invade via the Thames, a new gun battery was built at East Tilbury. In the 1860s, when another French invasion was feared, a series of forts were built along the shores of the estuary of the Thames. One of these was the Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury. Thus, the by then somewhat insignificant village became part of London’s defences.
The Fort was built between 1861 and ’74. Surrounded by a semi-circular moat and raised on a mound, the Fort is not particularly attractive. However, it is set in beautifully maintained parkland. From the slopes of the mound, there are great views of the Thames, which sweeps around the point, and its rural southern shore. The moat is separated into two sections by a short sharp-ridged stone wall, which was likely to have been built when the Fort began to be constructed. When I looked for the Fort on old detailed (25 inch to the mile) Ordnance Survey Maps (pre-1939), the moat is marked, but the Fort is not (probably, in the
interests of security). A ‘Coalhouse Battery’, which ran more-or-less parallel to the village’s only street was marked as “dismantled” on a 1938 map, but not the Coalhouse Fort.
The outer walls of the Fort have had all manner of later structures built on them: gun-emplacements, searchlight emplacements, and other shelters, whose functions were not obvious to me. There is a large concrete bunker outside the Fort, between it and the moat. Its shape might be described as three intersecting concrete blocks. This is marked on the tourist map as a ‘minefield control tower’. I believe that was it used to control electrically-fired mines in the estuary. Nearby and closer to the river, there is a smaller concrete bunker. The Fort’s interior was closed when I visited it, but I was able to get a peek through its main gates, which were open. Tramway tracks lead into the Fort. Old maps show that these led from the Fort to a small landing stage at Coalhouse Point, which is a short distance southwest of the Fort. The Fort ceased to be used after 1957.
Just over a mile north-west of the Fort, the road to East Tilbury Station passes through a most fascinating place. One of the first things you will see along the road from the Fort is a vast factory, which closed in 2005. Made of concrete and glass, but in a poor state of decoration, its flat roof carries a high water-tower labelled ‘Bata’. This was part of the factory complex that the Bata Company began building in 1932.
The Czech Thomas Bata (1876-1932) was born in the Moravian town of Zlin. He became the founder of Bata Shoes in 1894 in Zlin. He modernised shoe-making by moving it from a craftsman’s process to and mechanised, industrialised one. Bata’s company also revolutionised the way industrial enterprises were run, introducing a profit-sharing system that involved all of its workers, and provided a good reason for them to work enthusiastically. During the period between the two World Wars, the forward-thinking Bata opened factories and individual companies in countries including: Poland, Yugoslavia, India, France, Holland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the USA. The company in India is still very active, almost every small town or village having at least one Bata retailing outlet. I have bought many pairs of comfortable Bata-manufactured shoes from Bata stores in India.
In anticipation of WW2, Bata’s son, the prudent Thomas J Bata (1914-1980), and one hundred other Czech families firm moved to Ontario (Canada) to form a Canadian Bata company. After WW2, the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and other ‘iron-curtain’ countries nationalised their local Bata firms. Meanwhile, Thomas J continued to develop the Bata firms in Canada and the UK, and opened up new Bata companies and factories in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Bata senior was keen on the ‘Garden City Movement’. He was concerned that his workers lived (close to his factories) and worked in a pleasant environment, and lacked for nothing. A pioneer of this in the UK was Titus Salt, who built his gigantic mill in the 1860s near Bradford in West Yorkshire. He created a new town, Saltaire, around his textile factory. This consisted of better than average homes for all of his workers (and their families) from the humblest to the most senior. In addition, he built schools, a hospital, open-spaces, recreation halls, a church, and other requisite of Victorian life. In Zlin, Bata created something similar, a fully-equipped town for his workers in park-like surroundings around his factory in the 1920s. The homes he built for the workers are still considered desirable today.
The factory at East Tilbury, was another example of a town built specially for its workers. One lady with whom I spoke there told me that she had worked for Bata’s for twenty-seven years. She told me that in its heyday the Bata ‘town’ was self-sufficient. It had workers’ homes, shopping facilities (including a supermarket and a Bata shoe store), a restaurant, a hotel, a cinema, a school, a library, farms, and playing fields.
The factory buildings at the East Tilbury site, some of which have been adopted by other businesses, were built using a construction system devised (employing reinforced concrete frames that allowed for great flexibility of design) by the Czechs Frantisek Lydie Gahura (1891-1958), Jan Kotera(1871-1923), and Vladimir Karfic(1901-1996). The site bought by Bata in Essex in late 1931 was ideally placed in level open country near to both the railway and the river. His intention was to build a vast garden city around his factories, which was to produce boots and shoes in East Tilbury.
Mr Bata senior was killed in an air-crash in 1932 near Zlin, and so never saw the completion of his creation in Essex, whose construction only began in early 1933. Construction of the factory buildings and the workers’ housing went on simultaneously. By 1934, twenty semi-detached houses of the same design as those in Zlin were built by local builders, and equipped with Czech fittings. The houses look just like many houses built in Central Europe. As Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian newspaper (19th June 2006):
“East Tilbury doesn’t look like it belongs in Britain, let alone Essex, and in a sense it doesn’t. It’s a little slice of 1930s Czechoslovakia, and the most Modern town in Britain.”
Later, more homes were built, but designed like many British suburban houses.
There is a huge building across the main road opposite the factory buildings. Part of its ground floor is now home to a Co-op supermarket. The whole building, which has now been converted to flats, was the ‘Bata Hotel’. Until recently, the Co-op was still named the Bata supermarket. One man, who has lived in the Bata Estate for many years, told me that he recalled seeing swarms of workmen in white protective clothing crossing the road from the factory and then entering the hotel during their lunch-break. He told me that the first floor of the hotel was a ‘restaurant’ for the factory workers.
I met this man in what is now called ‘East Tilbury Village Hall’. This was formerly the Bata cinema.Looking somewhat Central European in design, the former cinema was undergoing much-needed electrical re-fitting. In a way, I was lucky because the workers had left the door open to a building that is often locked closed these days. I entered the foyer, which was being used to store the stock of the local public library. An office to the left of the foyer used to serve as the cinema’s ticket office. A couple of old-fashioned film posters have been put on the foyer’s walls to recreate what it used to be like.
A man, who oversaw the hall’s maintenance, showed me the auditorium. It had a new wooden floor marked out for indoor sports. He explained that the floor had been ‘sprung’ when it was laid originally. This was so that it could be used as a dance-floor. The banked chairs for the audience were originally designed in an ingenious way, only lately beginning to be employed in other much newer buildings, so that they could be folded away when the hall was needed for, for example, a dance. There was a proper theatre stage at the far end of the hall. This still has the original stage lights that were fitted when the hall was built. The old-fashioned control panel for this lighting was still in place.
My guide then told me that beneath the stage, there was a reinforced bunker for use during air-raids. He took me through a door at the back of the stage, and then down some concrete steps. At the bottom, there was a heavy metal sliding-door painted grey. He slid this open to reveal the large reinforced concrete bunker beneath the stage. Its walls were thick. It is now used as a storage area.
After seeing the old cinema, I entered the large grassy area to the south of it. In the centre of it, raised on a stepped plinth, there is a war memorial. The memorial bears the words: “… to the memory of those of the British Bata Shoe Company who gave their lives for freedom 1939-1945”. To the south of the memorial park, there is a large field, now used for agricultural purposes, that was once a Bata playing field.
Across the road from the war memorial in the grounds of the factory, there is a statue of Thomas Bata senior, who died in 1932. When I visited it many years ago (in the late 1980s), it stood in a small green area, a little park. During my recent visit (October 2017) it was surrounded by tall piles of sand being used by building contractors.
Some of the Bata factory buildings have already been modernised and are being used for industrial or commercial operations. The main large derelict building, which is surmounted by a water tank, might be destined for conversion into ‘loft apartments’ for residential use. One building, a small tall construction near the main road, remains derelict at present. It might, one informant suggested, have been used for milling activities.
During the early 1980s, British Bata began greatly reducing its production activity at East Tilbury. The Bata industrial estate finally closed in 2005. With the closing of the British Bata firm, Bata shoe-retailers, which were common in British high streets, have disappeared. The nearest Bata shoe store to the UK is now in Best (just north of Eindhoven) in the Netherlands.
From having been one of the bastions defending London from naval attack along the River Thames, East Tilbury became home for an exciting and successful industrial enterprise. Now, the extensive vestiges of this are being restored and re-used in an attempt, which looks like being successful, to keep the area alive and prosperous.
READ FASCINATING BOOKS BY ADAM YAMEY
DISCOVER MORE HERE: