The Burrows Lecture: past speakers have included Andrew Motion, Simon Lyster,
John Tusa, Margaret Drabble, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Williams and Sir Nikolaus
The Burrows Lecture: 2003
'Shoemakers to the world: The Bata estate on the Essex marshes, 1939-1960'
Wednesday 21 May
Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen – I am honoured and delighted to
have been invited to give the Burrows Lecture for 2003. My father was a
member of the Court of the University for many years and greatly valued the
association. I am particularly pleased that it is taking place in Southend
for a number of personal reasons.
My family lived for many years just to the west of here at a village
called Horndon-on-the-Hill. If the name did not raise a moment of instant
recognition, we could try explaining that it was next door to
Stanford-le-Hope. When that sparked no recognition, it was easier to say
that we were not too far from Tilbury Docks, not very accurate but offering
at least a ball park guide to where it was.
Southend-on-sea, some 30 miles to our east, offered a lifeline for
diversion and entertainment to us denizens of Horndon-on-the-Hill. Boring
Sunday afternoons – of which there were plenty in a childhood of the 40s and
50s – could be made less boring by a visit to the Kursaal (this was
pronounced 'Kerr-zle', we never asked what else Southend-on-Sea had in
common with Baden-Baden). A funfair on those occasions really did provide
fun. My parents used to attend the Annual Whitebait Festival Dinner, which
took place at Garon's Banqueting Rooms.
My first tailor, Fred Buckley, was at Leigh-on-Sea. My second,
confusingly called Fred Brackley, was at Westcliff-on-Sea. I have never had
a tailor since Fred Brackley made my morning dress in 1960. Today, my elder
son still wears the morning suit I was married in. He was married in it too.
I also had tennis lessons at Leigh-on-Sea. Driving back, one of the
pleasures was seeing how fast I could go down what seemed like the amazing
piece of road engineering represented by the Stanford Bypass, all 2 ½ miles
of it, in magnificent concrete paved, single carriageway. So, in talking
this evening, I am wandering unashamedly down memory lane. More respectably,
you could call it a personal memoire. More fashionably, it probably
qualifies as a contribution to oral history. And, of course, oral history
always comes with a health warning attached – memory is fallible.
There is a second and more serious reason for giving a lecture on this
subject. Looking through the topics addressed by previous lecturers, I was
struck that none had ever talked about any aspect of industry in Essex.
Literature, yes; architecture, of course; the rural condition, naturally.
But industry? So far, a blank. This is odd. From Shell Haven, to Thames
Board Mills and Tunnel Cement in Thurrock, to Ford's at Dagenham, the Thames
estuary has had its share of great industrial enterprises. None more
individual and strange than British Bata. Time to put this omission right.
And there is a third reason. The very idea of an international shoe
factory on the once desolate Tilbury marshes may seem, probably is, a piece
of local industrial antiquarianism. But judging by John Prescott's plans for
expansion of London to the East – Michael Heseltine had them too – the
Tilbury's – east and west – could find themselves at the heart of a new
urban growth node. Some two months ago, opening The Guardian on page five, I
was faced by a colour aerial shot of Coalhouse fort in East Tilbury, with
the Bata estate buildings clearly visible just a mile and a half to the
north. This picture was at the heart of an article about the Prescott
vision. So, in talking about the Bata Factory on the Bata estate, I am of
course talking about the past; but I may also be looking into the future as
Now, a word about the title of my lecture: 'Shoemakers to the world – the
Bata estate on the Essex marshes, 1939-1960 (the cut off date refers only to
the end of my close experience of the Factory and the estate, not to the end
of the Bata Factory). I will indeed be talking about just that. But the true
title of the lecture is subtly – or perhaps crudely – different. My original
title was: 'Bloody Foreigners – The Bata Company on the Tilbury marshes,
1939-1960.' My mother always said that they were called 'bloody foreigners'
for some years after their arrival. It was suggested to me that such a title
was less academic than this lecture series deserved. If, however, I say that
is what I am really talking about, it is not to be awkward, but to point you
towards a key feature of the Bata experience in south east Essex. For they
were foreigners; that was why they always called themselves the 'British
Bata Shoe Company'. Being Czechs was the reality; being British was the
aspiration. Both mattered.
The Bata Shoe Company grew up in southern Moravia, an hour or so from
Brno. There in the rolling hills of the sub Carpathian foothills, a cobbler
called Thomas Bata built a factory devoted to the mass production of shoes.
He also built a model society where his workers would work better because
they happily in decent houses, enjoying enlightened social and welfare
services. I was born in Zlin, the Bata company town. Tom Stoppard's father
was one of the company doctors at that time. It is entirely possible that he
What Henry Ford was to motor cars, Thomas Bata – old Tom he was called
familiarly, more often 'The Founder' – was to shoes. He believed that
everyone has the right to an affordable pair of shoes on their feet, a noble
vision in the late 1920s and not one to be taken for granted. The only was
in which shoes could be made sturdy enough and cheap enough to satisfy this
ideal was by turning away from traditional skills of the individual cobbler
at his last, and breaking down the operation into several dozen parts and
several dozen processes. Each process was performed by one individual. The
shoe became part of a mass production line.
This was a powerful idea, a powerful example and within a decade, Thomas
Bata was was spreading the example of mass production across Europe and the
world. He died in a plane crash in 1932, a year before shoes started rolling
off the new purpose built plant on the Essex marshes just outside East
Tilbury, a small hamlet almost on the banks of the Thames. It was virgin
land, the greenest of Greenfield sites. And what a complex Bata built there.
This video shows the factory building and the housing estate as they were
in Coronation year, 1952. But they were little changed from the 1930s and
are absolutely recognisable today. They are rightly designated a
What a shock to have such a Bauhaus influenced piece of architecture
plonked down in the Essex marshes. It was not that England was singled out
for its treatment. The ideal model for a Bata community was centrally
designed and specified in Zlin, and then applied throughout the world. They
were like the town that Old Tom built – if Zlin had a Community House, so
did East Tilbury, and Eindhoven, and Calcutta. I've seem them and many
others. A stranger finding himself in a Bata community anywhere in the world
would not be lost for a moment.
The best account of life in a Bata community is in Vikram Seths' novel A
Suitable Boy. Seth – himself a Bata child – captures every nuance of the
Bata experience in India with humour and subtlety. But it was instantly
recognisable to me, because the Bata experience was such a particular one,
which rarely varied whatever country it was in.
Understandably though, the inhabitants of south east Essex found it all
rather strange and definitely foreign. But it did bring jobs to an area
pretty short of them, Tilbury docks apart.
In 1939, my Father was sent from Zlin to take over the Bata enterprise.
He was just 30, an accountant by training and a young man spotted by Old Tom
as a man of promise. Old Tom knew his people and he believed in looking
after their welfare, whether they wanted it or not. He could arrive at many
parts of the factory taking people unawares. His office was mounted in a
lift; he simply moved from floor to floor – both vertically and laterally –
as the whim took him or as the need occurred. The Founder believed time
should not be wasted, and it was well known that the lavatories were places
where the idle or ne'er-do-wells hung around. The lavatory stalls were
designed to be only just wider than an average shoulder width. Basic needs
could be answered; a pause for though was virtually impossible.
Before any reasonable senior employee got married, they had to satisfy
The Founder that they were in a position to maintain a family. So my Father
duly had to report to Tom Bata, handed over his savings account book so that
he could see for himself that the would be husband was financially prudent.
As my Mother was a sales assistant in the Zlin shop, and came from a good
family, the marriage was approved at the highest company levels.
So at the age of 30, in early 1939, my Father found himself in England.
The rest of the family joined him in June 1939, after some alarms and
excursions with the Home Office and visas.
The Second World War saved the company, British Bata as it was known. The
previous Managing Director had fled to the United States, taking most of the
company's ready cash with him. By the start of the war in September 1939,
the cash flow problems at East Tilbury were so acute, that my Father and his
managerial colleagues had to drive around the nearest shops in East London
on Fridays, emptying the tills to pay the factory workers on Saturday
With the war came government contracts – for army boots, rubber boots,
gym shoes, all kinds of heavy duty protective footwear. Where better than
British Bata's mass production lines to produce them in quantity. The
company has assured demand from the government and emerged from the war in a
robust financial position.
In the meantime, Bata Zlin was confiscated by the Nazi authorities and
was engaged in identical lines of production for the German armed forces. A
decade later, Bata Zlin, then under communist rule, became a key footwear
producer for the Socialist Bloc.
With my Father's appointment at East Tilbury in 1939 came a group – 30 or
40 if memory serves –of senior Czech managers. After all, who else could
train the untrained local English work force in this radical way of making
shoes? This was quite a risk. Some of the managers spoke little English –
most of the families none at all (many spoke broken English to their dying
days). Emergency language classes were started. Local customs explained and
Of all the stories that the Czechs told against themselves about their
struggle with English, a favourite one went like this: 'A new Czech arrives
at Harwich from the ferry from the Hook of Holland on his way to join
British Bata. When he is greeted at Liverpool Street Station, a friend asks
him how his journey was? 'Terrible' says the newcomer, 'I had to stand all
the way from Har-Wich.' 'Why?' asks his friend. 'Well there were all these
empty carriages marked 'smoking' but as I didn't have my dinner jacket with
me, I couldn't go in.' '
There were pressing issues to address about language beyond just
mastering it. What language did you speak at home? Our own family stopped
talking Czech as the home language over the years, partly, so I was told,
because I told my parents that I did not want to be embarrassed by being
spoken to in Czech in front of my English friends. In some respects, I now
regret being brought up in a monoglot home but it undoubtedly made life
easier during the school years.
A few of the Czechs were Sudeten Czechs, for whom German was their home
language. Early in the war, one family was overheard speaking German by
their English neighbours. Assuming they might be spies, the neighbours
informed the police and the family was ordered to move west of London to
Sunbury-on-Thames where presumably they could not set up a fifth column.
There was a handful of Poles in the community, though I never asked why.
On the whole, the Czechs patronised them. They made fun of their language –
a bastard form of Czech, so it was maintained – and they were accused of
beating their wives. The fact remains, though that when it came to dancing
partners at the various factory functions, my Mother dances most often with
Given the location of the Factory, at a key point on the Thames estuary,
it was always aid to be a landmark for German bombers navigating their way
to blitz London or Coventry. Fortunately, the Factory was too small a plan
by itself to be worthy of direct attack, but its strategic position sparks
off a nagging and unresolved memory of my own.
It is a very clear one, of getting up in the middle of the night in the
summer of 1940, looking from my bedroom window in our house in Coronation
Avenue over to the Bata Hotel. The rear of the hotel looked directly out to
sea. What I think I saw, and the image has never gone away, was one or more
bright circular lights blinking semaphore messages out to – who knows whom?
A lurking U Boat? I never asked my parents questions about it at the time –
it was too puzzling for a child to understand. I forgot to ask them before
they died. My brother can neither confirm nor deny it because he was by them
away at boarding school.
There are only two possible explanations – first, that the Bata Hotel was
a nest of German spies; unlikely. Second, that I invested a genuinely
mysterious sight with a child's heightened imagining; probable, but it does
not dispose of those oddly vivid memories altogether.
And this brings me back to the real title of my lecture; the way this
strange, almost colonial invasion of Czechs was seen by the local people.
After all Britain was the workshop of the world! What did a bunch of Czechs
have to tell the English about making anything, even shoes?
For the Bata Czechs were strange. They spoke funnily, of course, and
believe me, a lot of them did. They ate funny food; veal escalopes and
sauerkraut; beef in sour cream; roast duck, red cabbage and dumplings; and
the national dish of savoury or sweet dumplings. Instead of English cup
cakes of dried up sponge cakes, slices of plum cake covered with sweet
cheese, or nut flavoured biscuits. When the factory hooter blew at 12.30
most Czechs, including my Father, went home for lunch.
If you went into one of their houses, then the contrast with an English
house of the time would have been striking. Heavy patterned lace curtains of
course; heavy, deep hand cut glass vases, ash trays, dishes and bowls. And
the furniture. Almost every Czech home on the Bata estate that I went into
had a dark walnut veneered, unit side board, with cupboards, drawers, drop
down desk tops, and glass fronted display cabinets for vases and trinkets.
This was what Czech homes were filled within the 1920s and 1930s.
Czechoslovakia was the home of the Thonet factory making bentwood furniture
that is regarded as a style icon today. Chrome steel and leather chairs were
standard company and home kit. No wonder the English though they were
strange. I have even come across them in sales of second hand modern antique
Were the English hostile to the Czechs? I never heard any suggestion to
that effect. So why the 'bloody foreigners?' Strange as it sounds to today's
ears, hyper sensitive to any possibility of affront, my mother always
insisted that the phrase was purely friendly, almost affectionate, a
description, not a judgement, certainly not a rejection of people who ought
not to be there. For, of course, it certainly helped that Bata was a good
Looked at from today's harsh, market driven methods, the Bata enterprise
was incredibly paternalistic. Nobody acts like that today, building model
estates, looking after workers for a lifetime of service. The Bata estate
contained a Bata school, Bata technical college, Bata hotel and restaurant,
Bata cinema, Bata swimming pool, tennis courts, Bata farm, butcher, grocer,
Bata shoe shop, doctor and a Bata garage. And of course, the Bata sports
field. The sense of benevolent paternalism was best expressed during the
Annual Sports Day. This film- one of many – is taken from the early 1950s
and I think it carries some interesting messages.
The observations I draw are as follows. First, that you could not imagine
an average plant of 3,000 people today producing so many people capable of
running, jumping or tugging or willing to do so; we were much fitter then.
Second, comparatively soon after the war ended, and with some elements of
food rationing still in place, people were both fitter and slimmer. Third,
everyone was far more conventionally dressed; jackets, slacks and proper
shoes; a lot of hats too. Leisure wear was not even a gleam in a designer's
eye. Fourth, there was big turn out; this was a major item in people's
calendars. Next, the Sports Day was a competition among the different
factory departments – engineering, leather footwear and so on. It built team
work and a sense of solidarity among staff within the factory context.
Finally, this was an event when the Chairman, Directors and all senior
managers and their wives attended. Absence was not an option.
So while it was a family day out for the company and its staff, that day
was a key part of the way the company practised enlightened self interest.
As Robert Owen discovered in New Lanark, a work force that is well looked
after works better than one that is exploited. Internal competition even at
Sports Day provided innocent fun for the family, but it also strengthened
team identity within the factory, and enhanced business performance too.
Nowhere was this clearer than over the Christmas period, where the entire
factory was galvanised into fresh efforts during the Christmas Quality
Competition. For six weeks, if I remember rightly, the respective
departments in leather, rubber and engineering factories competed against
one another in volume of production and quality control. Each week, the
'Bata Record' carried the league tables of performance, showing which
departments were pulling their weights and which were lagging behind. I read
the weekly league tables avidly as a schoolboy, since the 'Bata Record' was
sent to us weekly at school.
At the end of it all, in the days preceding Christmas, each factory had
its separate dinner and dance at which members of the winning workshops were
given cash prizes. All the winners were then feted in a general Winning
Workshops Dinner, which also doubled as the Annual Staff Dinner.
Everybody regarded both the objective setting, the performance
measurement, the league tables and the bonuses as pat of the Bata system. It
was tough; it was paternalistic. And it certainly assumed that a good deal
of private life was enmeshed into company life.
This undoubtedly happened at the highest levels of the Bata Company.
Being Czechs, our family celebrated the main feast of Christmas on December
24, Christmas Eve, usually half a dozen family friends were invited to join
in the festivities and one of the regulars was the retail sales manager and
his wife. At around 9.30 on Christmas Eve, when we were well into the turkey
– we did not keep the Czech tradition of eating carp or goose – the phone
would ring and the retail manager went to take it. After a couple of minutes
listening and taking notes, he would return to the table and announce the
retail sales figures for the Christmas fortnight. If targets had been
beaten, there were thanks all round. If missed, then there was relief that
at least they were not worse given the circumstances.
Even as a young boy, the whole ritual struck me as oddly, even
uncomfortably, confused, pagan even. Was the high point of the evening the
birth of Christ or the achievement of record retail sales? It was
undoubtedly both, and this confusion at least reminded me that without
record retail sales, what would have paid for the turkey?
Christmas held another Company ritual. Senior managers and their wives
met in the Company Hospitality Flat in the Bata Hotel and Christmas presents
were handed out to each of them. At the end, they gave my parents a
Christmas present. We are not talking handkerchiefs here. Hostess trolleys
more like, even a Radiogram on one occasion. Again, this struck me as a
child as an odd event. Above all, I did not know who paid for these
presents? Were they a kind of bonus gift from the company? Did my father pay
for them out of his own pocket? Did the managers have a whip round for the
present they gave in return? I never asked. I am not suggesting for a moment
any impropriety – the Bata organisation was beyond reproach in its corporate
behaviour – but it remained unresolved in my adolescent mind.
The all-embracing, to some, the almost suffocating embrace of Bata
paternalism was not to everyone's taste. They were not called Batamen for
nothing. Rebels were few and far between. On one Bata training course – all
of them had Soviet titles such as 'ProdCon' – my uncle suggested with his
tongue firmly in his cheek, that perhaps the course could start an hour
early, so that they could begin early morning PT at 6.30. fortunately
sarcasm was not part of the Bata management vocabulary. The offer was
In that respect, the Bata Organisation was a product of its times, though
perhaps of a more thoroughgoing nature than of its contemporaries. Many of
its practices – such as objective setting, and management by performance and
pay by results – still sound radical today. In fact it was a very forward
looking organisation. Fifty years ago, it had a brand image and a brand
slogan: 'our customer our master'. It had a mission statement: 'our service
to the communities where we live and work is to produce good shoes and sell
them at the lowest possible price. To make shoes available to everyone and
in doing so, be a partner with the rest of the people who are trying so hard
to build up their communities'. There is something rather touching about the
evident of sincerity of the ideals in the mission statement, as well as the
slight feeling that the gaucheness of the language hints at the company's
Yet there was nothing sentimental about the Company's management style.
As a child and young boy, I took it all for granted – that was what happened
at the factory. It was only when I went to the BBC World Service in 1986
that I began to understand more about its character. When my deputy returned
from a intensive cabinet office management course, I asked him what above
all he had learned from it? 'MBWA' he replied. When I asked what this deep
truth was, he replied: 'Management By Walking Around'. But the Bata
organisation did that the whole time!
Certainly my Fathers spent a day a week walking the factory. He must have
known the names of between a third and half of the 3,00 work force. And also
had a legendary ability to open the one box of shoes waiting to be
despatched which had one black and one brown shoe in it. The scales of
rumpus that followed the discovery of such an error in quality control
depended on the scale of the error. But the management response was
described in the all too familiar phrase 'playing hell'; mistakes were not
treated kindly in the Bata organisation.
The previous managing director of the company was notorious for the way
he played hell. When he paid one of his regular visit to what was called the
Sample Room – where current and future shoes were displayed with all the
costing and out put figures attached to each style – managers awaiting his
arrival placed themselves close to a convenient table. They knew that the
MD's arrival in the Sample Room was rapidly followed by a volley of shoes
thrown in all directions and they could duck beneath a table in self
protection. This was, perhaps, 'Management by Throwing Around.'
A key meeting was the Friday Luncheon Conference. How anyone managed to
eat their lunch always amazed me. For at that occasion, all production
targets and sales figures were reviewed, and anyone who had missed a target
or exceeded a cost had to answer for them before their peers. And if the
miss was a bad one, then hell was duly played. I lost count f the times that
my Father returned from work on a Friday evening and reported that he had
played hell over some issue. It did nothing for his digestion either.
And just in case senior managers did not get the point about personal
responsibility for performance, a portion of their salary was withheld so
that if there was a shortage in their area – not just an underperformance –
it would be deducted from their pay.
I think you would call it a very robust style of management today. People
stated their views bluntly in both direction. On one occasion when my father
had been playing hell about some particular management failure, a manager
observed Czech: 'Pane Tusa, riba smrdy od hlavu'. In English: 'Mr Tusa, a
fish stinks from the head'. He received a basilisk glare.
Was such a management style effective? I think it was. If so, then the
underlying paternalism and genuine concern for people's interests must take
a good deal of the credit. In some respects, it was an odd mix, the stick
and carrot, the hard and the soft, the incentive and the penalty. It was a
mix of its time but not wrong because of that.
A sense of proportion is needed at this point, in case I over emphasise –
even in my own mind – the rambunctious aspects of the Bata school of
management. It contained a deep sense of community, which itself was made up
of two element. The first was a strong sense of being part of the south east
Essex, to which the company contributed thousands of jobs. Bata also sub
contracted textile footwear manufacturing to a Southend form called Lea
Bridge Industries on the Arterial Road at Leigh-on-Sea. This was the home of
Airborne Industries who made parachutes and furniture with the engaging
slogan of 'Be Chairborne by Airborne'.
In most respects, Lea Bridge Industries was a very odd partner for
British Bata. The owner, George Ingram, kept an amused eye on the very
un-English habits of British Bata. He found it strange and very funny. He
was also my Father's best friend. On one occasion when he visited East
Tilbury, George Ingram noticed that there was a sign outside my Father's
office door saying 'please wipe your shoes', which was quite odd, and you
might have thought, unnecessary. As George went into my father's office, he
observed pleasantly 'John, shouldn't that sign read ' please wipe your
knees?' Only an outsider could have said it, or thought it and got away with
But as the name 'British Bata' suggest – and I have not used it enough
this evening – the company was intensely proud of its Britishness. This was,
in part, a prudent defence against chauvinistic suggestions of foreignness.
But far more, it was a case of these Czech families being intensely proud of
being British – or even if they were not naturalised – of being part of
Britain. The end of the war 1945 gave the Bata community the opportunity to
celebrate the event in a strikingly full hearted way.
This is a film from the end of war celebration in 1945.
Now the party that followed the victory gala at the sports field is
important too. Bata was good at parties. Any effective institution needs to
be good at parties. It is a warning sign if it is not. In their later years,
my parents held a Boxing Day party for the Czech community. Actually, it was
an excuse to sing old songs. At a given signal, the men withdrew to a
neighbouring room and then swung lustily, in perfectly remembered harmony,
into the songs they had sung as young men in the nationalist youth and
sports movement, Sokol.
For many of the Czechs – the bloody foreigners – stayed very Czech to
their dying days. They spoke Czech at home. They ate Czech food. They played
tennis or golf together. They stayed close to other Czechs. I suspect that
while their minds were in England, their hearts had never quite left
There is one further aspect of Bata East Tilbury that must not be
overlooked. As Tilbury was founded in Zlin, so Tilbury set up factories in
West and East Africa and the West Indies. My father spent months travelling
and getting orders for shoes at East Tilbury. In one year he exported 4
million pairs of shoes. His return home was accompanied by a few hundred
feet of black and white wobbly vision film where we moved bewildering from
Kano to Jos to Zario to Lagos. His constant admiring refrain was that he had
seen 'such a progress'. His was a huge optimist, the essential attribute of
a good manager.
Today, the Bata Estate at East Tilbury survives, a physical reminder of
the brave days of benign vision in the 1920s when decent people dreamed
dreams of ideal communities in modern architecture, embodying a community of
responsibility, discipline, self respect, hard work and achievement. It
represents the Bauhaus school of architecture oddly intruding into the
historic, hamlets of Viking settlement – Fobbing, Mucking, Corringham. If
John Prescott had his way, it could yet form the twentieth-century core of a
twenty-first century Thames New Town. If so, I hope that it is incorporated
with a proper sense of history, the values, and the aesthetic that it once
The Bata Estate on the Essex marshes is an episode in Essex history; a
big episode in Essex's industrial story. It deserves recording on that
© University of Essex 2003