Essex is a maligned county, present in popular mythology as a home for troublesome women – from Matthew Hopkins’ 17th century witches, to the sexually provocative but apparently stupid 1980s Essex Girls, and today’s primped women of The Only Way is Essex. When J. B. Priestley wrote English Journey he was exercised by some troublesome 1930s women: lipsticked, dressed up to the nines to ape Hollywood glamour on light industry wages. These were the women of the third England.

“the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons.”

Priestley, 1984 [1934]: 375

These factory girls were an object of concern and scrutiny, troubling the established categories of class with their outspoken, performed femininity. A new, light, industrial labour force destabilised the established understandings of gender and class. The Bata factory in East Tilbury was staffed, in part, by this kind of woman: making shoes in order to pay for new shoes and handbags and lipsticks. And to keep their families: women’s work is not all about pin money and frivolity, J. B..

There are, or have been, Bata factories all over the world, making shoes for Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, as well as the Czechs. Haresh Khanna, the shoemaker-suitor of Lata Mehra in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy has Bata at the top of his list of preferred employers “I’ve been trying Bata and James Hawley and Praha and Flex and Cooper Allen” (2003: 620). Haresh eventually negotiates his way to taking a supervisor’s position with the efficient Czechs, and stands out from fellow Indian employees by moving into the compound with the ‘Prahamen’ in ‘Prahapore’, pseudonyms for the real Batanagar. In 1932, Bata arrived in East Tilbury, UK (and in the 1940s in Maryport, Cumbria), down at the bottom end of the Essex coast, the dirty part, near where the Thames spews out.

Bata built a new, modern factory, and a new, modern town around it. It brought Czech managers, men, and their families from HQ in Zlin, and recruited local women and men to work the production lines. East European migration isn’t such a new thing. The company wanted a productive workforce, and a productive workforce must be happy. Neat and modern boxes for living in were built, along with leisure facilities – including a swimming pool – a hotel, a bar a grocers and a post office, as in Zlin. Everything you might need, designed for the future.

Bata Factory, East Tilbury
There are echoes of those nineteenth century paternalists, Cadbury, Salt and Lever, and their company towns, Bournville, Saltaire and Port Sunlight. But with a difference that reflects the mid twentieth century’s “second spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2007), where the gambling of the bourgeois entrepreneur gave way to mass production, mass consumption and massive organisation. Management understanding of the benefits of rationality and planning mark the building of the Bata factories and company towns. And what felt like institutional benevolence for those in charge seemed to have a sound footing in science and logic.

The second spirit drew on techniques of scientific management, developed by F W Taylor, and the Gilbreths, amongst others. Workers were measured and assessed to design productivity improvements through rationalising work activity, or replacing human with machine. The production line, with work divided into discrete tasks, is one legacy of this. However, as Eva Illouz argues, rationality was not all-conquering. The new sciences of the emotions, psychology in particular, gave rise to techniques of emotional capitalism. Elton Mayo for example brought the techniques and presumptions of therapy into management. The good manager would listen to his workers, would pay attention to how they felt (Illouz, 2007: 13-15). Bata had vision and ideals. “Friends and fellow workers” said founder Thomas Bata in one of his Mayday speeches…the contemporary equivalent is ‘we’re all in this together’.

So the difference between Saltaire and East Tilbury is not merely in the contrast between brick houses and a Yorkshire stone factory on the one hand, and the square white boxes of East Tilbury’s working and living spaces, but in the understandings of production, work and life that were presumed. Salt’s employees worshipped in the church he built, and it’s not certain whether god or Salt seemed the most powerful. Bata’s employees were freer, to swim in the pool, and to send their children to scout groups. Forward looking international companies in the 1930s managed with science, offering rationalised work and sensible leisure, rather than direct command and control. Scientific management met emotional capitalism. “Work together, live separately” was one of the Bata family slogans, but living in the company town wasn’t such a separation.

East Tilbury Bata was the temporary HQ of the operation during the second world war, and it made boots for soldiers for this time. Production for the domestic market resumed after the war, and generations of Essex girls and boys worked there. Production continued in East Tilbury until 2005, when the factory was closed (Maryport had gone in the 1980s). Now only one of the twenty Bata ‘production units’ are in Europe (8 in Asia-Pacific, 7 in Africa and 4 in Latin America, see www.bata.com. So, like other company towns founded in era of the ‘third England’, the factory building is decaying and some of the houses – still lived in – are starting to bear witness to the long term unemployment or underemployment that can mean a paint job is out of the question. Of Essex’s modernist legacy, these places of work have come off worse than the genteel, expensive houses of Frinton, or the curved splendour of the Labworth Cafe, Canvey Island (Rose, 2012).

Bataville: we are not afraid of the future is an documentary made of an art project by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope around 2004, just as East Tilbury Bata was on its last legs. Former workers from Maryport and East Tilbury, and a group of ‘others’, travelled by coach through Europe to Zlin, the birthplace of Bata (now based in Bermuda…how times change). They stop in the Netherlands Bata, to see how robots replaced people, and then onto ‘Bataville’ to have a look round.

In the Netherlands, some of the passengers were tearful. These machines, “wonderful to watch”, have replaced people, people who had skills, who prided themselves that they could go “right down the whole shoe”, not just stick on the sole. And of course,” you can’t have a conversation with a robot.” So despite the pace of the line, where a shoe would pass you every 6 seconds and you had to do your operation on it, there was something that felt good in the work.

I liked this film. I liked the planning the artists had done to get the groups of strangers to talk to each other by asking each to provide some entertainment for the long coach. Some told stories about their working lives, now over, others played games or got everyone to make something, and some talked about the things they loved. I liked one of the artists talking about her worries that the people they took on the bus were left behind in plans for regeneration of post-industrial areas like East Tilbury.

The world we live in is one where production is subcontracted by branded firms, one where cheap goods are made by low paid workers, and where all kinds of footloose manufacturing industries leave unemployment behind. We see in Bataville the long historical roots of how the local is captured by the global. Bata might still be the company that counts in Zlin, but its experiments in work-life omnipotence in the UK didn’t hold out against individualised globalised capitalism. The ongoing ruination is not beautiful decay, but an emblem of post-industrial Essex, where the only jobs left for lipsticked would-be stars are not those of making something, but those of selling something.

This is a revised version of a talk I gave to introduce a screening of Bata-ville, at Manchester Metropolitan University on 26th January 2012. The event was organised by Morag Rose, on behalf of The LRM and the Manchester Modernist Society, in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University. Thanks to all involved, especially Morag.

References

  1. (2006) Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future A Somewhere project by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, developed by Commissions East.
  2. Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, E. (2007) The New Spirit of Capitalism. Verso, London, trans Gregory Elliot.
  3. Illouz, E. (2007) Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Polity Press, London.
  4. Priestley, J. B. (1984[1934]) English Journey, Penguin Books.
  5. Rose, M (2012) ‘The Modernists’ Guide to Essex’, The Modernist, issue 3.
  6. Seth, V (2003 [1993]) A Suitable Boy. Phoenix Books, London.