Making and meaning
News that Diageo is to open a microbrewery in Covent Garden next year as part of a food and drink-centred attraction called Guinness at Old Brewer’s Yard, plus media coverage of the Bloqs ‘open access factory’ in Tottenham whose machine tools and spaces can be hired cheaply, causes me to reflect once more on the importance of small-scale manufacturing in London. Intimately threaded throughout the capital, this has always generated innovation even if some trades’ presence and the buildings put up for them are already slipping from memory.
In 1911 Kodak built its European headquarters and flagship retail store on Kingsway. Highly advanced, with a steel frame, lifts, central heating and electric lighting, it housed open-plan office floorplates and a staff restaurant. An ancillary laboratory, photographic, dark and printing rooms and warehouse supported the sales and marketing of cameras which was designed to be as easy and seamless as the firm’s winning ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ advertising slogan promised. Less genteel but equally impressive as co-located facilities were the great newspaper production bases in and around Fleet Street that combined writing, designing and printing in a single building. Between the wars and after the last one, powerful architectural statements – Moderne at the Daily Telegraph and Daily Express, the International Style at the Daily Mirror – sat atop vast basements containing engineering as dramatic as that of a ship yard where workers forged printing plates from molten metal and tamed massive presses spitting out hundreds of copies a minute.
Food was one of the biggest contributors to this area, with household names fully present within London for many years due mainly to limitations in refrigeration technology. From the late nineteenth century Crosse & Blackwell produced pickles, jams and sauces in a factory in Soho Square, connected to other buildings fronting the north western stretch of Charing Cross Road. The firm pioneered the endorsement of ‘celebrity chefs’ for their brands and brought international tastes like chutney, curry powder and piccalilli to Britain. J. Lyons & Co. Ltd fed Londoners at home and when eating out through their baked product lines, Corner Houses and tea shops; a factory in Hammersmith, continually expanded over decades, made the tea, cakes and ice cream sold to both markets and grew so large that the company eventually employed the first business computer to run it. Sainsbury created its meat products factory, packing and warehouse building in Southwark in 1933. Of reinforced concrete, it used natural light and had hygienic features like tiled floors. Livestock was butchered, cut and even seasoned on site thanks to a garden-grown herb room, before being cooked and made into pies and sausages (appropriately, given the latter, making the building itself included early use of a concrete pump). Crucial, too, were the links between these manufacturers and their larger sites outside London. Newsprint for Fleet Street was made in Sittingbourne, wallpaper for Sanderson in Perivale (a village in 1930) and records for HMV in Hayes (ditto).
Just before the Sixties started to swing, a new kind workplace appeared in inner London – the multi-storey or ‘flatted’ factory. Explicitly intended to keep male workers close to their homes and to bring women into employment whilst helping them with their domestic responsibilities, the first was erected in Haggerston in 1959 but others followed. I’ve set out the history of Central House in Whitechapel already so a word here about Adler Street in Stepney. Designed by the prestigious and highly-regarded architects Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall, a five-storey reinforced concrete block housed fifteen units of 600 to 2,200 square feet for light industry or wholesale showrooms above seven ground-floor shops. Robust and pragmatic, access galleries off two stair and lift landings permitted subdivision to give flexibility and the building was mostly occupied by the rag trade when finished in 1964.
Shoppers, then, were never that distant from the making of what they consumed. Many of the concerns mentioned above remained in operation until the 1970s before closing, yet despite that and the rise of financial and other services London remains a manufacturing city – in 2018, its gross value added from such work was similar to that contributed by all of Wales’ output in the sector. Activity today takes place under Victorian railway arches, on inter-war suburban industrial estates and even in the heart of Mayfair, since tailors must produce at least 60% of their clothes on the premises to take a shop on Savile Row.
With such a rich heritage and a real interest now in craft, repairs, provenance and sustainability, it may be that the true ‘experience’ we desire and will travel to see is the one of watching something physical being created. It feels to me like it’s time to close the loop once more and add makers’ spaces to the new retail spaces being carved out of closed department stores, showing people what it takes to put something together.