Bata shoes was founded by Tomas Bata (1876-1932) in 1894 in Zlin in what was then Moravia- now Czech Republic. There was a long family history of shoemaking enduring 8 generations, or 300 years. By the 1920s and 30s Zlin had become a modernist factory town, a state of the art “workers utopia” with housing as well as factories. Bata believed that a happy workforce leads to higher productivity. His vision was to create low-cost footwear for the general public. “Everyone has the right to an affordable pair of shoes on their feet”.
British Garden Cities such as Letchworth influenced the grid layout of the town, with its open feel, but the architecture was more in the Bauhaus style, Modernist and Functionalist. It was designed by some of the best architects who had worked with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright and predated the renowned Isokon flats and Lubetkin’s Highpoint in London. The 16 storey headquarters 21 Building was then the tallest building in Europe (allegedly!) The Bata shoe store in Prague which dates from the 1920s is described as iconic and is still there.
Tomas Bata visited the US and in 1904 worked on an assembly line there. He visited again in the interwar years. His trips to the U.S. and Ford’s factories inspired him to establish assembly line methods of production in Zlin and worldwide. Factories and Bata towns were established in the US, Canada, India, France, the Netherlands, Brazil etc. However the business was decentralised and allowed for design appropriate to local demand. By the early 30s Bata and Czechoslovakia were the world’s leading footwear exporters. On Tomas’s death in 1932 his half-brother Jan and later his son Thomas took over the now worldwide Bata Shoe Organization. Jan had his office in the HQ 21 building in a giant elevator so he could monitor the whole operation without leaving his desk! The son Thomas is credited with starting the idea of 99 pricing (eg £19.99)… By the start of World War II Zlin was a town of 45,000 inhabitants.
In the 1930’s the threat from Hitler was growing in Czechoslovakia. Bata had already established factories in many parts of the globe and when a local clergyman sent a plea to Bata to come and establish a factory at Tilbury to provide work for local people, badly hit by the Depression, Tomas Bata saw the opportunity for some of his Czech workers to come to Britain. The site was attractive – close to sea ports and London and the rural site offered a better quality of life. Tomas Bata was killed in a plane crash in July 1932, but the site had been purchased and the project continued according to instructions left by him. In 1933 the first “Bata Houses” were built for the workers at Tilbury.
The cubic, modernist house or “Boxes for shoe people,” all straight lines, right angles and boxy shapes, were quite unlike the red-brick houses of the London suburbs and took people a while to get used to. The first houses were built on an open plan, but later, bowing to local taste, included a “best front room”. All had bathrooms and electricity, not always to be taken for granted in that area. The houses were generally much appreciated. There was a hostel for single people.
In 1939 Jan Tusa (father of John Tusa of the BBC World Service) was sent from Zlin. He was a 30 year old accountant and soon he was to take over at Tilbury. Tusa’s family, including John who was born in Zlin, soon followed him over.
Second World War contracts helped British Bata to thrive, and 30-40 Czech managers were sent over to train the local English workforce, though the language barrier was sometimes a problem. During the war when many of the men were called up the women took over their jobs. At least 81 employees were killed. After the war Bata in E. Europe, which had been taken over to produce footwear for the Nazi regime, was nationalised by the communists. Bata HQ moved to Toronto, Canada.
The style of management was “very robust” as John Tusa has described it, but effective. Competition between departments was required – weekly league tables were published in the Bata Record, and there was a Christmas quality competition. The company’s modern methods included objective setting, management by performance, brand image and a mission statement. Jan Tusa as MD spent a day a week walking round the factory. Mistakes were not treated kindly. The MD’s response was described as “playing hell”!
Life at Bataville for the workers was reportedly a cross between a holiday camp and a prison camp! The town was designed to meet all their social needs. There was a theatre, sports facilities (West Ham football club trained on the football field and played the Bataville team once a year!), a hotel, a cinema, a restaurant, grocery and butcher’s shops, a post office and the town’s own newspaper, the Bata Record. In 1963 an Espresso Bar with a coffee machine and a jukebox was added and some well-known pop groups visited. Tom Jones played in the hotel ballroom. A company farm supplied milk, eggs etc and workers were encouraged to volunteer there in their spare time. There were regular dances, parties, concerts and sports days which everyone was expected to attend. Teamwork and a sense of solidarity were encouraged. Czech music, songs and country dances were much in evidence. Marching music was played over loud speakers as the workers entered the factory. Gardens must be kept tidy or disciplinary action would be taken. No bad behaviour was tolerated but was not usually a problem as the residents took pride in the company and their town. However to some residents the all-embracing company town was stifling. And if you lost your job you lost your house. At its peak there were 3000 workers at East Tilbury.
So what happened to Bataville? In 1970s conditions for trade changed and manufacturing began to be shifted abroad to places where footwear could be produced more cheaply, such as Malaysia and India. No shoemaking takes place at Zlin either now. Downsizing took place at East Tilbury in the 80s, and closure finally came in 2005. The disadvantages of the “company town” now became evident as unemployment hit and buildings fell into disuse.
In 1993 the unique quality of the town of Bataville was recognised and it was made a Conservation Area, including a Grade II listed factory building. However the leases of the buildings had been sold off and as people died or moved away the houses came into private hands. Facilities such as the swimming pool closed or changed use. The listed factory building is now owned and used by a storage company. The library became the Bata Heritage Centre, unfortunately burned down by vandals earlier this year so I was not able to visit. (Hopefully to be restored).
Under the Thames Gateway plan (2006) the whole area is earmarked for mass regeneration. Architects Allies and Morrison and the private company Thamesgate have plans to turn East Tilbury and neighbouring Linton into “a sustainable community-based town re-founded on local needs” with 7000 new houses and 5000 new jobs by 2021. We wait and see.