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A guest post by LH Member David Whittaker.

Review: London’s Industrial Past By Mark Amies

industrial past coverIt is odd to think now that for much of the twentieth century a Londoner could eat, drink, drive, listen to, watch, play and even fly in something that had been manufactured in, or around London. Truman’s, Watney’s Young’s, Tri-ang, Lesley, Airfix, De Havilland, Ford, Vauxhall, Firestone, Nestles, McVittie, Lucozade, Hoover, Gillette, and Kodak. All in London and for several generations employing thousands of Londoners. As major employers they shaped London. Mostly strung along its new arterial routes such as the Great West Road, contributing to London’s outward growth. They provided us with landmarks, named junctions and signposts on our commutes. So, what happened to them? This is the subject of Mark Amies’ new publication London’s Industrial Past.

In his foreword, Robert Elms identifies the author as an urban archaeologist. Not of ancient shards, but of London’s own recent industrial past. There are some remaining structures, but most importantly, this world is still in the living memories of our parents and grandparents. London has lost so much of its recent past to the inevitable redevelopment; this book records and illustrates some of this. It is a world not so much lost, but “hiding in plain sight, among our constantly changing cityscape”. Elms notes the author “loves a factory”. I always have, and having read the book, I suspect you will too.

The author based the book on a series of twenty-minute slots on Robert Elms’ BBC Radio London show; they provided the inspiration for this book. He hopes that from it we will lead our own investigations, have conversations with those who worked in the factories and most importantly record and share our findings.

The book is arranged thematically, highlighting the diverse manufacturing activities of the London area. We start with one of the oldest, brewing. The vast ten-acre site of Truman’s in brick lane, much of which can still be seen as repurposed buildings. In Wandsworth, Youngs Ram Brewery, now The Ram Quarter redevelopment, but soon to be the home of Sambrook’s Brewery, maintaining the brewing tradition. At Park Royal the massive Guinness brewery by architects Alexander Gibb and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Sadly, demolished in 2006 and with it, the loss of London Guinness.

guinness factory park royal

Guinness Brewery, Park Royal. Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland.

Perhaps the most evocative section is that on toy factories. All that “old stuff in the loft” was probably made here in London. Lines brothers’ Tri-ang’s site in Merton was claimed to be the largest toy factory in the world. So big it had its own railway sidings. During World War Two they not only built Sten submachine guns, but Walter Lines actually improved the design. On a personal note, in 1972 as a local I remember the factory closing. A very sad day.

triang factory

Tri-ang Factory. Brighton Toy Museum.

Although requiring large sites, motor manufacturing was a major London industry. We all know of Fords Dagenham, once almost a town in itself with its own power station. Now reduced to just an engine plant, but still thankfully there.

Ever wondered why Vauxhall cars are called Vauxhall? Well, between 1903 and 1905 they really did build cars in Vauxhall, a rare example pictured below. There is a cool footnote to the London site. When they relocated, Vauxhall Motors went from the site of Falkes Hall to Luton, which happened to be the Manor of Falkes de Breaute of Falkes Hall.


Vauxhall Heritage.

Related to the motor industry was perhaps the star of the Great West Road, the magnificent Firestone factory. Tragically demolished over the August bank holiday weekend forty years ago.


Time for a biscuit? Although Peek Frean and United Biscuits have gone, all-important biscuit baking continues at Mcvitie’s in Harlesden. If the wind is blowing the right way you can smell the wonderful aroma of Hobnobs being baked.

The last item marks a craze and a good example of the transience of manufacturing. Between 1968 and 1975 the Stylophone was made in a small factory at 275 Cricklewood Broadway.

So, is there much left to see? The Great West Road still has the stunning Gillette factory (currently used as a storage facility). If you view it upside-down its former use becomes clear. Perivale still has the Hoover building and the Hartley’s jam chimney still stands in Bermonsdey. There are loads for you to find.

In conclusion, although a fairly slim and mostly illustrated volume, it will provide a useful starting point for your own exploration of London’s industrial past. This is definitely one for my London bookshelf.

I note for those who like similar publications, Amberley Books have an excellent local history range, including 322 relating to London and Middlesex.

London’s Industrial Past (96pp, paperback) by Mark Amies is published by Amberley Books with a cover price of £14.99 but available for less.

Please also see London’s Industrial Heritage (2013) by LH Member Geoff Marshall.

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