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In rural Essex, ruins of a forgotten utopia

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Just half an hour away from London lies a forgotten utopia. Ninety years ago, the quiet Essex countryside bore witness to a grand corporate experiment. East Tilbury, a company town built entirely by the Czech shoemaker Bata to house and provide for its workers, was a self-contained capitalist commune, one of close to a dozen around the world.

Its rise and fall tell the story of industrialization, international trade, and war in Europe in the twentieth century. For the people who live there today, it leaves a simple question: what lessons remain to learn from “Bataville”?

‘It glows with life’

The Bata Shoe Company was founded in August 1894 in Zlín, a town in the present-day Czech Republic. The company’s founder, Tomas Bata, came from a long line of Czech cobblers. Starting with 50 employees working in a rented house on the Zlín main square, the company grew spectacularly, buoyed by the introduction of American manufacturing techniques, which Bata brought to Zlín following a 1905 trip to the United States.

In Lynn, Massachusetts, Bata had observed American techniques of mass production and was impressed with the industriousness and egalitarianism of the American worker. In his memoirs, he approvingly describes rolled-up sleeves on the assembly line as “the coat of arms of the American nobility.”

Bata built a factory in Zlín, modeled on the multi-story plants he’d seen in America. In 1923, Bata was elected mayor of Zlín. Short for space in the Moravian town of perhaps 3,000, Bata began building housing and facilities for his workers. Bata began “a project of transformation of Zlín from a small village into a large industrial town,” says Victor Sanz, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the company.

Zlín expanded tenfold. Rows of new modernist houses were constructed for workers who toiled in skyscraper factories, at the time some of the tallest buildings in Europe. Le Corbusier, the influential 20th-century architect, brimmed with praise for Zlín, which he described as “one of the ardent places of the new world … it glows with life.”

By the early 1930s, Bata had become one of the largest shoemakers in the world. Its factories churned out 168,000 pairs of shoes a day, popular both in the newly created nation of Czechoslovakia and abroad.

Zlín was a company town like few others. Inspired by the Square Deal of New York’s Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, which Bata admired, the Bata Shoe Company provided almost everything necessary to its workers. From housing to education to a fire service, Bata developed an all-encompassing system of welfare capitalism for his workers.

“In Zlín, Bata had created not just a productive system but also a social system,” says Sanz.

Yet trouble loomed. Even though Bata’s cheap shoes were popular even during times of austerity, many countries reacted to the 1929 Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression by imposing trade barriers. These cut off up to 70% of Bata’s exports, according to a 1932 Czechoslovak government report cited by Sanz. In order to circumvent trade tariffs, Bata came up with a novel solution: the company would build mini-Zlíns, while manufacturing its shoes within the countries in which it sold its products.

Worldwide shoe empire

In 1932, Bata took possession of a 600-acre plot of land in England, about a mile from the small settlement of East Tilbury, Essex. Attracted by the location – close to an existing railway line to London, and on the Thames estuary – and high unemployment in the area, it was the ideal plot for Bata’s expansion into the United Kingdom.

Tomas Bata was killed in a plane crash in 1932, but the building of East Tilbury went ahead as planned.

Czechoslovakian planners got to work, building a series of multi-story factories, along with housing and leisure facilities for the workers of British Bata. East Tilbury was just one of around a dozen such towns built around the world, from Batapur in present-day Pakistan, to Bataville in France. Together, they constituted “a worldwide shoe empire,” a true multinational corporation before such entities were commonplace.

The towns Bata planners devised were closely modeled on Zlín, which itself fused two architectural philosophies: 19th-century “garden cities,” and Le Corbusier’s modernism. Both, in different ways, had sought to engineer new ways of living. Garden cities were to be planned suburbs for working classes, surrounded by so-called “green belts,” which would allow inhabitants to escape the grime and overcrowding of the Victorian inner city.

Le Corbusier, meanwhile, foresaw modern living as largely self-contained. Bata similarly intended to provide all its workers’ daily necessities within each Bataville. The company was a “paternalistic figure that protected the workers, and gave them housing,” says Sanz. Not coincidentally, the designer of East Tilbury, Frantisek Gahura, studied under Le Corbusier in Paris.

Today, East Tilbury still reflects both philosophies. A rural town, essentially designed around a single street, East Tilbury bears clear traces of the garden city legacy. The multi-story factories at its heart look onto tilled fields. Poplars and cherry trees line the streets. Despite the town’s explicitly industrial character, it feels airy and rural.

The planners of East Tilbury were also guided by a Corbusian approach that meant providing nearly everything for their workers. They foresaw Bata workers getting up in the morning, slipping on their Bata shoes, leaving their Bata-built home, and dropping off their children at the Bata school before going to work at the Bata factory. When the day was done, employees could stop for a coffee at the Bata espresso bar or pick up groceries at the Bata shop, before socializing with colleagues at a Bata-organized sporting competition. Before bed, they might read about the week’s events in the sycophantic Bata Record.

“You didn’t need to leave,” says Mike Tabard, the chair of the Bata Heritage Centre, dedicated to remembering Bata’s golden age.

Central European transplant

Unlike Le Corbusier, whose designs for mass housing veered toward monumental (his famous Cité Radieuse houses 1,600 people over 12 floors), Bata housing was built to a more human scale. The whitewashed houses that surround the now-abandoned Bata factory at East Tilbury are two stories tall, each with a neatly trimmed front garden.

The architecture of Bata’s East Tilbury doesn’t scream traditional semi-rural England. Its homes are boxy and squat, the black highlights of the 1930s International architectural style a direct import from Zlín, imposed on the Essex countryside in defiance of its surroundings. The first houses built in East Tilbury in the 1930s even used Czechoslovakian electrical wiring, at the time superior to Britain’s, according to Tabard.

The town’s street names largely honor British monarchs – in addition to the other local royal, Tomas Bata – as if overcompensating for the foreignness of the architecture that lines them.

At its peak in the 1950s, Bata employed around 3,000 people in East Tilbury, and provided for their families. Mick Pinion, who became an apprentice engineer for the company when he left school in 1966, recalls the era fondly.

“The Bata ethos was that a happy workforce works better,” he says.

Pinion grew up in East Tilbury in a family of so-called “Batamen,” the nickname given by the company to its employees. “It was brilliant,” he recalls. The town had a swimming pool, one of the only ones for miles around. Open only to Bata employees and their guests, he remembers childhood friends from neighboring villages trying and sometimes succeeding to sneak in for a dip.

Working conditions were good, and the company was respected.

“If you did a Bata apprenticeship, you could basically go and get a job anywhere. And the fact that I lived on the estate and could walk to work, it just made sense,” Pinion says.

Far from the uncertain anonymity of the city, children were allowed to roam in the countryside outside the town, reminded to come home for afternoon tea by the factory sirens marking the end of the working day. In a town of just 400 or so houses, doors were regularly left unlocked, as Rhys Jones, a local, remembers fondly.

“Everyone knew everyone,” says Jones.

Decline

With the advent of deindustrialisation in the UK, it became less and less viable for Bata to manufacture in East Tilbury. From the 1960s, Bata began shifting its manufacturing operations to cheaper Asian countries, progressively selling off parts of the East Tilbury estate and industrial park. By the turn of the millennium, the company had only 200 employees. In 2005, the factory closed for good.

Pinion worked for Bata until the end.

“We saw it coming,” he says.

One of his last tasks was to install the equipment from the plants he’d worked in since leaving school in a factory in Malaysia, where labor costs were about a quarter of what they were in the UK. Soon after, he notes ruefully, the Malaysians were undercut by cheaper Chinese labor.

‘Embedded social control’

As Tabard points out, few in the Tilbury area don’t have a relative who worked for Bata. Most locals remember a golden age of a depressed area uplifted with the company’s good jobs and first-rate facilities.

But there were less benevolent aspects to the Batavilles. Sanz describes a sinister side to the paternalism that saw everything provided by Bata for its workers: all-encompassing corporate rule, intended to dominate rather than liberate its workers.

“Social control is embedded in the [Bata towns],” he says. “Of course, they said it was to protect the kids, but there is also a sense of control.”

In part, Bata building low-rise housing reflected the influence the company wished to exert on its employees. Thomas Bata reportedly believed “the man who has [an apartment] in a building with a garden is more stable, and instead of following politics would rather potter about in the garden or sit out on the lawn, so he doesn’t go to the pub or political meetings.”

“It seems ideal, but there are quite subtle mechanisms [of control] that are there,” says Sanz.

Houses were linked to employment status, and workers could expect to be reprimanded by managers if their front gardens were allowed to become too unruly.

“It had a sense of community, but it also did control the lives of the people who worked there,” says Stephen Metcalfe, the Conservative MP for the area. “[East Tilbury] was a kind of a circular economy, but it didn’t support much individualism.”

Lessons for the future?

Despite speaking warmly about the heritage of the area he represents, Metcalfe isn’t nostalgic for the era of the company town.

“It was of its time,” he says. “You wouldn’t be able to recreate it. There was a period of deference, there was a hierarchy, a structure, and people were willing to conform to that.”

Tabard and Pinion agree: it wouldn’t be possible to recreate the Bata experiment today.

“I’m not sure people would be so keen to work in a tied situation,” says Tabard. “They want more flexibility.”

Yet especially in the tech sector, companies are increasingly seeking to attract highly prized employees with promises of ever-greater company amenities. Free meals, transportation, yoga classes, gym memberships, laundry – these are common perks for engineers and designers at top Silicon Valley firms.

Now, the office-sharing startup WeWork is expanding with WeLive, providing studios and communal areas in the same building as WeWork office space.

“You just roll out of bed, go down the elevator and get to work,” one resident told The Guardian.

Similarly, Facebook is building hundreds of housing units for its employees in its new Willow Park campus in California (The Mercury News).

Metcalfe points out that companies need to be competitive to retain high-skill, in-demand workers. To do so, they’re providing services similar to those provided to Batamen.

Batavilles are history, but they still hold lessons for the future.

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