1 January 1999

From Zlin to East Tilbury: Starting Again with the Bata Men

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Tomas Bata was a Czech shoe manufacturer, who set out to do for the shoe what Henry Ford did for the motor car. One branch of his international empire, a workers’ community as well as a factory, was established in 1933 at East Tilbury, Essex, on the north bank of the Thames estuary. The British Bata Shoe Company’s factory is now closed but I visited this modernist settlement in 1998 when it was still working. This text is extracted from my book The River: The Thames in Our Time (1999).




‘And this also has been one of the dark places on earth’. Those lines were spoken by Marlowe, the sea-going narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He was imagining the Thames estuary as it appeared to the Roman, advancing in his trireme to land in a swamp, march through unyielding woods, and feel the ‘utter savagery’ of the wilderness around him. You can still sense that remoteness on the shore at Coalhouse Point, even though there is nothing left of the four Romano-British huts of wattle and daub, which archaeologists once found in this vicinity. It has been suggested that the Romans had a ferry in this place, and even that Emperor Claudius crossed the Thames here shortly after the Roman invasion of AD 43. But there is no evidence to support the latter speculation, and it seems most unlikely considering the width of the river, and the fact that Claudius came with elephants as well as the Praetorian Guard.

Yet it has not only been for the Romans that the Thames was a distant northern outpost at the far-flung edge of a disintegrating empire. Even in our century, East Tilbury has been colonised by a tribe of people who called themselves Batamen, and who built their main encampment a couple of miles inland…
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This entry was posted on Friday, January 1st, 1999 at 9:00 am and is filed under Articles General, Czecho-Slovakia, Englishness and British national identity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.