In the 1930s, the Czech shoe giant built a model town for its workers, who bought milk in the company supermarket, eggs at the company farm, and kept their gardens tidy – or else. Has its spirit survived?
In the late 1930s, a family called the Vaclaviks left the Czech town of Zlín, travelled to Africa, then moved to a house in Essex. At the time, they had no idea how distinctive their new place was, or would become. They were just happy to live there. Golf-mad Alois Vaclavik was particularly taken with the garden, where he would practise his putting, while his wife Jarmila made Czech cakes in the kitchen.
Alois Vaclavik was an employee of the Czech shoe giant Bata and the house was part of the estate – actually more of a town – that the company built in East Tilbury in the 1930s. His cuboid-shaped home and the other houses around it still feel both self-contained and spacious, cosy and civilising – a bridge between the toil of the worker and the intellectual idealism of the age in which they were built.
As an entrepreneur, Tomáš Baťa mimicked Henry Ford’s conveyor-belt system in his shoe factories, but allied it with a utopian vision of community living. Though Baťa died in a plane crash in Switzerland just months after buying the land in Essex, he had left explicit instructions as to how the project should unfold.
Construction began in 1932. As well as the chequerboard of workers’ houses, there was a Bata supermarket, a Bata shoe shop and a Bata farm that supplied bacon, eggs and milk for guests’ breakfasts at the Bata hotel. There were tennis and netball courts, a swimming pool and full-size football pitches provided for workers’ leisure (West Ham trained here and played an annual charity match against Bata’s team, which Bata once won, according to local lore). Scooters and motorbikes lined up outside the espresso bar, which opened in 1963 complete with a coffee machine and jukebox. […]