Posts Tagged ‘EK Cole’

The opportunity was taken between 1938-39 (while the EKCO works along Priory Crescent, Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, were being enlarged), to excavate the lamp factory, and rebuild it, incorporating a number of bomb and gas-proof air raid shelters. The build standard was dictated by the need to have a high security shelter capable of withstanding an all but direct hit, and which would safeguard the radar and the key design personnel, the engineering personnel and the senior managers and directors of the company.

EKCO Factory Southend

The biggest difference in their construction to that of ‘normal’ underground shelters was the technique of using two-metre (6ft 6in) inside diameter concrete pipes, the same as those used for large underground waterworks. This meant that it would have been a fairly quick process of dropping each of these pipe sections into the trenches as soon as they were dug.

Concrete steps led down to the shelters, which had heavy steel gauge steel blast and gas proof doors at each end and in the centre to protect the people inside. It was divided into three sections (called galleries), and each gallery was protected from blast damage in the adjacent gallery by an ‘anti-blast’ wall as well as the blast doors.

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Each gallery has two ‘Elsan’-type chemical toilets (the same type that was used on the Lancaster bomber), and a clean water supply, and off the central gallery was a separate power room, which was equipped with a diesel engine that drove both a dynamo and an air pump. Air was supplied through the shelter via outlet pipes which had automatic non-return valves in the event of gas contamination.


The shelter had its own power distribution panel where the lighting power could be switched over to an emergency DC power supply from the diesel generator should there be a mains failure or damage caused by enemy action. Behind the power room was a small extension leading to an escape hatch, which in the war years would have indeed have come up in the sports field adjacent to the factory, although with the post-war extension of the roadway this was now in the western roadway.

There was a cleansing station at each entrance to the shelter, where people who had been contaminated with gas would have been treated and washed down prior to going into the shelter. There was also a fully equipped first aid room at the base of north end entrance.

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Once locked in the tunnels during an air raid, there was no way for the people inside to know when it was over, and so fitted above each exit door was an illuminated sign that warned to ‘Stay in shelter until All Clear is sounded,’ and had a red and green mica panel which lit up showing the status. This was backed up by a bell system, all of which was operated from above ground.

Two further underground shelters were constructed around the same time, and these provided more basic facilities for the production line workers.

In March 2008, the demolition of the EKCO complex began – an early casualty of the changes in law on tax on empty buildings. The site was fenced off and the Kent-based company Downright Demolition Ltd began a nine-month contract to raze the buildings to the ground, and it was while this was going on in May that I arranged through their head office for the late Chris Poole and myself to have free access to the Air Raid shelters some 20-25 feet underground.

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We met the works foreman at the site entrance, who was happy to help, but insisted that we wore hard boots, hi-visibility vests and hard hats (which we had taken with us in readiness anyway), and his other provision was that we kept clear of the buildings actually being demolished. All being agreed, this was the start of what turned out to be a five-month stint of exploration and recording, by notes, photographs and video footage (often on a daily basis), the end of a landmark of Southend’s history.

On our second visit, we were joined by John Anderson, an IT technician who worked for ‘Ecomold,’ and we continued taking photos and cataloguing what we found in the great network of tunnels. Following that visit, Chris invited the curator of Southend Museum to come along, and during the weeks that followed, a team from the Archaeological Department from Braintree arrived to professionally survey and make video recordings the tunnels.

The shelters were subsequently cleared of all furnishings  and put into storage for their future display in the new Southend Museum planned on the seafront at Southend. The only objects they could not remove because of their sheer weight and size, were the air-tight doors, but I understand that they made a fibreglass cast of one. When the demolition and levelling of the site was close to completion, the tunnel entrances were ‘sealed’ with rubble so no-one could gain access to them. It is most likely that the tunnels will never be seen by anyone again.

A real hard case

The ‘safe’ on the site, a steel mesh enforced concrete structure (where in most recent times the blank credit cards were stored) presented the demolition crews their biggest problem – it refused to break. Four one-ton Kango-heads had been broken trying to get into it, and so it was decided to leave this until last; it was too time consuming, and would take a cutting crew or explosives to open it.

The motor giant Ford put in a bid for the foam moulding plant, which was the last remaining operational unit on the site. The method that was used for the production of car bumpers was changing, and production would be continued in Europe – the processes used for foam injection moulding in the UK was to be made illegal by 2010, and the company wanted to secure the licenced production there right up to the last minute. However, the bid was turned down by the site developers.

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What remained on the production site were the blue Staffordshire bricks that made up much of the design element of the hexagonal patterned slabbing between the EKCO main office building and the pavement of Priory Crescent.

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By the end of 2008, the sole remaining building  related to the company was the EKCO Social and Sports Club (ESSC), which still occupies the original clubhouse that was donated by Eric Cole at the time of the company’s Silver Jubilee in 1952. The clubhouse and sports ground were assigned to the ESSC in ‘perpetuity’, and while few in numbers, ex-employees can still be found there discussing times gone by. This is particularly true for the EKCO plastics tool room veterans who still endeavour to meet monthly.

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