Slough Trading Estate- The Prototypical Industrial Estate

At the mention of Slough Trading Estate, any Briton with a TV will probably start to hum Handbags and Gladrags, the theme from The Office. Slough, and in particular its soulless business parks and industrial estates, have been a figure of fun in the British imagination ever since the poet John Betjeman called for its utter (rhyming) destruction in 1937 ("Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough/ It isn't fit for humans now").

Not only was the Slough Trading Estate the first such facility in Slough, it has a good claim to being the first industrial estate in the world. It owes its origins to a remarkable act of opportunism which took advantage of the wreckage left after World War I.

Maintaining Mechanised Warfare

World War I was the first mechanised war. Mechanical guns were used en masse by both sides. Trucks, buses and ambulances served the fronts. The tank had to be invented, and it duly rolled out of a design committee onto the blood-puddled muck. Colossal dreadnoughts ploughed the seas, spitting 12-inch shells at each other. Britain faced a huge problem in maintaining its fleet of war vehicles. There were not many mechanics in the country, and they were scattered across it.

The army set up a huge 600 acre site at the edge of Slough. Their idea was that broken down vehicles could be transferred by train and ship from the warzones in France and Belgium and repaired in Slough by a large, dedicated team of sequestered mechanics and engineers. Then, rolled back onto the boat and sent back to the trenches. 1.8 million square feet of workshops and garages were built, and broken-down cars, buses, ambulances, and motorcycles began to arrive by the score. A grand plan, let down by a continued lack of mechanics. Slough Motor Vehicle Depot wasn't quite finished before the war ended in 1918.

Clearing up the Mess

By 1920, 17,000 vehicles were stacked up and the place was known as "The Dump". The military had no need for it or any of the vehicles anymore. After all, another war in Europe was unthinkable: the Allies had won the war to end all wars. So they sold the whole thing to a consortium of local businessmen led by Sir Percival Perry and Sir Noel Mobbs. These guys lucked out.

They used the brand new military facilities to repair and civilianise the wrecks. The sales of refurbished commercial vehicles created a revenue stream for the consortium. Slowly, the site was cleared and the freed space was leased to other businesses, and small factories and workshops grew up.

This town-within-a-town was a huge success: the consortium, known as Slough Trading Estate, invested in infrastructure for the site. As the rain rinsed the rust away, power stations, shops, public houses, banks and more workshops and factories emerged. Excellent rail and road communications with the markets and docks of London, the populous South East, and the rest of the country sustained a thriving, bustling hub of productivity.

The great depression caused mass unemployment across the developed world- but not in Slough. Thanks to their new industrial centre, they were known as the "hardest working town in Britain".

Innovation also flourished in these early days. The Mars Bar was launched in 1932, followed in later years by the Milky Way and Malteasers, made then and now at Slough Trading Estate. Later decades also saw Horlicks, Dulux paints, Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft and Citroen cars all rolling off the site's production lines.

Modern Times

Slough Trading Estate is still up and running. Nowadays, it's down to 486 acres which support 600 buildings and 20,000 jobs. A mix of offices, factories, warehouses, R&D and retail facilities are operated there by Ferrari, Fiat, LG Electronics, O2, and countless small businesses.

The parent company (Slough Estates International) owns many similar sites around Europe and the USA. And the "industrial ecology" model of a dense industrial estate or business park supporting a mix of small businesses and global megacorps is replicated around the world- all due to a decision to pool vehicle repair facilities in time of war.



Sources:

  • Slough Estates, http://www.sloughestates.com/buildings_for_business/our_business/history.asp
  • History of Slough, http://www.bbc.co.uk/berkshire/history/slough.shtml
  • Business in Slough (warning, obnoxious screen-reader), http://www.businessinberkshire.co.uk/businessinslough/news3.html
  • My boss's ramblings a few months ago
  • Corporate Homepage, http://www.sloughte.com/STE/

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