Museum Officer Liam Reah explores the fascinating history of EKCO radio, the famous electronics company that was based in Southend.
EKCO advertisment. Southend Museums Service collection.
The EKCO factory in Southend no longer stands yet the legacy of the EKCO is still fondly engrained in the minds of the local population. In Central Museum, we have updated our permanent EKCO display and we have a large EKCO produced radios and products in our collection. As it is such an important subject to the people of Southend, I’ve decided to research how Eric Kirkham Cole’s company grew from humble beginnings in the shed of his residential home in Westcliff, to becoming one of the largest employers in Southend, with a Company that hired 8,000 workers at its peak.
Bakelite and EKCO’s expansion
Bakelite was introduced to the company in 1930 by a man called Michael Lipman. At this point in time, EKCO had moved to Priory Crescent in 1929, with a factory that held 500 employees. When Bakelite was introduced to them it was seen as a cheap but effective alternative to previous wooden models. Bakelite was the world’s first synthetic plastic and was invented in New York in 1907. In 1924, Time magazine hailed it ‘a material of a thousand uses’, predicting that one day it will be used for everything. The reasons for Bakelite’s usefulness were due to its heat and electricity resistance, as well as its ample availability. EKCO tried to prove Time magazine’s statement, as they brought out a vast variety of domestic and military products since their first purchase of 30,000 Bakelite cabinets in 1929. Huge plastic presses were installed in the EKCO factory in Southend and by 1935 (a mere six years after the introduction of Bakelite), the factory’s workforce grew six times its original size in 1929. According to Essex weekly news, ‘more than 3000 girls’ were employed at the factory. Production and demand grew in the 1930s, with orders from Germany and America and with the large plastic presses brought to Southend; most of the production was conducted there, with the newly adopted assembly line production method to keep up with the demand.
Despite the international economic climate with the Great Depression, the general consensus is that EKCO’s heyday was the decade that preceded the Second World War. The utilization of Bakelite and the assembly line method adopted by EKCO, allowed the company to mass produce radios at a rapid pace. It also allowed them to expand and into other areas of technology including; car radios and Television sets. In 1934, EKCO were able to show off their products to the nation with the annual Radio manufacturer’s exhibition ‘’Radiolympia’’. They brought with them their AD 65 model, and the designs of Serge Chermayeff and Wells Coates impressed all those who attended. The AD 65 model, which is on display at Southend Central Museum, is significant as it represents the growth and success in the 1930s, as well as the ability to create modern designs with a cream and black colouring to them, moving away from the traditional wooden finishes on the cabinets. The success of the company was also increased by the fact that EKCO decided to produce their own radio valves. Despite disgruntled valve manufacturers who wished to work with EKCO, this action allowed EKCO to negotiate the prices of their units for a cheaper price than their rivals. Valve production was short lived after that area of the company was then later sold off to Mullards in 1939; however it still gave them enough time to gain a huge advantage.
Early success in the 1930s allowed EKCO to branch out and start looking into other media technology to produce. In 1934, the company created a branch to help install some of the first ever car radios, which were very unpopular at the time, due to the challenge people faced in trying to install them. EKCO saw an opportunity as a lot of radio shops did not have garage facilities to help with the installation of these radios and so offered such services to car uses as they bought the new units. The sets which they installed eventually became the standard fit for Rolls Royce, who gave the company a lot of business as well as access to Rolls Royce dealerships and their clients. Not only did this increase their client base, but also gave them international renown from one of the world’s most popular car companies.
In 1936, EKCO also decided to try their hand in Television sets, the same year the BBC had their first public broadcast. The first television set produced with EKCO’s involvement was the ‘ES 104’. The ‘ES 104’ stood for EKCO-Scophony, as the two companies agreed a none-exclusive license for the manufacture, sale and distribution of these Television sets. The set itself had a large awkward projector screen, so was not appropriate for domestic use. Instead it was marketed towards clubs and other public venues. In 1937 EKCO designed a television set independent of Scophony. The TC101 was introduced and it cost consumers £45-5 shillings, or if you wanted to include the fitted radio set, £84. Sadly these sets did not sell well as Television was still relatively new, with broadcasts only happening in London at this time.
The 1930s were clearly a time of growth and innovation for the company, as they opened themselves up to new types of technological advances in media. EKCO gained much renown for their innovation and their efficiency to produce top quality appliances. This reputation allowed EKCO to go into the war with optimism, as the war presented fewer hindrances and more opportunities…
To find out more information about the story of EKCO, the in depth book ‘EKCO Sounds’ by Chris Poole and Peter C. Brown is available for purchase at Southend Museum Branches.