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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

IN THE GODS' OWN COUNTRY - ISLAM & CHRISTIANITY IN KERALA



Until recently, I had blithely assumed that Islam entered the Indian subcontinent from its northwest fringes – from Afghanistan and elsewhere. In November 2017, I made a trip to Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala during which we were taken to see a mosque, the first to be built on the Indian subcontinent.  Built long before the Mughal invasion, it is in the Kodungallur district on the estuary of the River Periyar, about thirty kilometres north of Ernakulam. I learned that this small area of southwestern India is of historical significance for at least three religions.

Kodungallur, watered by the River Periyar and backwaters, was a globally-important historical economic area, variously known as: ‘Muziris’, ‘Cranganore’, and ‘Shingly’. Until it silted up (many centuries ago), it was one of the ports where much trade (export of: spices, textiles, pearls, gems, and other exotic valuables) occurred between foreigners from the west and the local inhabitants. The silting resulted from the opening-up of a passageway for the River Periyar from the lagoon to the Arabian Sea at Cochin (now ‘Kochi’). This reduced the flow of the river through the backwaters between Cochin and its original mouth near Kodungallur, and caused its consequent clogging up. 

Long before the invasion of the Portuguese in the 15th century (AD), these foreigners included the Greeks, the Romans (who were great consumers of pepper from Kerala), the Arabs, the Jews, the Chinese, and many others. The Romans spent so much on pepper that ancient authors recorded that it led to a great depletion in the empire’s coffers. Once, I visited a museum in Kozhikode (Calicut), which had many examples of foreign coins (Roman and otherwise) that had been found in the area. Extensive finds of ancient foreign coins have also been made in the   Kodungallur area.



After crossing the water in a vehicle ferry from Fort Cochin, we drove along the long, slender Vypin Island through luxuriant, densely populated, countryside towards Kodungallur. The roads in this crowded tropical Garden of Eden were richly ‘decorated’ with flags and posters bearing the hammer and sickle of Communism, and placards showing portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and, sometimes, Stalin and/or Che Guevara. The Communists have been an important and, most say, a constructive political influence in Kerala since the 1950s. 



When we parked in Kodungallur, I spotted a banner with a fine portrait of Stalin opposite the Cheraman Jumma Masjid. This mosque was established during the life of, or very shortly after the death of, the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 AD).

It is said that one night the Hindu ruler of Kodungallur Cheraman Perumal (a member of the Chera dynasty) had a dream in which the full moon was split in two. No one could explain the meaning of this until he met some traders, who had sailed across from Arabia. Their explanation led Cheraman to travel to Mecca, where he met the Prophet Muhammad, and became converted to Islam. He sent word back to Kerala that his people should embrace Islam and follow the teachings of Malik bin Deenar (died 748 AD), whom he dispatched to India. Cheraman, who remained for some years in Arabia, died on his way back to India.

When Malik arrived in Kodungallur, he was permitted to build what is now called the Cheraman Mosque. This was the first ever mosque to be constructed on the Indian subcontinent. Nothing remains of the original building. It was reconstructed in the 11th century, then again in the 14th. In 1504, the mosque was destroyed by the Portuguese when Lopo Soarez de Algabria (c. 1460-1520) attacked Kodungallur (see: “Muslim Architecture of South India”, by M Shokoohy, publ. 2003). Later, it was rebuilt, and in 1974 it was enlarged and surrounded by a modern structure. What the visitor sees from outside is largely unexceptional apart from the tiled roof of the oldest part of the mosque which can be seen above the modern extensions.



Male visitors may enter after washing their feet in a special area close to the mosque. I was shown the inner sanctuary, which is all that remains of the pre-1974 building. A remarkable feature is a large metal lampstand in which oil lamps (‘diyas’) may be held. This lampstand would not look out of place in a Hindu temple. The wooden ‘mimbar’ (pulpit) is elaborately constructed and delicately decorated. Next to it is the ‘mihrab’, a niche in the wall facing in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, with its semi-circular arch. This is a part of the mosque built in the 16th century. There are two graves draped with red and green silk cloths in a small room leading off from the inner sanctuary. These are the graves of Habib bin Malik and his wife Khumarriah. A door beyond the graves leads into a poky room from which women are allowed to view the graves. Although Malik bin Deenar was the first ‘Ghazi’ (leader) of the mosque, he handed it over to his relative Habib after a few years. Malik was buried elsewhere in Kerala (at Kasaragod).



The museum and gardens of the mosque are open to all. The garden has an attractive square tank (rather like a Hindu temple tank), where fishes swim. It is next to a cemetery. I noticed that several trees growing nearby were home to a colony of large bats, who hung from branches upside down and motionlessly.



The museum attached to the mosque contains a lovely model of what the mosque must have looked like before it was modernised. Like some historic mosques that I have seen in Kozhikode, the earlier Cheraman mosque, was similar architecturally to Hindu temples (and other buildings) in Kerala. Other exhibits included photographs and a wooden funeral bier. I was thrilled to stand where Islam made its first concrete foothold in India. This shrine is a site that is more evocative than visually interesting. I was told that the mosque has very few foreign visitors, who are neither Muslim nor Arab, and that I was one of its rare ‘white’ tourists.

From the Cheruman Mosque, it is a short drive to the Thiruvanchikulam Mahadeva Temple (‘Mahadeva’ for short). This Hindu temple, probably first built in the 8th century (AD), is dedicated to Shiva. The earliest recorded reference to it is in some Tamil hymns, which were first recorded in writing in about the 10th century. With its many steep, often gabled, tiled roofs, it is a typical example of Keralan temple architecture. Some buildings within the temple’s compound have several roofs, each one projecting from different levels of the building, producing a pagoda-like effect that is characteristic of many temples and other buildings in Kerala.



The white outer walls of the central building, the inner sanctum, are covered, from ground to roof-level, with dark timber planks arranged to form a huge lattice of rectangles, rather like a huge set of pigeon-holes. At the base of each rectangle, there is a small horizontal metal dish that can be used to hold oil and a taper. When lit, each of these little dishes become small diyas (lamps).

To the rear (east) of the central sanctuary, there is a shelter supported by eight thick circular columns with Doric capitals. Immediately east of this, but within the walls of the compound, there is a tall pagoda-like building whose stone walls are covered with elaborately carved pilasters. This building is above the compound’s eastern doorway.



Under the shelter, we saw a set of weighing scales. These are used to weigh offerings to the temple. For example, a donor would sit on one of the weighing pans, whilst his gift (be it rice or gold) is loaded on the other pan until it weighs the same as its donor. The scales were close to a tall metal lamp stand used for oil lamps. A simple wooden ladder rested against it. This is used to place, and light, diyas out of reach at the top of the tall stand. The base of the stand was sculpted in the form of a tortoise. Set into the floor surrounding the lampstand there were several prostrate women carved in stone, their clasped hands pointing towards the stand. Between them and the inner temple building, there was a ring of seated metal sculpted deities, each with four arms.



Many of the roof gables were decorated with painted sculptures of religious figures. Some of these supported the edge of the tiled roofs of the gables like caryatids. Apart from the buildings already described, the compound contained several smaller buildings housing shrines. Unfortunately, during our visit there was nobody about to unlock any of the buildings including the main temple.

Less than six kilometres southwest of the Temple lies the St Thomas Shrine (in the district of Azhikode) also known as the ‘Marthoma Church’. It stands close to the north bank of the River Periyar about two kilometres from its entry into the sea. It is at, or near, this spot where the apostle St Thomas is supposed to have landed in India in 52 AD, some five to six centuries before Islam reached the same district. I have injected an element of uncertainty because some authorities have proposed that Thomas first set foot in India in various places far away from Kerala. However, many agree that he landed first somewhere near to modern day Kodungallur, and this has been commemorated by the shrine, which was built in its present incarnation in the early 1950s. It replaces an earlier church in old Cranganore, which was destroyed during a battle between the (Roman Catholic!) Portuguese and the Muslims in 1536.



The shrine that faces the lovely tree-lined shores of the River Periyar is a flamboyant construction painted in white. The domed church, which lacks any architectural merit and contains a relic of St Thomas, lies between two sweeping curved colonnades topped with statues. The relic was brought to Kerala from Italy in 1953.  The whole structure, church and colonnades, looks like an elaborate wedding cake or the set for a Bollywood dance routine.

Between the church and the water, there is a tall shiny metal column surmounted by a golden cross with two cross-bars. This high structure resembles those often found in or outside Hindu temples (used for holding diyas). We noticed that these columns, inspired by those associated with Hindu temples, are becoming quite common outside churches in Kerala. Both in mosques and churches that I have visited in India, features ‘borrowed’ from Hinduism can be found within them. Despite the introduction of ‘newer’ religions such as Christianity and Islam, it seems that Indian worshippers do not entirely abandon their ‘Hindu heritage’.



There is a colourful building, the Marthoma Smruthi Tharangam, which is next to the church and behind one of the colonnades. Its imaginative architectural style defies categorization. You might describe it as ‘A Keralan Disneyland meets the Vatican’. The building houses a theatre where ‘digital shows’ describing the life of St Thomas and the story of his relic may be watched.

St Thomas is believed to have been martyred in Chennai. There is a cave, which I have visited, at the top of St Thomas Mount in Chennai, where the saint was speared. It contains a slab of rock in which there are two hand-shaped impressions, which are believed to have been made Thomas’s hands. This cave, like the shrine at Kodungallur, attracts many pilgrims.

When St Thomas landed in Kerala, there were already Jews living there. Shortly after his arrival, following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, many more arrived as refugees. Jewish people have been associated with Kerala for a long time. For how long, the historians disagree. Most agree that Jews on King Solomon’s trading vessels visited the Keralan ports about 900 years before Christ’s birth. These Jewish mariners are believed to have brought exotic items such as peacocks, monkeys, and ivory from India to Solomon’s palace in the Holy Land. It is unlikely that any of Solomon’s people settled in Kerala.

From some centuries before and after the birth of Christ, Cranganore was ruled by the Chera dynasty. The Cheras permitted the settlement of Jewish people in Cranganore. Their descendants lived in India until after independence (in 1947) and the foundation of Israel, where many of India’s Jews migrated (for economic reasons).

The Cheras allotted the Jews a small piece of land, named Anjuvannam, in the Cranganore district, which became a ‘Jewish kingdom’. Its inhabitants collaborated in many fruitful ways with their Chera, and then later, Chola hosts.

Various factors including the silting up of the Periyar as well as the decline of the Chera dynasty and their succession by the rival Cholas, caused many of the local Jewish people to move to Cochin. However, some Jews remained in what remained of Cranganore after it became less important than Cochin. The Jewish ‘kingdom’ of Anjuvannam continued after the fall of the Chera dynasty, which fell in the 12th century. By the time that the Portuguese began establishing themselves in Kerala, the Jewish community in Cochin was much more significant economically than that in Cranganore.

Today, several synagogues still stand in the Kodungallur, the old Cranganore, area. There was a total of twelve in Kerala during the heyday of Jewish presence in the state. We visited two synagogues near Kodungallur. Both have been looked after well, but are no longer used for worship.  The two that we saw are far less-visited than the well-known and undoubtedly beautiful Pardesi Synagogue in bustling Mattancherry, in whose Jew Town the Jewish traders, of which only one remains, have been replaced by mainly Kashmiri Muslim traders, who are, incidentally, excellent salesmen.



The Paravur synagogue was first established in the 12th century AD, and then renovated by David Yakov Castlier in the late 16th, or early 17th century. Its architecture is typically Keralan. The first floor of the front entrance building has a deep veranda beneath a tiled roof supported by four pairs of columns. A covered passageway lined by stout columns leads from the entrance to the synagogue itself. The roof of the corridor is lined with wood.

The synagogue’s interior is simple. The original fittings have been moved to Israel, and have been replaced by replicas. If you were unaware of this, you would believe that you were seeing the originals. The carved wooden ark, or cupboard, in which the Torah scrolls were kept, has been reproduced, but is empty. The centrally located circular ‘bima’ or pulpit is wooden, constructed with turned wood balustrades. As with other synagogues in Kerala, there is an upper bima, which is formed by a semi-circular platform projecting from the first-floor gallery where women worshippers were required to be. The upper bima, a speciality of Keralan synagogues, was used only on special occasions, whereas the lower one was for routine use.



Women worshippers entered their first-floor gallery by way of the covered corridor running above that which connects the entry building to the ground floor of the synagogue. This upper corridor is lined with wooden slats which curve outwards from the floor towards the arched ceiling. In cross-section, this corridor resembles the hull of a boat. The slats sheltered women from the sun, and, also, made them difficult to see from outside.

Descriptive notices and photographs line the walls of the synagogue’s buildings. These provide information about Jewish life as it was in Kerala. From Paravur, it is a short drive (about two kilometres) to the smaller Chendamangalam Synagogue, which is close to the left bank of the Periyar. This synagogue was first built in 1420 AD, rebuilt after a fire in 1614, and renovated several times since. In the grounds in front of the main entrance, there is a small stone memorial to Sara, daughter of Israel, who died in 1269. This might have been brought by the Jews who migrated to Chendamangalam in the 13th century.





The entrance hall of the synagogue leads into the main prayer space through a door surrounded by colourful paintwork. Glass lamps of various designs hang from the colourful wooden ceiling decorated with carved, painted lotus flowers. The centrally located circular wooden bima is similar in design to that at Paravur. As in Paravur, there is an upper bima, which forms part of the gallery reserved for women. The female congregants stood or sat behind wooden lattice-work screen, the ‘meshisah’, hidden from the men during services. A staircase leads from the main entrance to the women’s area behind the screen. Another staircase with carved wooden banisters allowed the clerics to climb up from the main prayer area to the upper bima without having to see the women.



The ark, which was used to contain the Torah scrolls, is made of colourfully painted teak wood.  There are three intricately carved pillars decorated with floral motifs on either side of the cupboard doors. The doors are also covered with painted plant motifs in bas-relief. The luxuriant decorative vegetation continues as decoration on the parts of the ark above the doors. Red, green, and gold are the colours which figure most on this almost baroque piece of furniture.

In the small grounds within the synagogue’s perimeter walls, there are a few gravestones with inscriptions in Hebrew. 



I noticed a carved circular stone, whose perimeter was carved with a ring of leaf-shaped depressions. These were probably filled with oil and tapers, and then lit to be used as diyas. Thus, we find the diya holders characteristically used in Hindu temples not only in temples but also in mosques, churches, and synagogues. The reason for this is likely to have been because this was the normal form of lighting in India of old.

Most of Kerala’s Jewish folk have left for foreign parts. Neighbouring the synagogue in Chendamangalam, there is a newly built house bearing a Jewish name plate. The guardian of the synagogue told us that this was the home of a Keralan Jew who had left for Israel, but had returned to Kerala to live out his retirement.

We returned via the Vypin ferry station to Fort Cochin, where we were staying. On our way we drove along roads decked with Communist (and, also, BJP) banners. Our route took us past peaceful, rustic backwaters with occasional Chinese fishing nets. These backwaters are far more pleasant than those near to Alleppey, which are unpleasantly congested with boats and house-boats used by tourists.



Our brief visit to the Kodungallur district, a centre of global trade many centuries ago, was fascinating. It is an area, where four religions co-exist peacefully, and where two of them are supposed to have entered the Indian subcontinent. While reading about the history of this small corner of Kerala, one thing impressed me. That is, the almost complete lack of certainty about its early history. Like St Thomas, its story is full of doubts. To quote the small guidebook I bought at the Cheraman mosque:

Total absence of reliable historical records make early history of Kerala a bundle of legends.


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Friday, 24 November 2017

EXPLORING INDIA WITH A BABY




It was early in 1996. We never intended taking our nine-month old daughter to visit Hampi in the Indian state of Karnataka to see the ruins of the once great city Vijayanagara, which had in its heyday rivalled Rome in its splendour. We had hoped that her grandparents in Bangalore were going to baby-sit for us, but just before my wife and I were about to depart they felt unable to oblige. So, with little preparation, we boarded the sleeper from Bangalore to Hospet, the nearest town to Hampi. My wife clutched our little one on a narrow, hard, swaying railway bunk bed, desperately trying to prevent her from falling off.

At Hospet, our hosts, officials at a local mining company, greeted us with banners which they had made for us. They drove us to a comfortable hotel, whose rooms lacked air-conditioning and fridges. The ambient temperature never dropped below thirty Celsius, even at night. When our daughter needed a bottle of milk, we prepared it, and had to use, and then dispose, of it in less than 45 minutes because in that heat the artificial milk deteriorated rapidly.

Hospet in 1996 was less sophisticated that it was, say, a decade later. We ate in simple restaurants, often outdoors under shades. Our daughter took a shine to the South Indian food that we were usually served. She took this from our plates and, also, to our horror, off the not too clean floor. Years later, I can report that unlike many of her school friends she has never suffered from allergies. I am sure that her foraging in Hospet is to some extent to be thanked for that.



Occasionally, I felt like eating North Indian food. We found places, which bore the notice “NIDS”, which meant ‘North Indian dishes served”. I should have known better than to order a ‘NID’ in a very provincial South Indian area, but I did, and was usually disappointed by the curious concoctions that appeared on my plate. On one occasion, I ordered a ‘Peshawari naan’, something that I love. What arrived was surreal. It looked like a circular pizza base that had been painted bright green, and it was covered by bits of dried fruit and fresh banana. It was almost, as they say in the USA: ‘close, but no cigar’.

Optimistically, we had taken a folding ‘buggy’ to Hospet. This never got used, as there was hardly a square metre of ground smooth enough to roll it. Luckily, our hosts drove us around the vast archaeological site in a large four-wheel drive. Our daughter, sat happily perched on or other of our laps as we bounced across the rough ground between the various attractions.

In 1996, the ruins at Hampi were in a far better condition than they are now. For example, the Vittala Temple with its musical pillars was in fine condition. Now, it is a sad shadow of what it was in 1996. It has been vandalised by evil-doers as well as by the authorities, who have tried to save it from collapsing by adding hideous concrete supports.  Back in ’96, it was possible to wander from one attraction to another through a landscape romantically dotted with fragments of earlier civilisations, both Hindu and Islamic. In contrast, today the major attractions are walled off, and attract entry fees. Although I consider Hampi still to be a most exciting archaeological area, it has lost some of the charm that it had when we visited with our baby. She has not only visited Hampi thrice since and is planning another trip soon, but has also grown up to become a professional art-historian. I like to think that her early exposure to mediaeval Indian art has played a role in the evolution of her professional interests.

Our baby had no difficulty with the high temperatures and discomforts during our visit to Hampi and Hospet. She seemed to have enjoyed it immensely. Not only that, but so did the locals. Wherever we went, and this was true of most other places that we visited in India in 1996, she was adored by everyone including total strangers. We had thought that I, a ‘gora’ (a fair-skinned non-Indian), would have attracted attention during our trip from Bangalore, but this was not the case. I was ignored, but our little child was mobbed by well-meaning passers-by, especially little boys who patted her affectionately and told us how sweet she was.



Some short while after our trip to India, we visited Italy, a country famed for spoiling children with affection. At the end of our visit, we concluded that the Indians are far more ‘soppy’ about little children that even the Italians.


Enjoy books written by the author-dentist, ADAM YAMEY.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

A SURPRISING VILLAGE IN ESSEX


James Thorne wrote (in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”) in 1876: “East Tilbury is curiously out-of-the-way and old world like…”. It retains its feeling of being out-of-the-way, but no longer looks old world. Apart from the church, its rectory, and the fort, there are four cottages dated 1837. The rest of the buildings are much newer. The same goes for the village’s only pub, The Ship, which was rebuilt in 1957 when it looked the same as it does today. There has been an inn on its site since the 18th century, and maybe earlier. I had a mediocre lunch in the pub. I thought that was nowhere else to eat in the small village, but later discovered that the Fort (see below) has a cafĂ©.

The flint and rubble gothic church of St Catherine contains much fabric dating back to mediaeval times, back to the 12th century. When viewed from the north or east, the church does not appear to have a tower. The reason is that the tower and part of the south aisle were destroyed by naval artillery in a battle between the British and the Dutch at Tilbury Hope in 1667. According to contemporaneous church records, by 1667 the tower was already in a poor state. Some say that it might have collapsed without the help of military intervention.

From the south side of the church, you can see an ugly square-based stone addition to the old church. This stump is all that was built of a replacement tower begun in the First World War by men of a garrison of the Coalhouse Fort (see below). It was to have commemorated those fallen in WW1. However, the authorities stopped the building works because the builders were not following correct procedures. Across the road from the church, stands the Rectory, an elegant brick building with large windows. It was built in the early 1830s to replace an earlier one which had been badly damaged in the battle mentioned above.


The village’s only thoroughfare continues downhill, almost to the north bank of the Thames. It ends at the car park for visitors to the Coalhouse Fort. During the early 15th century following an infiltration of the Thames by the French, King Henry IV allowed the inhabitants of East Tilbury, at that time classed as a ‘town’, to build defensive ramparts. In 1540, King Henry VIII ordered that a ‘blockhouse, be constructed at Coalhouse Point. This point on a curve in the Thames is so-named because by well before the 18th century coal was being unloaded from craft at this ferry point close to the village. The coal was transported westwards towards Grays and Chadwell along an ancient track known as the ‘Coal Road’.


In 1799, when it was feared that the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte would try to invade via the Thames, a new gun battery was built at East Tilbury.  In the 1860s, when another French invasion was feared, a series of forts were built along the shores of the estuary of the Thames. One of these was the Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury. Thus, the by then somewhat insignificant village became part of London’s defences.

The Fort was built between 1861 and ’74. Surrounded by a semi-circular moat and raised on a mound, the Fort is not particularly attractive. However, it is set in beautifully maintained parkland. From the slopes of the mound, there are great views of the Thames, which sweeps around the point, and its rural southern shore. The moat is separated into two sections by a short sharp-ridged stone wall, which was likely to have been built when the Fort began to be constructed. When I looked for the Fort on old detailed (25 inch to the mile) Ordnance Survey Maps (pre-1939), the moat is marked, but the Fort is not (probably, in the
interests of security). A ‘Coalhouse Battery’, which ran more-or-less parallel to the village’s only street was marked as “dismantled” on a 1938 map, but not the Coalhouse Fort.


The outer walls of the Fort have had all manner of later structures built on them: gun-emplacements, searchlight emplacements, and other shelters, whose functions were not obvious to me. There is a large concrete bunker outside the Fort, between it and the moat. Its shape might be described as three intersecting concrete blocks.  This is marked on the tourist map as a ‘minefield control tower’. I believe that was it used to control electrically-fired mines in the estuary. Nearby and closer to the river, there is a smaller concrete bunker. The Fort’s interior was closed when I visited it, but I was able to get a peek through its main gates, which were open. Tramway tracks lead into the Fort. Old maps show that these led from the Fort to a small landing stage at Coalhouse Point, which is a short distance southwest of the Fort. The Fort ceased to be used after 1957.

Just over a mile north-west of the Fort, the road to East Tilbury Station passes through a most fascinating place. One of the first things you will see along the road from the Fort is a vast factory, which closed in 2005. Made of concrete and glass, but in a poor state of decoration, its flat roof carries a high water-tower labelled ‘Bata’. This was part of the factory complex that the Bata Company began building in 1932.

The Czech Thomas Bata (1876-1932) was born in the Moravian town of Zlin. He became the founder of Bata Shoes in 1894 in Zlin. He modernised shoe-making by moving it from a craftsman’s process to and mechanised, industrialised one. Bata’s company also revolutionised the way industrial enterprises were run, introducing a profit-sharing system that involved all of its workers, and provided a good reason for them to work enthusiastically. During the period between the two World Wars, the forward-thinking Bata opened factories and individual companies in countries including: Poland, Yugoslavia, India, France, Holland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the USA. The company in India is still very active, almost every small town or village having at least one Bata retailing outlet. I have bought many pairs of comfortable Bata-manufactured shoes from Bata stores in India.

In anticipation of WW2, Bata’s son, the prudent Thomas J Bata (1914-1980), and one hundred other Czech families firm moved to Ontario (Canada) to form a Canadian Bata company. After WW2, the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and other ‘iron-curtain’ countries nationalised their local Bata firms. Meanwhile, Thomas J continued to develop the Bata firms in Canada and the UK, and opened up new Bata companies and factories in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Bata senior was keen on the ‘Garden City Movement’.  He was concerned that his workers lived (close to his factories) and worked in a pleasant environment, and lacked for nothing. A pioneer of this in the UK was Titus Salt, who built his gigantic mill in the 1860s near Bradford in West Yorkshire. He created a new town, Saltaire, around his textile factory. This consisted of better than average homes for all of his workers (and their families) from the humblest to the most senior. In addition, he built schools, a hospital, open-spaces, recreation halls, a church, and other requisite of Victorian life.  In Zlin, Bata created something similar, a fully-equipped town for his workers in park-like surroundings around his factory in the 1920s. The homes he built for the workers are still considered desirable today.

The factory at East Tilbury, was another example of a town built specially for its workers. One lady with whom I spoke there told me that she had worked for Bata’s for twenty-seven years. She told me that in its heyday the Bata ‘town’ was self-sufficient. It had workers’ homes, shopping facilities (including a supermarket and a Bata shoe store), a restaurant, a hotel, a cinema, a school, a library, farms, and playing fields.
The factory buildings at the East Tilbury site, some of which have been adopted by other businesses, were built using a construction system devised (employing reinforced concrete frames that allowed for great flexibility of design) by the Czechs Frantisek Lydie Gahura (1891-1958), Jan Kotera(1871-1923), and Vladimir Karfic(1901-1996). The site bought by Bata in Essex in late 1931 was ideally placed in level open country near to both the railway and the river.  His intention was to build a vast garden city around his factories, which was to produce boots and shoes in East Tilbury.
Mr Bata senior was killed in an air-crash in 1932 near Zlin, and so never saw the completion of his creation in Essex, whose construction only began in early 1933. Construction of the factory buildings and the workers’ housing went on simultaneously.  By 1934, twenty semi-detached houses of the same design as those in Zlin were built by local builders, and equipped with Czech fittings. The houses look just like many houses built in Central Europe. As Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian newspaper (19th June 2006):
“East Tilbury doesn’t look like it belongs in Britain, let alone Essex, and in a sense it doesn’t. It’s a little slice of 1930s Czechoslovakia, and the most Modern town in Britain.”
Later, more homes were built, but designed like many British suburban houses.

There is a huge building across the main road opposite the factory buildings. Part of its ground floor is now home to a Co-op supermarket. The whole building, which has now been converted to flats, was the ‘Bata Hotel’. Until recently, the Co-op was still named the Bata supermarket. One man, who has lived in the Bata Estate for many years, told me that he recalled seeing swarms of workmen in white protective clothing crossing the road from the factory and then entering the hotel during their lunch-break. He told me that the first floor of the hotel was a ‘restaurant’ for the factory workers. 



I met this man in what is now called ‘East Tilbury Village Hall’. This was formerly the Bata cinema.Looking somewhat Central European in design, the former cinema was undergoing much-needed electrical re-fitting. In a way, I was lucky because the workers had left the door open to a building that is often locked closed these days. I entered the foyer, which was being used to store the stock of the local public library. An office to the left of the foyer used to serve as the cinema’s ticket office. A couple of old-fashioned film posters have been put on the foyer’s walls to recreate what it used to be like.

A man, who oversaw the hall’s maintenance, showed me the auditorium. It had a new wooden floor marked out for indoor sports. He explained that the floor had been ‘sprung’ when it was laid originally. This was so that it could be used as a dance-floor. The banked chairs for the audience were originally designed in an ingenious way, only lately beginning to be employed in other much newer buildings, so that they could be folded away when the hall was needed for, for example, a dance. There was a proper theatre stage at the far end of the hall. This still has the original stage lights that were fitted when the hall was built. The old-fashioned control panel for this lighting was still in place.

My guide then told me that beneath the stage, there was a reinforced bunker for use during air-raids. He took me through a door at the back of the stage, and then down some concrete steps. At the bottom, there was a heavy metal sliding-door painted grey. He slid this open to reveal the large reinforced concrete bunker beneath the stage. Its walls were thick. It is now used as a storage area.
After seeing the old cinema, I entered the large grassy area to the south of it. In the centre of it, raised on a stepped plinth, there is a war memorial. The memorial bears the words: “… to the memory of those of the British Bata Shoe Company who gave their lives for freedom 1939-1945”. To the south of the memorial park, there is a large field, now used for agricultural purposes, that was once a Bata playing field.

Across the road from the war memorial in the grounds of the factory, there is a statue of Thomas Bata senior, who died in 1932. When I visited it many years ago (in the late 1980s), it stood in a small green area, a little park. During my recent visit (October 2017) it was surrounded by tall piles of sand being used by building contractors.
Some of the Bata factory buildings have already been modernised and are being used for industrial or commercial operations. The main large derelict building, which is surmounted by a water tank, might be destined for conversion into ‘loft apartments’ for residential use. One building, a small tall construction near the main road, remains derelict at present. It might, one informant suggested, have been used for milling activities.
During the early 1980s, British Bata began greatly reducing its production activity at East Tilbury. The Bata industrial estate finally closed in 2005. With the closing of the British Bata firm, Bata shoe-retailers, which were common in British high streets, have disappeared. The nearest Bata shoe store to the UK is now in Best (just north of Eindhoven) in the Netherlands.

From having been one of the bastions defending London from naval attack along the River Thames, East Tilbury became home for an exciting and successful industrial enterprise. Now, the extensive vestiges of this are being restored and re-used in an attempt, which looks like being successful, to keep the area alive and prosperous.



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