By James Marshall
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 6 (1997)
On 30th May 1925 King George V cut the ceremonial ribbon and opened the new Great West Road. The building of this by-pass through the agricultural landscape north of Brentford and Hounslow triggered a decade of development which transformed these districts out of all recognition.
To the west of the Syon Lane junction where the new road’s Twickenham spur branched southwards, inter-war suburban housing spread across the fields and orchards of Heston and Isleworth. To the east the corridor of new factories and showrooms, which lined the margins of the road, came to be known as the “Golden Mile”.
The growth products of inter-war commerce were well represented in this new industrial development: American cars from Hudson-Essex, Lincoln and Packard, British cars from Alvis; tyres from Firestone; windscreen wipers from Trico-Folberth; chrome-trim, fenders and fire extinguishers from Pyrene. Toothpaste, squeezed from new-fangled tubes, was the leading product of the Macleans works.
Macfarlane Lang made confectionery and biscuits next to the Gillette razor blade factory. The wireless, that new focus of the all-electric inter-war household, was manufactured by Burgoynes and sold in vast numbers by Currys. Manufacturing enjoyed a monopoly of the surrounding district’s pre-war labour market. Some striking survivals of inter-war commercial architecture and thousands of semi-detached family homes testify to a period of prosperity in which both employers and employees shared.
Manufacturing moves away
Great changes have occurred in the half century since World War II. Even in the decades of full employment and post-war prosperity the growth of new centres of manufacturing in other parts of the world brought competition which Britain has found increasingly hard to beat. Brentford Nylons and the Firestone factory were both seriously affected by loss of market share to imported products.
Industry also found itself squeezed by the post-war labour shortage. Service sector growth has restructured our national economy. In London, the capital’s growing financial services sector brought competition for the office staff which local employers also needed.
Heathrow too, has made heavy demands for locally-resident staff across the whole spectrum of manual, clerical and technical employment. The developing trunk road network and the presence of Heathrow airport have helped to transform the economy of West London and created the “M4 corridor”.
The post-war extension of the Great West Road into central London and the construction of Chiswick roundabout and flyover began the process, between 1957 and 1959. The M4 between Brentford and Maidenhead opened in 1965. The resultant changes to the commercial heart of Brentford have been almost as great as those inaugurated by the original construction of the Great West Road.
New buildings, new uses
One of the early signs of change along the Golden Mile was the relocation of the Jantzen Knitting Mills to the West Country in 1962. This American swimwear manufacturer arrived on the Great West Road in 1931 and its distinctive single-storey brick-built factory at the Boston Manor Road junction will still be remembered by many local people. The factory was replaced by the prominent, L-plan, paired office tower buildings which occupy the site today. In 1966 their first tenants were Siemens and Honeywell computers. Just six years earlier Boston Manor junction’s other office tower building (now Number 1000 Great West Road) had been built by Turiff for the construction company’s headquarters, in the opposite angle of the junction. Here was visible evidence that manufacturing was making way for business administration. It is a trend that has continued to this day.
Now it is Samsung Europe who are the tenants of Great West House, the taller of the paired office towers on the Jantzen’s site. The transfer of the European headquarters of one of the world’s largest corporations to Brentford is a triumph for the Hounslow Initiative team, whose task is the promotion of the borough’s virtues to potential inward investors. Perhaps no single investment decision has been so significant for the Golden Mile since the Firestone company agreed to build their first European factory on the Great West Road in 1928.
Samsung has commissioned a state of the art headquarters building from senior British architect Terry Farrell. It will be built on the former site of the Trico-Folberth factory, across the Great West Road from Great West House. The project is not expected to be completed for a year or two yet. But Samsung’s logo, firmly fixed to one of the Great West Road’s high profile buildings, testifies to the company’s growing presence in Brentford.
P&O Properties has recently submitted proposals to redevelop the site of the former Macleans factory in the north-western angle of the same Boston Manor Road junction. The Beecham Group withdrew manufacturing from this site in the early 1960s, after taking over Macleans in 1938.
In 1969 Rank Audio Visual moved into the complex of former factory buildings, centralising their marketing and service divisions which had previously been scattered across West London. The transformation of the works interiors into pioneering open-plan office layouts and studio space involved alterations on a scale which later counted against the listing of the surviving facade of the Maclean’s building (which dated from 1932). The factory was demolished early in 1997 after standing empty and in a state of increasing neglect following Rank Audio Visual’s withdrawal from the site in the mid-1980s.
In 1996 the much-altered shell of the Burgoynes Radio Factory built in 1935 was demolished. For the last few years the buildings were part of the Alfa-Laval’s Baltic Centre. Alfa-Laval first arrived on the Great West Road in 1936 but the company left Brentford for Camberley 60 years later, following their merger with Tetrapack.
Redevelopment plans for the Baltic Centre complex and Alfa-Laval’s office tower originally built for Brentford Nylons have been approved. The proposals feature a linked and style-coordinated set of three 10-storey office complexes standing in landscaped gardens. The forepart of the development will consist of sports, leisure and restaurant facilities for its staff of 600. An internal precinct will link the recreational facilities to each other and to the three office complexes they serve.
Across Ealing Road, Alfa-Laval’s former neighbour, SmithKline Beecham, has also gained planning approval for redevelopment of their own site which includes SB House and the adjacent 1960s tower block which once provided offices for John Mowlem and Sons. English Heritage listed the late 1930s works, designed by Wallis Gilbert and Partners for Simmonds Aerocessories in 1991.
SmithKline Beecham applied for consent to demolish the listed building in 1994. There followed a heated debate over the future of SB House and the obstacle that it presented to Sir Richard Rogers’s ambitious architectural project for the SmithKline Beecham site. English Heritage’s chairman, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, and English Heritage’s regional director for London found themselves on opposing sides of the controversy. The London Borough of Hounslow accepted the stance of the London Regional Directorate and refused consent for the demolition of the distinctive Simmonds Aerocessories buildings.
In 1996 SmithKline Beecham gained planning consent for a revised design by Sir Richard Rogers. This proposal includes the restoration and retention of the distinctive 1930s tower, flanked by low-rise wings, in the north-eastern section of a large and comprehensively landscaped development of five to 18-storey office headquarters buildings.
Currys come back
Many companies whose well-known products are a familiar part of our daily lives have left the Great West Road in the last 30 years, so it’s good to see the return of Currys to the Golden Mile. The electrical and household goods retailer’s new superstore opened in May 1996 and employs 36 full and part-time staff.
In 1936 Curry’s commissioned number 991 Great West Road as their headquarters building, with warehousing and radio servicing facilities attached, but Currys lost their “magnificent new building” barely five years after moving in. They found themselves displaced to make way for a rapidly expanding aircraft parts company under the Defence of the Realm Act’s wartime emergency provisions.
Today 991 is one of the Golden Mile’s listed inter-war buildings. It has been all but disused for several years but the author understands that JC De Caux, the West London street furnishings company has recently expressed interest in renovating and restoring it as its company headquarters.
The history of Curry’s present site at number 971 begins with the building of the Packard Cars works and showroom for the American company’s British concessionaire, Leonard Williams Ltd in 1929 (Packard’s was the site of a tragic V2 rocket explosion in March 1945). The rebuilt works became an annexe of the nearby Sperry Gyroscope company until Sperrys left the Great West Road for Bracknell in 1966. When Sperry’s successors, Revel Engineering, gave up the site in the mid 1970s, proposals by Vogue Furnishings to change its use from manufacturing to retail conflicted with Hounslow Council’s policy of promoting industrial development along the Golden Mile.
Over the last 20 years, demand for superstore retailing facilities has proved hard to resist. Several superstores have been built on the Great West Road as components of larger mixed development. These include Do It All and PC World (which succeeded one another on the ex-Firestone’s site). Others have been approved after appeals over the heads of Hounslow Council to the Department of Environment.
Government now places greater emphasis on the need for a major retailing site to be easily accessible by public transport, as well as by car – a well-known deficiency of the Great West Road. Refusal of permission for a retail park on the Trico-Folberth works site in 1993 helped to ensure that Samsung would find a development opportunity on the Great West Road, bringing many more jobs to Brentford as a result. Curry’s new store now occupies one of the last sites available along the Golden Mile which carry planning consent for retailing.
After several years during which the commercial property market has been in the doldrums and the Great West Road has been pockmarked with empty buildings and sites awaiting redevelopment, the prospects for West London’s premier commercial corridor look brighter than they have for some time.
James Marshall is the author of The History of the Great West Road: its social and economic influence on the surrounding area, published by Hounslow Library Services in 1995. Price £7.50.