The Marconi Legacy – assessing the heritage of the Wireless Communication industry in Essex

Tim Wander and Tony Crosby

Introduction

This article sets out to briefly trace the history of the development of the Marconi Companies in Essex based around key milestones in the development of wireless communications and the main sites on which Marconi’s developed these technologies and manufactured the equipment. The significance of these sites to the history and heritage of the wireless communications industry will be assessed and their current condition highlighted in order to indicate what heritage of the industry in Essex survives and what has been lost forever. The most significant sites, which tell the story, will be discussed in detail but other sites for research and training, manufacturing and of social significance will also be mentioned.

Guglielmo Marconi(25th April 1874 – 20th July 1937)

Marconi was half Irish and half Italian, an inventor, electrical engineer and pioneer of wireless communication, often being credited as the 'inventor of radio', who in 1909 shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with the German Scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun 'in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy'. Marconi was responsible for building on the work of many previous experimenters and physicists and turning a series of laboratory experiments into a reliable and practical form of wireless communication, later known as radio. He was also both an entrepreneur and businessman, and founded in 1897 The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in Britain, which eventually became the Marconi Company. After 15 years of intensive struggle his Company went from strength to strength defining, designing and building the modern world of electronics, broadcasting and communications as we know it today.

Without question what Marconi did was to invent what became an entirely new and huge industry, the technologies of which changed the world forever. In his hands an obscure, and to most people unintelligible branch of physics and electrical engineering eventually became a simple consumer product. Throughout its operation the Marconi Company offices were always located in central London but from the earliest days the heart of the company's manufacturing, and after 1927 its research and development, were centralised around Chelmsford in Essex.

Why Chelmsford?

1898 had been a busy year for the young Italian inventor with tests and demonstrations taking place in the south of England and in Ireland, but despite all his success, publicity, demonstrations, tests, trials, and even Royal approval, the Company’s order books were empty. He still believed that the orders would come and to meet anticipated demand for new equipment the Marconi Company sought new premises for manufacturing and administration. The existing Head Office at 28 Mark Lane in the City of London was already overcrowded and could never support the proposed expansion or any form of large scale manufacturing.

From his earliest research in London Marconi had found that his experiments were often plagued with electrical noise from tramways and lifts, and Chelmsford was still reasonably free from such problems. Chelmsford had other advantages as buildings were far cheaper outside London and the county of Essex is flat enough for wireless experiments and erecting aerials. Chelmsford also had a direct rail link into the capital and was reasonably near the Port of London whose huge volume of shipping represented one of the Marconi Company’s immediate market places. Chelmsford also had in place a range of existing electrical and manufacturing industries including Crompton & Co Ltd who by 1881 offered a complete range of electrical systems. Crompton's designed and manufactured dynamos, switchgear, circuit breakers, motors and electric meters, as well as lamps. These Chelmsford based industries offered Marconi a ready trained workforce and industrial support network.i

Hall Street, Chelmsford

In December 1898, Marconi took out a 20 year lease on Messrs. Wenleys’ furniture store in Hall Street, Chelmsford, which had been built by John Hall in 1858 as a steam driven silk mill. This mill closed in 1863 due to the decline in the Essex silk industry, but Courtaulds of Braintree, who survived the downturn in the trade, ran the mill from 1865 until 1892 when it became Messrs. Wenleys’ furniture storage depot.ii

Hall Street now became the world’s first wireless equipment factory, initially employing just 26 men and 2 boys. It was set up to manufacture wireless sets and receivers to Marconi’s latest designs, but the new science was still in its infancy and the Company struggled, so had to diversify into manufacturing motor-car ignition coils, X-ray apparatus and other scientific equipment in order to balance the books. Although having a large factory for such a nascent industry was ambitious, previously the wireless equipment had been built by hand as required, using various modified apparatus bought from established scientific laboratory suppliers, a process that could never hope to cope with quantity production of commercial equipment. To fulfil any commercial order, especially for the Royal Navy, all equipment parts had to be interchangeable and all apparatus had to be built to a high quality and designed to be easily serviced and maintained. At the Hall Street works new departments responsible solely for their own specific areas of research, design and manufacture were established. In September 1899 a transmitting station was built directly across the road from the factory premises to test equipment as it came off the production line and the Hall Street mast soon became one of Chelmsford’s landmarks, although now long gone.

Marconi wireless equipment became the corner stone of the growing number of shore based wireless stations and his equipment was carried on-board all the great Atlantic liners including the Lusitania, Mauretania, Baltic, Olympic and the ill-fated Titanic, all built at Hall Street. All the equipment for the Royal Navy, the network of coastal stations and numerous other merchant vessels was built there. Equipment from Hall Street was used at the Poldhu station in Cornwall that allowed Marconi to send the Morse code 'S' across the Atlantic in December 1901 and equipment built here was sent around the world.iii

After Marconi’s left in 1912 the Hall Street factory building served for many years as the Mid Essex Divisional Offices of the Essex and Suffolk Water Company. In 2010 the water company vacated the site and the adjacent, original Chelmsford waterworks site of the 1850s was sold for housing. However, the world’s first wireless factory has survived with the exterior more or less unchanged. The Marconi work's sign has long since gone but the building can be considered to the birthplace of the radio and electronics industry in this country, a blue plaque records its place in history and the building is Listed Grade II. The factory building has remained empty since 2010 and is now the subject of development proposals for private residential and commercial uses, although there are hopes to use some of the building as a Marconi Heritage Centre.

New Street, Chelmsford

In January 1912 Marconi’s new Managing Director Godfrey C. Isaacs proposed building the world’s first purpose designed and built wireless factory on the local cricket ground in Chelmsford that was owned by the Church Commissioners. This whole site would be known as the Marconi New Street Works. (Figs. 1 & 2) Architects William Dunn and Robert Watson of London were commissioned to draw up plans for the first factory to be specifically designed for the construction of Marconi's wireless equipment. The hope was that the new factory would be finished and working by mid-June 1912, an almost impossible target, in order to show off the factory on 22nd June to leading competitors, Government officials and other experts who would then be in London for the Wireless Conference. Godfrey Isaacs’s plans were not just for a new factory; he wanted the new complex to be a complete self-contained village within a town. To the north two new roads - Marconi Road (Fig. 3) and Bishop Road - of cottages would be built for the Company employees.

Construction, using 500 men, started on 26th February 1912 and despite a short building strike, just 17 weeks later, the changeover from Hall Street to the new 70,000 square foot (6,500 m2) New Street factory complex was accomplished in just one weekend.ivThe original offices and factory were much extended over the years: in 1927 additions had been made to support work on the imperial wireless system and further extensions followed in 1936 to handle the volume of work. In 1938 the five-storey Art Deco Marconi House was constructed and in 1941 Building 46 was added at the Glebe Road end of the site for high power transmitter development. After the war the canteen Building 720, which at the time had the largest unsupported roof span, was added. The site probably reached its maximum degree of sprawl by 1980, but in 1992 it was decided to remove most of the buildings in the western half of the site, including Building 46. In their place rose Eastwood House, to be used by Marconi Radar after they had vacated the old Crompton Works on Writtle Road.

The fate of the New Street site was sealed following the spectacular collapse of the Marconi Company in 2001. A successor company, Selex, remained until 2008 when the factory was abandoned. January 2013 saw the start of the demolition of most of the site for residential redevelopment. All that remains are the Grade II Listed office building fronting New Street, the water tower and power house, plus Eastwood House. A blue plaque on the office frontage records the fact that the world’s first radio broadcast was made by Dame Nellie Melba from this site and there is an interpretation board recording the significance of the site. All that remains associated with Marconi’s in the vicinity of New Street, as is so often the case, are the staff cottages in Marconi Road and Bishop Road.v

Writtle

In 1919 the Marconi Company urgently needed a location that was remote from the electrical noise and the high power transmitters being developed and tested in the main Chelmsford New Street works for researching the use of radios in aircraft. The plan was to move the newly formed Marconi Airborne Telephony Research Department to the village of Writtle, making use of a former Royal Flying Corps hut and landing field in Lowford (now Lawford) Lane (Figs 4 & 5). Marconi’s had long been recognised as the pioneers of trans-oceanic and maritime wireless services and by 1920 at Writtle they had evolved to be the only aircraft radiotelephony development group in the world. The remit was to provide the emerging new market for commercial aviation with reliable long-range communications equipment, which would be essential for its safe development and operations. When on 25th August 1919 the world’s first commercial scheduled service was started from London’s first civil aerodrome on Hounslow Heath, each aircraft carried an early wireless set designed and built by the Marconi team at Writtle. The apparatus was manufactured at New Street but the design, development, testing, demonstrating and installation was all controlled by the Writtle staff.

Following the first radio broadcast by Dame Nellie Melba from the New Street works radio broadcasting became a sensational success and the task of making it all happen, to build a transmitter and operate a broadcasting station was given to Marconi’s Airborne Telephony Research Department in Writtle; the future of British radio broadcasting would be determined in an ex-army wooden hut on the edge of a large Essex field! From 14th February 1922, for 11 months, until 17th January 1923 the young engineers launched and sustained the first regular scheduled public radio broadcasting service in Britain from a timber hut with the call sign 2MT. The success of the Writtle broadcasts led directly to the formation of the BBC. On 14th November 1922, at 6 pm the first regular broadcast was made from Marconi House in the Strand. Peter Eckersley became the BBC’s first Chief Engineer, and he took most of the Writtle pioneers with him to build the new National Broadcasting service from the ground up. When he joined he knew he was the Chief Engineer because he was the BBC’s only engineer. When he left, six and a half years later, he was in charge of 304 engineers and technicians. Under his technical stewardship by 1926 the BBC had grown to become the world’s leading Broadcasting service and could boast ten main transmitting stations, ten relay stations and over two million listeners. From an original staff of four the company had grown to 552 in number. From its lone voice in Writtle in 1922, the various stations of the BBC could now be heard by 55% of the country at a strength suitable for reception on a crystal set and it could also be heard across Northern Europe.vi

The Marconi Writtle site then formed the centre of the Marconi's airborne radio research effort throughout the 1920s and 1930s. When war threatened in the late 1930s, the RAF was still using radio equipment with very limited facilities and ranges. New equipment specifications and a contract were given to Marconi’s in October 1939, who were appointed as the main contractor for design and production. One of the design teams was lead by one of Marconi's chief designers (later Sir) Christopher Cockerell (of Hovercraft fame), then a senior engineer with the Marconi Company at Writtle. Work upon the first of these Bomber Command sets was begun on the 22nd October 1939, and it was completed and flight-tested on 2nd January 1940. This was an incredible feat of engineering, project management and manufacturing. Much of the work was done by the Development department in the original Writtle hut, which had now been joined by a random group of similar laboratories, also based in huts. Complete equipment was installed in operational RAF Bomber Command aircraft by teams of Company engineers just five months later in June 1940, a notable achievement for all who worked on the project in such a short space of time. Over 80,000 sets of equipment were manufactured during the war, the majority of them being used by RAF and the other Commonwealth air forces.

Following the end of the Second World War, the Writtle site continued to grow, eventually becoming an important part of the Marconi Communication Systems Limited Company, but the site was closed on 11th November 1987 and redeveloped for housing as Melba Court where today only an interpretation board records the heritage of the site. Beforehand, however, in 1960 the hut from which the first public broadcasts were made was moved to Kings Road School in Chelmsford and has subsequently been acquired by Chelmsford Museums and is now at Sandford Mill Museum.

The Writtle site also used a site at Guys Farm, just 100 metres from the main Marconi site at the top of Lawford Lane. Thought to have been purchased at auction sometime in the early 1930s, until March 1965 the farm housed the Marconi Specialised Components Division manufacturing group, which moved to a new factory at Billericay. This Division, which had been formed in July 1962, had as its primary function the design and manufacture of specialised components which were unobtainable, to the specifications demanded, from outside sources of supply. In the period 1962-5 these activities expanded to the point where nearly 300 components were on general offer. In 1969 the Guys Farm site housed the mechanical engineering laboratory and during the 1980s it was used for system integration and customer system reference models. The Guys Farm site continued in use until the main site’s closure and still retained its milking parlour and tiled floors and walls from its farm days. The farm has now been demolished and the site used for a modern housing development.vii

Great Baddow

In 1937 the Marconi Company brought together their various radio, television and telephony research teams in a single location, the Art Deco style Marconi Research Centre in Great Baddow. Research at this site spanned military and civilian technology covering the full range of products, including radio, radar, telecommunications and microelectronics. As the electronics industry developed the campus expanded during the 1940s and 1950s to include research into general physics, high voltage, vacuum physics and semiconductors. At its peak the Centre employed more than 1,200 engineers, technicians, craftsmen and support staff. The centre is extant, now being the BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre. The site includes a prominent local landmark, the 360-foot (110 m) high former Chain Home radar transmitter tower moved here by Marconi’s c.1954 from RAF Canewdon. It is one of only five Home Chain radar masts from WWII remaining nationally and the only one to retain its three platforms.

Waterhouse Lane and Westway, Chelmsford

The English Electric Valve Company factory in Waterhouse Lane was set up by Marconi's in 1942 as a wartime production unit to make electrical valves and the newly developed magnetron, a powerful generator of microwaves, which was the heart of the improved precision radar sets of 1943 essential for night location of U-boats (to win the Battle of the Atlantic) and to beat the night bombers. Before the end of the war seven types of magnetron were being produced at a rate of 500 per week. The English Electric Valve Co Ltd was formed in 1947 to take over this factory since when it has been developing and making a range of electronic tubes for peaceful purposes such as television, marine radar and industrial heating. In addition tubes are made for defence and special purposes, including ‘seeing in the dark’ sights needed by soldiers and firemen. The company was renamed to e2v Technologies in 2002 as part of a management buyout following the collapse of the Marconi group. This important factory survives in use in Waterhouse Lane, Chelmsford, partly concealed behind inter-war housing and the remaining buildings of Waterhouse Farm, including a c.1600 Grade II Listed barn now converted to the social club.

Also on Waterhouse Lane Marconi’s acquired a site as a sports ground in 1919. Due to the post-war expansion of business, which severely overloaded the New Street factory and offices, some activities had to be moved out and the sports ground site was developed from 1954 as a modern broadcast and television studio design centre. The post-war Marconi series of TV cameras was largely designed here, first black and white (1949) and then colour (1954), together with all associated equipment including telecine and later videotape equipment (for recording and reproducing TV programmes on film and on magnetic tape respectively). All this equipment was manufactured at the New Street factory where sound broadcasting transmitters had been designed and made since 1922 and TV transmitters since 1935. The Waterhouse Lane factory opened in 1964 to take over the manufacture of this equipment from New Street but closed in 1999 and was demolished in 2001. The adjacent Marconi bowls club, and rifle and pistol club, that traced their history back to WWII were also demolished. The site is now occupied by a Homebase DIY store and small commercial premises.

In April 1900 Marconi had formed The Marconi International Marine Communication Company Limited, known as Marconi Marine, to provide the shipping industry with radio equipment and trained radio officers. In 1962 the Company moved its activities from New Street to 'Elettra House' (named after Marconi’s research yacht),a purpose-built site on Westway, Chelmsford. Marconi Marine also provided communications equipment for the expanding offshore oil industry. Following the collapse of Marconi's this site was demolished and redeveloped as a car showroom.

Writtle Road, Chelmsford

The Marconi Company had been active in radar from the earliest days of the new science and its specialised systems company, Marconi Radar Systems Ltd, once had a leading place in the industry. Its products were used by all the British armed services and by the UK civil airport authorities. The company was the largest radar manufacturer in the UK, employing about 3000 people at the Chelmsford and Gateshead works. After starting at the New Street Works, Marconi Radar moved in 1968 to the factory originally built in 1896 by Crompton & Co in Writtle Road, Chelmsford. Marconi’s closed the factory in 1992 and the whole site was demolished a few years later apart from the small office block fronting on Writtle Road, now a pharmacy. A large housing development occupies the rest of the site.

Other Sites in Essex

Marconi’s had a presence on dozens of other sites throughout Essex, developed during the hundred plus years of its existence, not only for research, design and manufacturing, but also for staff training, for community and social purposes. Many of the sites were small and short lived and hence of minor significance, while others, including those discussed above, were of major significance historically, technically and archaeologically. Many of these significant sites have been lost apart from their facades (such as New Street and Writtle Road) or in total (such as the Writtle sites, Waterhouse Lane and Elettra House), while others have survived (such as Hall Street, Great Baddow and e2v on Waterhouse Lane).

The building in Frinton which housed the world’s first radio college, the Wireless Telegraph School of 1901 survives, as does Springfield Place, Chelmsford, which was used as a training and drawing office and apprentice accommodation in the 1970s. However, the Marconi School of Wireless Communications established in 1921 in Arbour Lane, Chelmsford has been demolished and replaced with housing. The Social Club which was in a former Victorian school building on the corner of New Street and Victoria Road has also been lost to the redevelopment of the site as has its replacement in Beehive Lane. In 1903 Marconi’s built a wireless receiver station in Broomfield, Chelmsford, which by 1911 was also used for research and training, and continued in use until the 1960s, but this has also been cleared for housing. Many others of the radio station sites have been lost with no indication of their existence. One exception is the Ongar Radio Station of 1922, one of the most advanced radio stations in the world at the time, which has been lost, but the adjacent 12 staff houses still called Marconi Bungalows on Epping Road at North Weald survive as the only evidence (as with the staff houses adjacent to the New Street factory) of former Marconi activity in the area (Fig. 6).

However, a number of the more recent industrial units have survived as they are now used by successor companies. These sites include Christopher Martin Road, Basildon to which the Marconi Aeronautical Division moved from New Street in 1954 and which now houses Selex; the Bushy Hill Radar Research Station of 1954 in South Woodham Ferrers now used by BAE Systems; the Marconi Specialised Components Division building of 1965 in Radford Crescent, Billericay, although this is now under threat; and Taveloc House in Freebournes Road, Witham built in 1967 as a microelectronics factory.

Conclusion

For over 100 years the Marconi Companies’ work in Chelmsford and Essex dominated and defined the modern age of electronics, radio, radar, and mobile communications. The company had a massive impact on the working and social lives of thousands of Essex people, as well as on the County’s townscapes, especially that of Chelmsford, ‘reinforcing the importance of Essex in the global history of telecommunications’.viii The collapse of the Marconi group in 2001 still ranks as one of the greatest catastrophes in British industrial history, but its built legacy is being rapidly eroded as the buildings where all the work occurred are redeveloped, having not been awarded the protection that such significant sites deserve. Only two of all these dozens of sites are protected, the Hall Street and New Street buildings being Grade II Listed, the former being redeveloped as private residential and commercial premises, so the public will not be able to have access to the building to learn about its significance to history and heritage of the City.

Our industrial heritage has great value and many benefits.ix The Marconi built legacy is highly significant to Chelmsford especially, as this is where Marconi’s had the greatest impact on people and place, but also to the whole of Essex, nationally and internationally. Preserving and interpreting for current and future generations this wealth of industrial heritage has educational, financial (including tourism), community and social, and environmental benefits. Former industrial buildings are evidence of how earlier generations worked and lived, some within living memory, and hence have archaeological and historical educational value. They can give local communities a sense of their identity. They can be adapted to new uses benefitting the local economy through regeneration providing employment opportunities and attracting tourists who wish to study this aspect of the County’s industrial past. Well-designed preservation of historic buildings adds individual character to the townscape much appreciated by local communities and visitors alike.x The adaptation of historic buildings, as opposed to demolition and new build on the cleared site, has been proven to have greater environmental benefits.xi

Just as the visible remains of prehistoric burials, castles, abbeys and grand houses are reminders of this country's rich and diverse cultural heritage spanning many thousands of years, so also are the factories and workshops reminders of a more recent era of urban work and life, a tangible reminder of our past, indicating where we have come from and how we have arrived at our present world. It is essential therefore that what survives of our recent past is surveyed and recorded in order to inform a developing conservation and planning policy so that significant examples are preserved for future generations. Once this industrial heritage is destroyed it is lost forever and cannot be replaced.

This article has identified just a few of the dozens of sites in Essex where the telecommunications age was developed. It is a declining resource, the remaining elements of which need to be quickly assessed for their significance to the history and heritage of the industry and afforded the most appropriate protection, made accessible by and interpreted for the current and future generations.

Acknowledgements

Photos

Fig 1. Marconi’s New Street site 1939 - By Kind permission of GEC Marconi

Fig 2. Marconi’s New Street site 2013 - By Kind permission of GEC Marconi

Fig 3. Marconi Road, company housing – Tony Crosby

Fig 4. Marconi’s Writtle site 1922 - By Kind permission of GEC Marconi

Fig 5. Marconi’s Writtle site 1980 - By Kind permission of GEC Marconi

Fig 6. Marconi Bungalows, North Weald – Tony Crosby

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