Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Ilford, Limited, Ilford

Corner of Cranbrook Road and Park Avenue
In the basement of a house at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Park Avenue, Ilford, Alfred Harman began the production of photographic plates in 1879. Silver gelatin dry plates had only recently been invented in 1871: in the preceding wet-plate process, photographers would have to coat glass plates themselves just prior to exposure. With dry plates, as these could be produced in advance, there was the opportunity for commercial production. Initially named 'Britannia' plates, a dispute over the use of the name1 resulted in the adoption of the place of manufacture, Ilford, for Alfred Harman's plates. Trading as the Britannia Works Company, this also changed its name in 1901, with Ilford Council insisting on the company using the word 'Limited' in full and with a comma separating the two words: Ilford, Limited. The house where it began was demolished in the 1930s to make way for a cinema which was never built; after the second world war the Cranbrook pub was built on the plot, which is currently the London Dartbar, shown in the picture above.

My family moved to Ilford in 1983, a few years after Ilford Limited had closed its base in the town, moving operations to its site in Mobberley, Cheshire, where it continues to this day. I first became aware of the company some ten years later, learning black and white photography at college: the iconic bold san serif lettering on boxes of photographic paper bearing the name of my home town had quite a visual impact, beyond any personal associations. At the time I had little interest in the history of the company, but, partly due to finding Maurice Fisher's excellent Photo Memorabilia website as a result of researching old Ilford plates more recently, this interest in Ilford's history has grown.

I conceived a project to photograph the sites of Ilford Limited in Ilford with an Ilford camera. I bought an Ilford Sportsman camera for 99 pence online, and armed with some Ilfodata HS23 document film, I spent two consecutive afternoons in Ilford taking photographs. After taking the photographs on the first day, I went to Redbridge Central Library. In the local museum there's a small display about Ilford, entitled 'A Worker's Story', about the photographic company told through the experience of Mary Davis, who worked for Ilford between 1958 and 1976, when the company closed in Ilford. Surrounding the documents and photographs in this display are cases filled with Ilford cameras, including the same model Sportsman camera that I had just been using, and films, plates and papers. The highlight of the display is perhaps an Ilford Falling Plate camera, representing the company's first entry into the camera market, something they would not attempt again until the 1940s. Objects from the museum's collection are also displayed throughout the library itself in appropriate places: looking in the photography section, I found a display case on the shelf amongst the books containing an Ilford Sprite, a box of R.52 Panchromatic plates, three rolls of 35mm HPS film and a packet of lantern slide masks.

In the local studies section of the library, I asked if they held any material on Ilford Limited and the helpful staff provided me with a folder full of clippings, a copy of Silver by the Ton- A History of Ilford Limited 1879-1979,2 and four pages of a typed document called 'The Ilford Story'.3 Useful for this project, Silver By The Ton has an appendix detailing the early properties of the company, with sections of the 1864 Ordnance Survey map, showing the original buildings, although it does state that "very little documentary evidence has survived about the factory between 1879 and 1891".4

Entrance to Sainsbury's Ilford
Most histories of Ilford Limited describe the company moving to Roden Street after its beginnings on Cranbrook Road, a site now occupied by Sainsbury's supermarket. Although the company's address was 29-37 Roden Street by the time it closed, this is misleading: Alfred Harman initially rented a cottage on the Clyde Estate,5 followed by the nearby Grove Terrace, which was converted into the plate coating department and warehouses.6 As the business expanded, the Britannia Works Company quickly acquired the parcel of land bounded on two sides by Clyde Cottages and Grove Terrace and built a factory. A wood engraving of the Britannia Works Company factory was used in an advertisement for Ilford Plates in 1888.7 It shows the factory bounded by a private road on the north-western side: this runs parallel to Back Street, called Roding Street on the OS map of 1896, and then Roden Street by 1919. In Silver By The Ton, the engraving of 1888 is described as using artistic licence, "presumably to show the rural setting of the factory"; at the time the factory did face open land on two sides, to the River Roding on the west, and to the south.8 The choice of the site was important as being away from the pollution of London, but close enough for business: Alfred Harman used to drive daily to London to deliver his plates by pony and trap. However, the town of Ilford expanded rapidly at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. In 1891 Ilford's population was 10,711, "a large village with outlying hamlets and farms, but with little urban development".9 Ten years later, the population had nearly quadrupled to 41,235 (it reached 78,188 in 1911, and continued to grow, though more slowly, after the First World War).10 Increased pollution was an inevitable result of this expansion: in 1899 25,000 plates were spoiled due to atmospheric pollution,11 which appears to have prompted the acquisition of a site in Brentwood12 at the turn of the century- further out into the Essex countryside, but on the same railway line to Liverpool Street as Ilford.13

Riverdene Road, looking north-west
Britannia Works expanded again in 1895, with a plate-cutting factory (this had previously been done by hand). An illustration from an article about the Britannia Works Company in The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, reproduced in Silver By The Ton,14 shows the site viewed from the fields by the Roding to the south-west. The Britannia Works Company bought all the land from the factory site to what is now Bengal Road, with most of the land being sold to a developer, who built the houses on the lane that Grove Terrace faced, becoming Uphall Road in 1907, but some of the land was subsequently bought back in 1908 to build a new plate factory.15 Terraced houses were built on the land to the south as well, with the next road but one to the south-east of Britannia Works named Britannia Road, unlikely to be a coincidence. Uphall Road is now known as Riverdene Road, suggesting the long-disappeared bucolic surroundings of the 19th century Britannia Works. Looking at the ground plan of Grove Terrace as shown on the OS maps, the current wall of Sainsbury's car park with its recessed bays at regular intervals echoes the shapes of the original buildings.

Riverdene Road, looking south-east
At the corner of Riverdene Road and Roden Street stands The Papermakers Arms, and two derelict houses. The earliest reference to The Papermakers Arms I've found is 1872,16 although the shape of the property isn't consistent on successive OS maps, suggesting the pub has been redeveloped during its history. It's a logical to suppose the pub was so named for the paper mill close to the Roding by the railway, which also gives its name to Mill Road, and this was in operation during the early years of Britannia Works.17 The earliest reference to photographic paper made by Ilford is 1884,18 however Silver By The Ton lists Harman's paper suppliers as "the Coloured Paper and Glue Company, Blanchett Freres and Kleber (Rives paper) and Steinbach (Sixe paper)",19 ruling out a very local supplier (in the local studies archive, documents relating to the Ilford Paper Mills were bundled with those of Ilford, Limited, which naturally became a line of enquiry).

Derelict houses next to The Papermakers Arms
The derelict houses on the eastern side of Riverdene Road next to The Papermakers Arms back on to Sainsbury's car park. These would have been adjacent to Grove Terrace; the projecting section of the newer brick wall was at one point the entrance to an alley alongside Britannia Works, the edge of the site before it later extended to Roden Street in 1896. In the 1864 map, the building on the corner where the pub stands appears to extend as far as the alleyway; in 1896 there are four houses here and Grove Terrace has been replaced by Britannia Works. Successive maps show these four reduced to the current two houses and the pub apparently enlarged. Grove Terrace disappeared early in the development of Britannia Works (although one house appears to have been incorporated into the factory), while Clyde, Magdala and Napier Cottages survived well into the 20th century: these all appear on the 1919 OS map, with just Magdala Cottages disappearing by 1938. The cottages are undifferentiated from surrounding factory buildings by 1961-63, however, on Maurice Fisher's Ilford Chronology under 1976 he quotes an employee, Tom Borg, stating that at the time the site closed in 1976 it still had "the old cottages where the business started".20

Sainsbury's car park, view from the top of Audrey Road
Clyde Cottages ran parallel to the terraced houses on Audrey Road, seen end on at the left hand side of the image above. These would have stood in a line roughly from the overhanging canopy in the middle of the picture, but perhaps a little to the right. This is currently a delivery bay for Sainsbury's at the eastern corner of the existing car park. By overlaying the OS maps onto a satellite photograph, enough buildings surrounding the site remain to register the images. Referring to the 1888 engraving, the position of the other cottages can be plotted. The fronts of Magdala Cottages, which look like four buildings in the engraving, and five on the maps, would coincide with edge of the upper deck of the car park as seen in the image below, stopping short of the ramp on the left, with a lane or alley in front. The north eastern end of this terrace stopped a little short of the car park entrance to the supermarket, seen earlier in this post.

Sainsbury's car park, looking west
Sainsbury's car park, looking south
The lane that Magdala Cottages were at right angles to would have followed the direction of the ramp, on the its near side in the photographs above. Napier Cottages appear to have been on this lane between Magdala and Clyde Cottages, facing south west, a terrace of five buildings running to the south east from around the position of the white van in the picture of the car park above. The rest of the Britannia Works factory buildings of the 1880 and 90s would have all fitted into Sainsbury's car park.

Entrance to Sainsbury's car park from Roden Street
The earliest reference to Ilford's site being extended to Roden Street is from 1896, "the latest improvement to the firm's premises" being new offices, "the large and imposing front is in Roden-street [sic], and at the side is a wide entrance, or rather exit for the comapny's conveyances".21 In the image above, taken from a position standing on the pavement of Roden Street, the ramp represents the edge of Britannia Works as seen in the OS map of 1896, evidently the new offices opened that year are not represented on the map; this shows a row of terraced houses or shops on what was then Roding Street, these would have been located in the immediate foreground of the photo; in the map of 1919, the 'new' offices of 1896 are presumably the large building with the alley alongside; with references to purchases of properties in 1922 and 1924, by 1938 the terraced buildings to the east on Roden Street have been replaced with larger properties.22 In 1928 a new head office building was constructed on Roden Street, to the east of the 1896 offices, and looking at photographs of this, the distinctive corner entrance makes it easy to locate on the maps of 1938 and 1961-63. This was roughly at the northern corner of Sainsbury's car park, and used as for office space after Ilford left, only being demolished in 1985,23 situated where the trees are in the image below.

Roden Street, looking west
North of Roden Street, in 1911 the company purchased two houses and land on Ilford High Road, the present day Ilford Hill (these two names appear to be interchangable on different OS maps).24 There was clearly some expansion in this area between Roden Street and Ilford Hill: the company rented part of Ilford Skating Rink which extended from one road to the other (the edge of the skating rink was roughly where the hoarding beyond where the cars are turning in the image above), with plans to build a central sales office, but this was abandoned, and the new despatch office was converted to this function in 1931, complete with what was known as the 'Bonus Garden': as no bonuses were paid to staff that year, it was said that the money was used for the garden instead.25 The continued development of Ilford's premises in the area between Roden Street and Ilford Hill I have found difficult to plot: large buildings appear either side of the skating rink in the 1919 and 1938 maps and in the 1961-63 map these are simply labelled 'Works'. I was unable to find evidence that these were all Ilford premises. Silver By The Ton, refers to developments in the 1930s, such as the new central engineering department, but it isn't always clear whether these are further expansions of the site or redevelopments of existing buildings.

View of Sainsbury's supermarket across Winston Way
From the top of the multi-storey car park on Clements Road, there's a partial view over Sainsbury's, which gives some indication of the size of Ilford's site, developed piecemeal over nearly a century. The decision to leave Ilford was taken in 1973: the last plates were coated on 11th November 1975, with the site finally closing in February 1976.26 Administative functions were relocated to Basildon, and finally consolidated to the current premises in Mobberley, Cheshire when Basildon and Brentwood closed in the 1980s.27

Golding Court, Riverdene Road
Possibly the last expansion of the Ilford site was the Renwick Laboratory, built on the west side of Uphall/Riverdene Road on land where some of the terraced houses built in 1907 had been destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. The laboratory, named after a former director of research, F. F. Renwick, opened in 1954;28 the site is now a relatively modern apartment block called Golding Court. Intriguingly, there are two industrial buildings situated behind the terraces of Riverdene Road, one immediately to the north of the Renwick Laboratory site, and runs up to the far end of Roden Street, and the other to the south, the northern one listed simply as 'Works' as far back as 1919; the other appears more recent and currently belongs to the council. The immediate proximity to other Ilford premises is cause for speculation. The second image below shows the building to the north of the Renwick Laboratory site in relation to Riverdene Road and Roden Street, with The Papermakers Arms on the corner. It also shows the hoarding around a car park on the site of Britannia Music Club (1969-2007), which I remember as large modern office block. This was on the site of the skating rink that Ilford rented in the 1930s. Britannia Music Club may have been so named from Britannia Works; the company sponsored the Brit Awards.

Industrial building behind Riverdene Road
View from Chapel Road towards Roden Street

1 Alfred Harman's plates were first distributed by Marion & Co of Soho Square: Marion & Co began using the Britannia name for their own plates, and Alfred Harman lost a court case over the trade name in 1886. Silver by the Ton - A History of Ilford Limited 1879-1979, RJ Hercock and GA Jones, and The Ilford Story, unpublished typescript, initialled JCS, dated 11.5.60, held in Redbridge Central Library local studies section.
2 Silver By The Ton.
3 See note 1 above. The document states it was "Reproduced by the Ilford Azoflex Process". Azoflex was Ilford's dyeline document copying process, see advertisement here.
4 Silver By The Ton, p28.
5 At this point Alfred Harman was still making the emulsion in his basement in Cranbrook Road, but coating the plates in the cottage, transporting the emulsion in light-tight jars along Cranbrook Road by handcart.
6 The Ilford Story.
7 British Journal of Photography, June 29, 1888, reproduced in a centenary article in Amateur Photographer, May 16, 1979, p99.
8 The reproduction of the engraving in Silver By The Ton is provided with a key, which locates one of the houses from Grove Terrace, the rest of the terrace does not appear. The engraving does not show Clyde Cottages, which should be in the hazy countryside in the distance behind the factory, but it does show Magdala Cottages, and also mentions Napier Cottages, not shown.
9 'The borough of Ilford', A History of the County of Essex Volume 5 (1966), pp. 249-266.
10 A History of the County of Essex, pp. 249-266.
11 Essex Countryside Vol 32, no. 332 Sept 1984, p35. The source appears to be Silver By The Ton, which states 25,000 plates were ruined in April 1899, Silver By The Ton, p47.
12 Silver By The Ton, p20. However quality control at the new factory at Brentwood was inadequate, and production was concentrated back at Ilford, as, by 1905, "modifications at the drying rooms at Ilford had overcome the problems of atmospheric pollution." Silver By The Ton, p48.
13 Incidentally, Alfred Harman moved out to Chelmsford along this axis in 1886, but returned to another house on Cranbook Road, called 'Langsett', at the corner with Wellesley Road. Silver By The Ton, p150.
14 'The Britannia Works Company Limited A Progressive Institution', The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, October 1st, 1896, p4. Illustrations reproduced in Silver By The Ton, pp36-37.
15 This may account for the incomplete terrace on the northern side of Audrey Road. Silver By The Ton, pp49-50.
16 At some point this was called the Sheepwalk Inn, but it has now reverted to its original name.
17 "Paper making was carried on at the Ilford Paper Mills, near Ilford Station, from c. 1862 to c. 1923. This business, which gave its name to Mill Street, appears to have been founded by William Simpson & Co., but later passed through the hands of several owners." 'The borough of Ilford', A History of the County of Essex, Vol. 5 (1966), pp. 249-266.
18 "1884: Introduction of Bromide & 'ALPHA' paper",
19 Silver By The Ton, p137.
20 Silver By The Ton, p137.
21 The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, October 1st, 1896, p4.
22 A property called 'Rodenside' in a lane south of Roden Street, and the Loxford Social Club in Roden Street itself. Silver By The Ton, p61.
23 Ilford Recorder, Thursday February 28th, 2002.
24 Silver By The Ton, p50.
25 Silver By The Ton, pp61-62.
26 Silver By The Ton, p91.
27 Ilford Recorder, Thursday February 28th, 2002.
28 Silver By The Ton, p37, and The Ilford Story, which gives the opening as 1960, or more specifically "work was completed".

Sources/Further reading
Ilford Chronology on Photo Memorabilia
Silver by the Ton - A History of Ilford Limited 1879-1979, RJ Hercock and GA Jones
The Ilford Story, unpublished typescript, initialled JCS, dated 11.5.60, held in Redbridge Central Library local studies section
The British and Colonial Printer and Stationer, October 1st, 1896
Amateur Photographer, May 16, 1979
A History of the County of Essex Volume 5, 1966. Retrieved from
Essex Countryside Vol 32, no. 332 Sept 1984
Graces Guide British Industrial History
Ordnance Survey maps dated 1864,1896,1919,1938, and 1961-63, retrieved from; but also a large scale rates map, based on the 1896 OS map with revisions of 1912, and a scale model of Ilford town centre from the mid-1980s, both held at Redbridge Central Library.


  1. Great work, i did the same walk, but didnt realize it was done before nice to see your approach :) really like the look and feel of your images
    my images can be seen here

  2. Dear Nicholas,

    I work for Eastside Community Heritage an archive based in Ilford, and am currently working on an oral history project about Ilford Limited. We are interviewing people who worked their or have a link to the company, and will be using these to inform an exhibition which will be displayed in Ilford Sainsbury's.

    We are currently recruiting volunteers to help research the exhibition, and if you are based neer Ilford I wondered if you would be interested. The research you have done for this blog has already really helped me!

    If you would like to find out more about the project feel free to email or call 02085533116.

    Best wishes,


  3. Hello, thanks for a very comprehensive survey of the Ilford site. I covered the same ground a while back & took a roll of colour snaps, but didn't find anything you haven't covered, and certainly never got round to writing it up.

    I have linked to this page from my Darkside site, hope this is OK, let me know if not. I've got a variety of other Ilford memorabilia to put up on that, so this page would be a useful link.

    If you need to get back to me it's;


    1. Hello Martin, thanks for contacting me and it's very heartening to have my research linked on your site too.