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Notes from Bob Carr — February 1995

The architect who never was?

Wallis, Gilbert and Partners will be well known to many readers as the architects responsible for an impressive numbers of buildings erected in and around the London area during and before the 1930s. The practice was set up in 1914 to specialise in industrial buildings and soon after the First World War it began to be recognised as a leader in the design of the so-called 'daylight' factory. Factories were built for British companies desiring a new image and American ones starting to produce consumer products new to the UK (eg chewing gum).

Victoria Coach Station  Robert Mason 2016

Among the achievement of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners were the Caribonum Glassworks Factory, Leyton, of 1918; the Solex Factory Marylebone Road 1925; the Wrigley's (chewing gum) factory Wembley designed in 1926 (not now as originally built); the Shannon Factory, Kingston 1928; the Firestone Tyre Factory on the Great West Road designed in 1928 (a masterpiece now noted for its infamous demolition); the India Tyre and Rubber Company Factory (derelict but still existing near Glasgow airport); the Pyrene Factory on the Great West Road (London) 1930; the Hoover Factory complex, Perivale, on Western Avenue, built 1931-38 (GLIAS Newsletter December 1993); the Klingerit Factory on the Sidcup bypass 1935-36 (Dutch Expressionist-style brickwork not the firm's more usual Art Deco Great West Road American style); the HMV Factory, Hayes; the Chatou Factory, Paris; the Daimler Hire building London; Victoria Coach Station (pictured), Buckingham Palace Road SW1 (recently refurbished); and the Philips Factory, Commerce Way, Croydon, 1955-57. So many factories by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners were built along the Great West Road that at one time it was nicknamed Wallis Avenue.

The design work for most of the above buildings was carried out by Thomas Wallis together with unnamed partners. Thomas Wallis (1873-1953) was born in Streatham London, the son of a builder. After the Second World War Thomas's son Douglas took over his father's practice. One might ask who Gilbert was? This appears to be a difficult question to answer and perhaps he never existed. The name might just have been invented to give the practice a name which sounded good, redolent of Gilbert Scott perhaps.

Anyway Wallis, Gilbert and Partners was set up in conjunction with the Trussed Concrete Steel Company, a division of which was established in Britain in 1909 by the American Moritz Kahn. Trussed Concrete's purpose was to campaign for and construct reinforced-concrete industrial buildings using the Kahn System. Reinforced concrete was not popular in Britain at the time (1914) but with Trussed Concrete supplying the necessary engineering know-how and having American connections enabling it to secure clients in the shape of successful American industrialists wishing to break into the British market, this was an excellent opening for the talented young architect Thomas Wallis to make use of. Bob Carr

Belgians in Britain during the First World War

About 117,000 Belgian men women and children settled in Britain during the First World War (GLIAS Newsletter February 1994; GLIAS Newsletter August 1994) when most of their country was occupied by the Germans. It appears not all these Belgians stayed here as houseguests or lodgers as they probably did in Richmond.

There was a Belgian Government in Exile and at Birtley in County Durham a large munitions factory was set up with Belgians living in their own town administered by Belgians. This was called Elisabethville and local Birtley people were not admitted.

It had its own school, shop, church, police station and post office etc staffed by Belgians. Families lived in pre-fabricated bungalows and the streets had Belgian names. The population was about 6,000 and there was Belgian-type beer.

By the beginning of 1919 most Elisabethville residents had gone home but the buildings remained until the late 1930s. The street names were changed soon after the Great War and the area was rebuilt as an ordinary British housing estate after the Second World War. Bob Carr

The Native Guano Company

The Native Guano Company works in Kingston-upon-Thames were on the site of what (at least until very recently) was Kingston B electric power station (GLIAS Newsletter December 1994). Opened in 1888 and using machinery by Willans and Robinson of Thames Ditton, sewage from Kingston and Surbiton was treated at the guano works to produce water clean enough to be put into the Thames and solid matter that was dried, ground and sold as fertiliser. Hampton Wick joined the scheme a little later, sending its sewage to the Guano Works by pipe via the adjacent railway bridge. The fertiliser produced became a British export and according to the local press boosted harvests in Singapore and helped to promote the growth of sugar in Barbados.

Unfortunately the smell in the town from the sludge drying caused complaints and the Corporation was forced to terminate the guano company's lease in 1909. The guano works moved to Southall and sludge was sent there by barge from Kingston for conversion into fertiliser. Despite this initial setback the use of fertiliser prepared from sewage has persisted in the area and products for horticulturists have been available from local treatment plants elsewhere for much of the time since the closure of the works in Down Hall Road. There is no denying the efficacy of this fertiliser in promoting plant growth but the present writer has been informed by a local gardener that it does have a drawback for domestic garden use. Tomato seeds will still germinate after passing through the human digestive system and an unacceptable amount of weeding in the garden becomes necessary to remove all the would be tomato plants. The fertiliser is pleasant to handle, consisting of rich brown granules. Bob Carr

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© GLIAS, 1995