A snapshot in time: Charity explore the history of Ilford photographic company

Plate labelling at Ilford limited c.1960. Copyright Redbridge Borough Council Archive

Plate labelling at Ilford limited c.1960. Copyright Redbridge Borough Council Archive - Credit: Archant

If a single photo can speak a thousand words, than the pictures, oral memories and documents collected about the Ilford photographic company can definitely make for an interesting conversation.

Visitors view old pictures of the site at an Eastside Community Heritage talk

Visitors view old pictures of the site at an Eastside Community Heritage talk - Credit: Archant

Eastside Community Heritage has embarked on a project exploring the history of Ilford Limited – founded in 1879 by Alfred Harman – and through talks, walks and exhibitions it hopes to show how the world-renowned company grew from the basement of a house in Cranbrook Road, Ilford.

The Recorder went to an event held by Eastside at Sainbury’s – the site of the old factory – for a rooftop tour to find out some more.

Holly Gilson, project officer, explained: “It would become one of the most important photographic companies in the 20th century.

“The company began by making photographic plates and Harman chose the town of Ilford as his base because he believed it to have the optimum conditions for a photographic company.”

Ilford Limited Workers c.1960 Copyright Redbridge Borough Coucil Archive

Ilford Limited Workers c.1960 Copyright Redbridge Borough Coucil Archive - Credit: Archant


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Not only did he need a location far enough away from cities to avoid associated smoke which could ruin a photographic plate, but he needed to be sufficiently close to London to help market his product and Ilford, with its rural surrounding, was well suited at the time.

The entrepreneur set up the company at his house and was assisted in making a “secret” chemical emulsion by his wife and housekeeper.

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He used everyday household items to help create his concoction and used a teapot to pour the liquid.

As business began to grow, Harman acquired Clyde Cottages, on the current Sainbury’s site in Roden Street, to house some of the manufacturing processes.

Visitors are lucky enough to have a roof top tour of Sainsbury's

Visitors are lucky enough to have a roof top tour of Sainsbury's - Credit: Archant

“The secret emulsion had to be transported from his house there by handcart,” added Holly.

“This was quite risky as the cart had to be pushed quite a distance and as the emulation contained silver if any was spilt they were losing a valuable resource.”

Despite having a specially designed factory in 1883, Harman still had a creative approach with his production line.

He adapted a milk cooler to cool down the emulsion and lamps from carriages, which had a deep ruby glass, to provide light in the dark rooms.

The workers had a canteen built for them, photo c.1975. Copyright Redbridge Borough Council Archive

The workers had a canteen built for them, photo c.1975. Copyright Redbridge Borough Council Archive - Credit: Archant

“The dark rooms were not well ventilated so they got very hot,” said Holly.

“There are records of workers being fined or losing their bonus because they fell asleep.”

When the railway came to Ilford in 1839 the population began to increase and by 1919 there were 75 factories registered in Ilford alone including Ekman Paper and Pulp Company, which made paper for the Bank of England, and J. Ismay’s light bulb manufacturers.

Although the positioning of Ilford had been ideal when Alfred Harman’s factory was built, by the end of the 19th century the air quality had been reduced by smoke and dust.

View from Sainsbury's roof top

View from Sainsbury's roof top - Credit: Archant

The Ilford Gas Company set up nearby and its fumes ruined newly coated photographic plates. On August 12 1899, 25,000 plates were destroyed.

Ilford Limited soldiered on after the outbreak of the First World War when young employers were urged to enlist.

As photography was seen as a luxury the company anticipated that it would need less staff and the remaining workers were put on half time hours.

However before a year had passed it became clear that this was not the case. The armed forces used photography for documentation and surveillance – it shifted from a luxury trade to an essential industry.

Fire bomb damage in the plate stockroom looking east, september 1940. Copyright Redbridge Borough Co

Fire bomb damage in the plate stockroom looking east, september 1940. Copyright Redbridge Borough Council Archive - Credit: Archant

During the Second World War, Ilford was a target for bombs as the town was not only home to Ilford Limited but also Plessey’s; an electronics defence and telecommunications company.

The photographic company had its own air raid shelter and camouflage but this did not stop it from being hit by a German rocket in the Blitz.

Holly explained the project had collected oral memories of staff workers who were in the building when the roof fell in, with one woman recalling that her boss calmly suggested that they should probably turn off the Bunsen burners after the explosion.

“Ilford Limited invested in a scientific research department which allowed it to stay ahead of its competitors,” added Holly.

Holly Gilson shows where Ilford's site used to be

Holly Gilson shows where Ilford's site used to be - Credit: Archant

“Before health and safety legislation came in, conditions in the lab were very different to those you would expect today and we have audio clips of workers handling cyanide – they had to make sure they washed their hands afterwards, but if not, the antidote was kept in the same room.”

Despite poor air conditions and two world wars, Ilford Limited remained on the Sainsbury’s site until 1976 when it closed and headquarters moved to Basildon.

The company then moved to Mobberley, Cheshire in 1983 and the London based sales and admin team moved in 1996.

Eastside Community Heritage events:

Landscape photography rooftop talk:

Saturday, May 28, from 2pm, Sainsbury’s, Roden Street, Ilford.

Learn about the history of Ilford Limited on the roof of Sainsbury’s. There will also be a session with the Woodford and Wanstead Photographic Society and you can learn and improve your landscape photography skills by taking shots of the panorama.

Volunteer research assistant training session:

Saturday, June 4, 10am to 3pm, Cardinal Heenan Centre, High Road, Ilford.

Learn how to conduct an oral history interview and research in an archive. Gain the skills to help the Eastside Community Heritage create an exhibition about Ilford Limited.

For more information about the events call 020 8553 3116 or email rochelle@ech.org.uk

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