Gallery: History of navigational company explored in new Redbridge Museum exhibition
PUBLISHED: 09:00 13 April 2014
Industry in Britain is said to have died a death over the last few decades, with the majority of the items we buy manufactured overseas.
But one navigational company which was founded over 150 years ago, and served the country during the two world wars, still exists today.
Kelvin Hughes was based in New North Road, Hainault, from 1917 to 2012, when it moved to Enfield, London, and the history of its time in the borough is the focus of a new exhibition.
Gerard Greene, Redbridge Museum’s manager, said: “With the company deciding to leave Hainault, it seemed important for the museum to record the site before it vanished.
“We feel this is an important part of the borough’s history, which affected the lives of thousands of local people over the years.”
The roots of Kelvin Hughes can be traced back to clockmaker Thomas Hughes, whose precision quadrants and timepieces were used in marine navigation.
In 1838, his grandson Henry Hughes founded a navigational instruments business for the shipping industry and opened up premises in Fenchurch Street, London.
Henry Hughes and Son opened its Forest Gate factory in 1903 before launching the Hainault base in 1917.
This is where staff created instruments to be used on land, ships and by aircraft, which were sent around the world.
The company also played a key role in supplying equipment to the armed forces during wartime.
Throughout the First World War, it produced instruments for the Royal Navy and made compasses used by the Royal Flying Corps, later the Royal Air Force (RAF).
During the Second World War, it had contracts with the Admiralty for technology used on board ships and supplied aircraft sextants, which helped the men to calculate their positions on charts.
A Blitz bombing raid in 1941 destroyed Henry Hughes and Son’s Fenchurch Street offices, along with their rival Kelvin Bottomley and Baird’s base, which paved the way for their merger.
The company’s peak came in the post-war period, when it became a significant presence in Redbridge.
Mr Greene said: “In the 1950s and 1960s it was a major local employer of over 1,500 people and many of them were local families.
“It was quite usual to have fathers, sons, wives, daughters, brothers and sisters all working there.”
Harry Harvey, 92, who lives in Clayhall, worked for Kelvin Hughes from 1936 to 1987.
He said: “I was what you might call a bit of an odd bod. I started as a shop boy, where you made the tea and swept the floor, and I got slightly elevated to making things.
“But by that time the war had come along so I joined the RAF and wound up as a pilot.”
Mr Harvey returned to his job afterwards and was promoted until he ended up as a project engineer, which he “thoroughly enjoyed”.
He added: “I was retired when the company moved so it didn’t affect me, but it was a bit sad.”
Kelvin Hughes was sold by parent company Smiths Industries in 2007, who also sold the lease of the Hainault factory site, which is now being developed for housing.
The museum’s exhibition features objects from the company’s history, such as 1940s sextants and a 1975 marine compass.
There will also be a special film, for which former and current employees were interviewed just before the company moved.
Mr Greene said: “We wanted to let people tell their story in their own words. The display tries to reflect a proud history in the local area.”
Kelvin Hughes- Land, Sea and Air will run until October 4 at the museum, which is based in Redbridge Central Library, Clements Road, Ilford.
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