Working Middlesex

The Proposed West India Docks, 1802, by William Daniell

Middlesex, always one of the most prosperous English counties, enjoyed a late flowering in the 20th century. By the 1930s Acton Urban District Council could boast that it was the most important industrial region in Britain south of the Midlands. Light industry, centred on Park Royal and Hayes, followed on from earlier money making opportunities provided by easy access to London. In the previous century and earlier there had been specialised farming, growing wheat, fruit and vegetables for Londoners and fodder for their horses. Transport created jobs, from the coaching inns of Hounslow that fell victim to the first railways, to the Thames and its docks, to motor manufacture (in Acton Napier and Du Cros) and aviation centred around Acton Aerodrome and Hendon.

For centuries the most important source of work around London was the docks on the Thames: the naval docks at Deptford and Chatham in Kent, and in Middlesex on the north bank the merchant docks. Patrick Colquhoun, author of ‘A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames’ (1800) estimated that the river employed 120,000 people directly and 500,000 indirectly. The West India Dock company was formed in 1799 to build moorings for 600 vessels, excavating 295 acres in the Isle of Dogs. The construction of the docks with their high walls was, writes the historian Peter Linebaugh, ‘the hydraulic answer to the customary plunder of the river working class‘. Another answer was the formation in 1978 of the Marine Police Office: London’s first paid, centrally directed and armed police force.Heathrow Airport, which employs around 100,000 people, is the Docks’ successor.

Middlesex’s communications between London, the rest of the country and the rest of the world, are also a major reason for the county’s boom between the wars as the site of new industries in places like Hayes (which George Orwell called ‘the most godforsaken place’ — it was somewhere had had spent  some time as a school teacher.) When older industries slumped in the 1930s, new ones sprang up close to the capital and with good communications by the Grand Union Canal – which runs through Park Royal and Hayes –  and dual carriageway roads – the North Circular and A40/Western Avenue for Park Royal, the Great West Road for Hayes. Artistic people loathed places like the Golden Mile in Brentford, home to Beecham, Smiths Crisps, Firestone Tyres, Gillette, or its counterpart on the A12 in Edmonton:  in the first in his celebrated series of county guides The Buildings of Middlesex (1951) Nikolas Pevsner wrings his hands over the now celebrated Art Deco Hoover Factory on Western Avenue. Middlesex with flat fields near London was where aviation become established in Britain, with the London Aviation Ground  (later Acton Aerodrome)  created before World War 1 in an area beside Western Avenue and Saxon Drive. Hendon was also the home of a pioneer aerodrome with regular RAF displays during the 1920s and 30s and hence of the emerging aircraft industry: the London and Provincial Aviation Company, Niewport, Airco, Kingsbury Aviation, Handley Page… While the old canal-side industrial buildings of central London have now been turned into New York type flats and lofts no one yet seems quite clear what to do with what’s left of the outer industrial belt: only Park Royal is singled out in the London Plan as an opportunity zone …

One Response to Working Middlesex

  1. Leaving a comment as there is no other way of letting you know that the “pioneer aerodrome” link is broken.

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