When I was at school a great favourite schoolboy joke ran along the lines of “Where is the first motorbike in recorded history? In the Bible - Moses came over the hill in a Triumph.” It was with some difficulty I set out to find appropriate readings to commemorate and give thanks for 70 years of footwear manufacture here in East Tilbury. And then, like Jacob, after wrestling with it for some time - it came clear - “I have led you forty years in the wilderness. the clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out, you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink - so that you may know that I am the Lord your God.” After forty years “the sandals on;your feet have not worn out” - obviously - the first recorded reference to Bata footwear!
What I’m not going to do today is to tell you the story of Bata’s arrival and presence here - you can tell that story better than I, you know that story better than I - indeed - you are part of that story.
My first contact with the Bata Organization was a good number of years ago sitting in Liverpool where I was in charge of four bill-paying sections of the Ministry of Defence Directorate of Accounts Bills. Two of those sections were done on an alphabetical split - I had A’s, B’s and C’s- and amongst the B’s were British Bata and if any of you were involved in accounts etc. and fretted and fumed over the people who kept sending MOD Form 640’s back for clarification before you got paid for Boots Combat High and the like - it was me! Little did I ever think in those days that I would end up living amongst and meeting some of the people who developed and made our boots!
Nor am I going to talk about the technological advances achieved during the years here - again, you too can tell that story better than I can. No, what intrigues me more are the stories I have been privileged to hear.
Age old stories about boy meets girl on Bata outings to Southend, or Brighton or at a dance in the hotel or wherever. Age old stories about falling in love, making relationships, building community, establishing families. Stories about school days in the Bata School, the Bata Doctor, the Bata Nurse, the goings-on in the Hotel, the shop, the farm, the cinema, the swimming pool - wouldn’t it have been wonderful if we’d still had it this past, ever-so-hot summer? Stories about people who came from all arts and parts to find work and make their homes here. People who came from the Czech Republic, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. People who came from Manchester, East London, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cumberland, Scotland, Ireland, Malta and all stations to goodness knows where - to form part of a community of, at its peak, 3,500 workers and their associated dependants.
I’ve heard stories of those who made socks and boot linings, those who worked in rubber, those who worked in leather, those who worked on the farm, those who belonged to the Bata Fire Service - (I understand the last Fire Engine is still about!) those who were engineers, accountants, etc. All the myriad trades and professions which went together to work for Thomas Bata’s great vision of putting shoes on the world’s feet.
I’ve heard sad stories, funny stories, stories of great generosity - of Mr Bata’s genuine and personal interest in his employees and support for them in times of trouble, and I’ve hear angry stories. We mustn’t fool ourselves or be too romantic about the whole thing, living in a tightly controlled model environment doesn’t suit everyone. There are perils to living in company accomodation, I should know, I do too.
Many of you will have known the glory days, and looked with sadness on the subsequent days of decline. But it was a great vision, a marvellous and extraordinary thing which happened here. It was without doubt a great vision, an heroic effort, it has left an indelible mark on this part of the world, changed it for ever. Changed lives, and left a rich heritage.
Of all that was achieved here down the years, the building of community was probably the most important and will probably prove the most lasting.
In addition to those well-worn sandals in our first reading, here also stands an ill-assorted bunch of people who have been lead out into a strange and unfamiliar country to be build into one people with a common purpose.
“You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Lord you God, the leaders of you tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water, to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God.”
And here in East Tilbury was a tiny reflection of that, an assembly of strangers who built together by and for common purpose. And the consequence, in our second reading, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
“No longer strangers and aliens.” Mr Bata came here with the intention of creating footwear, but wittingly or unwittingly he also created community. He provided a model whereby people could be brought together from all over the world, from different cultures and backgrounds and situations and could live together in relative peace and harmony, united by common purpose.
A tiny glimpse of what the world might be like. We have to admit the glory days are over, the fellowship is to some extent dissolved but from the stories I’ve been privileged to hear, the roots of that community are strong and deep and, I suspect, will even out-last the sandals!
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