Modernist marvel of art

In the late 1930s, a family called the Vaclaviks left the Czech town of Zlín, travelled to Africa, then moved to a house in Essex. At the time, they had no idea how distinctive their new place was, or would become. They were just happy to live there. Golf-mad Alois Vaclavik was particularly taken with the garden, where he would practise his putting, while his wife Jarmila made Czech cakes in the kitchen.

Alois Vaclavik was an employee of the Czech shoe giant Bata and the house was part of the estate – actually more of a town – that the company built in East Tilbury in the 1930s. His cuboid-shaped home and the other houses around it still feel both self-contained and spacious, cosy and civilising – a bridge between the toil of the worker and the intellectual idealism of the age in which they were built.

‘I had a group of 20 architects visit’ … May Rippingale in front of her house on the Bata estate in East Tilbury. Photograph: Martin Godwin/For the Guardian

May Rippingale, one of the Vaclaviks’ children, is sitting in the shaded part of the garden where she used to play as a young girl. She bought the family home in the 1980s when the estate was put up for sale. “A couple of years ago,” she says, “I had a group of 20 architects visit. They went round the house and told me what was wrong with it! That the bannister was dangerous for children and the balcony wouldn’t be allowed.”

Shoe production via conveyor belt at the Bata factory.

As an entrepreneur, Tomáš Baťa mimicked Henry Ford’s conveyor-belt system in his shoe factories, but his footwear Fordism was allied with a utopian vision of community living. Though Baťa died in a plane crash in Switzerland just months after buying the land in Essex, he had left explicit instructions as to how the project should unfold.

Construction began in 1932. As well as the chequerboard of workers’ houses, there was a Bata supermarket, a Bata shoe shop and a Bata farm that supplied bacon, eggs and milk for guests’ breakfasts at the Bata hotel. There were tennis and netball courts, a swimming pool and full-size football pitches provided for workers’ leisure (West Ham trained here and played an annual charity match against Bata’s team, which Bata once won, according to local lore). Scooters and motorbikes lined up outside the espresso bar, which opened in 1963 complete with a coffee machine and jukebox.

These days, the purpose-built cinema is used as a village hall, while the hotel ballroom, where Tom Jones once played, has been transformed into the post office, its original parquet floor now wearing down to the bitumen. East Tilbury library, tucked away round the back of the old hotel on the edge of the largely intact estate, doubles as the Bata Heritage Centre.

Bata’s very happening mid-60s espresso bar.

A team of volunteers – former Bata workers or retirees whose parents once worked there – will be giving tours of East Tilbury during the forthcoming Essex architecture weekend. Part of Focal Point Gallery in Southend’s ongoing Radical Essex project, this series of architectural tours and talks aims to shine a light on the little-celebrated story of Essex modernism, from Romford in Greater London, to Frinton on its northeastern coast, to Crittall Windows’ model village in Silver End. Rippingale is opening up her house during the weekend.

East Tilbury, like all Bata towns, followed the blueprint of the industrial garden city of Zlín, a fully realised 45,000-strong worker town complete with a 16-storey-high HQ by the time the second world war started. It was designed by a pupil of Le Corbusier, František Lydie Gahura, and by Vladimír Karfík, who had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. “Under this rational mechanism,” said Le Corbusier on a visit to Zlín, “I perceived a much more valued and effective factor – the human heart.” The same sentiment echoes around accounts of East Tilbury in its heyday.

Mick Pinion grew up on the Bata estate. His father already worked at the factory when he became an apprentice engineer straight out of school in 1966. “You were dropped in at the deep end – you had to learn on the job,” says Pinion. “If you had a Bata apprenticeship, you could get a job anywhere.” The Essex factory employed 3,000 people at its peak in the 1960s and 70s. Czech management moved there, as well as immigrants from all over the world. Some elements of the Bata way might seem intrusive by today’s standards. “People knew if their garden was overgrown they would be pulled into the office and asked politely to sort it out,” says former employee Graham Sutcliffe. “It made them respect the town a bit more.”