Silver End - a place to work and play

Written by Susan King for the 70th Anniversary

Silver End is a place noted for its celebrations of community - in the early years of the village these were staged by the Crittall Company - for example the planting of the commemorative oak by Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, the laying of the first cornerstone of the first house in Temple Lane, the opening of the Village Hall by the Lord Mayor of London and the early "Pioneer Dinners". The village's Golden and Diamond Jubilees were marked with community- based festivities and both events generated written histories. Now Silver End is preparing for another celebration of its history and identity - its 70th birthday in 1996.

Silver End was built by metal window manufacturer Francis Henry Crittall as a site for a new factory and housing for his workers. From the first it was designed to be self-sufficient and Utopian - an experiment in Francis Crittall's theory that decent living conditions, far from harming company profits would actually increase productivity. Within a year of Crittall unveiling his plans to his workers - by open letter in the company magazine in January 1926 - the village factory had started production, some of the houses were occupied and Francis Crittall - known to his workers as the "Guv'nor" was about to move into his village centre home "Manors".

Silver End can be seen to be both an end and a beginning. It was the final attempt by an enlightened employer to provide an ideal environment for his workers, the end of a long tradition started by the mill owner Robert Owen at New Lanark at the start of the nineteenth century, and continued by Titus Salt at Saltaire, Lever at Port Sunlight, Rowntree at New Earswick and Cadbury at Bournville. It was also part of the garden village movement - Silver End was the first garden village in Essex. The village was a practical response to the deep social problems of its time - the problems of housing shortage and slum dwellings, unemployment and industrial unrest, the problem of finding work for the disabled war veterans. It was also a solution to the immediate problem of Francis Crittall - That of finding sufficient housing for his expanding workforce.

The Crittall Company's history had begun in Braintree in 1849 when Francis Berrington Crittall, father of Francis Henry, opened an ironmonger's shop in Bank Street, Braintree. Francis Berrington was moderately successful and very active in the local community. His concerns included the Braintree Board of Health and the Savings Bank. When he died his fellow shopkeepers closed for the day as an act of respect. Francis Henry was born "above the shop" in 1860 and from an early age worked in the family business. As a young man he went to work in Birmingham, from there opening his first shop in Chester. He returned to Braintree after his father's death and the decision of his elder brother to leave the business for London. Under Francis Henry the business went increasingly over to metal work, an early contract was metal fittings for the new Braintree Public Gardens opened in 1888. A year later the Crittall Manufacturing Company was founded. At this time the firm's output in a two year period was 20 tons - equal to one day's output from the Braintree works alone in 1949. In 1893 Francis Crittall moved his business into the comparatively huge Manor works ( in typical "Guv'nor" style this was done in a single weekend to avoid interrupting production). In 1880 the company employed 11 men, by the 1890s this figure was 34, by 1918 500. In the early years of the century the company opened a London office and entered the United States market, making windows for Ford's Model T factory.

It was becoming increasingly clear that Braintree could not hope to meet the needs of the Crittall workforce. By the 1920s the population of the town had reached 18,000 and it has been estimated that 10,000 of these were Crittall employees and their families. Francis Crittall, after an experiment with housing in Cressing Road, Braintree, decided that the only solution was to build a village for his factory and workforce.

A site was found mid-way between Braintree and Witham in October 1925 - the tiny hamlet of Silver End then consisted of the Western Arms and a few cottages. Farmland was for sale at Boars Tye and the decision was made. 220 acres were bought and in January 1926 Francis Crittall presented his plans to his workforce. The company had bought land, he said, On which we propose to erect a village, a village with all the advantages of a town. A five year plan was drawn up to build 100 houses a year, all with large gardens and no more than ten to an acre. The Silver End Development Company was set up to build the village - this was to be done by direct labour and a team of about 300 men were set to work. The building, at an estimated cost of £600,000 was to be partly funded by the Crittall Building Society, into which workers were encouraged to invest their savings. To supply the village with food the Silver End Trading Company was set up in March 1926. The village was to be a total environment, with its own water and power supplies, allotments and non-profit making farms, piggeries, dairy and slaughterhouse, bakery and sausage factory, print works and newspaper. There was to be a store with 26 departments, a village hall (still the largest in the country), school, churches and chapel, playing fields, a light engineering works for disabled war veterans, as well as full sports and social facilities. All residents were expected to live, work and play in the village. This, for a short period, lived up to its promise to be a total environment, it was said that there was never any need to leave the village on a daily or even a weekly basis.

The village gave pre-eminence to community space with the central siting of recreation grounds, playing fields and allotments, the village hall and stores. The houses stood back from wide tree-edged streets and at the centre of it all stood ‘Manors’ - the ‘Guv'nor's’ house. 600 houses were built in five years with great care given to ensure their modernity and efficiency. These were award-winning and as deliberate policy were designed by different architects to avoid regimentation. The resulting mixture of styles included Arts and Crafts type cottages, modernistic houses of German inspiration as well as the classic elegance that can be seen at ‘Manors’. It was the Modernist houses that attracted most comment and continue to attract attention today. Breaking away from traditional styles Francis Crittall, probably encouraged by his son, the artistic ‘Pink’ Crittall, employed architects known for their innovation - men like Thomas Tait - and by doing so brought the Modern Movement to Britain. The houses were exceptionally modern for their time, with inside lavatories and bathrooms, and limitless electricity included for a small extra charge on the rent. (It was planned that villagers should buy their homes from the company, but the Depression and then the war prevented this in most cases.)

The resulting avenues of white painted flat-roofed houses became the trademark of Silver End. Francis Crittall wrote in his autobiography Fifty Years of Work and Play (1935) ‘In planning the houses we decided to sacrifice traditional design in the cause of light and air and space.........’

The workforce was drawn from the immediate area but also from the depressed regions of Wales, Scotland, the Midlands and the North. Many villagers had been unemployed or striking miners - Crittall's offered them the security of a home and a job. People still living in the village today speak of the distinctive cultural groups that made Silver End unique. Part of Silver End's identity is still bound up in this ‘pioneer past’, living, as one woman put it, as part of ‘an ethnic jigsaw’. Silver End people were, and in many ways still are, a migrant people, who share a common heritage of starting a new life in a new place, with the oldest people in the village still remembering the days when Silver End mud was a local joke and when Welsh choirs and Scottish dancers regularly entertained their neighbours.

During its first decade Silver End - largely a village of young people - was cited as the healthiest village in England, with the lowest death rate and the highest birth rate. The first baby born in the village was christened Valentine George after his godfather Valentine Crittall. The community exuded self-confidence during these early years, everything was a success story and a cause for celebration from the opening of the thatched Tea-Shop and handing over of tennis courts from the ‘Guv'nor’ to the people of the village to the continuing and increasing productivity of the village factory. Crittall influence was everywhere and members of the ‘Guv'nor's’ family enthusiastically took over village leadership in matters of welfare, housing and education, as well as sports and social activities.

Silver End was a success story. For a few years it attracted press attention for its social innovation - this was the "Metal Window Kingdom of Happiness" , "The City of 2000 AD" Its events featured in the national press.

However, world-wide depression at the start of the thirties was to cut short Silver End's "high summer". From 1931 redundancies and short time working became a reality in the Utopian village. The Crittall Building Society was wound up and plans for a further 200 houses, a hospital and swimming pool were scrapped. Many concerns - the farms, hotel, transport and stores were sold off. Crittall involvement in the village continued, however, perhaps reaching a high point during the Second World War. Bruce Stait's recent book details the deep involvement in the village war effort of members of the Crittall family. When the war was over there was time again to start remembering and to commemorate the special history of the village. When gardens were designed in memory of the "Guv'nor" and his wife after the war by his son WF "Pink" Crittall workers gave their labour free to provide decorative gates "in gratitude".

By the end of the 1960s the Crittall company was taken over and Silver End given up - its houses taken over by the local authority. New homes now encircle and out number the old and only Preservation orders and village pride has saved Silver End from being modernised into anonymity. The factory is owned by another company and the Crittall name - once a world-wide concern - is now back where it started and much reduced in scale, in Braintree. The "Sixty-Five Club", where retired workers could still put in a day or so a week - keeping them involved and preventing the wastage of their skills - has until recently been a local geology museum and now stands empty. Members of the Crittall family have long since left their village homes. However, the sense of community and history in Silver End remains remarkable. The community's sense of itself has outlived and outgrown its original purpose as a company village. Silver End people still feel that they are part of a community, that their identity is a special one and that they have a history that is worth remembering and celebrating. It is this special sense of community and history that is a still enduring legacy - 70 years after the inception of the village, 60 years after the death of the "Guv'nor" and 30 years after the loss of the Crittall company.