Book review: ‘Made in London: From Workshops to Factories’
Image credit: Merrell/Carmel King
A reminder that the UK capital’s past as a centre of manufacturing could also be its future.
With all its department stores, theatres, cafés, pubs and underground stations, possibly one of the last things you’d ever expect of the great metropolis of London is for it to be teeming with manufacturing. While we might dimly recall that the South Bank, with its repurposed factories and workshops, was once the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, it’s hard to imagine today that much traditional manufacturing goes on in trendy boroughs replete with digital start-ups, innovation spaces and wall-to-wall fintech.
But as the superb ‘Made in London’ (Merrell, £40, ISBN 9781858947020) shows, nothing could be further from the truth. London today is packed with mechanical enterprise from the hand crafting of propellers to the design and manufacture of commuter bicycles. One of those upscale coffee table books that Merrell seems to be so adept at printing, this gorgeously produced tome, subtitled ‘From workshops to factories’, takes us right back to an almost mythical pre-digital London in which craftspeople, engineers and mechanics actually made, mended and restored things with tools, machines and practical know-how.
Metal, glass and food production feature strongly in the glossy pages of ‘Made in London’. But so too do the trades that we might think long obsolete, such as umbrella making, vinyl record pressing and fabric weaving. It’s a fascinating glimpse at the processes and spaces so often hidden from view, and importantly the people who work there, from sole traders to workforces numbering in the hundreds.
As former head of Design for London, Mark Brearley, says in his introduction, it’s easy to write off London’s production economy, assuming it to be in terminal decline. But he reminds us, it is returning to growth, alongside the rest of this large city’s industry. Eleven per cent of jobs in London are in the sector: work for close to half a million people. But it’s not all a cause for celebration. While it’s true that London’s biggest factory, the Ford diesel-engine plant in Dagenham that is shifting into the electric vehicle space, employs more than 2,000 people, it is also the only manufacturer creating jobs at scale. There are sugar refineries and other food-processing units that take on skilled personnel in their hundreds. But the main thrust of London’s manufacturing comes in the form of the workshop economy.
Brearley makes these points as a prelude to a celebration of the metal spinners, paint producers, mannequin manufacturers, gunmakers, foundries, lift fabricators and 65 precision-engineering workshops, which remind us that the UK capital’s past is also its future. As we tour the 50 or so businesses that feature in ‘Made in London’, the accompanying text is handled deftly by Clare Dowdy, whose prose bristles with insight. But the star of the show is Carmel King’s photography that from the first page to the last is a superb evocation of London’s engineering creativity.
All images from ‘Made in London: From Workshops to Factories’ by Carmel King, Mark Brearley and Clare Dowdy.
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