Ekco are famous among British radio manufacturers of the 1930s for being
among the the first - perhaps the very first - to
introduce Bakelite as a radio cabinet material.*
By the early thirties, Bakelite was in use for various items, notably knobs
and dial escutcheons but British makers had yet to employ the material in the
mass-production of entire one-piece cabinets. Ekco had seen German bakelite
cases and for the very earliest of their Bakelite housings they imported from
Germany, where Bakelite radio cabinets had been in production for some time. Soon, however, the great presses - essential to the production of
Bakelite mouldings - were installed at the Southend works
and mass-production began. Freed from the constraints of timber, designers
created some of the most innovative and complex shapes, shapes previously
impossible to produce economically in wood and the finished
cabinets were strong and elegant, often showing the influence of Art Deco. Perhaps the most famous of the many Ekco
designs was and still remains the 'round' series, commissioned by Ekco from the
avant-guarde architect and designer Wells Coates. Far less complex than the earlier
designs such as the M23, the 'round' series was based upon the geometric forms
of arcs, circles and lines, which may be the reason for their continuing
popularity: timeless simple elegance.
What follows is a glimpse of history as seen by newspapers of the time. These
are local to Southend, the town that was the base for Ekco Radio. For access to
these clips I am indebted to my good friend Jools Zauscinski.
I also highly recommend
a visit to his superb web site for all those interested in things
The story of how Ekco began (in brief!)
Verrells was only nine when his father died. He went to work and at the age of
12 toiled in a Welsh coal mine, studying at night school. With the start of the
first world war, Verrells fought for his country. His lungs were badly affected
(presumably by mustard gas?) and his health was so poor it was feared that his
life would be greatly shortened. His doctor advised him to go to Southend - 'The
ozone will do you good.' So he did and his lung condition improved. He became a
writer and sent in an article to a Southend newspaper. E.K. Cole replied to
Take your pick...
According to the Southend
Standard of 25.8.1932, Cole
was, in the mid-1920s, the proprietor of a small shop selling electrical equipment
and had produced an 'improved radio'. When Verrells saw it he said 'I can sell
those' and promptly went from door to door in Southend selling the Cole-produced
According to the Essex Weekly News
of 16.8.1935, Verrells and Cole co-owned a small workshop and produced power units
(eliminators) that Verrells sold. This version of the story makes more sense and
also appears in 'The Setmakers', a review of which can be found under 'Things to
Read'. It can be fairly safely assumed that to the non-technical newspaper
reporter of the time the terms 'improved radio' and improved radio power supply'
meant the same.
Whichever is the truth, seven years later - 1932 - the
factory floor shown in the article in the Southend Standard is enormous,
employing over 2000, the vast majority women. They worked the conveyor belt,
soldering, riveting, drilling, assembling from tiny component parts often produced
in-house by Ekco to the full radio receivers.
the bulk of the assembly work was carried out by an army of women, one bastion of male
supremacy remained: the complex metal moulds needed for the Bakelite pressings
were created by a skilled team of men. Three
great hydraulic presses created the famous range of Bakelite cabinets, each operating at
pressures up to 1000 tons or more, unique at that time in Britain for their capacity.
1935, the Essex Weekly News tells us that 'more than 3000 girls were employed in
the enormous factory'. The paper comments 'Raw Bakelite powder is poured into
moulds and electrically treated (sic**) dies bring terrific pressure and force on
the powder, resolving it into a plastic substance. For a few minutes the
pressure is applied - the workmen use an egg timer to judge the time -and the
dies are released, and a highly polished cabinet results. Chromium fittings are moulded into place and in a few minutes powder has become polished perfection.
The dies, tools and mould weigh upwards of 15 tons each... cut from solid blocks
of chromium nickel steel... involve an expenditure of several thousand pounds
before the first finished cabinet can be made.'
It is fair to say the Ekco's
real heyday was in the decade preceding world war II.
After the war, quality production continued but the innovation that in
earlier years had so popularised the marque seemed in short supply. It was as though everything worth doing had been done and the new
designs were really little more than improvements on these established features (revised and
modernised valve line-ups, simplified cabinet detailing). Although the firm
branched out into non-domestic electronics and other plastic production work, gradually but
inexorably Ekco went the way of the rest of the British radio manufacturers and
the depressing and ever-decreasing circle of take-overs and downsizing finally finished off the
once-pre-eminent radio company. Only the brand name lives on, albeit in a sadly
= almost certainly meant 'heated'
*Note that Philips used a form of thermosetting resin laminated board
cabinets, but this material was planar, i.e. it could not be formed into
compound curves and therefore cabinets made with it had to be assembled - built
up - from separate sheets.