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Lecture on Tuesday 17/05/22: Sir John Tusa - My Life with Bata

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Sir John Tusa - ‘MY LIFE WITH BATA’

John Tusa came to Britain in 1939 with his family at the age of three from Zlín in Moravia where his father had worked since the age of sixteen in the famous Bata shoe factory – a Bata baby. By the 1930s Bata of Czechoslovakia were the world’s leading manufacturer of footwear and factories were increasingly established overseas. A local clergyman sent a plea to Bata to come and build a factory at East Tilbury to provide work for the local unemployed due to the depression. Thomas Bata, founder of the Company, saw an opportunity for some of his Czech workers to establish a factory in Britain. Tragically he was killed in a plane crash in 1932. However, the site had already been purchased and the project progressed according to his instructions. Sir John’s father became the Managing Director of what became known as ‘Zlín on Thames’! He introduced the Czech system of mass production to the 3000 English workers recruited and the Bata approach to business and the large scale production of good quality affordable leather shoes. The separation of the twenty stages of production had been made possible by the revolutionary introduction of the conveyor belt and the most up to date technology. A key part of quality control lay in the imposition of clearly defined objectives and the Friday ‘luncheon’ conference when heads of departments had to justify their achievements. If not successful, his father “played hell”. Every week results were announced and published.

At East Tilbury the Bata Company followed the paternalistic vision of its founder who on principle provided the amenities of a town and houses on site for his employees. These were built in the modernist style of the 1920s and1930s with flat roofs and small gardens, with balconies for the Czech managers. Unfortunately they were found to be totally unsuitable for English weather. Sir John remembers the managers’ interiors with folksy decorations and cut glass recreating the atmosphere of Central Europe. This Czechness was preserved in annual rituals especially at Christmas. At dinner on Christmas Eve the phone would ring and Norman, the head of retail sales, would go out and come back with a piece of paper to read out the financial results of the most important two weeks for sales - those before Christmas (business never far away!). The last ceremony was on Boxing Day when his parents invited the Czech community to their house for drinks and a sing song which ended with the men singing songs of the Sokol Movement making it one of the happiest days of the year. In this remote corner of a flat and marshy Essex they knew what they had left behind but some of their national identity was being kept alive.

Individual identity was a question, however. English culture was embraced and Sir John and his brother were both sent to boarding school at an early age following the English tradition with Sir John going on to Trinity College, Cambridge, and followed by a full and varied career not least with the BBC. What made this talk so special was hearing Sir John’s personal recollections of a time long passed but one that was also shared by some members of the audience of the Friends of Czech Heritage, one of whom remembered that the Czechs trained their own cooks!

Review by Caroline Cannon-Brookes.

Sir John Tusa is a broadcaster, journalist, arts administrator and author of numerous books. His latest title is Making a Noise, an autobiography.

Tuesday 17th May 2022 at 6.30pm in the Embassy of the Czech Republic, 26-30 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QY.


There is an outing to Bata Tilbury organised by The Friends on Wednesday 22nd June, details here.


Visit to Tilbury and Bata Heritage, 22/06/22
Lecture 26/04/22 by Dr Philip Mansel: 'The Bourbon...

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