History of Barking’s Remploy factory
“Impressive – that’s Barking” was the title of a 1969 article on the borough’s Remploy factory, which featured in the winter edition of the company’s regular magazine.
The piece proudly described how the factory, which provided work to both disabled and able bodied people, produced around 31million cartons and boxes in a year, enough to cover 300 soccer pitches.
“If one wanted to describe our Barking factory in topical terms one might call it the first of Remploy’s ‘Jumbo Factories,’” it said.
The facility, which opened in 1966 and was shut down by the government in August this year, was once one of the biggest Remploy factories in the country, running three services – book binding, printing and box and carton making.
Hive of activity
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Remploy, as a company, was set up in 1945 by Labour minister Ernest Bevin under the 1944 Disabled Persons Employment Act. Initially called the Disabled Persons Employment Corporation, the government-funded firm was designed to give jobs to soldiers injured in the Second World War. The first factory opened in Bridgend in November 1946, with many launched across the country in the following years. In its heyday, more than 10,000 people were employed.
The 1969 article on the Barking factory described it as a “hive of activity” and showed pictures of workers busy binding books, glueing boxes together, checking domestic iron leads and printing cardboard.
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One photograph featured couple Raymond and Audrey Wragg in front of a pile of books. Underneath the picture it said the pair met at Remploy when foreman Raymond began working there in 1952, and included a quote from Audrey. She said: “The only disadvantage in being married to the foreman is that we tend to talk shop because we work together. So we have to make it a rule that some of the time we don’t mention Remploy at all.”
The factory was still a thriving facility in 1986 when Mark Holloway joined at the age of 20. Mark, who has cerebral palsy, said: “I left school without any qualifications. I was really struggling to find work and at one point put my name and address in just about every shop in East Ham where I’m from.
“Eventually someone got back to me and I got a job as a cleaner for a bit, but that came to an end.”
As he began to despair, Mark was told about Remploy in Barking. “Remploy never advertised itself, it was always through word of mouth,” he explained.
“That’s how most of us got our jobs. Working there felt a bit strange at first because I was physically disabled and a lot of people there had learning difficulties. But I got used to it and soon settled in really well.”
Mark took on the position of shop steward around two years after starting, a role which became a large and important part of his life.
“Being a shop steward at Remploy was quite different from usual because you were a social worker as well. There were people there who would struggle with certain things, like their finances for example, and I’d help them out. I really enjoyed it.”
When Mark joined, Barking Remploy employed around 200 people, but the numbers dwindled over the years as the company employed less often and made more workers redundant.
When the facility closed there were only around 60 employees left.
The facility stopped bookbinding around 15 years ago and moved to electronics but the thriving atmosphere written about in the 1969 article never returned.
“It was sad to see the numbers fall,” said Mark. “But I don’t think it needed to go that way. The place could have been better managed - we could have been a really profitable company if it had been run in a different way. But no-one ever tried to change things. I believe the government wanted us to fail so they had an excuse to close the place down.”
Despite the shrinking work force Remploy was still one of the few places in the area to offer disabled people and those with learning difficulties a place to earn a decent living at their own pace in an environment where they didn’t feel “different”.
Mark reflected: “It meant so much to those who worked there. Some people turned up to work two hours before they needed to because they liked it so much. It’s a tragedy that the place is no longer there.”