Saturday, June 22, 2013

Imperial Typewriters, Leicester

I was looking for Arthur Wakerley and North Evington today, but on the way I found this vast factory on a Leicester backstreet.

Manual typewriters were once as ubiquitous in offices as PCs are today, and Imperial Typewriters was the best known manufacturer of them. The company set up in Leicester in 1908 and this, its factory in East Park Road, was one of the city's major employer until it closed in 1975. By then Imperial was owned by an American company and was the last company making typewriters in Britain.

In 1974 it had been the site of an historic strike. An old Socialist Worker interview with Leo Ismail , a Ugandan Asian who arrived in Leicester in 1972, tells the story:
The big employer in Leicester was Imperial Typewriters. Leo, like the majority of new arrivals, got a job there. 
It was a Transport & General Workers Union (T&G) closed shop. Inside the factory the union was very conservative and tended to look on the new workers as competition rather than new allies. There wasn't one black or Asian person on the union committee. 
One day in 1974 the management sacked 40 Asian women without any reason. Leo said, “We went to the union to complain. The officials told us the company had a right to hire and fire as it chooses.” 
So all 1,100 Asians at the company walked out on unofficial strike. The national T&G backed the local officials rather than the strikers.
The article also says:
The dispute was important in shifting the attitude of British trade unionists to immigrant workers. This would bear fruit with much wider support for the largely Asian Grunwick dispute three years later. 
Leo remembers the legacy of the strike, and how it gave Asians in Leicester a new sense of identity and forced them to be self-reliant.
I am sure all this is true, though it may not be a coincidence that the factory closed the year after the strike - seventies trade union victories were often like that.

You can see the workers going to a meeting at De Montfort Hall after the closure plans had been announced in this film on the Media Archive for Central England site.

There was a second Imperial factory in Hull, and there the workers staged an occupation. But manual typewriters were on the way out, swept away by electric models and then by word processors and personal computers.

Today the old Imperial factory in East Park Road is full of Asian textile businesses. This post ought to end with a hymn to multiracial, multicultural Leicester, but there is an unhappy side to its modern use too.

In 2010 a Channel 4 Dispatches programme (discussed in an Independent article) investigating Leicester sweatshops serving the fashion industries. And, says The Cynical Tendency, some of those businesses were housed in the old Imperial factory.

And a year later the UK Border Agency raided the building, arresting 33 workers whose right to be in the country it questioned.

So let's end by looking at a couple of relics of Imperial Typewriters to be found on the street at the back of the building.


Chris Matthews said...

Wow - great post and great building. On the classical sign "imperial typewriter Co Ltd", is that a fasci bundle of sticks either side? Probably is, but but probably more to associate with Roman empire than Mussolini...

John Dalby said...

The five "sticks" above the word "Imperial" on the front of the building are there for a purpose, I was employed in the 50s in the Sales Office., and it was always said they were to hang the Directors on!!

Unknown said...

Hi, I was wondering if anyone can tell me if I can get the year my typewriter was made by the s/n s8389. I've tried google search without luck. cheers Dawne in NZ

Ioana said...

Great post. I wonder who owns the building now? Must be very profitable with all those illegal factories inside that don't need any maintenance and don't mind the derelict look...