It will be 100 years on the 17th May 2020 since the Memorandum of Association was signed by the syndicate of seven men that inaugurated Slough Trading Estate (STE). In 2007, STE changed its name to the Slough Estates Group plc. (SEGRO) and had revenue of £369 million in 2018.
In April 1920, a mock funeral was held for the Motor Works that preceded STE by the people of Slough. Those in attendance included some of the 5000 strong workforce who had been given notice by the Government’s Minister of Munitions. On the day of the funeral a brass band played, a grave was dug, a service held and a union representative lamented that: ‘The saddest place in the British Empire is the Land fit for heroes.’ The mock funeral was reported widely in the national press and marked the passing of the Slough Motor Works Depot to the Slough Trading Company syndicate who bought it lock, stock and barrel from the Government. This deal caused anger and accusations of shoddy practices from Motor manufacturers within the United Kingdom. It was felt that the sale, which had not been put out to tender, was biased in favour of the syndicate. At the end of the war the motor manufacturers had bought their vehicles back in good faith from the Government. However, the deal to sell the depot meant that the property sold to the syndicate fetched a much lower price and as such, motor manufacturers were stuck with vehicles that were 75% more expensive.
Slough Trading Estate (STE) was an innovative development, following in the wake of developments such as Trafford Park in Manchester, that leased factories before 1914. Slough was also not the only estate to be developed on land used by the Government in the First World War. Chase Estate, Park Royal in London was used by the Royal Army Service Corps and then developed post war as factories by Alnutt Ltd. By the Second World War, STE had taken on central significance in the national industrial economy. In September 1939 GR Allen’ calculates that the numbers of people employed on trading estates was approximately 45,000-50,000; of this number 60% were employed at STE.
The government-owned Slough Motor Works began life as a discussion by the War Office in 1916, when it became apparent that garages within the United Kingdom could not cope with the number of vehicles being returned for repair from the Western Front, and that a central depot serving the whole country was needed as a vital part of the Government’s war strategy. It was claimed by the Assistant Director of the War Office, that of the 8000 garages in the United Kingdom 7,700 were inefficient and unsuitable for heavy repairs. That initial discussion in 1916 led to a project that didn’t commence until six weeks after the Armistice was signed and cost the British taxpayer over £2 million.
The Government looked at several sites within the United Kingdom but chose the one in Cippenham near Slough as being the best place to build the new depot. It was agricultural land close to the main railway line into London, which was only 25 miles away. The parish of Cippenham was a rural one and 650 acres of farmland was acquired through compulsory purchase under the Defence of the Realm Act. It was argued by opponents that the scheme would destroy the countryside and jeopardise valuable national food production. Lord Desborough, a nearby land owner of Taplow Court, successfully campaigned for an enquiry to be held into the Depot (“piece of criminal folly”), as he felt that the site hadn’t been required during or after the war and that in 1919 it was still unfit for its purpose (i.e. fixing of broken-down army vehicles for resale back to the original manufacturers).
Winston Churchill as Minister of War spoke in the House of Commons ahead of the enquiry. He stated that there had been three key decisions made about the plant:
- A central Depot was needed during the war because the garages within in the UK were not coping with the quantity of vehicles having to be salvaged.
- The Armistice Scheme was approved because even though hostilities had ceased there were very many Motor Transport Vehicles which needed to be repaired.
- To continue with the above scheme in a depot that was fit for purpose so that the repair of government vehicles could be done as quickly as possible. It would include plenty of storage space and spare parts.
The Motor Works Depot eventually opened for business in the summer of 1919. The substantial delay in its development was attributed to the complex consultations with the various Government departments involved. The War Office handed the project over to the Ministry of Munitions on 20th May 1919. A Disposal Board was created by the Ministry of Munitions to deal with all those vehicles no longer required by the Government which could be sold nationwide for civilian use. It was generally believed by Government Ministers that the market for cars (which had apparently gone up in value since the start of the war) meant the repaired vehicles would make a profit. The depot was built by Messrs. McAlpine whom initially estimated the cost would be £1 million, then £1.75 million and then higher still.
The Slough ‘White Elephant’, as the Depot became known in the town, was projected to employ 2000 men with 1,000 vehicles to be kept in two large shelters. One of these covered more than eight acres of ground and was the largest workshop created during the war. A unit had been set up to provide for repair of heavy tractors and lorries; a blacksmith shop; workshops for tinsmiths; coppersmiths and electricians, as well as a foundry and woodworking shops for the vehicle bodywork. There was an engine test and running shed and motorcycle shelters, plus areas made for the cleaning of the vehicles and disposing of the oil and grease.
The enquiry into the Slough Motor Works began in May 1919 and was led by a Joint Committee of House of Lords and House of Commons representatives. It looked at the ‘origin and progress of the Motor Repair Works’ and also if public money had been wasted by its construction. The report of the committee was published on 3rd July 1919. The Committee felt that that the Armistice would have been the proper time to make an assessment of the site’s potential viability and saleability. Because of construction delays the depot was deemed a failure as a war measure and consequently public money had been wasted.
As well as been deemed ineffectual by the state, the depot was also afflicted by crime at a local and regional level. Local papers continually reported thefts from the depot with six being reported in the West Middlesex Gazette on the 5th September 1919. Another type of crime listed within the Slough and Burnham Petty Sessions of 1919 was that of ‘obtaining money by means of false pretences.’ Workers on the site who travelled in from London were paid higher rates of pay than those who lived locally, to take into account the journey time from London to Cippenham. It was discovered that local men were giving addresses in West London so they could get the higher rate of pay. One case described was that of Reginald Maisey a motor engineer living in Burnham but claimed to be in Shepherds Bush. He was sentenced to a month’s hard labour by Burnham Petty Sessions for falsely obtaining £13:1:8 from the Government.
SEGRO, began life a hundred years ago under a cloud of controversy as Slough Trading Estates, a company which benefited from a parliament desperately trying to offload one of its most disastrous projects during the Great War. The Motor Works, intended to serve a vital military function, proved too costly and was finished far too late. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the estate that replaced the Government’s depot, grew into one of the most successful enterprises in Europe and was a profitable model for trading estates all over the world with the company acquiring property in America, Australia and Canada.
Images used with permission of SEGRO plc.
Lisa Edwards works at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury as a Public Services Officer (Community Outreach & Projects). She has an MA in Public History from Ruskin College, Oxford. She is an oral historian and writer whose current research includes the project ‘Memory, Myth & the Truth: Secrecy & the State in WW2’ and ‘The Life and Successes of Colonel Wallace Charles Devereux’.