Watkins Bible Factory

Boarded up factory in centre of Victorian terrace

Watkins, Watkins & Co. Cowan Street entrance, shortly before demolition

Watkins Bible Bookbinding Factory stood on the site of what is now the children’s playground. It was one of the area’s biggest factories. At its peak it bound 1 million bibles a year, employing 400, mainly women, known as ‘folder girls’. It was deemed to offer more ‘respectable’ employment than some other local factories. Suffering World War 2 bomb damage, the factory was rebuilt in late 1950s but eventually closed in 1977.

Watkins’ unassuming factory entrance was in the middle of a terrace at 6-8 Cowan Street, but the factory backed onto Scarsdale Road – both roads which were lost when Burgess Park was created. The factory took up almost an entire block bounded by 4 streets – a larger footprint than Chumleigh Gardens.

Factory buildings are shown in pink, with roof skylights in blue

Factory plan, showing its position in relation to Chumleigh Gardens

In the plan above, the Cowan St entrance is at top centre. The yellow squares are post-war prefabs – emergency housing on bomb sites.

Group of 7 women on a tea break

Watkins workers in 1961

Watkins’ trade was solely in binding bibles.  During the Second World War, the factory was damaged by bombs which also destroyed a couple of houses on Cowan Street, leaving a gap in the terrace which remained unfilled until the whole street was eventually demolished. The factory was rebuilt in the late 1950s.

 

Former employee Dave Trutzenbach remembers his 6 year apprenticeship with Watkins which began when he was 15 years old. Each week, on Tuesdays, he attended Holborn Art and Craft school, for hand bookbinding classes, and later helped to produce thousands of bibles ranging from pocket editions to lectern-size and Braille editions.

Women working at desks, 2 men chatting, machinery in forground

Watkins interior, around 1961

However Watkins did not diversify, and as business dwindled, there were also issues with trade unions, leading its elderly owner Mr. Charles Burt to shut the factory down in 1977. Today Dave owns his own print company in New Jersey, USA, while many other employees went on to teach bookbinding at the local art college that is now the University of the Arts Camberwell.

 

Tall chimney in forground, with Aylesbury Estate tower block behind

Watkins Bible Factory viewed from south, across Scarsdale Road

Today the children’s playground in Burgess Park replaces the spot where Watkins Bible Factory once stood.

More memories here

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15 thoughts on “Watkins Bible Factory

  1. Hello

    My parents Joan & Richard Line worked at Watkins, my mother passed away however, Dad Richard now 85 would love to be in touch with old colleagues. Can you help with this?
    Kind regards
    Jacqueline

    1. Hello Jaqueline,
      Not really a response to your question, but I recently acquired a car, a white Lancia Flaminia GT. Watkins & Watkins are listed as the first owner, in 1964. It was sold in 1970 (unknown owner) and then onto a Paul Collins in 1972. It was a rare and expensive car when new, and I wonder if you father has any recollection of it? Any information would be much appreciated, as I would like to build up a history of the car.
      Best regards,
      Matthew Malatt

  2. I am emailing back and forth with Mr. Dickie Lines – a Watkins colleague – and his family. Sent him over a nice long letter and all the photos I took when working at Watkins.

  3. Hello
    My parents Joan & Richard Line worked at Watkins, my mother passed away however, Dad Richard now 85 would love to be in touch with old colleagues. Can you help with this?
    Kind regards
    Jacqueline

  4. My Aunt – Ivy Jones (nee Johnson) worked at the Bible Factory during the 50s and early 60’s. I still have the Bible with my initials gold blocked onto the cover that she gave me as a small boy in the 50’s – my Maternal Grandparents lived in Jardin Street.

  5. My late grandmother and some aunts/uncles worked at the Bible Factory. We have a watercolour picture (harbour scene) painted by E D Edwards, who Gran told us painted it for her. She said he was a bible illustrator. Does anyone have any knowledge of E D Edwards?

  6. I am sure he was the manager in the late 50s and 60s. A friendly place. I’m 81 – an apprentice when I started there!

  7. I did my apprenticeship there from 1969. Was working there when it shut down. My first day there, and being short and skinny, earned me the name of Oliver Twist by a bench hand, George Hall, and it stuck throughout my time. There were about 8 apprentices along with me. I remember apprentices verses the men football matches. We won, of course. Some of the apprentices had their nicknames as well. Terry (Hippo) Reid, Richard (Bunter) Maynard. Some of the journeyman I remember, Les Canning, Alan (nutmeg) Swallow, Jim Thompson, John Latuske (he was a Porter), Alfie Nye, Harry Vernon, Don Small, Harold ? (Worked in the leather dept). So many more whose faces I sort of remember but can’t quite put a name to. A lot of happy memories. From there I worked for two years at Lewisham Library, where, I did a lot more hand binding and in 1979 began work for the British Library. Although, it was HMSO until the BL took over the contracts in about 1981. The “bindery “ was around the rear of the British Museum until 2007 when we moved lock stock and barrel over to the new BL site in St Pancras into the British Library Centre for Conservation. I retired from the BL in 2015 having spent my last 12 years as a conservation team leader.

  8. I was born on 1-1-1954 in No 5 Cowan Street, delivered by my dad as the midwife couldn’t get there through the snow, and through the eyes of a child, I remember it as being a safe and neighbourly area.
    Neither of my parents worked at the Watkins Factory, but the people who did always made time to say hello to my sister or me when sitting in the pram on the pavement outside our house when they finished work. My mum Elsie Rich sadly died in 1961 when I was 7. I remember a lovely lady Mrs Jones? who lived opposite looking after my sister and I before and after school – Cobourg – until dad came home from work. We all looked out for each other, much like we need to now in 2020!! Strange Eh?

  9. Hi – Linda Rich, as was, again, as my last post seemed to be missing the part about my friend Margaret Jones. She was the daughter of Mrs Jones who looked out for me and my sister before and after the School day at Cobourg School in the 50’s, when I lived in No 5 Cowan Street. Would be nice to find out how your life panned out Margaret!! COVID-19 is so lethal, as if Mother Nature is culling her planet but, having our Grandson last year, 2019, and a Grandaughter this year, 2020, in spite of the pandemic, it gives us a future to live for, as with all parents!! Hoping that not just those of us whose paths may already have crossed but, being in the older age group – 66 – and in lock down, we’ll have time to make new memories…..?
    I’ll check back for any reply.

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