Bexley's Industrial Roots

Bexley’s strategic location on the River Thames and between London and the coast has given rise to a fascinating industrial and working heritage. This still informs the borough's character and provides us with an insight into its people and the possibilities for its future. 

Bexley has long been a stopping point for travellers on their way to the coast. The famous Roman Road of Watling Street runs straight through the heart of the borough and past the front door of the Council Civic Offices, at 2 Watling Street. This and its position on the River Thames meant that Bexley has long been a location for commerce and industry. From the days of Henry VIII onward the borough has been building, making and innovating.

At various times over the last 500 years the borough has been home to ship building, cable manufacture, paper making, silk printing and dying, brick making, bed making, food production, sports car manufacture and more. These companies by and large were feeding not only London but the world.

Typical of the firms who came to Bexley towards the last years of the nineteenth century was Callender's. The founder, engineer, William Callender was involved in road-making until 1881, when he patented "Vulcanized Bitumen", an insulating material and formed a new firm to exploit this discovery. In 1882 Callender's was involved in the wiring of Hatfield House, one of the first country houses to install electric lighting. The company soon became a well-known major cable manufacturer, BICC.

One of the most striking stories is that of Hiram Maxim and his flying machine.  We all know from our schooling that the first powered flight of a heavier than air vehicle took place at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December of 1903. Thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright and their Flyer, aviation as we know it was born. On July 31st, 1894, Hiram Maxim with a crew of three, piloted an aircraft of his own invention down a 1,800 foot test track sited on, what is now a Bexley cricket pitch. The aircraft weighted about 8,000lbs and was powered by two 360 horse power steam engines. About half way down the track it took off and flew for a distance of about 100 feet before crashing back down to the ground again. It was only meant to be a test, and didn’t fly very high - some two or three feet up. But despite its instability it proved that very heavy machines could indeed get off the ground and stay up. All that was needed was to understand and develop the means of controlling such craft.

Sadly Maxim did not really pursue his flying invention (although he did invent many other notable things, and is worthy of further investigation). American born he became a naturalised British Subject in 1900, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. So the next time you’re boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world, think about this bit of green in South East London where a little bit of history was made nearly ten years before the Wright Brothers.

Stories like this sum up the spirit of Bexley and many of our current companies can trace their history back to the boom times of the 19th Century.  Clearly, like the rest of the south east, Bexley has suffered from significant  deindustrialisation but a core of manufacturing remains and is thriving.  The land that was left vacant for many years in now starting to accommodate new uses that serve the capital, like the new centre at Erith, or are suitable for building new homes on to accommodate ever increasing need.

So several hundred years on Bexley’s industrial legacy has provided it with the opportunity to, once again, become a major generator in the London engine room. We recognise this potential and Bexley for Business is just one of many ways by which the Council actively promote dialogue and encourage investment.