During 1917, Herbert Austin built an entire village for his workers. Remarkably, it’s still there, and still much as it was. We visit the town in a time warp.
Longbridge in Birmingham, England, is today a shadow of its former self.
Since the 2005 collapse of MG Rover, vast areas of ‘The Austin’, once the largest car plant in the world, have been razed or redeveloped.
Only the core stub of the original South Works established by Herbert Austin in 1906 remains in the car-making business, assembling new MGs under Chinese ownership.
Yet a stone’s throw away from all the bulldozers and cranes is a throwback to the earliest days of Austin that has remained remarkably untouched for almost 100 years.
With this year marking the centenary of the start of World War One, it seems appropriate to tell the story of Austin Village; a little-known part of Longbridge that owes its existence to one of the most devastating conflicts ever.
It’s a sad fact that war invariably brings major technological advancements and huge industrial expansion. And so it was for the fledgling Austin factory, less than a decade after its foundation as a car complex.
What had started out as a copper plate printing works in 1895, and by 1914 was turning out a thousand vehicles a year, ballooned rapidly during the First World War and benefitted greatly.
It turned itself over to building armoured cars, trucks, ambulances, aircraft, marine engines and armaments in support of the carnage across the English Channel.
Thanks to its location in what was then a rural area, with ample room to spread out, a new North Works was constructed in 1916, followed by a West Works for munitions in 1917.
There was even an airfield, created by levelling nearby Cofton Hill. Among the flying machines built by Austin were the RE8, and around 1,500 of the successful SE5a: both of which were flown by the Australian Flying Corps during the War.
However, as the plant expanded, so did its need for employees, with its workforce jumping tenfold to over 20,000 during the War. As an aside, 3,000 of those were Belgian refugees and after the War Herbert Austin was awarded the Belgium Order of the Crown of Leopold II for his services to the Belgian people.
Herbert Austin’s initial answer for getting so many workers to the factory was to hire special trains and even build a fleet of buses to ferry them to Longbridge, but many were still having to walk several miles each day.
So, in 1916, he hit upon the much more permanent solution of constructing an entire village to house them, almost within the shadow of the industrial complex.
The site for the Longbridge Estate (later known as Austin Village) was 120 acres of farmland, purchased for £7,750 in November 1916.
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The BMC Experience Issue 9. Apr-Jun 2014 Magazine
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