The Bata company began making shoes in the Czech republic, then part of Austria-Hungary, in 1894. The following year they decided to switch from using leather to using canvas and this type of shoe became very popular. They began exporting their shoes and the company began to grow and by 1912 employed over 600 people. Growth continued throughout the early years of the 20th century and they even survived the collapse of the economy following the First World War, by cutting the price of their shoes by half! This proved very popular and Bata bucked the trend and continued to expand whilst most of their competitors were closing down. At this time Bata began to expand production abroad and built factories in Poland, Latvia, Switzerland and France. By the early 1930s the company were also producing shoes in Germany, The Netherlands and the UK.
The site chosen in the UK was at East Tilbury just outside London. A small village had existed here since medieval times and on the river there was a Fort guarding the approach to London, but the rest of the surrounding area was marsh and grazing land. It is said that Thomas Bata decided on the site following a plea by a local clergyman to help alleviate local unemployment. Bata had a philosophy similar to that seen with many socially orientated industrialists and not only built a factory but also accommodation and facilities for his workers. Some of these company houses can still be seen in East Tilbury today, near to the factory site. He created a whole new town and the local name was ‘Bata-ville’. During the Second World war many of the workers joined the forces, but often their jobs were passed to their wives. The workers in the forces received a regular copy of the company newsletter together with parcels of cigarettes and food. At the end of the war, the factories in Eastern Europe were taken over by the communist governments and Bata moved its headquarters to the UK.
In the 1960s Bata began moving production away from East Tilbury. In 1964, the headquarters moved to Toronto in Canada. The company continued to move production to export markets in India, Africa and Asia and the factory began downsizing in 1980 and finally closed in 2005. The East Tilbury (Bata) conservation area was designated in 1993 and includes and interactive tour which can be followed on a mobile phone. Although some of the site is being reused, the main factory building remains empty.