Acton History

Acton's Industry

Acton was one of the largest concentrations of industry, particularly automobile, in the South of England

In the latter part of the 19th century, a considerable number of small laundries opened serving the needs of the hotels and the wealthy living in the West End. Heavy industry came in the early 1900’s as companies expanded and relocated to the outskirts of London where there was space to develop, but with good transport links to raw materials, customers and for the work force. The two key areas were Acton Vale, and Park Royal. Acton was described in the 1920's as the "Motor Town" and reported by the Times in 1956 as having one of the two largest concentrations of industry south of Birmingham. In 1932 the motor industry employed 5,400 people, some 80% of the workers in the district.

The industrial areas of Acton Vale became available at the turn of the century, and comprised parts of the common fields which had initially been used for the making of bricks. The area was free of the building restrictions imposed inside the London County Council area, and therefore an attractive and economic site creating a cluster of large developments including Napiers (engines and vehicles), Wilkinson Sword (swords, razors, vehicles), CAV and Lucas (automobile components), Evershed and Vignoles - (electrical test equipment), Du Cros (Cars) and Eastmans (Dye).

Ten years later, a further cluster of industries developed at Park Royal in north Acton, serving the needs of companies at the Vale, on the former site of the Royal Agricultural Society Show (1903-6). The site was used as an airfield from 1909 until 1913. During the War, the site was taken over as a munitions factory. Roads in the area commemorate some of the cars manufactured in the area. Major manufacturers were Guinness (Beer) The Rootes Group and Park Royal Vehicles (bus bodies), and many other automobile component manufacturers. The former Acton Aerodrome, slightly to the south, was also developed by companies that included the Alliance Aeroplane Company (Aircraft) and Renault (Cars),

The heavy industry moved away from Acton during the 1950's and 60's. Recent changes in shopping habits have caused a decline in the trade of the town. Acton is now changing, with media and lighter industry taking over from the heavy industry. With easy access to Central London, Acton remains a popular place to live, with new housing being built at many sites.

D. Napier and Son

The Napier works (built 1915). Napiers made cars, aircraft and marine engines in an extensive factory in Acton Vale.

The clock from the Napier factory, Acton Vale.

David Napier came to Soho, London in 1808 and was soon manufacturing a range of innovative products. After moving to Lambeth in 1835, D Napier & Sons was set up in 1848. The founder’s grandson M. S. Napier took over the firm in 1895 and began experimenting with internal combustion engines and motor carriages. Napier's cars were highly successful in various motor trials.

The firm moved to the Napier Motor Works in Acton Vale in 1903, where the company manufactured a developing range of engines and vehicles. The works had extended to cover 6 ½ acres by 1906 and was employing 1,000 people making 200 cars per year together with motor boat engines.

From the start of the war in 1914, the company reduced its production of cars, and was manufacturing aircraft engines under government contract including the “Lion” engine, which became the company's main product line. The government contract required the construction of a new concrete multi story building facing Acton Vale, shown above. 

During the second world war, production of aircraft engines was increased, but the Acton factory was within range of bombing attacks and therefore a shadow factory was opened in Liverpool. The company was taken over by the English Electric Company in 1942, and then, became part of the GEC group of companies. The Acton sites continued to develop products, but the main production transferred to the northern factories, and finally closed in 1965.

Napier Car

1900 Napier car.

Napier Car

1933 Napier Railton (powered by a Lion aero engine) from the Brooklands Museum alongside a Napier Deltic Locomotive

For more information on Napier see the Napier Power Heritage Trust

Du Cros

The Du Cros Car factory in Warple Way, another of the many car factories in Acton.

The company in Acton was founded by William Harvey du Cros (pronounced dewcrow) who was of Hugenot descent. He was the founder and first and only president of the Dunlop Rubber Co. He represented Hastings in the house of commons 1906-08, had been chairman of the Royal Automobile Club.

In 1908, he set up a garage and repair works in Warple Way, Acton (with an office in the Vale), which was described in the Acton Gazette during 1909 as the “Largest garage and motor repair works in the world”. The business was managed by his sons, William and George du Cros. Above the main frontage to Warple way, which is still in existence, is said to have been a large electric clock which instead of numerals had 'W & G du Cros Ltd'. The extensive premises covered most of the area bounded by Acton Vale, Larden and Valetta Roads.

The works were built to facilitate the operation and maintenance of a fleet of taxi-cabs, and undertaking vehicle body building. A contemporary 1910 photograph shows an impressive line up of four cylinder 15 h.p. Napier taxis owned by W & G du Cros outside the works with their immaculately and uniformly dressed white-coated drivers. The 1000 strong taxi fleet, most of which had Panhard & Lavasseur bodywork, and CAV ignition and lighting systems, all from adjacent factories in Acton, was renowned for its smart livery and uniformed drivers.

On the outside of the factory is a foundation stone that appears to be inscribed “This stone was laid on June 19th 1909 by Harvey du Cros esq. J.P. Founder of the pneumatic tyre industry”.

From operating fleets of taxis, the company expanded to the manufacture of chassis and bodies for buses and lorries. As well as the manufacture of the vehicles, there was a business operating a fleet of buses on private hire and a fleet of a hundred or more lorries on a contract basis.

These are very few vehicles of this make surviving - a 1927 Metropolitan Asylums Board ambulance restored and in the care of the London Ambulance Service and three  trucks that were built in Acton during 1924/5 that survive in Australia.

The Vintage Lorry Annual No. 1, Nick Baldwin, ISBN 0906116074, Marshal, Harris and Baldwin, 1979, has an extensive article on the family and business. 

Evershed and Vignoles

The Evershed electrical equipment factory, Acton Lane

This company, founded in 1895 and moved to Acton Green in 1903, manufactured electrical equipment, and in particular the “megger” range of electrical testing apparatus. The product range developed to include steering gear for the navy and aircraft instrumentation.

Acton Aerodrome and the Alliance Aeroplane Company

The Alliance Aeroplane Factory, built during the First World War on the edge of Acton Aerodrome in Park Royal. The site is now an industrial estate and leisure park!

In 1909, the pioneer aviator, Harold Pifford was experimenting with flight from a field in North Acton, managing to fly at a height of a couple of feet for about 100 yards in a bi-plane constructed in his studio at Bedford Park. Unfortunately, the aircraft was destroyed by a gale soon after its first flight and Pifford moved to Sussex to continue his experiments.

A small airfield was set up in 1910 as “The London Aviation Ground” on the triangle of land now bounded by Masons Green Lane, Saxon Drive and the Western Avenue, Acton. Dixon and Long used this airfield on a regular basis. Four sheds 40ft x 80ft of wood and corrugated iron were built to house the aircraft. In May 1911, a fire took hold, destroying two of the sheds and five monoplanes. The local fire brigade were able to save two bi-planes. Undaunted by the setback, the airfield was enlarged, and twenty fireproof hangers established.

In 1913, flying displays were given by G T Lee and Claude Graham White. Public flying continued until the war, when the site was taken over by the National Guard.

The Ruffy Arnell and Baumann Aviation Co. moved from Hendon to the Acton airfield in March 1917, and for two and a half years were busy training military pupils posted to the school using twelve small Caudron G2 tractor bi-planes. Initially aircraft and pupils were housed in tents, but a brick hanger and workshop were constructed. Felix Ruffy was Italian, the Baumann brothers were Swiss, and the instructors were of many nationalities. Training ceased in 1918, when the Air Command gave notice of closure because the training and facilities were inadequate.

In 1917, Ruffy-Baumann began to develop aircraft. The Advanced trainer was a single seat bi-plane with a 60 h.p. Anzain engine and the two seater had a 70 h.p. Renault engine, which was later to become the Alliance P1. They were taken over in the summer of 1918 by the Alliance Aeroplane Company formed by the furniture makers Waring and Gillow who were already making tents at the White City, and aircraft at Cambridge Grove Hammersmith. To satisfy the need for aircraft for the war, a substantial “Aircraft Erection Shed” was built on the site which is now just south of the Western Avenue. The massive roof struts, each weighing 20 tons, gave the factory a clear space of 200ft x 153 ft. The facility was used to construct the DeHaviland DH9 and DH10 aircraft, but the conclusion of the war reduced demand for their products. Alliance decided to produce civil aircraft, and J A Peters designed the Alliance P2 Seabird, a long distance aeroplane powered by a locally made Napier 450 h.p. “Lion” engine. piloted by Peters, this aircraft won the Acton to Madrid Air Race in 1919. A similar aircraft was prepared to fly to Australia to compete in a competition, but it crashed whilst flying over Surbiton, killing the crew. This failure took the heart out of the company, and it closed in early 1920, when the last recorded flight of a Nieuport London aircraft took place.

The factory was taken over in 1925 and used until the mid 1930’s, by the car manufacturer Renault, who built another factory along side, on the site still occupied by their extensive car dealership. The building returned briefly to the production of aircraft in the Second World War, manufacturing Avro Anson fuselages and wings for the DeHaviland mosquito. The southern half of the building still remains (in use as a store), as a tribute to Acton’s pioneer aviators.

George Lee Temple

Memorial in Acton Cemetery to George Lee Temple, the first British Airman to fly upside down in the country!  A Frenchman M. Pegoud had previously given an  exhibition of upside-down flying at Brooklands. More details of this event can be seen at:

George Lee Temple lived in Cumberland Park, Acton and was the son of Lieut. Commander George T Temple R.N. (retired) F.R.G.S. and Philippa who was born in Norway. Temple (senior) undertook surveys on the Coasts of Norway and Lapland published in 1880.  [ Voyage on the Coasts of Norway and Lapland  George T. Temple;  Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, Vol. 2, No. 5 (May, 1880), pp. 273-288 and Notes on Russian Lapland  George T. Temple; Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, Vol. 2, No. 10 (Oct., 1880), pp. 593-602] He was in Constantinople in 1871 and was Deputy Dock-master in Wapping in 1881.

George T Temple has his memorial (on the side of his son’s) and the inscription reads 'In loving memory of George Theodore Temple, Lieut. Commdr. R.N., F.R.G.S. Born 24 October 1847, passed away 21 February 1935. "He too has passed."  “Templa quam dilecta.” '  ("How beautiful are thy temples")

Philippa died in May 1924. Her memorial (on the side of her son’s) reads -  'In ever loving memory of Philippa Desiree Temple, "Little Philine", the dearly-loved wife of George Theodore Temple. Born 8 Nov. 1853, passed away from us 30 April 1924. A devoted wife and mother. Unselfish, true and tender to the last. At rest in the haven where she would be. "Death is not death, for Christ has conquered death."

More information on George Lee Temple can be found at:

Compton Organs

Compton’s manufactured Cinema and church organs at a factory in North Acton. The organs built for cinemas were elaborately decorated, and often fitted on lifts so that the organ console could rise from the floor.

Park Royal Show

In 1900, The Royal Agricultural Society decided to develop a permanent site for their Annual Show. One Thousand Acres at Twyford Abbey were leased, and a n operating company "Park Royal Ltd." set up to run it. The name was given because the RAS had a Royal patron, and the name has stuck ever since.

The site comprised show rings and stands, the GWR built a special station, and the "Plumes" public house was built.

The first show was in June 1903, but they ware not a great success, so after the 1905 show, the land was sold. The grounds were used for other events, and QPR football club played there until after the First World War. During the war, the grounds were used by the government as a depot and munitions works.

The only remaining element of the Park Royal Showground is the former "Plumes" public house.

Industry developed on the former site of the Royal Agricultural Society Show to the north of Acton. Intended to be a permanent site, it was not a great success and was only used from 1903 - 1906 when the Society decided to remove to more rural Stoneleigh. The site was used as an airfield from 1909. Claude Graham White was giving public displays and began his attempt to win an air race to Manchester from there in April 1910. Flying continued until 1913, and during the War, the site was taken over as a munitions factory.

Roads in the area commemorate some of the marques of car manufactured in the area - Minerva, Standard and Sunbeam.

The Rootes Group developed from a small cycle shop in Kent to one of the biggest motor manufacturing companies in Britain. By 1926 they had showrooms in the West End, and soon had acquired other branches in Britain and Europe. With a view to development, they acquired the Hillman Car Co., and Humber Ltd. Their success was due to rationalisation of production, and they expanded, acquiring Karrier Motors in 1935, Clement Talbot in 1937, then British Light Steel Pressings, and in 1938 the Sunbeam Motor Co. By 1939 the Rootes Group were one of Britain's biggest car manufacturers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Rootes factories were turned over to the manufacture of military vehicles. 

Wilkinson Sword

Henry Knock, an expert gunmaker opened premises in Ludgate Hill in 1772. The business passed to his son-in-law James Wilkinson and subsequently to his son Henry. The business continued to develop firearms, but in the mid 19th century, Henry introduced the production of swords and developed a machine for testing the blades. The test, still used today, gained The Wilkinson Sword Company a reputation for quality. In 1898, the company introduced the manufacture of the ‘Pall Mall’ safety razor. By 1900, the production of firearms had ceased as government factories had taken the main business.

The Company moved from Chelsea to the Oakley works, Southfield Road, Acton in 1903, to provide for the increased demand for it’s traditional products of swords and razors. The new works had a rail connection to ease the delivery of steel and the 5ft carborundum wheels used to grind the sword blades. The company further diversified into the manufacture of typewriters, bicycles, motor cycles and motor cars (the Deemster) and tractors. A large area, sold to the council in 1908 to form the Southfield recreation ground, was used by the company for trials of its tractors. As with most non-specialist transport manufacturers, production of vehicles ceased within a few years and the company reverted to its more traditional products, introducing gardening tools to its range in the 1920’s. The company was still manufacturing its traditional swords at a works in East Acton until 2005.

Acton Sewage Works

The Engineers House at Acton Sewage Works (1887) one of the proud achievements of the Acton Local Board.

Until 1965 Acton Local Authority was responsible for dealing with the sewage of the district. At first, the Stamford Brook originally took most of this drainage and sewage, conveying it via Hammersmith to the Thames, but after 1855 it went into the Metropolitan Board of Works grand scheme for the drainage of London.

It was decided, however, that all houses built in Acton after 1881 must have a separate system, and so in 1887 the Sewage Pumping station was built on 5½ acres of land in Warple Way. It was designed by Acton's surveyor, C. Nicholson Lailey. The waste was treated, the effluent going into the Thames at Chiswick. Storm water and pre 1881 house drainage continued to go through the Metropolitan Board of Works system, to the works at Beckton.

This unusual arrangement was resolved in 1905 with a scheme prepared by Sir Alex Binnie. The normal flow of the sewers passed to the London County Council system at the expense of Acton, but Storm Water was filtered at the Acton Pumping Station passed into the Thames at Chiswick. The scheme is essentially still in use today, but in 1979 the works were converted to Storm Tanks to avoid unnecessary discharge in the Thames.

South Acton – Soapsud Island

The South Acton area was built up in the 1860’s, and was characterised by densely packed terrace housing for the working classes. Convenient transport to work and the growth of industry in the Acton area brought people to live there. To supplement income some of the inhabitants began to operate small businesses, to keep pigs, and take in washing. Decline of the laundry businesses elsewhere, and the relative closeness to the large houses of Kensington, Notting Hill as well as Acton meant that there was no shortage of business for the laundries of Acton.

The early laundries simply used the facilities available in the home, but soon extensions were made to the rear of the houses to create a laundry room. Speculative builders realising that there was a demand, built laundry houses with the required facilities, and incorporated a carriage entrance to allow the laundry vans to reach the rear yard. Typically, the ground floor was used for the washing and boiling, with the upper floor used for mangling, ironing and finishing. Ironing was done using irons of cast iron heated on a pagoda stove. The finishing of delicate lace was the most skilled of the professions.  

In total, over 600 laundry sites (not all at the same time) have been identified within South Acton, and this may well be an under estimate as several sites were operated under a common management. By 1885 there were sufficient businesses for a Laundry Proprietors’ Association to be formed to promote the interests of the laundry owners. The businesses, not only employed washers, launderers, and ironers, but also Carmen and gave business to suppliers of washing materials and baskets. 

In the small laundries, all the work was done by hand with tubs and wash-boards. Over time, the bigger of the laundries became factories with power washing machines and steam calendars, whilst the smaller laundries declined. 

The smaller laundries lost trade to the larger and more efficient “factory laundries”, and the decline set in. After the Second World War social conditions changed, and more people were doing their own washing at home using an electric washing machine or in local launderettes. The business had become mainly for the hotel and catering trades, rather than for domestic business. 

The area became run down, and the council began purchasing property for a redevelopment scheme. In the 1950/60’s the whole of the area west of the North London Railway was cleared, and the small terrace houses were replaced with blocks of flats and high rise tower bocks, to the high standards of the time. Although initially popular, these high rise developments are now being replaced with the smaller terrace-style housing that is more popular today.

Sources Soapsud Island A & T Harper Smith; Directory of Acton Laundries, T Harper Smith.

The type of building typically used as a laundry.

Acton's Nature

Whilst Acton is in the industrial suburbs of London there is still a great deal of wildlife living there, including foxes, and more recently green parakeets.

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