War vehicles, Mars and The Office: The history of Slough Trading Estate

This week marked the 100th anniversary of Slough Trading Estate and its owners, SEGRO. The Express spoke to the company about its journey through the last century and how the trading estate has evolved to become the largest privately-owned business park in Europe.

David Lee

War vehicles, Mars and The Office: The history of Slough Trading Estate

2020 had been earmarked as a year of celebration for SEGRO as it marked both the company’s centenary and the 100th anniversary of the Slough Trading Estate.

While the COVID-19 crisis may have put the festivities on hold, it has also provided an opportunity for the estate to demonstrate the adaptability which has seen it survive challenges including the Great Depression and the Second World War.

The Express spoke to historian Jaye Isherwood who has been tasked by SEGRO with chronicling the trading estate’s evolution over the past 100 years.

The site’s journey began in 1918.

War trucks were repaired at the trading estate (photos courtesy of SEGRO)

As the First World War continued to rage on, Great Britain was faced with the mounting problem of getting damaged vehicles repaired and back on the frontline.

The Government chose to compulsorily purchase 600 acres of land in Slough due to its desirable location and transport links, with a workforce including Royal Engineers and Austrian and German prisoners of war tasked with getting the site up-and-running.

But Armistice Day soon arrived, guns fell silent across Europe and the War Department was left with a vast facility in the town which national newspapers described as the Government’s ‘white elephant’.

Questions loomed over the site’s future, with a 6000-strong workforce even parading a mock wooden elephant before burying it in the grounds of the depot to vent their anger.

In stepped a consortium of businesspeople including Lord Percival Perry, chairman of the Ford Motor Company in Britain, Sir Noel Mobbs and Redmond McGrath, who bought the depot, its buildings and vehicles from the Government for £7million.

On May 19, 1920, the Slough Trading Company was born.

The depot’s original purpose remained, with military vehicles repaired and sold off, rather than sent back to the battlefield.

Documents show Slough Trading Company’s dealings even extended as far as the sale of warships on behalf of the UK Admiralty.

Germany proved to be an unlikely customer but on the strict condition that ships were de-gunned and stripped for scrap metal.

But the vision for the business stretched further than the repair and sale of vehicles with the founders setting their sights on turning the land into a hub of manufacturing.

The company was granted Royal Assent in March 1925 and US manufacturers saw the gateway the trading estate could provide into the UK market.

Household names including Black & Decker and Gillette were among those to move to Slough.

Gillette at the Trading Estate 

The 1920s illustrated the town’s historic relationship with an immigrant workforce and with British firms such as St Helens Cable and Rubber moving from Lancashire to Slough, expansion continued at a pace.

SEGRO’s regional director for the Thames Valley, Paul Lewis, told the Express the town has always been blessed with a talented workforce.

He said: “Slough as a town has sort of grown up as what I would call a work town.

“It’s full of people who are very entrepreneurial, very industrious and therefore there’s a great workforce around Slough.”

By 1927, the company had changed its name to Slough Estates Limited with buildings springing up along Farnham Road and Bath Road.

Black and Decker 

In 1932, one of the trading estate’s most historic tenants, Mars, established itself in Slough with the company hungry to replicate its Milky Way chocolate bar in the UK market.

Slough Estates chairman Sir Noel Mobbs was committed to the welfare of workers and oversaw the establishment of the Slough Industrial Health Service in 1947, a year before the formation of the NHS.

This provided workers with surgeries, x-rays and treatment rooms.

A planning application was even submitted for an airport on the northern edge of the trading estate but it failed to get off the ground when war reared its ugly head again in 1939.

The town largely escaped the aerial bombardment of the capital.

This could partly be owed to one tactic which saw black canisters filled with burning oil rags on the trading estate which sent plumes of thick black smoke into the sky, acting almost as an invisibility cloak.

High Duty Alloys was rocked by a huge explosion but the cause to this day is still not confirmed.

Companies showed no lack of blitz spirit during the Second World War with Citroen assembling army vehicles for the Canadians and even the Burlei Bra Factory pitching in by making parachutes.

Citroen production moved onto the site 

When Victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945, life would not simply switch back to normal with a shortage of manpower and material slowing growth on the trading estate.

But on December 1, 1949, Slough Estates Limited became listed on the London Stock Exchange and the company was increasingly looking to the wider world to expand.

It purchased its first European site in Sint-Niklass, Belgium, in 1962, and reached almost all corners of the globe in the following decades.

Innovation continued at the company’s heart in Slough with independent film production company, AP Films, filming classic puppet show, Thunderbirds, on the estate in the mid 1960s.

Thunderbirds returned to the trading estate for a special 50th anniversary episode 

More than 35 years later, the estate would return to the nation’s television screens by featuring in Ricky Gervais’ iconic mockumentary, The Office.

While the series offered a bleak portray of in Slough, by the noughties the trading estate was home to major hi-tech firms including O2 and Blackberry.

In 2007, Slough Estates Limited changed its name to SEGRO, with the company this week marking both 100 years of trading and the centenary of the trading estate.

Paul Lewis, who joined the firm in 2000, added: “Slough Trading Estate is still the largest single asset that we hold in the group and it’s very easy to therefore be sentimental about it but the honest truth is the reason we still own it and have done for 100 years is it’s a great asset.”

He added: “You look back over the history of the trading estate and it’s worked through the Second World War, the Great Depression and more recently the global financial crisis and its always adapted and come out it the other side as a strong place for businesses to locate.

“The adaptability of the trading estate I think is the thread that runs through all of our 100 years that has made it such a successful place.”

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