I have often been told that “Crittalls made Witham”. Their metal window factory was opened in 1919/20 in Braintree Road, and greatly extended in 1925. Witham was previously a somewhat impoverished town, where most of the men were manual labourers or farmworkers. If they got a job in the factory, their wages were more than doubled.
Sometimes there were 400 people working there, mostly men. Witham concentrated on standard metal windows, on a very modern mass production line. These contributed to a large Government housing programme. Previously, windows were made to order, to fit each house.
There were other factories at Braintree (1884), Maldon (c.1925), and Silver End (1926, with the new village). A short-lived lead-glazing works, employing women, was in Maltings Lane in Witham (1925).
Crittalls was the largest metal window maker in the world, and at one time, more than half the output was produced at Witham. In due course there were factories all over the world, with Essex managers sent to supervise them.
The Crittall family were benevolent employers, providing buses, a newspaper, social club, sports ground, medical facilities, and houses.
They were also very involved with contemporary art and design, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. Their own buildings were often in the Art Deco style, particularly in their new village and department store at Silver End (now listed). And buildings elsewhere in the world with Crittalls’ windows are still revered. Their maintenance provides ‘heritage’ work to this day.
During WW2, most of the Witham factory was devoted to war production, with women workers. Bailey bridges were a speciality. The works were bombed but there was no lasting damage and no injuries.
During post-war years, production diminished. In 1990, the Witham works closed, with some workers going to Braintree. By this time there were many other factories in Witham, dating from the 1960s Development scheme. So the closure was less of a blow than it would have been earlier, when Crittalls dominated employment. But it was still the end of an era – a fascinating and very important era in Witham’s history. Many of the features of the modern town have their origins in Crittalls’ time.
In 1992 the empty factory was demolished, and Safeways built a supermarket, in a style reminiscent of the factory, with long horizontal lines. They were succeeded by Morrisons.
Crittalls continued at Braintree, until in 2007 they returned to Witham to a different site. When they received a Queen’s award for Enterprise in 2010, it was said that one in ten of the workforce had been with the company for more than forty years.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in March 2013