Updated: Dec 2, 2020
In 1922, Henry Cole handed the family business ‘Henry Cole Electrical Contractor’, which traded form a shed at the rear of No 2 Beedell Avenue, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, over to his son Eric, and the name was changed to ‘Eric Cole – Electrical Engineer’. In addition, he started a separate company called ‘E.K. Cole Receiver Company’ with his then girlfriend Muriel Bradshaw.
Business was good quickly expanded with the opening of a workshop at 505 London Road, Westcliff. The business was a mix of electrical installation work and manufacturing the rudimentary radio sets (two-valve sets). Production was a small scale operation to begin with; probably no more than six sets week, but a good money making side-line was in recharging batteries (radios at that time were all powered by accumulators).
One day in 1924, Eric was approached by an irate customer called William S (Billy) Verrells, who was annoyed that his battery had let him down in the middle of an interesting programme, and challenged Eric to make his set work from the lighting mains. The Southend area at that time was on 230 volts Direct Current, which was too powerful to run a six-volt set because of the danger of fire, and the reception would be drowned by interference, but after many trials and tribulations Eric produced a workable ‘Battery Eliminator’.
Billy Verrells was very pleased with the contraption and persuaded Eric to start making the sets for sale under the premise that he could sell them. The product sold like the proverbial ‘hot cakes’, and Verrells went into partnership with Eric forming a new company using Eric’s name – the EK Cole Company (EKCO).
The Battery Eliminator in the Model A10 Valve Radio in 1926
With the introduction and expansion of the National Grid, there was an increasing demand for ready-made sets, which was becoming the ‘must have’ accessory for households. Being well financed a new factory was built at 1135 London Road, Westcliff, in 1927. By 1929, there were over 100 employees with profits in excess of £30,000.
In 1928/1929, recognising that the public were far more discriminating, a major recruitment program was started. Eric successfully obtained the services of many top grade engineers who were to become the cornerstone of the future growth of the business into the 1930’s. In 1929, the company’s profits were in excess of £30,000 – a fortune in those days.
By 1929, such was the growth of the business that work commenced on a new factory site in Priory Crescent with the builder being Bentall Estates, which was owned by Mr Manners. In 1930, the company moved from Leigh to Priory Crescent (which was to remain the home of the company until its demise in 1966).
Eric Cole and William Verrells
In 1931, an enterprising salesman called Michael Lipman called into EKCO trying to them sell Bakelite cabinets made by the General electricity company (AEG) in Germany. Such was the interest he was immediately given an order for 30,000 cabinets. He was also promptly head-hunted and became a production manager.
Existing cabinets were craftsman made in wood and no two cabinets were the same thus requiring hand fitting on the production line. Bakelite revolutionised production by not only reducing production costs but also gave the customers a superior looking product.
Within a year of introduction, the national government legislated punitive import tariffs forcing EKCO to purchase their own moulding presses. In order to pay for this, the company had to go to the stock market with a new share issue. Such was demand the share issue was oversubscribed.
Billy Verrells was a master of knowing a good publicity wheeze, and in 1932 pulled of a stunt of getting a large consignment of spares delivered to Leigh station then hauled through the town. He also arranged to have a shipment of sets shipped out from the pier head.
In late 1932, disaster struck when the experimental department burned down and all chassis designs for the 1933 season were destroyed. EKCO had no choice but to use the new 1933 cabinet, but the previous year’s chassis. Sales were subsequently a disaster, and almost pushed the company into receivership. Wholesale lay-offs were made with only key personnel being retained. Both Maxwell and Manners resigned, which placed Eric and Verrells into the position of having to buy them out. To keep the business afloat, they both re-mortgaged their houses.
With the insurance money, a bold move was made to move the company ‘up-market’: They designed a chassis incorporating all the latest design ideas, and commissioned two outstanding designers, Wells Coates and Serge Chermayev, to design cabinets exploiting what Bakelite could do.
The result of this was the now famous round sets, starting with the AD64 - which today are highly collectable items. They incorporated the round dial station tuning, which also had station names - a feature that was a first, and the sets were offered in brown, black or green - again a first in the market place.
EKCO Radios on display at the Southend Library in May 2011
With the advent of the AD64, business boomed again and many more variants followed. In 1934, work began on car radios and such was the design excellence, Rolls Royce chose EKCO to be the radio manufacturer of choice for their customers.
In the mid to late 1930’s EKCO was going from strength to strength and was a hotbed for new design ideas and the acknowledged market leader in quality.
In 1936, EKCO begin experiments on Television in conjunction with a company called Schophony. These were large screen sets designed for clubs and large premises. In 1937, EKCO designed and introduced their first Conventional Television, the model TS101, which retailed at £47-5 shillings – a veritable fortune then.
In 1937, a new venture was started this being the Thermovent heaters followed by Thermotube. These heaters were an instant success and adopted by Cunard for the Queen Mary. The heating division was to remain an integral part of the business for many years.
EKCO also began manufacturing their own valves and later light bulbs, and experiments were made on VHF radios, although these were not launched because of the outbreak of the Second World War. By 1939, EKCO employed over 2,000 people.