London's Lost Condom Industry

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 22 months ago
London's Lost Condom Industry
Photo: SimonQ錫濛譙

Everyone knows about London's glorious industrial past. This is the city where the Industrial Revolution took place, a capital place for making things. When these terms are mentioned, the mind flickers straight to the mass production of metal and the utilisation of steam power, in the 19th century. London is de-industrialising at a rapid rate nowadays, and many of its former industries are little more than memories. One such case: condoms.

Latex condoms arrived long after the industrial revolution — they were invented in the 1920s. Lionel Alfred Jackson founded the London Rubber Company at 3 Mincing Lane, and started importing condoms to the UK from manufacturers in Germany and America.

Interestingly, the company usually supplied condoms to barbers, rather than chemists because of the social stigma that surrounded the product. Most men were much more comfortable buying a condom from another man, rather than a female shop assistant in a chemist.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In 1932 the London Rubber Company set up its first factory at Shore Road in Hackney. It named its new product Durex. The name comes from three key words for the product: DUrability, REliability and EXcellence. In 1937 it moved to Chingford where it stayed for the next 57 years.

Originally the condom business was booming, but it went through a downturn with the proliferation of the contraceptive pill. This forced the company to sell of one of its London condom factories — by now there were a few — based between Stockwell and Brixton. Fears over AIDS and HIV led to another boom in condom sales, with huge publicly-funded campaigns to get young people to use condoms. This meant there were good times once again in Chingford.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

We chatted to someone who worked at the London Rubber Company's factory in Chingford. He was an accountant, so his day to day didn't involve much latex, but he was given a grand tour of the factory when he started:

My abiding memory was of all the middle-aged women who worked in the factory, testing the condoms for holes. They blew them up on a pump and would flick the condoms with their fingers to see if any air escaped.

These women became a focal point in the attempts the Health Education Authority made to get young people to use condoms during the HIV crisis. The advertisement supposedly shows that if these older women aren't embarrassed by condoms, then young people have no reason to be.

There's a much more basic message that lies on the surface as well. 'Have lots of sex kids, but make sure you use condoms. It's keeping women like Mrs Dawson employed.' We're not convinced that much of Britain's youth wanted to associate sex with Mrs Dawson, but nonetheless something worked, as condoms surged in popularity.

The factory covered more than just condoms. It also mass-produced latex gloves. Andrew Hill wrote in the FT (£) that what struck him when he visited the factory was

the sight of ordinary rubber washing-up gloves produced on an assembly line consisting of thousands of revolving "hands".

The Chingford factory closed in 1994, the work moved to regions where corporation taxes and labour costs were far cheaper, such as the Far East. The closing of the factory resulted in the loss of 600 jobs — sorry, Mrs Dawson. Nowadays, almost the entire condom industry is based in Asia; you can even go visit a condom factory/museum in Taiwan.

Last Updated 15 March 2017