Between 1960 and 1990, London’s economy underwent structural change. All the capital’s manufacturing firms were affected: many closed, many shed jobs, and London’s industrial base shrunk dramatically. In 1960, manufacturing accounted for over 30% of London’s wealth; by 1990 the figure had shrunk to under 11%.
During these 30 years, some of the familiar names in London’s industry moved out of the capital or passed into history. Watney Mann and Truman closed all its London breweries between 1975 and 1990. Between 1979 and 1981, British Leyland closed down its A.E.C. bus plants in Park Royal and Southall, losing 3,500 jobs. Hoover moved out of London with a loss of 11,000 jobs. Ford shed 10,000 jobs.
Whitefriars glassworks in Harrow closed in 1980, bringing to an end a 200-year-old firm with a worldwide reputation for skilled craftsmanship. Westland moved its helicopter production from Hayes in West London to Yeovil in Somerset. The soap manufacturer Pears Limited closed its factory in Uxbridge in 1969 to build a new factory in Wales, before transferring all its production to India in the 1990s.
Deindustrialisation brought social problems and industrial disputes in its wake. Behind the statistics were countless stories of personal hardship and community disruption as jobs evaporated. More or less two thirds of the capital’s manufacturing jobs disappeared within 20 years, leaving only 500,000 Londoners working in industry. Trade Unions tried in vain to protect the shrinking workforces and many factories closed in an atmosphere of recrimination between workers and bosses.
The causes of London’s difficulties were the same as those that affected industry across Britain. The nation experienced its worst economic depression since the 1930s. As countries across the globe ‘caught up’ with Britain’s manufacturing lead, so competition increased. Steeply rising fuel prices following the oil crisis of 1973 added to high manufacturing costs.
There was much debate regarding possible solutions. The political left called for tighter controls on multinational firms that could move their workforce around the globe. The right called for fewer planning controls, lower taxation and business-friendly government. In London, the G.L.C. set up new development agencies to encourage inward investment.
Besides its legacy of social problems, deindustrialisation left London with empty factories, derelict docks and vacant lots, though some of London’s deindustrialised buildings found a new lease of life. In West London, the Hoover factory was redeveloped as a Tesco’s supermarket.
Elsewhere, two organisations began to colonise derelict industrial premises, turning them into artists’ studios. A group of artists began the process by taking over an empty warehouse at St Katharine’s Docks in 1968. By the end of the 1970s, London had two artist-run charities providing housing and studio space, SPACE (Studio Provision Artistic, Cultural and Educational) and ACME Studios Housing Association. ACME, founded in 1972, run studio complexes in a former meat pie factory in Brixton and a former brush factory in Bethnal Green. In 1985 it took over a massive building in Stratford, formerly the flagship factory for Yardley cosmetics.