Updated 26-XI-2013

Preston - Kent Street

The Kent Street factory was established by Ensign Electric Lamps in 1930 as its first venture in manufacturing. After various transitions it became part of the Thorn Lighting family, and the factory prospered as the company's principal site for all decorative and special incandescent lamps. Following Thorn's takeover by GE Lighting, it was decided that the plant was too small to survive in the globalised market, and in combination with the relatively high labour and overhead costs, it was decided to close the operations in 1994.
Thorn Lighting Kent Street Lampworks - July 1994

Address Kent Street, Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Location 53.7666°N, -2.6994°E
Opened 1930 August 29th
Closed 1994 June
Products Incandescent GLS, Rough Service, Coloured, Fireglow, Candle, Ball, Globe, Pygmy, Tubular Single Ended, Tubular Double Ended S15s & S19, Blown Reflector, Traffic Signal, Railway Signal, Airfield, Squirrel Cage / Navigation, Photoflood, Infrared Reflector, Special Incandescent.

Early History
The factory buildings were originally established, like so many others in the northern city of Preston, for the production of textile goods. It was built by Horrocks in 1796 as a cotton spinning mill, originally known as Hanover Mill - presumably named after the small lane, Hanover Street, which runs part-way into the site. Later it was taken over by Atherton Bros. and converted to a foundry for the manufacture of the famous Atherton automatic power looms for the weaving industry. The building is listed on account of its architectural significance. One of the primary reasons for its status is a quantity of Doric columns, employed in the main ground floor machine room to support the roof.

The Ensign Era
In 1921 a Mr. F.T. Green commenced trading with his brothers in the wholesale building materials and electrical goods business, which included importing continental lamps to Preston. After several years of successful operations, a British supplier was sought as part of the then national emphasis on boosting local manufacturing. From this point onwards lamps were produced under the company's own brand name, "Ensign". Eventually demand had grown to the point that the company developed its own manufacturing ambitions.

On the 29th August 1930, Ensign Lamps Limited was incorporated with a capital of £100. The former Hanover Mill was acquired and in the same year Ensign began its first indpendent lampmaking. By 1937 the company had impressively increased its capital to £100,000 - a level which remained right up to the factory's closure in 1994.

During the difficult times of the 1939-45 war, the government-enforced pooling and zoning regulations introduced Ensign to another small lampmaker, E.K. Cole of Southend-on-Sea. Both companies came to value their co-operation, which was further strengthened during the war years. Shortly after the war it was recognised by both parties that there would be advantages in formalising their agreements, and on 13th March 1947, Ensign merged with the lighting division of E.K. Cole to form Ekco-Ensign Electrical Ltd. All lampmaking was thereafter concentrated at Preston. This was an ideal solution for both companies because it gave them increased power in the lighting business, and Ekco had meanwhile become more interested in radio production. The non-lighting divisions of Ekco continued to be run independently and were not involved in the Ekco-Ensign merger, which was to cover only electric lamps.

The Thorn Era
In 1949, 51% of the company was taken over by another small lampmaker - the Atlas Lamp Works of Jules Thorn. His company was undergoing considerable growth in ordinary incandescent as well as fluorescent lamps, and the purchase of the Preston works at once allowed him to broaden his product range to include many different decorative and reflector lamp types, as well as take control of a significant competitor. In 1964 Thorn took over the balance of Ekco-Ensign, and that company ceased to exist.

From that time onwards major investments were made in the Kent Street works, which became Thorn's principal operations for the manufacture of decorative incandescent lamps. It also took over the majority of non-standard incandescent types whose relatively small production volumes were causing interference and loss of efficiency at other high speed factories, which preferred to concentrate on mass production of just a few basic types. In particular following Thorn's technical agreements with Sylvania on lamp design and machinery, he equipped his UK factories with the best incandecent manufacturing equipment in Europe. Several of these new high speed machines were based on the unique Sylvania Twin-head concept, in which two lamps instead of one are produced at each index of the rotating machinery, thereby doubling output for effectively the same overhead costs. The high volume candle and ball lamps were first to benefit from this upgrade. Subsequently Thorn built at Preston a vast vacuum metallising machine, again according to the American Sylvania designs, which made this plant the most efficient in Europe for the manufacture of blown-bulb reflector lamps. Further investments in state-of-the-art bulb coating machinery, covering both internal wet and electrostatic coating, external glazing and the application of transparent organic lacquers gave Preston a dominant position in the market for coloured and decorative lamps of all types.

The later 1970s and early 1980s marked a particularly difficult position for the company, which in 1972 had decided to replace all of its subsidiary brand names by the single name of Thorn. The disappearance of popular brands such as Mazda, Ediswan, Atlas, Ekco etc. lost the company a significant share of the market, in which customers stuck to a brand they knew and did not automatically change over their business to the new name of Thorn. This transition hit the retail sales sector particularly severely, and with it of course the Preston factory whose output was mainly concerned with decorative lamps for retail sales. In 1986 the decision was made to resurrect the old Mazda brand name, and the packaging was completely revamped by installing a high capacity blister packaging line at Preston. Stylish new packaging combined with making the entire lamp visible won instant appeal with consumers, and this single investment is often cited by former staff as having saved Thorn Lighting from bankruptcy. The resulting dominance that Thorn once again attained in the retail lamps market proved to be a particularly profitable time for Preston.

In 1987 a further expansion was made when Thorn closed its Buckie lampworks in the north of Scotland, owing to the increasing costs of transportation to and from that remote site. Various special lamps such as Pygmy, Single Ended Tubular, Fireglow, Photoflood, Infrared reflector, Railway and Traffic Signals, Squirrel Cage / Navigation, Airfield and Military lamps were then transferred to Preston.

The GE-Thorn Era
In 1991, Thorn sold its light sources division to General Electric of America, but the Preston lampworks was not included in the sale. GE had a few months earlier acquired the Hungarian state-run lampmaker Tungsram, which also had its own factories producing lamps similar to those of Preston - and with a good deal lower labour cost. During a transitionary period of three years, the factory continued to be owned by Thorn but was managed by GE-Thorn, who used it to fill UK orders until such time as the Hungarian operations could fully take over the British demand.

Some special lamp types such as double-ended striplights were not produced in Hungary, and the Preston machinery was transferred. Meanwhile the high speed Twin-head Sylvania machinery was considered to be sufficiently fast that it could counteract the higher costs of British labour, and three lines based on this principle, for the production of C35 candle, G45 ball and T60 GLS were transferred to the GE-Thorn factory at Leicester. They ran only for a few years though, before even Leicester lost out to the lower wages of Hungary, and at that time the manufacture of GLS lamps came to an end in Britain.

Some lamp types made at Preston were too specialised to attract the continued interest of GE Lighting, and their production was abandoned by the company. Much of the machinery was acquired by other smaller lampmakers still remaining in Britain. The production of squirrel cage / marine naviation and airfield incandescent lamps was taken over by Victory Lighting of Wembley, and railway signal production was transferred to the CEAG Lumax factory in Barnsley.

In June 1994 the production at Preston finally came to an end, with the loss of 330 jobs. By November 1994 the plant had been cleared and was vacated by Thorn Lighting. For a number of years the buildings found a use as a showroom for gas fires, and thereafter a community centre. However on 3rd December 2010 the oldest and multi-storey part of the building was completely destroyed by fire.


1 Factory Profile Sheet, 3rd January 1992.
2 Visitors Guide to Thorn EMI Lighting Preston, circa 1985.
3 Ensign News, March 1941.
4 Private Communication Ron Bartlett, Factory Manager, 1993-94