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Gillette Building, Reading

The ‘Gillette Building’ at 452 Basingstoke Road in Whitley, Reading will be well known to those who travel this route. It is a striking art deco style building on the west side of the road, partly obscured by greenery in front. The building of heritage note is embedded in the wider commercial site, but facing the main road so openly accessible.

Gillette Building Frontage (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

Gillette Building - Front 2 JAJ (Jan 2020)

The site was originally opened as a factory for Williamson Manufacturing Company. Williamson dates back to the late 19th century when formed by James Williamson, a Hove-based movie pioneer. The company was active in the aerial camera business and was a major supplier to the Royal Air Force during both world wars. As the need for reconnaissance cameras declined after World War II the company moved into film processing and in particular X-Ray film processing.

At the time of the building’s creation the Williamson company was new to Reading and used this factory as an addition to the one they already had in Willesden Green; the original location remained their headquarters. The two factories produced over 76,000 air cameras of all types for the Royal Air Force during both world wars along with the printing machines used to render millions of photographs. One of their best-known products was the ‘Eagle’ aircraft camera.

The photographs below show one of Williamson’s factories, we don’t know if this is Reading, but it is likely to have been very similar in terms of layout and the activities being undertaken.

Care of Grace's Guide

Gillette Building - Williamson Factory (Grace's Guide)

Care of Grace's Guide

Gillette Building - Williamson Factory (Grace's Guide) 2

The site is opposite the Whitley Estate and at the time of its building this new and rapidly growing housing area would have provided a much-needed local workforce bringing benefit to both employer and employee.

The site was later taken over by Bourjois; a French cosmetics group begun in the mid-1800s, who produced fragrances, bath oils and soap products. The site was used for the manufacture of soap products and for the distribution of perfumes.

Advert care of The Aviation Ancestry Database of British Aviation Advertisements 1909-1990

Gillette Building - Williamson Advert

After Bourjois departed the site was taken over by Gillette, who used the factory for the manufacture of their world-famous safety razors and for other cosmetic items. The current building was extended, retaining the northern half of the original factory and the tower which were built by Williamson Manufacturing in the 1930s. The extension is in the art deco style; a style that the company also used for their Grade II listed factory in Brentford. The similarities between the buildings are quite marked, but sadly the Reading site did not get listed status at national level.  The company did not build the southern half of the building until the 1950s but is in the same style, with planning officers stating that it adds to the overall impact of the building as an important local landmark.

Gillette Building Great West Road - Care of The History of Brentford Website

Gillette Building - Great West Road

It is from this time that the building gets its commonly-known epithet and we see the Company name in large letters over the doorways in blue lettering, as shown in one of the photographs below. The Gillette Company originated in America in the late 19th century from the idea of inventor King Camp Gillette for the safety razor with disposable blades. While sales started slowly they quickly grew and with their product patented the company was renamed to the Gillette Safety Razor Company and operations were expanded outside of the US. The company’s success was boosted in 1918 when the US military issued Gillette saving kits to every serviceman that led on to a continued habit of usage after the war. Directly after the war the Slough building was opened to build improved razors. The development of Gillette’s first twin-blade razor began in early 1964 in the Reading laboratories which were located on our site. This razor utilised tandem blades and the “hysteresis effect” where one blade pulls the whisker out of the hair follicle before cutting it and enables a second blade to cut the whisker even shorter before it retracts back into the follicle.

An article in the Reading Evening Post of 14th March 1966 talks about the Gillette operations in the Reading factory. As well as producing the aforementioned razors the site is now making increasing quantities of medical products, plastics and toiletries. The ‘scimitar’ hypodermic needle is produced solely at the site and is being used in eight out of ten UK hospitals at the time; it is part of the newly introduced concept of disposable hypodermic syringes. To improve its medical market the site had recently become one of the few installations in the world to use gamma radiation to sterilise surgical products. The site was employing 1,100 staff and still expanding. In what we would now consider to be a slightly non-pc reference, the article talks of the opportunities that are offered to young ladies on leaving school. In an article from the same paper nine years later we see the factory laying-off 50 employees, which is described as about a sixth of the company’s mainly female part-time workforce. It states that the 1,500 full time employees were not impacted.

The current building retains several unique and individual external features, including the tower with its clock and special windows near the top. Also of note are the almost matching north and south building staff entrances with door furniture and brass work, and the gates at the vehicle entrance by the south side of the tower.

Gillette Building Clock Tower (Photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

Gillette Building - Tower 1 JAJ (Jan 2020)

Gillette Building Clock Tower (Photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

Gillette Building - Tower 2 JAJ (Jan 2020)

Also of note are the almost matching north and south building staff entrances with door furniture and brass work, and the gates at the vehicle entrance by the south side of the tower.

Gillette Building Entrance (Photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

Gillette Building - Entrance JAJ (Jan 2020)

There is a high level of architectural significance, with the main building dating from between 1914 and 1939, being substantially complete and unaltered (excluding the interior). The later extension to the south of the clock tower, although built post 1939, was developed in the same style and is considered to add to the overall impact of the building as an important local landmark. The significance is focused on the exterior of the buildings. The building is an example of deliberate town planning before 1947 being associated with the Whitley Estate and has townscape value as a landmark building. The building has social significance having had an important role in the development of one of Reading’s communities. It also has industrial importance relating to the historic industrial processes and important business in the history of Reading particularly Williamson and Gillette.

Gillette Building Front Elevation

Gillette Building - Front Elevation

To ensure that the building has protection it was given Local Listing in April 2019 – the listing covers the whole of the red brick front building, including the clock tower. An application to list the building was sent to English Heritage in 2008 but due to significant alteration of the interior it was rejected. Local Listing aims to ensure that the historic and architectural interest of buildings of local importance, which do not meet the nationally listing criteria, is taken account of during the planning process. Unlike nationally listed buildings, locally listed buildings do not have statutory protection, but consent is still required to develop on and around them.

Proctor & Gamble, who operate the site now as owners of the Gillette brand, recently refurbished the listed building in a sympathetic manner. Some of the interior can be seen through the windows or by going in to the entrance lobby where the original stairs are visible – the building and the wider site is security controlled so please ask permission before you take photographs.

Gillette Building Staircase (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

Gillette Building - staircase JAJ (Jan 2020)

You may be interested in an article from Berkshire Live (26 Oct 2017) entitled ‘Meet the last of a family of Gillette employees as company celebrates 60 years’. It shows a number of photographs of the Gillette Building and site.

Bibliography and Sources:

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