Dr Jessica Borge — author of Protective Practices: A History of the London Rubber Company and the Condom Business — shares some things you probably never knew about one of London’s fascinating lost industries.
Thick rubber condoms had been produced in London since the mid-18th century. In London, manufacturers were clustered around the Hackney area, and from the 1932 the London Rubber Company began making thin latex condoms in a small workshop at the rear of 20-22 Shore Road, with offices located in Old Street. By 1939, trade had stepped up, with London Rubber moving to a purpose-built, state-of-the-art factory in Chingford (where Costco now stands). By the end of the second world war, London Rubber was Britain’s biggest condom maker.
Lionel Jackson, a third-generation Russian-Jewish immigrant, is often credited as the inventor of Durex condoms. But he only came up with the trademark and business model. In fact, the technology behind Durex was invented by Lucian Landau, a Polish teenager living in Highbury and studying Rubber Technology at the former Northern Polytechnic Institute (now London Metropolitan University).
Girls as young as 14 worked on the condom production lines at Shore Road and Chingford. Although morality crusaders campaigned against the practice it was quite normal for girls to work in factories at this time and during the war. Many generations of women stayed on: mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts took jobs at Chingford.
Though sometimes seen as a taboo product, condoms were readily available in London during London Rubber’s heyday. Chemists, barbershops, herbalists, family planning clinics and specialist mail order services all retailed them. They’d even be sold by pedlars in pubs. If in doubt, one would simply head for the West End as ‘Surgical’, ‘Hygiene’, and ‘Rubber’ shops proliferated around the Charing Cross Road area.
Re-usable sheaths, such as the Durex Paragon, provided an economical alternative to single-use condoms and could last for three months if maintained using rolling devices and dusting powders (these cost extra, of course).
Advertising was problematic in the early days, so London Rubber (by this time known as London Rubber Industries) created a unit to produce sex education films, although these also served to promote condoms. One film, Learning to Live, was approved by the London County Council and was seen by half a million school children. Another film, According to Plan can be viewed on the Wellcome Library’s website.
While everyone knows the Marigold brand of rubber gloves, older readers may also remember Ariel balloons. Both of these were made by the London Rubber as an off-shoot of their in-house latex dipping technologies.
Despite a popular belief that oral contraception or “the pill” immediately displaced condoms, women’s contraception helped to boost condom sales in Britain by popularising birth control as an everyday discussion topic. The London Rubber Company had been making women’s contraceptives since the 1930s. They even made their own ‘pill’ in the 1960s, although the company also questioned the safety of oral contraceptives and secretly campaigned against them.
Workers at Chingford were surprised when the factory closed its doors on 29 July 1994. AIDS and HIV had led to a global surge in demand, and the condom business was good. Unfortunately, London Rubber (by this time known as London International Group) had greatly diversified its business areas. A significant investment in photographic processing coincided with a global recession in the early 1990s, forcing the relocation of manufacturing from Chingford to Malaysia. It was the end of large-scale condom production in London. The Durex brand was eventually sold on.
Protective Practices: A History of the London Rubber Company and the Condom Business by Jessica Borge, is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, is available to buy now, RRP £22.50