The story of Ekco Sports starts with the story of Eric Kirkham Cole, a genial engineer born in Rochford in 1901. He began manufacturing radios in the early 1920’s in a garden shed at his house in Beedell Avenue, but was taken by a newspaper article by William Verrells that espoused the potential benefits of mains powered rather than battery powered radios. Cole set about developing a battery eliminator radio and showed his invention to Verrells. He was so impressed the pair went into business in 1926 as E.K. Cole Ltd, initially based in Leigh-on-Sea. Within four years the firm moved to a much bigger site built on a former cabbage field at Priory Crescent in Southend.
The company boomed and while they diversified into many areas such as domestic appliances, car radios, heaters, Geiger counters, tape recorders, televisions, radar, aircraft and tank radios, they were most famous for the production of domestic radios housed in striking bakerlite cases. Initially Ekco imported the bakelite casings from AEG in Germany but prohibitive import duties saw Cole set up his own moulding plant next to his factory. He employed some well-known designers like the modernist designer Wells Coates (perhaps best remembered for the Isokon Buildings in Belsize Park) and it was Coates that designed the casing for Ekco’s iconic product, the AD-65 radio. Cole also similarly engaged the Russian born designer Serge Chermayeff who is best known for co-designing the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.
At its peak, Ekco employed 8,000 people and E.K. Cole even did a lot of secret government work on the Enigma code breaking machine during World War II. The company merged with Pye in 1960 and the plant diversified to electrical lighting before closing in the 1970’s, with the factory being sold to the credit card company Access. Cole himself met an unfortunate end, drowning in the Bahamas in 1966.
Cole was undoubtedly a caring employer, a real leader on providing apprenticeships, workplace pensions and paid holidays. He also provided excellent social and welfare facilities for his workers. Football and cricket (from 1935) for the men and netball for the factory’s numerous female employees. The works football team first started with friendlies in 1929 before entering competitive football for the 1930/31 season, fielding two teams in the Southend Borough Combination. The first team won Division Two in 1931/32 seeing off the challenge of runners up, Leigh Wesley. The team played in amber and green colours, the livery of works vans and of the flag flown above the factory. Initially games were played at Bournes Green Park and then at Rochford Corner before a sports field and pavilion was established at the factory site.
During the war Ekco’s sports teams had to adopt the name “Nomads” for security reasons, as the firm was involved in the production of components to aid the war effort. The footballers won the prestigious Southend Charity Cup under the Nomads moniker in 1944/45. Many of the companies’ workers either enlisted or were evacuated to Ekco’s other sites in safer areas. The two Ekco cricket teams, the Monarchs and Trojans, struggled to field sides and drafted in the help of professional footballers from Southend United, like Stan Montgomery (who had played first class cricket for Glamorgan), Frank Dudley, Jack French and Frank Walton.
In January 1946, Ekco travelled to Layer Road to take on the first team of Colchester United, then of the Southern League, in a friendly. A crowd of 2,000 watched the works team achieve a very creditable 3-3 draw. It was clear Ekco were ready for a higher level of football and they joined the London League for the 1946/47 season.
To coincide with their elevated status the club erected a stand at the ground. Many years later the stand was re-erected at the Victory Sports Ground in Eastern Avenue. Sadly, it didn’t last very long and with the area being an open public park it was soon badly vandalised and demolished for safety reasons. Unfortunately, to date, searches for a photo of the Ekco stand have proved elusive.
The London League had become an interesting competition with reserve teams of the likes of Chelmsford City, Guildford City and Bedford Town, as well as first teams of established clubs like Tilbury, Eton Manor, Woodford Town and Epsom. Other works teams such as Crittall Athletic and London Telecoms also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Leavesden Mental Hospital, Woolwich Polytechnic and Royal Naval Depot. Playing in a higher level meant entering the FA Cup for the first time. Ekco reached the second qualifying round in 1947/48, succumbing to Grays Athletic.
Ekco spent three seasons in the London League before a bottom place finish in 1948/49 saw them elect to return to the Southend Borough Combination. Ekco won the title in their first season back in the competition relegating defending champions Gaslight (Southend) into the runners up spot. Ekco remained in the Borough Combination for many years, winning further titles in 1956/57 and 1965/66, and competed long after the company closed down. In 1981/82, and now called Ekco Social & Sports, the club moved up to the Essex Olympian League. A further name change occurred in 1996 to Ekco First Data, reflecting the change of site ownership to Access. The club left the now Essex Intermediate League at the end of the 1999/2000 season.
The club rejoined the Southend Borough Combination and merged with Thames Park. Ekco/Thames Park won the Premier Division in 2004/5 two points clear of Old Southendian, retaining the title the following season. The Ekco name disappeared from local adult football at the end of the 2008/09 season and Thames Park carried on under their own name. In the same year Ekco’s two cricket sides merged with Southend-on-Sea Cricket Club. The Ekco name does continue at youth level with the long established Ekco Whitecaps club. Whitecaps have also been fielding an adult team in the Borough Combination from 2015. While the team may have gone the sports ground and social club remain as actively used facilities to this day.
The whole site of the former factory was demolished to make way for a housing development and for a new site for Fair Haven’s hospice. In 2020, the long and fascinating history of Ekco and Eric Kirkham Cole has been marked with a superb statue, by sculptor Anne Schwegmann-Fielding, of Cole made out of 182 ceramic mosaic tiles of photos of the factory and its workers, standing atop of that iconic radio.
With grateful thanks to Vince Taylor of Groundtastic Magazine