Watkins Bible Factory

Boarded up factory in centre of Victorian terrace
Watkins, Watkins & Co. Cowan Street entrance, shortly before demolition

Watkins Bible Bookbinding Factory stood on the site of what is now the children’s playground. It was one of the area’s biggest factories. At its peak it bound 1 million bibles a year, employing 400, mainly women, known as ‘folder girls’. It was deemed to offer more ‘respectable’ employment than some other local factories. Suffering World War 2 bomb damage, the factory was rebuilt in late 1950s but eventually closed in 1977.

Watkins’ unassuming factory entrance was in the middle of a terrace at 6-8 Cowan Street, but the factory backed onto Scarsdale Road – both roads which were lost when Burgess Park was created. The factory took up almost an entire block bounded by 4 streets – a larger footprint than Chumleigh Gardens.

Factory buildings are shown in pink, with roof skylights in blue
Factory plan, showing its position in relation to Chumleigh Gardens

In the plan above, the Cowan St entrance is at top centre. The yellow squares are post-war prefabs – emergency housing on bomb sites.

Group of 7 women on a tea break
Watkins workers in 1961

Watkins’ trade was solely in binding bibles.  During the Second World War, the factory was damaged by bombs which also destroyed a couple of houses on Cowan Street, leaving a gap in the terrace which remained unfilled until the whole street was eventually demolished. The factory was rebuilt in the late 1950s.

Former employee Dave Trutzenbach remembers his 6 year apprenticeship with Watkins which began when he was 15 years old. Each week, on Tuesdays, he attended Holborn Art and Craft school, for hand bookbinding classes, and later helped to produce thousands of bibles ranging from pocket editions to lectern-size and Braille editions.

Women working at desks, 2 men chatting, machinery in forground
Watkins interior, around 1961

However Watkins did not diversify, and as business dwindled, there were also issues with trade unions, leading its elderly owner Mr. Charles Burt to shut the factory down in 1977. Today Dave owns his own print company in New Jersey, USA, while many other employees went on to teach bookbinding at the local art college that is now the University of the Arts Camberwell.

Tall chimney in forground, with Aylesbury Estate tower block behind
Watkins Bible Factory viewed from south, across Scarsdale Road

Today the children’s playground in Burgess Park replaces the spot where Watkins Bible Factory once stood.

More memories here

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35 thoughts on “Watkins Bible Factory

  1. Hello

    My parents Joan & Richard Line worked at Watkins, my mother passed away however, Dad Richard now 85 would love to be in touch with old colleagues. Can you help with this?
    Kind regards

    1. Hello Jaqueline,
      Not really a response to your question, but I recently acquired a car, a white Lancia Flaminia GT. Watkins & Watkins are listed as the first owner, in 1964. It was sold in 1970 (unknown owner) and then onto a Paul Collins in 1972. It was a rare and expensive car when new, and I wonder if you father has any recollection of it? Any information would be much appreciated, as I would like to build up a history of the car.
      Best regards,
      Matthew Malatt

    2. I remember both your mum and dad, I worked at Watkins from 1955 until 1970, my single name was Maureen Burt, sorry to hear that you lost your mum.

      1. Hi do you remember my Mum Pat Knight she was a book folder and shop steward


    3. Hi would you ask your Dad if he remember Pat Knight, she was a book folder and was a shop steward.

  2. I am emailing back and forth with Mr. Dickie Lines – a Watkins colleague – and his family. Sent him over a nice long letter and all the photos I took when working at Watkins.

    1. Hi Dave
      Can you remember my Mum Pat Knight. She was a book folder and she was the shop steward


  3. Hello
    My parents Joan & Richard Line worked at Watkins. My mother passed away. However, Dad Richard now 85 would love to be in touch with old colleagues. Can you help with this?
    Kind regards

  4. My Aunt – Ivy Jones (nee Johnson) worked at the Bible Factory during the 50s and early 60’s. I still have the Bible with my initials gold blocked onto the cover that she gave me as a small boy in the 50’s – my Maternal Grandparents lived in Jardin Street.

  5. My late grandmother and some aunts/uncles worked at the Bible Factory. We have a watercolour picture (harbour scene) painted by E D Edwards, who Gran told us painted it for her. She said he was a bible illustrator. Does anyone have any knowledge of E D Edwards?

  6. I am sure he was the manager in the late 50s and 60s. A friendly place. I’m 81 – an apprentice when I started there!

    1. Can you remember my Mum Pat Knight. She was a book folder and a shop steward


  7. I did my apprenticeship there from 1969. Was working there when it shut down. My first day there, and being short and skinny, earned me the name of Oliver Twist by a bench hand, George Hall, and it stuck throughout my time. There were about 8 apprentices along with me. I remember apprentices verses the men football matches. We won, of course. Some of the apprentices had their nicknames as well. Terry (Hippo) Reid, Richard (Bunter) Maynard. Some of the journeyman I remember, Les Canning, Alan (nutmeg) Swallow, Jim Thompson, John Latuske (he was a Porter), Alfie Nye, Harry Vernon, Don Small, Harold ? (Worked in the leather dept). So many more whose faces I sort of remember but can’t quite put a name to. A lot of happy memories. From there I worked for two years at Lewisham Library, where, I did a lot more hand binding and in 1979 began work for the British Library. Although, it was HMSO until the BL took over the contracts in about 1981. The “bindery “ was around the rear of the British Museum until 2007 when we moved lock stock and barrel over to the new BL site in St Pancras into the British Library Centre for Conservation. I retired from the BL in 2015 having spent my last 12 years as a conservation team leader.

    1. Hi. I can remember some of them names. I started working there in 1970 to 1975. My sister Shirley worked there before me. I trained as a book binder and moved onto the automatic machines. Also worked in what we called ‘the room’ sewing the leather cases on the bibles. Wow, so long ago – liked it there – had lots of friends.

      1. Lydia, Hi there. Didn’t you marry Graham Palmer and live in Stanley for a time?

  8. I was born on 1-1-1954 in No 5 Cowan Street, delivered by my dad as the midwife couldn’t get there through the snow, and through the eyes of a child, I remember it as being a safe and neighbourly area.
    Neither of my parents worked at the Watkins Factory, but the people who did always made time to say hello to my sister or me when sitting in the pram on the pavement outside our house when they finished work. My mum Elsie Rich sadly died in 1961 when I was 7. I remember a lovely lady Mrs Jones? who lived opposite looking after my sister and I before and after school – Cobourg – until dad came home from work. We all looked out for each other, much like we need to now in 2020!! Strange Eh?

  9. Hi – Linda Rich, as was, again, as my last post seemed to be missing the part about my friend Margaret Jones. She was the daughter of Mrs Jones who looked out for me and my sister before and after the School day at Cobourg School in the 50’s, when I lived in No 5 Cowan Street. Would be nice to find out how your life panned out Margaret!! COVID-19 is so lethal, as if Mother Nature is culling her planet but, having our Grandson last year, 2019, and a Grandaughter this year, 2020, in spite of the pandemic, it gives us a future to live for, as with all parents!! Hoping that not just those of us whose paths may already have crossed but, being in the older age group – 66 – and in lock down, we’ll have time to make new memories…..?
    I’ll check back for any reply.

    1. Hi Linda,
      My name is Edna Powell and I used to live in Chumleigh Street. Your Mum and my Mum were friends and we went to Brownies and played together!
      Do you hear from anyone that lived in the area or have you lost touch with everyone?
      (Annie & I share an email address, so that’s why her name might appear!)

  10. In the 1881 and 1891 censuses my 2nd great-grandfather, John Samuel Foulds (Bookbinder), and family were living at 6 Cowan Street. From the map and pictures on this page it looks like no 6 was offices for the Watkins Bible Factory. I had other Foulds relatives living nearby, some of who may have also worked there.

    1. Hi, were you connected to Bob Fowlds the upholsterer on the edge of Addington Square? Seems such a similar unusual name in the same square mile…

  11. My relatives the broadhurst from new church rd all worked at the bible factory….around 1910 1920….also my grt grandad was a book binder..called Francis Scott in 1881

  12. My Grandfather on my mother’s side was Kenneth Watkins-Birts, but he died before I was born. I only knew that his family business had been binding bibles, but I don’t know how many generations it went back. Watkins-Watkins suggests perhaps a father and son or a pair of brothers started it?

  13. I’ve remembered some more of the apprentices names from my time at Watkins. Fred Elkington, Graham Palmer, John (spud) Murphy. The name of the guy in charge of the cloth, leather department was Harold Franklin. Also some others.. Richard and Phillip Lines, Marie Curness (who was Jim Thompson’s sister and worked in the indexing dept). She went onto having a position in the union, SOGAT. Phillip Mills (rounding and backing machine). I remember going on a reunion boat trip up the Thames, organised by Richard Maynard, who was working those at the time. It was a year or two after closure of Watkins. But, after now, 45 years, most have lost touch and quite a few have passed away I would think. I did look up John Latuske (porter, and he worked at the BL bindery, Bloomsbury for a while) in Ancestry and think he passed away in 2009. Hope people who were associated with Watkins read my two comments and it jogs their memories of the place.

  14. I have my Great, Great Grandmother’s Watkins bible dated March 16th 1853. Her name was Mary Cook who lived at 11, Salisbury Street

  15. My uncle Ron Grindley worked as a bookbinder / gilder at Watkins until it was closed. I still have a Watkins bible and he rebuilt our family bible which had fallen apart with detached covers.

  16. My sister Sheila Viney worked at Watkins in the 50’s. I have a copy of a photo of her as a bridesmaid and wondered if it was a friend from Watkins. She would have been about 18 at the time. So likely to be early 50’s. There were 2 older bridesmaids and 4 children in crinoline type dresses. Does anyone have any idea who the bride might be? Thank you.

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