'Our Eric'
John Sales

I was very interested when I saw a feature on the BBC News website concerning the installation of a statue of the founder of the EKCO TV, Radio and Electronic manufacturing company, Eric Kirkham Cole.   With Southend being only about a half-hour drive away for me, I just had to pay a visit and take a look at 'Our Eric', as the statue has been named.

'Our Eric' is located in the 'Village Oval' of a new Bellway Homes' housing development named 'EKCO Park' in Southend-on-Sea. This was the location of the former EKCO factory and the two major thoroughfares through the estate are respectively named Cole Avenue and Kirkham Road, in a direct tribute to the founder.

At its peak, EKCO employed over 8000 workers across the county of Essex and would have been the town's biggest employer. In later years the former EKCO offices in Priory Crescent were occupied by the Access credit card company.

Eric Kirkham Cole started building radios in his garden shed in the 1920s and took the 'E' from Eric, the 'K' from Kirkham (his mother's maiden name) and the letters 'CO', the first two letters of his surname, to use as a brand-name on his products.    Eric Kirkham Cole Eric's statue was the creative collaboration of artists Anne Schwegmann-Fielding, Tamsin Evans and Michael Condron. It wears a mosaic suit created from 182 fired porcelain photographs of the EKCO factory, its workers and the products they made. The Southend Museums' website offers a key to the individual pieces.

'Our Eric' stands upon a steel recreation of an EKCO AD65 radio which has been allowed to rust naturally, thus producing a reddish/brown colour. This is something like the appearance of the original radio cabinet which, in those days, would have been made from the phenolic plastic 'Bakelite'. Eric himself is life-sized but the 'radio' plinth on which he is standing is somewhat larger. 

Chris Poole and Peter C Brown's book about the EKCO Company and its founder, 'EKCO Sounds - how a Southend radio maker changed the world' tells of a lesser-known aspect of Eric's life.

"Eric also assembled transmitters, and actually dated his then-girlfriend Muriel Bradshaw, by wireless radio from his home in Westcliff-On-Sea. Such private transmissions were, in fact, a breach of the Post Office monopoly under the mid-Victorian Telegraphy Act, which was passed before the telephone, let alone the wireless, was invented. In later years, EKCO was meticulous in only broadcasting under licence."

From this it would appear that Eric Kirkham Cole was, at one time, a land-based radio pirate. Good for him – and I'm quite sure that many listeners in the 1960s were tuning-in to the various Offshore Radio 'pirates' via sets manufactured by EKCO!

If you ever happen to be in the Southend-on-Sea area, then the Eric Kirkham Cole statue is certainly well worth a visit. Visit Bellway Homes' website for a location map.

An EKCO Sounds Facebook Page contains a great deal of additional information.

Feature and photos, copyright John Sales. Photos below, copyright Mary Payne

Early EKCO advertising poster
A collection of radio sets, made both EKCO and the competition