In 1943, George Eastman, American innovator and the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, was dying. An illness of the spine was killing him, causing great pain and leaving him unable to move properly. Haunted by the pain his mother went through in her final years over twenty years prior, Eastman was driven into a state of depression, until, eventually, he was forced into taking drastic action to end it. On March 14th 1943, Eastman shot himself through the heart, but not before leaving a note behind. ‘To my friends and family,’ it read, ‘my work is done – why wait?’
The nature of Eastman’s death in many ways parallels the contemporary state of his company in Harrow. Recently, it was confirmed that the local Kodak Factory will be ceasing its manufacturing operations at the end of this year, putting a total of 250 jobs at risk in process. A staple of the Harrowvian landscape since the nineteenth century, the closure of the Kodak Factory is the last act of many things – of a chapter of industry in Harrow, and the changed nature of photography in the twenty-first century.
Founded in America, Kodak initially grew on the back of Eastman’s innovations in photography – most notably the development of roll film – which changed the industry forever, arguably right up until very recently. Roll film allowed the proliferation of amateur photography, bringing it to the mainstream to great success. By 1889, Eastman’s company was ready to expand, and, two years later, an overseas plant was set up in Harrow to match the increasingly global demand for Kodak products. Harrow became the first Kodak processing plant in Britain where spent cameras were sent in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Eastman himself described it, ‘You press the button, we do the rest’ – that was the Kodak system.
Harrow was an ideal place for Kodak to come. Long had Harrow an industrial presence due to the useful transport facilities provided by the Gran Union Canal, but the development of better roads and further railroads made it an even more ideal and well-connected area in the late nineteenth century. Alongside Kodak, Harrow also became home to Whitefriars glassworks in the 1920s until it closed in 1980. The Kodak Factory, though, continued to grow throughout the twentieth century, and by 1965, occupied a 55-acre site, employing at its height in the 1950s employed over 6,000 people.
Kodak’s presence in Harrow is a long story, then, one that harkens back to a more prosperous time for industry in Britain, and to the very first developments in photography. Yet the world has changed in the decades since Kodak’s foundation. Amateur photography is now the domain of smart phones, the pictures taken now stored digitally, with little desire for their printing existing, whilst industry in Britain has come under struggle in an increasingly globalised world. There is a tragic sense of inevitability to this tale not too unlike Eastman’s protracted demise some hundred years ago, yet there can perhaps be some solace found in knowing that Harrow was a site of the great change Eastman and Kodak brought to the field of photography in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whilst with the modern age its work may be done, what this work was, and the profound, irreversible impact it had on the world, will never be forgotten.
Nonetheless, it will be strange to walk Headstone Drive without the sight of the factory churning on, and best of luck to those whose jobs have been put under threat by this latest, and indeed last, development.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: geograph.org