The London Rubber Company was a commercial firm that designed, produced and supplied dipped latex rubber condoms for profit.
Initially operating out of a tobacconist-hairdresser shop at 32 Aldersgate Street from 1915, the London Rubber Company began as a wholesaler of imported condoms and associated rubber goods operating under the purview of Lionel Jackson and his brother Elkan. From 1932, and in association with Lucian Landau and British Latex Products, London Rubber pioneered the production of Durex brand condoms from a small workshop at the rear of 20-22 Shore Road, Hackney.
Manufacturing moved to a purpose-built, state of the art factory in Chingford in 1939 (where Costco now stands).
Wartime conditions forced up production and pushed innovation. By the 1950s condom production had become automated and the London Rubber Company was the largest employer in Chingford, giving work to skilled engineers, chemists, salesmen and warehousemen, and also women and girls who worked in administration, sales support, and in production and testing on the factory floor.
London Rubber was, in many ways, a socially progressive company for its time, offering a profit-share scheme and many benefits to employees (including discounted products in the weekly company ‘shop’ in the canteen). London Rubber chemists and engineers offered a free R&D service to surgeons and other medical interest groups. During it’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, employees of London Rubber could expect regular rewards for service, annual trips to panto for their children (which necessitated a considerable number of coaches as there were so many), an array of social activities and dances, and flexible time off for parents.
London Rubber was the biggest and the most successful condom firm ever to operate in Britain. Thanks to its historic distribution network, amplified wartime production, sophisticated and innovative production techniques, notorious anti-competitive practices, and a careful play-off between extra-marital and ‘respectable’ markets, the London Rubber Company enjoyed a near monopoly on condom manufacture and supply in Britain. But the company also made a full range of contraceptives, including products for women such as diaphragms and the oral contraceptive pill.
Being the largest user of liquid latex in Britain, London Rubber dominated the market for children’s balloons, under the Ariel brand. London Rubber also manufactured surgical, industrial and domestic rubber gloves, most recognisably the Marigold brand.
By the 1970s, the company had diversified into all manner of products, from disposable knickers to swimming caps to paint brushes, tooth powders and table wine. By the 1980s, the portfolio included fine chinaware and photographic processing.
But it was the condom - the company’s first self-manufactured and most enduring and easily fabricated product - that formed the basis of the company’s overall success, the production line and marketing side having been so finely tuned. The company’s sophisticated production and sales mechanisms posed a formidable barrier to competitors and for decades London Rubber went unchallenged. Contrary to popular belief, the oral contraceptive pill did not automatically displace condom use in the 1960s, although it did change the marketplace, and London Rubber always stood watchfully on the edge of the women’s market.
By the time of the AIDS crisis, the social need for barrier prophylaxis was such that the marketplace was finally receptive to the sale of condoms for personal protection (as opposed to ostensible contraceptive use), although arguably they had always been used for this purpose. AIDS opened up condom advertising - including broadcast advertising - and this brought new major competition, although London Rubber continued to lead on sales.
In the end, the company’s mass diversification into disparate fields - particularly photographic processing - was the undoing of condom manufacturing in Britain, and production at Chingford shut down in the 1990s, when the company and its many international subsidiaries were dismantled the Durex brand sold on.
Today, the Durex brand is owned by the Reckitt Benckiser group of companies, which is unconnected to the historic London Rubber Company.
For more detailed information, analysis and never-before seen photographs, see the new book Protective Practices : A History of the London Rubber Company and the Condom Business by Jessica Borge.
The book can be purchased through Bookshop.org, The London Review Bookshop, Belgravia Books, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Foyles, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Walmart and in all good bookshops.
IMAGES: Taken from London Image, 1964 - 1974