Heritage: Roneo, Roneo, wherefore art thou Roneo?

The Roneo factory opened in 1907 and has since given its name to Roneo Corner. Photo: Google Maps

The Roneo factory opened in 1907 and has since given its name to Roneo Corner. Photo: Google Maps - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin borrows from Shakespeare to celebrate a famous Havering factory

Roneo Corner, where Rom Valley Way meets Rush Green Road, recalls a local factory that once led the world in office technology.

Born in Prague in 1862, Augustus David Klaber emigrated to America, where he worked as sales agent for the office equipment company Gestetner – who later sued him over copyright!

Klaber developed a simple printing machine, the Rotary Neostyle duplicator. “Roneo” machines produced 70 copies a minute, each looking like a typed letter.

In 1907, Klaber’s Roneo company opened its factory near Romford.

It was a genuine Havering project. The address was Romford, the site was just inside Hornchurch. Its location was a hamlet called Haveringwell.

Haveringwell House, near today’s Burger King, was a quaint mansion topped by a tiny belfry. Nearby was the Crown pub, grandly rebuilt in the 1920s. An old graveyard, now a public garden, faced Upper Rainham Road. Only a footbridge crossed the River Rom. Rush Green Road was a major cattle route to London. Animals and wagons splashed through a ford.

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From this backwater, the new office equipment company conquered the world.

The First World War boosted Roneo. The Army needed duplicators to issue thousands of orders. The Romford factory also produced munitions. Its works hooter became the local air raid warning siren.

In 1920, during Ireland’s War of Independence, British forces raided Sinn Féin’s Dublin headquarters. They found a Roneo machine churning out republican propaganda.

In 1926, Britain’s newspapers struggled to publish when the TUC called the General Strike. With their printers on strike, The Times and the weekly Spectator produced skeleton editions on Roneo duplicators. The Oxford English Dictionary recognised “roneo” both as a noun (for the machine) and as a verb (documents were “roneo’d”).

Roneo’s Romford factory also produced other office equipment, such as filing cabinets. Unlike wooden boxes, Roneo’s steel cabinets resisted mice and could survive a fire.

The Romford factory was doubled in size between 1909 and 1911, and extended again in 1920.

In 1930, the Post Office approved the large-scale use of franking machines.

Businesses could now produce mass-marketing material on their Roneo duplicators, and quickly mail it to customers through their Roneo-Neopost equipment. Gone were hours of licking stamps. By 1962, a quarter of all letters handled by the Post Office were franked.

In 1936, the new Daily Mail offices were fitted with Roneo steel and glass moveable partitions, designed to allow future redesign of internal space. The company boasted that a building in Venezuela incorporated three miles of Roneo partitions!

Internal fire doors on the famous liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were made by Roneo’s Romford factory.

It was a good place to work. By 1912, there was an Athletics Club, with its own ground in nearby Clydesdale Road. In 1927, competition between teams from different departments at the annual sports day was “keen”. A fancy-dress dance followed in the evening. An amateur Roneo Concert Party organised popular variety shows.

Disputes were few. In 1946, 1,500 women workers briefly walked over pay. The factory was closed in a one-day national engineering stoppage in 1953.

The cramped Romford site became a problem. In 1958, Roneo switched some production to Norwich, a scheme abandoned in 1962.

A year later, 600 Roneo workers were made redundant. They marched in protest through Romford, carrying a black coffin.

In 1966, Roneo became part of the Vickers engineering group, which planned a new £4million Romford factory in 1978. The company was sold again in 1980, to the French group Alcatel.

But photocopiers now made duplicators old-fashioned. The Roneo brand was phased out around 1990.

The factory site is now the headquarters of a successor company, Neopost.

Officially, Roneo Corner ceased to exist when South Street was diverted to join the Rom Valley Way relief road.

But the area where a Havering factory gave its name to the English language is still called Roneo Corner.