Lighting the way

A new biography tells the story of an innovative businessman whose factories in Enfield and Edmonton employed thousands, writes James Cracknell

Sir Jules Thorn
Sir Jules Thorn built several factories in Enfield and Edmonton in the mid-20th Century

Jim Lewis believes a wrong has been righted with the publication of The Man and His Empire,his biography of businessman Sir Jules Thorn.

In his introduction, Jim writes that “many biographies have been written about individuals who have done little to improve the lives of ordinary people” and that “it seems incredible that the biography of one remarkable man, whose industrial empire at its height employed 80,000 people worldwide, has [had] never been written”.

Jim was one of those 80,000 employees, working for 18 years at Thorn EMI, making him ideally placed to write about his old boss. So who was Sir Jules Thorn? Born in Vienna to Jewish parents, he emigrated to the UK in the 1920s and set up his first lighting business, hoping to tap into the growing market for domestic electric lamps. He was helped by a partnership with a fellow Austrian, Alfred Deutsch, who “gave Thorn the technical understanding that he lacked”.

Sir Jules bought his first factory in 1932, the Atlas Lamp Works on Eleys Estate, Edmonton. Having also bought a radio dealer’s shop in Twickenham and subsequently several other lighting and radio manufacturers, as well as a domestic appliance business, Jim writes that he “clearly had an eye for the developing domestic market […] understanding what products the homeowner would require”.

In 1936, after buying Ferguson Radio Corporation, Thorn built a factory in Lincoln Road, Enfield, making it the base for production of Ferguson radios and televisions. The age of television took off in 1953 with the broadcast of the Queen’s coronation, an event that Thorn Electrical Industries capitalised on with its expanded production at a new, bigger factory in Southbury Road. It helped Thorn become the leading television producer in the UK at that time. Further electronics brands were acquired as Thorn expanded, with Ultra, HMV and Marconiphone added to its portfolio.

Jim writes that it would be “almost impossible to list all of the world firsts in technological achievement, process and products” claimed by the Thorn group, but chooses to mention two that relate to its works in the Lea Valley; the 2D lamp, a forerunner of today’s low-energy light bulbs; and the halogen cooker.

Jim’s biography doesn’t end with Sir Jules’s death in 1980, which came shortly after his company’s acquisition of long-time rival EMI. He continues to describe his former boss’s considerable legacy, including the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust, which still supports research and humanitarian projects across the UK today.

Sir Jules Thorn: The Man and His Empire is available to order online: