Skip to content
Friends of the Willis Museum Logo

A registered charity that promotes, supports, assists and helps improve the Willis Museum in Basingstoke.

Eli Lilly and Company come to Basingstoke

by Derek Anthony

In 1934 Eli Lilly and Company established its first office outside the USA at 2-4 Dean Street in Central London. At the time Eli Lilly was one of America’s largest suppliers of medicines, but its export business was in the hands of local agents.

The Dean Street office was one further step towards internationalisation and was followed within two years by a decision to build a manufacturing plant in the UK.

It is not recorded why Lilly chose Basingstoke for its manufacturing site, but the reasons are not hard to guess. High on the list of priorities must have been the sophisticated railway link-ups which put Basingstoke in touch with the whole country. The original factory was built facing the main railway line and overlooking Lilly’s own private siding, by the side of which was built a coal fired boiler house. Easy accessibility to London, the largest market for pharmaceuticals in the country, and to the port of Southampton, through which supplies and people from America could come, must also have been an important consideration. Finally not the least attractive feature must have been the availability of building land.

Lilly bought quite a lot of land – approx 23 acres of farmland between Kingsclere Road and the railway – on what was then the outskirts of the town. One of the Company’s oldest employees recalled the site as it was before development. “I can remember it as a wheat field where my father worked. After school I had to cycle here to bring his tea. Not the big gates to enter then, but a five bar gate leading down a rough track. Approximately where the front steps are now stood about four or five straw ricks which my father used to build and thatch, and while he sat on a bundle of thatching spars, I used to sit up on the ladder and watch the trains steaming by.”

Nearby were Lancaster Road, Merton Road and Merton Farm, names which encapsulated the history of the land. The Earl of Lancaster had left it to Merton College, Oxford from which Lilly bought it in 1937.

Construction began in February 1938, with the removal of 10,000 cubic yards of chalk from what was to become the basement of the factory building, followed soon after by the burrowing of a tunnel to carry steam and service pipes from the boiler house by the railway siding up to the main building.

The winter of 1938 saw the traditional topping out ceremony, the building little more than a shell, the windows of the upper storey – their iron fitments not yet having arrived – still gaping holes. The big six floor building, a brilliant sugar loaf white, stood on its own. No other landmark contested the ground between it and the water tower of the Park Prewett Mental Hospital.

The newly completed building in 1939

It was a stylish piece of architecture which today looks externally at least almost exactly as it did in 1939 at the time of its completion. The journal “Concrete and constructional engineering” of June 1939 described it as follows:

A laboratory building has recently been completed at Basingstoke for Eli Lilly and Company Limited, manufacturers of biological and pharmaceutical chemicals. The architect is Mr A G Porri, FRIBA, and the consulting engineers Considere Construction Ltd. The contractors were Sir Robert Mcalpine and Sons Limited.

The building is 220ft long by 60ft wide by 66ft high above ground level, and consists of a basement and five floors. The most interesting and unusual feature in the design lies in the construction above third floor level. It was required to provide a clear space on the third floor free from structural supports”. (There then follows a detailed description of how this was achieved).

This third floor accommodation was shared between offices and laboratories, but it is interesting to note that no passenger lift was incorporated into the building.

By March 1939 thirteen months after the earth movers had begun their work, A Block, as the original building is now called, was ready for occupation. That same month a caravan of pantechnicons turned up at Kingsclere Road filled with the company’s stock and effects. Soon afterwards testing of the manufacturing machinery began and by the beginning of September the site was ready for business.

By that time however all eyes including those of the Company’s new employees was turned to Poland and the German invasion which had begun on the first of September. World events were moving rapidly and Great Britain declared war on Germany at 11.00 am on Sunday 3rd September, the day before the new Lilly factory opened for business. Before long the brilliant white building had been covered in camouflage paint, the newly erected neon sign had been switched off, an anti-aircraft gun stationed on site and half of the accommodation requisitioned by the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

The Company had precious little time to reap any reward from its considerable investment in Basingstoke before war intervened, but at least the new factory had been built and partially equipped, and was ready to make a significant contribution firstly to the war effort and later to the supply of pharmaceutical needs to an exhausted post-war Britain.

By Derek Anthony, November 1991

Share Post: