For the past months, we have been exploring the vast United Africa Company (UAC) archive held at Unilever in Port Sunlight. The archive documents decades of commercial activity in West Africa, which left a significant imprint on the built and natural environment. The UAC extracted raw materials such as palm oil and timber, but also exported finished goods such as cars, building materials, and refrigerators. The UAC also sold British products in its department stores across Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, it operated its own shipping line, named Palm Line, that ferried goods between the UK and West Africa. We have come across a variety of different materials, ranging from maps documenting the company’s palm oil plantations in the Congo and architectural drawings showing the modern Kingsway stores in Lagos and Freetown, to detailed notes related to the design of the UAC’s port, Burutu, in the Niger Delta.
One aspect of the UAC I have been focusing on these past months is the company’s timber operations in Ghana and Nigeria. In the early twentieth century, the UAC founded the African Timber Company (later the African Timber and Plywood Company), located in Sapele, Nigeria. Through a range of concession agreements with local chiefs, they managed to consolidate vast areas of territory around Sapele from which they extracted a wide range of different tropical hardwoods for export to the UK. At the same time, the company began operating in Ghana (then still the Gold Coast), in Samreboi, a hundred miles inland from the port of Takoradi. After World War II, they also built a plywood factory in Sapele—the first of its kind in this area and described as ‘the largest industrial plant in West Africa’—and began producing plywood at a large scale. Using photographs and written documentation, I have begun to explore the construction of these two company towns and their wider infrastructure. While the factories and processing plants were built using prefabricated steel sheds made by Arcon (also responsible for prefabricated houses in the UK during the postwar period), the bungalows for the company’s British employees can be described as traditional. Later, a Timber Research Laboratory was added, as well as showrooms, and several local facilities such as a (plywood) cinema and clubhouse. Through felling hundreds of thousands of logs every year, the company irrevocably left an imprint on these two areas in Ghana and Nigeria and had a devastating impact on the natural environment.
What is interesting is how the work of the African Timber and Plywood Company aligns with the British government’s focus on ‘empire timber’, or the push to use timber in Britain from different parts of the empire for furniture as well as architecture and interior design. While the government attempted to promote empire timber through a variety of exhibitions in the first decades of the twentieth century, the UAC archive reveals how widespread the use of tropical hardwood and plywood produced in Sapele and Samreboi was during the postwar period. Often marketed as giving ‘a feeling of warmth’, it was used for modern furniture made by the Conran Design Group, doors, window frames, and outside paneling for a variety of council housing, but also as interior decoration and flooring in buildings such as the Commonwealth Institute in London and the Commonwealth Royal Pool in Edinburgh. The former headquarters of the UAC in London, United Africa House at Blackfriars, is another case in point: the building’s interior functioned as a display of tropical timber, ranging from mahogany to African walnut and Sapele hardwood—all produced by the company.
Another fascinating aspect is the shift to production for the local, West African market in the 1960s and ‘70s, after Independence. Aside from furniture, one innovation was ATP Systems Building, a prefabricated building system using tropical hardwood and plywood. The company promoted this as an affordable, quick, and flexible way to build without requiring much technical knowledge. Documents I found in the archive point out that ATP Systems Building was widely deployed in, for example, Warri, a rapidly growing oil town in Nigeria, to build houses, offices, and schools.
Overall, the archive of the African Timber and Plywood company demonstrates, once again, how (modern) architectural construction in Britain was shaped by colonialism and, conversely, how British companies continued to impact design in the former colonies after independence. Many questions, however, are still unanswered. How, for example, was the work of the timber companies related to the colonial government’s efforts to promote empire timber from Nigeria? How should we understand the widespread use of (colonial) timber in postwar Britain? What prompted the shift to focus on the Nigerian market after Independence? How successful was ATP Systems Building? Over the coming months, we will continue to explore these issues.