This is a first attempt to the history of these tanks. I have only the bare bones of the story from what has been published. Previous employees of the companies involved may have more information and I hope any of them reading this with knowledge of events will get in touch.
The Essex 35 and the Kent 20 were British made clones or near clones of the Rondinax 35 and Rondinax 60. They were introduced in 1950 and 1951, respectively. The reason for their production in Britain is clear – there was a demand but Rondinax tanks from Germany were not available. Very tight import quotas to conserve hard currency and to protect British industry had been in place since the end of the war. Only slowly during the 1950s were the restrictions eased and not until the late 1950s could all cameras, for example, be freely imported. This is not the place to debate with hindsight the effectiveness of such a policy but this was real personal and public austerity in Britain not just the slight reduction in mostly planned expenditure that passes for austerity in the 2010s.
The Essex 35 appeared in the ‘New Goods’ section of the British Journal Photographic Almanac for 1950. Bear in mind that there never was the slightest hint of critical comment in that journal for the goods that were being introduced, whether it were a camera that was later shown to be poorly designed and built, or a plastic funnel that occupied a quarter of page of text.
This is what the BJPA had to say:
This new tank represents the continued co-operation of the two sponsoring firms in this field of photographic apparatus production. It is a particularly well-finished article in moulded plastic with cleanly machined and plated metal components. From its external appearance it will be seen that it is based upon the prewar Rondinax design, but it should also be noted that in its new form it incorporates a number of improvements. The tank is supplied with an excellent instruction booklet and with this, and the simple working of the tank itself, it is as easy to load and operate as any which has been tested. Among the small improvements in design should be noted the simplification of the point of attachment of the film-buckle, the change from plain steel to stainless-steel for the film-cutting knife to avoid troubles due to corrosion, the full shrouding of the thermometer which should help considerably to avoid damage to it, the way in which the thermometer bulb reaches right down into the solution at the bottom of the curved part of the tank proper and the neat way in which the cassette is held by one sliding member only.
The new tank is priced at £4 18s. 6d. and is particularly good value for money at the present time. It is neatly boxed in a padded modern design printed carton, which is sent out in an external carton of corrugated-cardboard for additional protection.
Then 1951 edition had more news on the Essex
Essex Tank, Mark II.—The previous model (reviewed in last year’s Almanac) was designed to take any standard 35-mm. cassette. The Mark II is identical in construction, except that it takes, in addition, Leica Type B Cassettes. The cassettes may be locked and unlocked when in the tank, without removing the lid, the locking device consisting of an external knob which operates in a similar way to the external lock of the Leica Type B camera. The price is £5 18s. 6d.
So there we had the Mark I lacking the keys to open a Leica cassette and the Mark II with such keys. Therefore, the Mark 1 was equivalent to the Rondinax 35, and the Mark II to the Rondinax 35U.
Essex II tanks have appeared on eBay. They can be distinguished from the Mark I version by the presence of a knob in the upper left hand corner to open the Leica cassette. I show some photographs on my Pinterest board (see Menu above). I do not have an instruction manual for this version.
Here are two photographs of the Essex II:
The Kent appeared in the 1952 edition of BJPA:
The “Kent 20” is the British version of the Rondinax 60, and does for the No. 20 roll film user what the “Essex” tank does for the 35-mm. worker. Like the “Essex”, it is excellent both in design and in finish. Owing to the presence of the backing paper on the roll film there is, however, an additional operation to go through as compared with the “Essex” procedure. The first stage consists in unrolling the backing paper and attaching the film clip to the end of the film, while in the second stage the film is drawn into the spiral within the main compartment of the tank. The sixteen-page instruction booklet issued with the tank explains in detail every step, suggests two alternative methods of starting processing, notes any possible difficulties, and is completed by a time-and-temperature table for a large number of different makes of film in conjunction with four of the most popular types of Johnsons’ negative developers.
The tank works with only five ounces of solution, and the necessity of rotating the spiral to ensure that the whole of the film within it is kept in motion in the developer should also ensure evenly developed negatives. The tank is both filled and emptied quickly, which is an advantage when relatively short development times are necessary. The price is £4 5s. Od.
In every respect the Kent is very similar to Rondinax 60 tanks of the same era. Indeed, some of the mouldings seem to have been made from the same tools as the Rondinax. For example, the form of the mark impressed under the tank body and under the tank lid are the same, as the photograph below shows. Some of the parts are interchangeable with the Rondinax but whether they fit or not depends on the age of the Rondinax. Some parts, the spiral for example, are different in design, at least in the examples I have; the clip that pulls the film into the reel is also slightly different; the band between clip and spiral is a black material unlike that I have seen on any Rondinax 60. The roll film holding clips copy the Rondinax but have been attached differently. They are attached by a single central screw even though there is a drill hole for two on each side as in the Rondinax.
Manufacture and Intellectual Property
The boxes of both tanks are marked ‘Made in England’; the lids with ‘British Made’ (Kent) or ‘Made in England’ (Essex). Both are marked with the British patent numbers from the 1930s under which the two Rondinax tanks were protected. Because most of the parts were so similar (and marked with identifying characters in a similar way and in similar places) my guess is that some Rondinax moulding tools were brought to England already either in a modified form already (the lid tools with changed markings, for example) or ready for modification.
It seems probable that they were made in Britain under licence given that Agfa could not market or were not marketing their darkroom products in UK at that time.
There is an interesting twist. Johnson of Hendon and Neville Brown and Co (NEBRO) were jointly marketing their own developing tanks. The manuals of the Essex and Kent state these companies are ‘Distributors to the Trade’. Nothing explicit is stated about who manufactured them. So the questions arise, did somebody else get a licence to manufacture and then recruit Johnsons and NEBRO to do the marketing? Do the records still exist showing the story of the Essex and Kent?
Notwithstanding how they came to be manufactured, they appear to have had a short life on the market. The extensive pages of advertising in BJPA show Johnsons of Hendon illustrating the Essex in 1950 with a full page devoted to it by NEBRO. In 1951 Johnsons had an advert that mentioned the Essex Mark I and Mark II with a picture of what is obviously a Mark I. There was no mention of the Essex in the NEBRO pages. In 1952 Johnsons showed the Kent and the Essex, with nothing from NEBRO. By 1953 only the Essex had a brief mention by Johnson, again with no mention by NEBRO. By the 1954 edition there was no mention of the Essex or the Kent.
The short period of manufacture fits the reappearance of Agfa on the British darkroom scene. In 1949, Agfa had no presence in BJPA. By 1950 it had two pages. These pages were advertising two cameras and giving as its agents in Britain, Agfa Ltd, Deer Park Road, Wimbledon Factory Estate, SW19 (where it was to remain for many years). In 1951 more cameras and projectors were featured together with the announcement, ‘It is hoped that a full range of Agfa darkroom equipment will be available early in 1951’. Nothing on these lines was in the 1952 or 1953 advertisements. but Rondinax tanks appeared in the 1954 pages. Agfa was back. The advertisements appearing in Amateur Photographer over this period should prove interesting in that they should show to within a week or two when the Rondinax tanks were again available.
Returning to the Kent and Essex. The Essex clearly had a longer period of manufacture and greater sales, judged by the numbers appearing on eBay, than the Kent. Another interesting question is whether the Kent and Essex were ever exported other than to countries in the then Sterling Area. Such information would indicate the nature of the licence that the British manufacturers held.
Both the Essex 35 and Kent 20 are excellent tanks to use sixty years after they were made. The instruction manuals can be downloaded on the MANUALS. There is a VIDEO showing the Essex 35 Mark I in use; the Kent 20 is identical to the Rondinax 60 in operation.