An unremarkable-looking industrial unit tucked away in one corner of a Watford retail park is the home to an organisation that can have an extraordinary, life-changing impact – and today it celebrates its 60th anniversary.

The Watford Workshop is a charity and a business providing jobs and placements for adults with disabilities, it also serves as a day centre, offers a place for friends to meet, gives respite for parents and carers and provides training in life skills that most people take for granted.

“Every day I learn something new about the individuals that attend here,” said Gill Nightingale, the workshop’s partnership manager. “I think the workshop is about giving people a chance when no one else will because we find a lot of younger people particularly leave supported education where they’ve had everything they’ve needed to just dropping off a cliff.

“It’s not unusual to find people who come to us who have just been sat at home for several years.”

The workshop was opened by the mayor in a modest cabin on June 10, 1964 when numerous shelters were being set up around the country as part of the Government’s post-war efforts to integrate people with disabilities into society.

Watford Observer: The workshop is officially declared open on June 10, 1964The workshop is officially declared open on June 10, 1964 (Image: Watford Observer)

It is located in Century Retail Park, in Dalton Way, but its base was threatened by the development of the shopping area at the end of the last century.

However, a key stipulation in the plans meant a purpose-built facility was constructed a short distance from the original cabin, representing a significant step forward because it meant the workshop could support up to 60 people with disabilities.

That number has now grown to more than 100 every week and the workshop has also expanded to include a training facility, while a second mezzanine floor is currently under construction to provide a flexible space for more work benches, training or the yoga classes it help promote wellbeing.

The mainstay of the workshop for the past 60 years has been a packing and assembly business – “anything that can be done quickly and in volume” explained vice-chairman Ronnie Jacob – and it provides work to individuals who come to the workshop from a variety of sources, such as social services, doctors’ surgeries or from direct approaches.

Watford Observer: The mayor is given a tour of the workshop after declaring it openThe mayor is given a tour of the workshop after declaring it open (Image: Watford Observer)

Gill said: “Over those 60 years not only have we expanded the service to the people we can support but also the service that we deliver, so without those customers there would be no workshop because they need the work to do that.

“But over those probably first 40, 50 years we recognised that we also needed to deliver additional skills to the individuals to enable them to live as full and independent lives as they can, which included the addition of all the training. That is in functional education – reading, writing, numeracy, all the skills that you or I take for granted – and on the independent living skills that will be cooking, cleaning, laundry etc.

“What stands out for us is the outcomes we’ve achieved along the way. Our biggest goal is to give people the skills and the confidence to move into mainstream employment.

“For those who want to do that we’ve been really successful and that’s been down to having great relationships with local employers who recognise the ability and disability and are prepared to give someone that chance.

“But for those who do want to stay here, they can stay as long as they wish. It’s a safe space where they feel comfortable, confident and can make friends.

“That aspect is really important because a lot of the people that join us are very isolated, a lot of them are economically inactive and we give them both – an opportunity to earn their own money and to make friends that go beyond the walls of the workshop.

“It’s all very person centred. It’s all about what each individual can achieve. If their disability means they can only do small things but those small things expand over time, for us that is an amazing, amazing outcome.”

Watford Observer: A new mezzanine floor is currently under constructionA new mezzanine floor is currently under construction (Image: Watford Workshop)

Gill highlighted one particularly "amazing outcome".

“It’s all about removing those barriers which may not necessarily be a barrier to employment, it might be a barrier to life itself. We’ve had some people who have come to us and have hidden the fact they couldn’t read.

“It can take several years but we’re prepared to make that commitment for anyone who needs it because the change to that person’s life has been immeasurable and they’re actually writing a book now, that’s how far they’ve come.”

Watford Observer: The plaque marking the opening of Watford Workshop 60 years agoThe plaque marking the opening of Watford Workshop 60 years ago (Image: Watford Workshop)

Turning to the future, Ronnie hopes that the workshop will be celebrating its 120th birthday on this day in 2084.

“We want to be here in another 60 years’ time,” he said. “It’s difficult. Given the model that we have, bluntly it requires money, but what we do is so, so worthwhile it would be a crying shame it we were not able to provide that for the next 60 years.

“Some of our customers have been so loyal to us. They’ve been with us 10, 20, 30 years and they come to us because of the quality of the work we produce.

“You or I might find shoving pieces of metal into plastic bags rather boring, but the repetitiveness of the thing appeals and the pride in the accuracy of what they’re doing is evident. It’s quite moving at times.”