Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum

By Mary Mills

There are various stories told about the Greenwich Linoleum factory – it was the biggest, it was the first – but it was most difficult was to find anything out about it at all. Lino manufacture did not seem to be the sort of thing to find on the Greenwich riverside but then I began to hear stories of barge deliveries of cork in the 1930s and I tried, and failed, to find anyone who had worked there. It took a journey to Scotland to find out anything much about it – and the discovery that there were in fact two linoleum factories in what is today the shadow of the Millennium Dome.

Linoleum was the universal floor covering of the Victorians, although it enjoys a rather down-market image today. Oil-based floor coverings had evolved during the course of the nineteenth century and linoleum factories had begun to replace the many floorcloth factories which had provided coverings for early nineteenth- century floors – the Greenwich kampulticon factory was well known. Linoleum manufacture was the brainchild of one man – Frederick Walton who came from near Manchester. Walton was probably one of the most prolific and influential inventors and industrialists of the late Victorian era. Many of his
activities – in particular some his international links – would well repay investiga tion. Walton himself coined the word ‘linoleum’ from ‘linus’, flax and oleum, oil
because it was made of linseed oil on a base of woven jute.

Walton was the son of an inventor and it was an inventor himself that he grew up to be. It is probably fair to say that many details of his life, as he described them, have never really been resolved to the satisfaction of researchers. His father, James Walton, a philanthropist and inventor, had developed an India rubber wire card which was used in the weaving industry. The family’s factory was at Haughton Dale near Hyde in Greater Manchester. It was the largest works of its kind in the world.

In the family tradition Frederick Walton began by developing a number of projects and is said to have already held seven patents by the age of twenty-five. One of the things which he noticed was oxidised oil – the skin on top of paint while he worked on an attempt to find a quick-drying varnish. When he failed to do this he set about looking to find a use for the new material. At first he tried it as a substitute for rubber and moved onto to other applications. Neglecting the wire card business he left his father’s firm and came to seek his fortune in London. His father refused him any help with this venture, but with Smilesian determination he continued.

He found that his new material could be rolled out onto a suitable backing – using linseed oil and cork – and thus linoleum was invented. Walton’s first factory was in Chiswick in 1861, and he later moved to a bigger works at Staines. The Staines factory became famous and proved long-lasting – in terms of the acreage covered it seems to have been almost as big as Staines itself! Some buildings remained on site until relatively recently and the excellent Spelthorne Museum in Staines has an exhibit about the works – a factory of which the town was very proud. Walton himself soon moved on to bigger things and by the early 1870s had set up an American factory at ‘Linoleumville’ on Staten Island. He also developed Lincrusta wall covering – another ubiquitous Victorian and Edwardian furnishing medium. He set up his Lincrusta factory in Sunbury-on-Thames, as well as others in France and Germany. He is also said to have been the originator of OK meat sauce.

The Staines works was independent of Walton and he seems to have quarrelled with them over a new development. He had left them to develop Lincrusta and take up other interests but when he began to work on a new sort of linoleum he offered the process to them, and was turned down. He determined to go somewhere else with the machine that he had designed to make the product – inlaid, or mosaic, linoleum. One of Walton’s projects was to support the manufacture of flexible metal tubing – the patent for which he had purchased from a French inventor. An advertisement card for this tubing shows an aerial view of the company’s ‘Greenwich Works’. This site has not been identified as matching any similar works on the Greenwich riverside and it may be that it shows the works that Frederick Walton was to take over from the Appleby Company at Victoria Wharf.

He may also have had other connections with Greenwich in that it is said that one of his developments concerned a covering for telegraph cables which was, of course, a large industry in the area. He is also said to have worked for Brin Brothers who founded British Oxygen and they also were to open a Greenwich factory,

Walton took out a lease on Victoria Wharf where Bessemer and Appleby s had been before him. He was very proud of the site’s connection with Henry Bessemer and announced in his publicity material that it was where Bessemer had evolved his steel-making process. It was also said that some original Bessemer steel bars were incorporated in the factory gate in Blackwall Lane. Soon after starting a second works was built at Greenwich slightly to the north – part of Bethel’s Wharf was used, although the date of the expansion is not clear. By 1910 the works was immense – making about twenty miles of linoleum each week – a year’s output would have stretched to Warsaw! The lino was made from a mixture of cork, oils and colouring. Each sheet was made of tens of thousands of tiny pieces, made up in an original pattern into a template by specialist craftsmen. A vast machine – fifty feet high and weighing 400 tons – produced huge sheets of lino in six different colours. These sheets were then cut and welded into the different designs. There were three of these gigantic machines at Greenwich and it did not prove easy to build foundations for them in the marshy sub-soil – Walton said the cost of this work was more than that for the machines themselves.

Materials came from all over the world. Cork came from Spain and Portugal. Jute came from India to be processed in Scotland. Linseed oil came from South America and the United States. Nearby was Greig’s Seed Crushing Mill and it is a matter of speculation as to whether it had anything to do with Walton? It slightly predates the lino works but Greig’s were well known floorcloth manufacturers in the Dundee area and it is possible there was a connection. Linoleum could not help but be a success. In the late twentieth century it has become unfashionable but a hundred years ago when synthetic materials had a different image its practicalities were appreciated. It was durable, sturdy and clean and could be produced in all sorts of designs. It was even said to have germicidal properties. Walton himself died in his nineties in 1921 following a car accident at Nice in the South of France. In his later years he had spent much of his time in pursuit of psychic phenomena. His business interests were many and he was a very rich man. The Greenwich Inlaid Lino works had been closed for a while during the First World War because, it is said, most of their workmen went to earn better money at Woolwich Arsenal. After resuming work in the 1920s, the finances of the company became very insecure and the then Managing Director, Mr Mackie, went to Mr Greig at the Newburg Floorcloth works, near Dundee, to offer to do a deal with him. But this was refused.

The company was eventually taken over by Michael Nairn of Kirkaldy – to some dissent. In April 1922, when the merger was announced to the Greenwich share- holders, a big meeting was held. Mr Mackay, who had been manager of the company for the previous eighteen years, pointed out that it was only during his time as manager of the company that it had paid a dividend. Other protestors were ‘howled down’. The problem with the Greenwich works, it was said, was that it only had one product – the inlaid linoleum. Michael Nairn and Co. did not make this but made a wide range of related floor coverings. Although a merger seemed sensible it was in fact a takeover since Nairn’s was a much bigger company. Nairn’s kept the factory working through the 1920s and in 1926 the Duke of York, the future George VI, visited. The factory was then very prosperous and he toured it, wearing overalls, inspected the process and met men who, as boys, had attended the summer camps which he sponsored. Greenwich Linoleum was of the standard geometrical patterns fashionable at the time. Some specialist lino was also made – some for Lyons teashops with the Lyons name specially imprinted on it.

The Greenwich factory is said to have closed in 1934 or shortly afterwards. ‘The Kentish Mercury’ records an accident which took place in the works in 1935 which gives no indication that the works is about to close and the factory appears in local directories as late as 1937. At Kirkaldy in Nairn’s archives are catalogues for Greenwich Linoleum which date from the 1940s – but it is probable that they kept the trade on for commercial reasons. It has however not proved possible to establish an exact date when the two Greenwich works actually closed.

Although Greenwich lino went out of fashion its shapes and designs look set to make a comeback – it is interesting to see that in America Lincrusta is already popular again. Forbo Nairn, Michael Nairn’s successor company, are selling varieties of linoleum hard these days. Their ‘Walton’ and ‘Marmoleum’ ranges for instance stress the natural products used – linseed and hessian – and the traditional designs. Linoleum is, they say, an environmentally friendly product – clean and natural – an interesting contrast to its high-tech sales pitch a hundred years ago.
This article is based on archive material held in the Forbo Nairn collection at Kirkaldy Museum and Art Gallery. Help is acknowledged from them, from the archivist of Forbo Nairn and from volunteers and researchers at the Spelthorne Museum, Staines

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