Linoleum: A Chiswick Invention

By Ralph Parsons

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal No 5 (1996)

Staines has always been considered the home of Linoleum but it was in Chiswick that it was born. The proud father was Frederick Walton and the happy event took place around 1863.

Frederick Walton was born at Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax in 1834. When Frederick was 21 he entered into partnership with his father and elder brother to form the firm of James Walton and Sons at Haughton Green, near Manchester. While working with his father Frederick gained a background knowledge of the processes and use of india rubber. Frederick had his own small workshop and experimented and produced a brush design that was able to be marketed and sold (he produced clothes brushes, hair brushes and horse brushes which were sold in a shop in Wellington Street, London).

During this period he saw something that was to have a great influence on his and many other people’s lives. In his own words: “There was a paint pot in the laboratory, and, as usual a skin or surface of dried oil had formed upon it…it occurred to me that…I could use it as a … waterproofing material, similar to india rubber.” He managed to produce a quantity of oxidised oil and treated it in the similar manner as india rubber and discovered that it had some of the properties of rubber. Frederick continued to produce brushes but the enterprise ran at a loss which was made up by his father. Eventually his father refused to help him further. Cashing in his £2000 share of the business, Frederick Walton set off to London.

Late in 1860 or early 1861 Frederick Walton took a factory and house in British Grove, Chiswick. The Chiswick rate books indicate that in October 1860 there was possibly someone in residence and that by May 1861 Walton was certainly in residence. In his autobiography, Frederick states: “I lost no time settling in the dwelling house, and engaged an old housekeeper to attend to my simple wants.” However the 1861 Census, which was carried out in April, lists two families at British Grove Works. The returns reveal that the head of one family was a millwright and the head of the other a general mechanic. Under the heading ‘occupation’ on the Census forms is a note relating to both family heads. It reads: “Employee of proprietor of these works”. The birth place of the heads of these two families is within a mile or so of Haughton Green. It would appear that Frederick Walton bought the two families with him when he moved to Chiswick.

Also listed in the 1861 Census is a Richard Beard residing at 35 St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith (although in different boroughs, St Peter’s Square and British Grove are adjacent roads). Richard Beard is listed on the Census as an ‘India Rubber Mfr. British Grove Works’. This confirms that Walton had taken over the works by at least April 1861.

Making the invention

One of Frederick’s problems was that of obtaining workable quantities of oxidised oil. At Chiswick he constructed square iron tanks, with sides about three feet long. The tanks were heated so that the oil could be boiled. Arranged above the tanks were iron frameworks onto which he fixed cotton cloth. The frames were lowered into the tanks and then raised, allowing the excess oil to drain back into the tank but also leaving enough on the cloth to dry or oxidise. The frames were lowered about once a day, and after several weeks the layer of oxidised oil was about one eighth of an inch thick. Cutting the oxidised oil from the cloth proved to be a difficult task.

Frederick tried for some time to dissolve the oxidised oil in a solvent. He found that it was unaffected by water, oil or heat, unless it was burnt. These properties gave it an advantage over india rubber. At last he found that it would dissolve in alcohol.

In September 1861 Walton took out a patent for the manufacture of varnish applicable to the waterproofing and coating of fabrics and other uses. This patent bears the name of Frederick Walton and Richard Beard, both of British Grove.

Frederick obviously kept in close contact with his family because in January 1862 he applied for a patent in conjunction with his brother William of Manchester. The patent was for improvements in the manufacture of wire cards. Wire “cards” – brushes with short wire bristles used in the woollen and cotton industries – were originally made with the wires held in a leather backing. James Walton, Frederick’s father, patented the use of an india rubber backing and now it was the turn of James’s sons to take the next step by using a plastic material for the backing. The advantage of the plastic backing, was, as Frederick had previously discovered, that it was impervious to grease, oil and moisture; it was also cheaper than india rubber.

Frederick’s idea was that his plastic material could be used as a replacement for india rubber. India rubber was being put to an increasingly large number of uses. One that had been invented a few years earlier was called Kamptulicon; this was a floor covering that had advantages over ordinary floor cloth in that it lasted longer. But its disadvantage was that as india rubber became more popular so the price went up. In an attempt to overcome this problem the india rubber content was reduced, which in turn made for poorer quality Kamptulicon. This damaged its reputation and led to lower rather than higher sales.

In April 1862 Frederick Walton read a paper at the Society of Arts. His paper was divided into three sections. The first discussed india rubber, the second section related to gutta percha and the final part was devoted to the properties and uses of a new substance, namely oxidised vegetable oils. Frederick listed applications to which the new substance could be applied. At the end of the list came Kamptulicon and paints for floor cloth.

Patenting the invention

Rubber-based Kamptulicon was not capable of being rolled onto a backing because the compound was too tough. Frederick discovered that his material could be rolled out in a single pass through rollers. It then occurred to him that the material could be rolled directly onto a backing fabric. These were the big steps in the invention of Linoleum and he filed his major patent in April 1863.

To quote the patent document: ‘… this invention has for its object improvements in the making of fabrics for covering floors and other surfaces…. canvas or other suitable strong fabrics are coated over their upper surfaces with a composition consisting of oxidised oil, coal dust and gum or resin, preferring Kauri or New Zealand gum, such surfaces being afterwards primed, painted, embossed or otherwise ornamented….’ Coal dust was soon to be replaced by ground cork but the basic idea for linoleum remained as stated in the patent.

Originally Frederick called his floor cloth Kampticon. However he soon realised that this name could be confused with the india rubber product. He changed the name to ‘Linoleum’ based upon the latin linum, flax or linseed, and oleum, oil.

Towards the end of 1863 Frederick patented his second idea for Linoleum. This was a bold step to try to alleviate the problem of the painted surface of the floor cloth wearing out. The solution was to interlock two differently-coloured patterns, each with its own backing. The resulting sandwich was then split, so that each backing sheet held a coloured pattern that went right through the backing. The backing would therefore last the life time of the material. Frederick’s final patent to be filed while he was at Chiswick was entitled Telegraphic Cables. He was obviously still looking for uses for his oxidised oil-based plastic and the flexibility of his material had an advantage over the rigidity of the often used gutta percha for the insulation of electrical wires. This invention involved passing a wire through the centre of a die and a hot insulating material through a series of radial holes. The insulating material would form a cylinder around the wire and was cooled by passing it through a water bath.

The move to Staines

As a result of all the inflammable materials and heat involved in the processes that were being undertaken at British Grove, fire engulfed the premises in March 1862. Frederick had insured the British Grove Works with the Phoenix Insurance Company which paid for the works to be rebuilt. By comparing the rate books with the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map of about the same time, the works can be identified. By the time of the 2nd edition of the OS map in about 1894 the works had increased in size – Walton probably enlarged them when re-building after the fire. The rate books confirm that their rateable value increased from £40 in 1861 to £80 in 1863 and that of the house, described as ‘house and counting house’, also doubled, the whole being occupied by Walton and Co.

In order to maintain his works at Chiswick Frederick had taken partners who had put money into his ventures. It became obvious to them that Linoleum could be a profitable product.

The British Grove Works were going to be too small for the enterprise and larger premises were sought. A vacant water-powered mill was found at Staines. It had previously been used for calico manufacture and contained a set of large rollers, a pivotal piece of machinery in the manufacture of Linoleum. A new company was floated in 1864 with a capital of £25,000. It was called The Linoleum Manufacturing Company.

In May 1864 no rates were collected for the British Grove Works or house and in November the premises were listed as empty. Frederick almost certainly moved out of the house because there was no way he could travel daily to Staines. Where he lived for the next five or six years remains a mystery.

In 1867 the old linoleum works were taken over by Mr Duggin who operated under the name of ‘James Duggin & Co., dyers and scourers’ and continued until at least 1888. The buildings of the British Grove Works existed until they were replaced in 1996 by modern town houses.

In view of English Heritage’s insistence that Linoleum must remain on the floor of the banqueting hall of the Newcastle Trinity House, perhaps the British Grove Works should have been preserved and given a Blue Plaque as the birthplace of Linoleum.

Ralph Parsons lives in Staines and remembers the smell of linseed oil from the Linoleum factory just a quarter of a mile from his house. Now retired, his interest in Frederick Walton began when he was asked to help Spelthorne Museum with its display on Linoleum.

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