Work And Colour: Sanderson And Chiswick 1879-1928

By Freddie Launert

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001)

In 1879 Chiswick became the home of the wallpaper manufacturing works of Arthur Sanderson & Sons. In its heyday over a thousand people were employed on the site, engaged in the various processes involved in the production of hand and machine-printed wall coverings, and the firm was one of the largest employers in the area. Several of the old factory buildings still survive in Chiswick today, but the firm no longer operates there. This article is about the story of Sanderson in Chiswick: the establishment of the business, its growth, its successes, and the dramatic demise of the factory.

Arthur Sanderson does not appear to have had any particular connection with Chiswick before 1879. It is believed that he was originally connected to a wholesale and retail stationery firm based in Islington. In 1860 he set up an agency importing French hand-printed wallpapers from premises in his family home at 17 Soho Square, London. In 1865 he moved both business and family to 52 Berners Street but, by 1872, his family had moved out to Kensington leaving Berners Street to be used as business premises only.

Arthur Sanderson was to become the leading dealer in foreign wallpapers in England, but he was eager to expand his business in other directions. He had already issued his own ‘private patterns’ that were commission printed by outside firms. The success of this business, coupled with his desire to have complete control over the quality of production, led to a new departure. In 1879 he set up a wallpaper printing mill in Chiswick on the site of a former barracks. The buildings were barely completed, however, when he became ill. Arthur died in 1882, and was buried at Highgate Cemetery.

Although his death was untimely – only three years after the commencement of this new manufacturing venture – his sons were more than capable of taking control of the firm. John, Arthur’s eldest, had been sent to France to learn the art of wallpaper manufacture with the firm of Bezault, and joined the family firm in 1878. He became head of the firm and in charge of sales until his early death in 1915. Arthur, who had a talent for figures, took charge of accounting and the Berners Street showroom. Harold, the youngest, had been apprenticed at the age of 16 to a French block printer in the Chiswick works. He took charge of production at Chiswick, while still only 18 years of age.

Harold Sanderson (1863-1958) was in charge of the Chiswick factory. Technically gifted, Harold Sanderson was also responsible for several important innovations in the wallpaper industry.

Harold was the driving force behind the works at Chiswick. His early training made itself manifest in his activities; he was personally involved in supervising design and production in the factory, even mixing colours himself. A journalist, visiting the factory in 1890, described Harold as being ‘literally up to his eyes in work and colour‘:

‘Yes,’ he says ‘I can give you a few moments. You see I mix the whole of the colours for the new patterns myself. It is impossible to describe a shade you want – the only way is to make it.’ As we look on, one man shows a pattern of a noble damask. Here he brings his colour pan, and a touch of leather lake is added which gives the green the exact shade. Another brings a complicated chintz flower pattern. The shades being right he is dismissed with the order to proceed, and so on in endless variety.’ (Journal of Decorative Art, Sept 1890, p.139)

Many of the papers produced at Chiswick were printed by hand, by wooden block, in the time-honoured way. Wallpapers printed using this technique remained an important part of the firm’s production, but roller machine-printing also took place within the factory. Large quantities of machine printed wallpapers had been available in the marketplace since the mid-19th century, but this technique was commonly reserved for the very cheapest qualities of paper. During the 1880s and 1890s, however, Sanderson established that it was possible to produce middle-range wallpapers cheaply, by machine printing, without sacrificing artistic quality.

Printing by hand in the Chiswick factory (Sanderson archive)

Perhaps because of their youth, the brothers’ aspirations in this direction were initially regarded with scepticism by their competitors, but eventually their efforts paid off. They captured an important, and previously untapped, market for their goods. One journalist described the dramatic impact their machine-printed papers had on the rest of the trade:

‘Messrs Sanderson were the first to realise the artistic possibilities for paper-hangings to be found in machine productions, and some fifteen or twenty years ago they produced machine-made papers that were a revelation to the trade. The pre-eminence which they then gained in this particular department of their productions is not yet surrendered to any competitor.’ (Journal of Decorative Art, March 1904, p 86)

Contemporary reviews also reveal that some of their production at this time was fashionably ‘artistic’ (Journal of Decorative Art, April 1887, p62). Their papers were not, however, limited in their appeal; in fact, their range of production was highly diverse. At the end of the century, one critic described the wide array of goods on offer by the firm:

‘Messrs Sanderson have put forward quite a number of pattern-books to cater for the paper-hanging trade of 1899 and the decorator who cannot find in their vast and varied collection papers to suit his every purpose must indeed be a fastidious person … the books, on the whole, are surprisingly comprehensive, whilst in every field into which Messrs Sanderson’s designers have ventured, they have scored notable successes.‘ (Journal of Decorative Art, Feb 1899, p53)

Sanderson production was consistently noted for freshness of colouring, the tasteful selection of designs, and technical excellence. Praise in the trade journals was matched by commercial success, and by the end of the century eight roller printing machines, capable of immense output, had been installed in the Chiswick factory.


Expansion of the factory across the Barley Mow Passage – Voysey, 1902 (Sanderson archive)

The expansion in business meant that the demands of production quickly outgrew the existing premises. In the early 1880s part of the factory was sold to the Army & Navy stores and a second factory was built on adjoining land. In 1892-3 there came another phase of improvements when a new five-storey building, equipped with all the latest improvements in plant and machinery, was built. Expansion continued into the 20th century when a new block, designed by CFA Voysey, was added on the other side of Barley Mow Passage in 1902.The new block was originally connected to the rest of the works by means of a footbridge. This factory building housed the block and roller cutting departments, the hand grounding and leather sections, and a stencilling department. Voysey, a Bedford Park resident, was certainly known to the Sanderson brothers and to the wallpaper trade in general, as he had designed wallpapers for the manufacturing firms Essex & Co and Jeffrey & Co. Voysey was also commissioned to design furniture for the Sanderson brothers, as well as a new forecourt to Sanderson’s Bleak House Club on Chiswick High Road. He later designed a wallpaper and some graphics for the company.

Sanderson employees took part in an extensive programme of activities outside working hours. The Bleak House Opera Society staged many performances at Chiswick (Sanderson archive)

‘Bleak House’ was the name given to the Sanderson social club. Initially situated on the site of the Voysey factory, the club’s headquarters were later moved when the new building was erected. Situated in Chiswick High Road, about 100 yards from the factory, it was equipped with a bowling green, club rooms, billiard rooms, reading rooms and a dining room where meals were served at cost price. Social events, including swimming galas and flower shows, were regular activities organised by the company. The French author Alain-Fournier, who worked at Sanderson as a translator in the summer of 1905, described a fete in his novel The Grand Meaulnes, an event that was supposedly inspired by a summer fete at the Bleak House Club. A reviewer described the mood of the factory at that time:

‘The entire establishment conveys the idea of perfect management. One gets the keynote to the whole place in the entrance and suite of offices devoted to the managers. There is there an atmosphere of taste and quiet refinement which clings to one throughout the whole establishment, and which is seen reflected in the productions of the branch … The Pattern room, the Stock Room, the Engraving and Block Cutting Room, the Engineering Department, all disclose the same characteristics of thoroughness and disciplined order. It was a pleasure to pass through so well appointed and well conducted a place, and the company are to be congratulated on their Chiswick branch.’ (Journal of Decorative Art & Wallpaper News Supplement, Sept 1905, pp16-18)

Edith Humphrey, the chemist in charge of the laboratory at Chiswick (Sanderson archive)

Wages books show that in 1912 there were five designers at Chiswick. The factory also boasted a laboratory where there was ‘a remarkable machine for testing the light resisting qualities of the paper.’ (Chiswick Times 28/3/24). In charge of the laboratory was Dr Edith Humphrey, the first woman to receive a BSc from London and Zurich, and to work in such a capacity.

During the early 20th century Sanderson grew by acquisition as well as by physical expansion. In 1899 the firm had become part of the Wallpaper Manufacturers Ltd (WPM), a combine that was to achieve a monopoly on wallpaper production, accounting for around 98% of the trade. Despite becoming part of this huge organisation, Sanderson was able to keep its name in the marketplace because of the independent status of the Berners Street showroom and merchanting operations. This was not true of many of the firm’s competitors, some of whom disappeared during the early years of the 20th century. In 1900 Sanderson acquired the designs and blocks of William Woollams & Co., who were well known for their production of extremely high quality papers. In 1913 came the acquisition of the firm of Charles Knowles, followed in 1923 by Essex & Co, for whom Voysey had produced designs. In 1927, the manufacturing and distribution operations of Jeffrey & Co (another WPM company) were transferred to Sanderson, and in 1928 Heffer, Scott & Co came under Sanderson’s control.

A stylish Sanderson advert from around 1900. Many of their advertisements sought out new designs for wallpapers, as does this one (Sanderson’s archive)

Sanderson’s present day archive contains extensive collections of wallpapers produced by these firms that date from the early 19th century. The Jeffrey acquisition brought with it a large collection of blocks and rollers including designs by Walter Crane, Lewis Day, Heywood Sumner and Owen Jones. Jeffrey & Co., an extremely highly regarded wallpaper firm, had been responsible for printing all of Morris & Co. production. With this acquisition Sanderson took over that business, establishing a connection with Morris & Co that culminated in 1940, when the firm of Morris & Co was itself taken over by Sanderson.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, 63 employees from Chiswick, including Herbert Sanderson, enlisted to join the army and by 1915 the Sanderson brothers had established a fund to give financial assistance to their families.

Despite the hardships imposed by the war, this period saw the start of an important new venture: the ‘fancy box trade’. These were packaging and display papers that had previously been imported from Germany. The fancy box trade, which included embossed and textured effects, paper with manufacturer’s trademarks, novelty papers including even dolls’ house papers, soon became a very successful part of Chiswick production. At the end of the war, another part of the business was established when the firm set up a new factory in Uxbridge for the production of printed, and later woven, fabrics, launched under the trade name ‘Eton Rural Cretonnes’, later changed to ‘Sanderson Fabrics’. Sanderson’s continued success received official recognition in 1924, when the firm was granted the Royal Warrant for wallpaper and paint, issued after supplying paper for the Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. This occasion was marked by a visit to the Chiswick factory by the Duke of York in 1924. A review of the Sanderson set issued the following year was enthusiastic:

‘ … so complete is it, so finely balanced, so fully representative, and so rich in outstanding examples of the paper-stainer’s art. Nor are its merits limited to the higher-priced papers; a point that at once strikes their reviewer is that in the cheaper papers there is evidence of care and good taste that will solve the problem of the client of cultured taste and restricted means.’ (The Journal of Decorative Art, 1925)

This description demonstrates that the Sanderson brothers had not deviated from their policy of issuing both top and middle-range papers of the highest quality.

All of this was to change when, on 11 October 1928, fire broke out in Chiswick. It began in the warehouse area at lunchtime, and was still blazing at midnight. It was the largest and most dramatic fire that the area had ever known. The local press reported:

‘For more than six hours after the out-break, the fire was still raging furiously inside the blackened wall at the eastern end of the building, where hundreds of tons of paper were stored. Firemen worked with the aid of acetylene flares to prevent the fire from spreading to a small building which contained a large quantity of celluloid and a large tank containing thousands of gallons of petrol.’ (The West London Observer 9110128)

The fire burst out again on the Monday but was extinguished again, and continued to smoulder for a whole week. Its devastating effect was described at length in the local press. One journalist, for instance, reported on the effects of the water that had been pumped in to extinguish the flames:

‘Great printing machines stood in a foot or so of water with the rolls of the half-printed paper still in position. One machine had been printing paper for a nursery, for it was gaily decorated with goblins and fairies; water had dripped on to it from the ceiling above and made the colours run together in a most grotesque way.‘ (Chiswick Times 19/10/28)

‘Practically nothing remains of the interior of the factory. Huge iron girders and sections of iron staircases prop each other up in strange ways. The girders in most cases have been bent to all shapes by the intense heat. At the bottom of the shell of walls is a mass of charred ruins’, West London Observer 9/10/1928

At the time the firm had about 1000 employees who were faced with the loss of their livelihoods, but temporary offices were quickly installed in the Bleak House Club. The fire had not reached the block store and within three months nine block printing tables were back in action. By March 1929 six roller machines, the stencillers and twelve block tables were working, and running double shifts. This enabled all the papers that were shown in the Berners Street pattern books to be put back into stock. The 1929 ranges had already been planned; these had to be withdrawn and a composite set was issued instead, consisting of a mixture of existing papers with some additional textured and embossed papers that were being printed temporarily at the Uxbridge Cretonne factory. By 1930 a new wallpaper range was issued. This set received a very good reaction from the trade press, who marvelled at the firm’s speedy recovery from the fire.

The disaster had, however, taken its toll. The firm had not only lost business, but because many of the firm’s papers had to be commissioned from other works, many of the technical innovations and ‘trade secrets’ that had been developed by Harold Sanderson, were no longer exclusive.

The Chiswick premises, even before the fire, had become increasingly cramped and impractical, and after the erection of the Voysey extension, there was no more room for expansion. The fire prompted the search for a new site for the Sanderson wallpaper factory and a new location was determined as early as November 1928. This was in Perivale, on an eighty-acre site that was well served by rail and by canal. The new premises, equipped with the most up-to-date technical innovations, boasted a restaurant, health centre, a clubhouse, cricket, football and hockey fields, tennis courts and even a swimming pool. The opening of this new, model factory marked the end of the firm’s connection with Chiswick. Nonetheless, the qualities and policies that had secured Sanderson’s early success at Chiswick, including the active encouragement of technical innovation, a progressive welfare policy, and an adherence to the highest standards of design and quality, were to remain with the firm as it entered a new phase in its history.

Freddie Launert is the company archivist for Sanderson & Co by whose kind permission we reproduce the images above

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