Farmiloe & Sons: A 150years of a family business in Clerkenwell

George Farmiloe & Sons Ltd.
A Short History

By Dr Cathy Ross, Museum of London

‘Lead is the vilest and most abject of metals’

‘Glass has something in it so beautiful to the sight and its transparency is so agreeable that it is no wonder we find it …compared not only to gold – the most perfect of all metals, but also to things far more high and spiritual’

The firm of George Farmiloe & Sons began in 1824 when the first George, a glass cutter, acquired fixed premises for his trade in St John’s Lane, West Smithfield. Today Farmiloes continues in business as a family firm with an 80 year history of enterprise which has taken them from their initial interest in glass through lead manufacturing to paint, brass and sanitary ware, leading finally to their present trading concern which is
bathroom supplies. The present director is the 6th generation of Farmiloes.

Farmiloes is a quintessential London firm, its business thoroughly ‘earthed’ in the capital. Most obviously, their interest in lead and glass was bound up with the bricks and mortar of London’s building trade. As the metropolis grew and its buildings rose, so too did Farmiloes’ prosperity. Less obviously, Farmiloes is absolutely typical of London’s small industrial firms: driven by a single entrepreneurial family; operating half as a manufacturer and half as a merchant; trading through a network of other London firms, and therefore relying as much on wholesale demand as retail. Its location on the fringes of the City, and its migration to the suburbs in the 20th century (in Farmiloes’ case Mitcham in Surrey), is absolutely typical of the larger story of London’s industry.

Farmiloes makes an interesting parallel with another ‘classic’ London firm, the glass manufacturers James Powell & Sons, whose Whitefriars glass works was located half a mile to the south of Farmiloes in the district between Fleet Street and the Thames. All the characteristics mentioned above also apply to Powells, however one major difference is that Farmiloes have survived into the 21st century, whereas Powells have not. One possible factor in this is the fact that Powells’ core business remained in manufacturing, whereas Farmiloes moved wholly to the trade end of their business, thereby adapting more easily to the upheavals of the late 20th century when the arrival of truly global markets sounded the death knell for many of London’s old manufacturing firms.

Glass

The basic business of a glass cutter in 1824, as George Farmiloe began his career, was to buy large circular or semi-circular ‘tables’ of window glass from glass manufacturers and cut them up into smaller squares for use in windows. Why Farmiloe decided to enter this trade is not known but if the family came from the Bristol area, as family tradition suggests, there may have been some connection with glass works in Bristol. Bristol did supply some window glass to London in the early 19th century but by far the major source was Tyneside. The London glass trade was dominated by a group of large powerful flat glass firms on Tyneside, notably those owned by the Cookson family, who also had strong interests in lead.

Window glass at that time was made by several methods, The standard good quality glass was ‘crown glass’ spun by hand into enormous circular tables: the more expensive ‘plate glass’ was rolled out into flat sheets on a casting table, and the cheaper and more old fashioned ‘broad glass’ was blown in small cylinders and opened up on a bed of sand, leaving it with a mottled surface. Traditionally windows were made from diamond shaped ‘quarries’ of broad glass fixed into metal windows by strips of lead, hence the association between glaziers and lead. By the 1820s there was still a market for ‘leaded lights’ but the standard modern window was the wooden sash window which used larger crown glass squares, fixed into the frames with putty. These were almost certainly what George Farmiloe was supplying to London builders in the 1820s.

The mid 1820s was an excellent time to enter the glass trade. The excise tax on glass had been reduced; the window tax was halved in 1823 and in 1825 the limit of tax-free windows per building increased from 6 to 7. Building activity almost doubled between 1822 and 1825 and the production of crown glass soared by 50% in order to meet demand. In London, a frenzy of speculative building brought an eruption of new fashionable terraces and semi-detached villas to the semi-rural suburbs ringing the City. It is not unreasonable to speculate that many of the late Georgian terraces in
Clerkenwell, Islington and Hackney were glazed by Farmiloe and his workmen. Westminster was also a hot-spot of building activity and by 1846 directories show that Farmiloe was also operating from the former premises of another glass cutter, Thomas Meakin, in Buckingham Street St. James.

The details of the firm’s organisation in its early days remain unclear, but the evidence suggests a degree of family feuding. By 1838 a second Farmiloe firm of window glass cutters ‘William Farmiloe’ was operating from 20 Goswell Street. In 1839 the death of Thomas Meakin (who had evidently done well out of his business, being described on his death as a ‘gentleman’ rather than a ‘window glass cutter’) led to a law suit involving the Farmiloes and by the 1850s Thomas and William Farmiloe were operating their own business and had relocated to Westminster, previously the Meakin patch. Thereafter the two firms George in West Smithfield and ‘T& W’ in Rochester Row Westminster appear to have operated as separate business but with common interests sharing more or less the same trade. In the 1859 Directories both are described as ‘window glass and lead merchants’. Whether they were bitter rivals or friendly halves of one family business is not clear.

The glass trade in London got better and better as the 19th century progressed. Glaziers such as George Farmiloe had an unchallenged position in the London glass market, thanks to the absence of flat glass manufacturers in London. As a furnace based industry, glass manufacturing needed cheap coal, a commodity that London could not supply: it was said that the price of coal doubled when it moved 10 miles. Although it was just about economic to make a high value commodity such as table glass in London, basic flat window glass was far more cheaply produced on Tyneside or around the Lancashire coal fields. Even as late as the 1890s the St Helen’s firm of Pilkington, by that time the dominant British flat glass firm, decided not to open a warehouse and showroom in London preferring to continue trade through the agency of London merchants such as Farmiloes.

A key boost to prosperity was the removal of the glass excise tax in 1845 which halved the price of flat glass overnight – a disaster for the glass manufacturers whose profits plummeted, but a god-send for glass merchants who made the most of the huge pent-up demand for cheap glass. The 1840s also saw a building boom and an explosive advance in glass technology that brought a range of new varieties of flat glass on to the market.. Whereas before there were 3 basic types of window glass, now there was almost limitless variety: rolled sheet, rough plate, fluted, embossed, patent, ribbed and patterned plate, pressed glass tiles, rough diamond quarries, silvered and enamelled sheets etc. Victorian architects and builders made the most of the new possibilities that these new glass effects offered..

The St John Street Building

Around 1838 George Farmiloe had moved from St. John’s Lane to larger premises in St John Street. Business was sufficiently good to enable him to buy up many of the adjoining premises during the 1840s and 1850s, including in 1856 the yard and out-houses of the former White Hart tavern. By 1860 the firm occupied the whole of the site and began to rebuild to create more secure and substantial premises. Despite a catastrophic fire in March 1868 (see below) which virtually destroyed the newly built warehouses, by June building had resumed to produce the large office and warehouse complex that still stands today.

St John Street was in West Smithfield, a-sub district of Clerkenwell, just outside the boundaries of the City and occupied since the mediaeval period by activities banished to a place outside the City walls. Farmiloe’s property backed on to Charterhouse, a monastery which originated as a chapel for the burial ground for victims of the Black Death. Smithfield itself was an open patch of grass outside the city walls that had been used for various purposes since the 12th century: a horse market, cattle market; place of public execution (the City’s gallows stood here until the 14th century), place of witch and heretic burning, duelling ground and home of London’s notoriously unruly St Batholemew’s fair. When Farmiloe first moved to St John Street in the 1830s, Smithfield was a live cattle market. Cows and calves were driven through the streets to the place of slaughter, a notoriously unsavoury process. According to Dickens ‘the ground was covered nearly ankle deep with filth and mire; a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle’.

But by the 1860s when Farmiloe began to rebuild his premises, the area was being cleaned up. In 1855 the City removed the sale of live horse and cattle to a new market in Islington and began to completely rebuild Smithfield as one of the most up to date meat markets in the world, with underground railways, cold storage facilities and an imposing architectural face. The new market was completed in 1868, more or less the same time that Farmiloe’s new building appeared. To passers-by at the time , both would have clearly expressed the spirit of urban ‘improvement’ sweeping away the insanitary mess of the past and replacing it with solid, respectable buildings, built to last and in an architectural style appropriate to the morally good industriousness that went on inside.