Farmiloe & Sons: A 150years of a family business in Clerkenwell, part 2

The catalyst for the new building was of course the fire of March 1868 which destroyed virtually the whole premises and stock, including the newly erected warehouses. Fires were a constant threat in the narrow streets and packed commercial premises of London1s older industrial districts and Clerkenwell was no exception. The Times methodically reported every outbreak, of which there many, for example: a fire at Palmer’s candle factory July 1843; in Turnmill Street in 1844, at Gashin’s rag warehouse in Goswell Street in 1869, at Clarke’s brewery in Little Sutton Street in 1870 and an enormous ‘Great Fire’ at Charterhouse buildings in 1880. Farmiloe’s 1868 fire was not described as a ‘great fire’ but attracted a slightly longer notice than usual: the stock of lead and glass was transformed into a molten mass, the fire was attended by 68 firemen from the Metropolitan Fire brigade who were unable to save the premises which was fortunately insured in the Sun Fire Office (the insurance no doubt giving Farmiloe the money to rebuild almost immediately). The Times listed the occupants of neighbouring premises, all of whom suffered scorching and water damage to their stock: there were two tailors, a printer, a lithographer, an ‘envelope borderer’, Browning & Co. – oil merchants and the stables of Messers. Sweeting & Co. This list is probably a fairly typical cross section of the small businesses of Clerkenwell at the time – skilled craftsmen and tradesmen all operating cheek by jowl from whatever workshop space they could squeeze out of the old buildings.

Despite being riddled with industrious tradesmen, Clerkenwell and West Smithfield still retained some of its old extra- mural lawlessness. It had acquired a reputation for political radicalism in the early 19th century and by the 1830s Clerkenwell Green was a known place of assembly for radicals, Chartists and republicans. In the 1860s the Green became associated with Irish ‘Fenianism’ (Home Rule), most notoriously through the ‘Clerkenwell Explosion’ of December 1867 when Fenian bombers tried to blow their way into Clerkenwell House of Detention to rescue their imprisoned colleagues. The blast only succeeded in killing the inhabitants of the densely populated area outside the prison walls and provoked an enormous public outrage. A number of men were arrested, brought to trial in April 1868 and their supposed ring leader hanged in public at the gallows outside Newgate prison in May 1868. At the time Farmiloe’s work force would have been laid off, due to the March fire, and one can perhaps speculate that some of his men might have been among the crowds that witnessed the historic event; historic because the hanging of Michael Barrett, ‘the Clerkenwell miscreant’, was the last execution in London to be held in public. Thereafter the gallows was moved inside the walls of Newgate.

The building that arose from the ashes of the fire in 1868 was a splendid and solid affair, incorporating the latest in fashionable commercial architecture and the latest in building technology. Designed by Holborn’s district surveyor, it had a smart Italianate exterior and, in the rear a fireproof warehouse constructed from iron columns and girders.
Although the exact composition of the workforce in the building is not known , the architecture clearly conveys a sense of a complex firm with different activities and hierarchies. The whole site is basically divided between the white collar activities – offices, showrooms and directors’ rooms – which faced the street, and the warehouse behind. As the head office for what was then a substantial firm, Farmiloes needed an army of clerks to ‘keep the books’. Everything would have been written down and accounted for, from the directors’ personal expenses to workers wages, from deliveries of glass to overall loss and profit accounts for the firm as a whole. Since clerical work involved responsibility for money it was seen as primarily a man’s job and it would be interesting to know when Farmiloes employed their first woman clerk. (Powells for example, didn’t begin to employ women in the offices and showrooms until around the time of the First World War.)

The warehouse would have been wholly a man’s world, with men employed as packers, yard men, cutters, glaziers, stock room keepers etc. From the around 1900 part of the back premises ‘Windmill Yard’ was also used as a small ‘stained glass and casement works’, making up small decorative windows for use in pubs and domestic buildings. This required a more skilled level of workman, including artists to produce the stained or painted glass designs. The firm used a network of sub-contractors to undertake actual glazing, as is revealed through a court case of January 1886. Mr Ketch, a shopkeeper of Dalson Lane had ordered a new plate glass window from Farmiloes. Two workmen had delivered the new plate to the shop but whilst fitting it dropped it, causing a serious hand injury to Mr Ketch who promptly sued Farmiloes. Fortunately for Farmiloes, the judge ruled that as the workmen were employed by a subcontracting firm, Freeman and Trotter, Farmiloes could not be held responsible.


By the 1880s both George and T& W were describing themselves as lead manufacturers as well as merchants. This reflected the take over of the Island Lead Mills in Limehouse, a white lead works owned in the 1870s by Jabez Jones. T& W seem to have been the dominant partners in the Limehouse leadworks and a photograph of the works c.1885 shows their name, rather than George’s, prominently displayed.
Lead, like glass was also a furnace based industry but the processes needed far lower temperatures than glass and lead manufacturing was, therefore, a more feasible proposition for London entrepreneurs. London firms in fact dominated the white lead trade in the 19th century with lead works particularly located in Southwark. White lead works used lead as a metal, fashioning a variety of products by rolling, casting or milling from the basic ‘pig’ – an oblong mass of smelted metal about a yard wide weighing one and a half hundredweight. Thanks to its non-corrosive nature, lead had been used in the building trade since mediaeval times, for glazing bars, water cisterns and pipes and sheet lead for roofing, and this was almost certainly the type of goods that the Farmiloes were producing at Limehouse.

The process would have involved a furnace with a hemispherical melting pot into which both old scrap and new was melted together. The glistening liquid mass then flowed out of the pan leaving the dross and impurities behind, and on to a large table where it was further purified by drawing the edge of a board carefully over the surface of the hot and liquid metal leaving a silvery and clean surface. The plate was then milled or compressed between rollers again and again, often several hundred times to form plates of the required size and density. For pipes, the process was even more laborious. After being re-melted, the lead was formed into cylindrical plugs which were strapped into a ‘drawing bench’ about 30 feet long with an endless chain kept in constant motion round two wheels of rollers. Steel rods were inserted to form the internal diameter and the plug was stretched and elongated again and again with steadily decreasing diameters of steel inserts.

Lead manufacturing had always been a difficult industry, because of the metal’s toxic properties. In 1747 it was said that labourers in lead works ‘are sure in a few years to become paralytic by the mercurial fumes of the lead and seldom live a dozen years in the business’. By the mid-19th century lead workers were more protected by law but lead works were still dangerous places. In February 1878 the Times reported the death of Charles James, a workman who had the misfortune to fall into a pot of molten lead in a London lead works. Farmiloes would have been well aware of the dangers to their own workers but by the mid-19th century evidence was also mounting of the poisonous effects of lead pipes and vessels on the general public. In the 1860s the Times reported several deaths due to ‘the effects of cider poisoned from lead’. There were many articles on lead in potable water; in 1899 Miss Dixie a school teacher was said to have died from blood poisoning after running a lead pencil into her hand.

Into the 20th century

The acquisition of the Limehouse lead works appears to have heralded another boom in prosperity for both branches of the firm. In 1897 the George branch was incorporated as George Farmiloe & Sons Ltd, by which time they had also acquired a large wharf on the south bank of the river by Blackfriars bridge. A photograph of Blackfriars wharf c. 1900 shows a rather smart classically proportioned building with a large sign identifying it as the property of ‘George Farmiloe & Sons Ltd. Lead and colour manufacturers. Plate and sheet glass importers’. A smaller sign identified the firm as also supplying ‘all types of sanitary appliances’.

Besides the Island Lead Mill at Limehouse, T& W Farmiloe also owned a large warehouse and headquarters building at Rochester Row, a brass foundry at Horseferry Road, a varnish works at Mitcham and another large warehouse at 88, Nine Elms Lane in Battersea. As with the West Smithfield building, many of the Farmiloe buildings appear to have undergone trial by fire. In May 1885 a fire swept through the glass warehouse at Rochester Row and in December 1890 the Nine Elms Lane warehouse was also damaged. The Blackfriars Wharf building was destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War.

By the 1880s both branches were dealing in far more than just glass and lead, although glass continued to be their core business. By this time the cheapest flat glass in Europe came from Belgium and it was said that Farmiloes had a special schooner to ship the glass to London. As lead became more problematic as a plumbing material so the firm had turned to other metals and a T& W Farmiloe catalogue of 1886 lists an enormous variety of plumbing ware in lead, brass, copper, zinc and steel. Much of the products they sold were manufactured elsewhere, for example brass taps made in South Yorkshire by the Rotherham firm Guest and Chrimes, but Farmiloes also sold their own unique patented goods, notably the ‘multum in parvo’ all purpose disposal unit, combining ‘urinal, slop sink and water closet and designed for use in first class houses, hotels and clubs’. T& W appear to have been the driving force in the sanitary ware side of the business and the firm won several medals at the International Health Exhibition held in London in 1884.

If sanitary ware was an important new direction for Farmiloes, so too was paint. Paint manufacture was to some degree a natural extension of their lead interests: lead in the form of a chemical pigment is of course a traditional ingredient in white paint. Traditionally ‘colour merchants’ had sold dry pigments from which painters mixed their own colours but by the late 19th century paint was being sold ready-mixed in tins. As with sanitary ware the pace seems to have been set by T&W, rather than George, and their ‘Nine Elms’ white lead paint became the brand leader in the south east by the 1920s. Other Farmiloe paint brands included ‘Father Thames’ and ‘Blackfriars’ which also came in a white leadless variety. Farmiloes also sold ‘Orrs Zingessol’ washable distemper and in 1940 Eustace Farmiloe of T & W Farmiloe took out a patent for a new mix of white paint suitable for use in road markings.

As the 20th century progressed, it was the paint and sanitary ware side of the business that increasingly occupied both sides of the family business, although their traditional interests in glass were certainly not forgotten: ‘Oceanic’ glass was much promoted between the wars. A new company Farmiloe & Farmiloe (WBS) were incorporated in 1952 as wholesale china and bathroom merchants. T& W Farmiloe appear to have ventured into a new market with several patents taken out in the late 1960s and 1970s, for a new form of sealants the latter in the name of Farmiloe Sealants of Larkfield near Maidstone. Perhaps this new direction was not successful for the company T& W Farmiloe was dissolved in 1988. However Farmiloe & Farmiloe continues, as does George Farmiloe & Sons Ltd, although it is described today as a holding company.

The Farmiloes themselves appear to be text book entrepreneurs, ploughing profits back into the firm during its period of growth and only after several generations directing the profits to social ends. In 1928 Thomas Meakin Farmiloe, the grand old man of the T&W side acquired a Farmiloe coat of arms, at which time the grant of arms describes him as of Henstead Hall in Suffolk. The firm appears to have been a stable and happy one, with sports clubs provided for the health and welfare of employees. The buildings in St John Street saw some alterations in the 1930s and 1950s but retained their Victorian character to the end, which came in April 1999 when George Farmiloe & Sons Ltd, finally moved out of West Smithfield to continue trading from their present premises in Mitcham.


Colin Thom, English Heritage, for details of the St John Street building and its history.
Alex Delfanne and Tim Farmiloe for providing access to Farmiloe documents and photographs.

© Dr Cathy Ross. 2004.

The catalyst for the new building was of course the fire of March 1868 which destroyed virtually the whole premises and stock, including the newly erected warehouses. Fires were a...