Resident designer / maker Peter Marigold engaged with the processes of making that were used for the earliest plastics, and with the traces these processes leave on the finished object, in contrast to the often unfathomable methods behind mass-produced plastics today.
His final piece in the Raw Materials: Plastics exhibition was Semi-Synthetic, a series of cabinets with wood-moulded bio-plastic cladding.
One of Marigold’s interests in the story of Alexander Parkes and the evolution of the first man-made plastic cellulose nitrate was that “this plastic had been worked, kneaded and moulded by hand using processes that we can still simply comprehend”. Parkes described himself as an artist. He was a proficient sculptor and, alongside his work on the chemistry of cellulose nitrate, he was responsible for the early mould-making and hand-working of the resulting material. This plastic is derived from vegetable / wood fibres and was worked in a similar slow way to a homogenous wood mass, with the known aesthetic language that went alongside this, such as carving, inlay and fretwork. Cellulose nitrate was anchored to its intended replacement of ivory, and was therefore applied in ways in keeping with past traditions. Other early plastics were made in colours and textures that mimicked further natural materials such as tortoise shell and precious stones.
Marigold aimed to bridge the natural and artificial worlds in the materials and processes he has used in making the Semi-Synthetic series of cladded cabinets. He created wooden moulds, with distinctive chain-sawn textures, and used these to form the potato-starch based compostable bio-plastic FORMcard. The repeated mass-produced nature of these tiles reflect the nature of the everyday plastics we encounter, despite being made by hand. His choice of colours is ambiguous, straddling the synthetic and the organic.
It is striking that given the current interest in bio-plastics, driven by urgent environmental concerns, we could be considered to have come full circle – to be connecting with the semi-synthetic origins of the first man-made plastic and its tendencies to degrade with time. In this way it seems fitting that Marigold, as founder as the FORMcard bioplastic business, is now based at the precise same location on Homerton High Street where the first British Xylonite Company factory was founded.
Peter Marigold is a designer and maker of objects. After completing the M.A. Design Products course at the RCA he established his studio concentrating on a wide variety of objects including furniture, products, interiors and also, now, software.Concurrently he is also the creator and director of FORMcard, a meltable bio-plastic product. petermarigold.com
Resident Artist, Frances Scott developed the film PHX [X is for Xylonite] in response to extensive research that encompassed archive and collection visits to Raw Materials: Plastics project partners, as well as use of the UCL Makespace at the Institute of Making and filming at the Institute of Sustainable Heritage labs.
PHX [X is for Xylonite] presents a series of orbiting three-dimensional images of natural and semi-synthetic plastic objects, made through laser scanning and photogrammetry techniques. These are collaged with hand-processed black and white 16mm film footage, which includes a demolition on the site of the original Parkesine factory in Hackney Wick. Both flickering, contingent materials allude to the history of Xylonite in the development of photography and film as, until the mid-century shift to acetate, it was used as the base for film stock, and elsewhere to build props in film production. Extracts from Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Plastics’ (in his book Mythologies, 1957), colour experiments listed in a British Xylonite Company laboratory formula book (c.1888) and symptoms of plastics degradation, of ‘crazing’, ‘yellowing’ and ‘bloom’, are read by Dr. Miriam Wright, scientist and laboratory technician. The soundtrack proposes a warped love song between the organic and synthetic, where the human voice and recordings in shellac – the lacquer obtained from the secretion of the Coccus Lacca insect – are transformed through a vocoder. Although Barthes suggests that plastic “embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata”, in PHX, plastics are proposed as strata; so that the layers that make up the film – its emulsion and plastic substrate – are made evident; like the material seams of plastic that will, in future sedimentary rock layers, signal our Anthropocene era and its flawed capitalist productions.
Frances Scott (b. 1981) works with moving image, presented through screenings, installations, events and publications. Her work often considers materials that exist around the periphery of the cinematic production and its apparatus, proposing films composed of their metonymic fragments. abyme.org.uk
PHX [X is for Xylonite], 2019 Single channel film, 12 min 54 sec, 16mm film transferred to digital and 3D animation, colour / black and white, stereo
16mm camera and edit: Frances Scott
Photogrammetry and 3D animation: Phil Coy
Composition and sound design: Chu-Li Shewring
Voice: Dr. Miriam Wright
16mm film processing: with Bea Haut, Film in Process
Images, Top: Film still from PHX [X is for Xylonite], 2019, Above: Installation view, Raw Materials:Plastics at Nunnery Gallery, with PHX [X is for Xylonite] shown centre.
During the research phase of Raw Materials: Plastics, Slade School of Fine Art students were invited to take part in the steering group-led research and archival visits, with a view to using the inspiration of plastics heritage in their own work.
MFA Painting student Rebecca Latourette Connolly was interested in the degradation of plastics mentioned by a conservation scientist at the Victoria and Albert Museum and in response discusses the use of latex within her art practice.
The Material Degradation of Latex and its Relation to Duration in the Human Body
By Rebecca Latourette Connolly
MFA Painting, Slade School of Fine Art, UCL
Latex has long served as an essential material for FX makeup because of its likeness to skin and viscera. It is simple to infer from physical inspection the efficacy of this likeness: latex stretches like skin, tears like skin, it can be held taut and moulded around a skeletal structure. But, like most natural polymers, latex will begin to degrade and lose its structural integrity over time. This is due to exposure to light, heat, oxygen and stress. It is therefore a material that invites a conversation around the limitations of the human body. How does the body react to exterior interventions and how does it endure these over time?
My art practice deals with the conflation of borders between the body and the mind when the body absorbs and reacts to stimulus. I am engaged with the examination of conditions that effect perception such as Synaesthesia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): In both conditions an outside sensory stimulus (sight, touch, taste, sound, or smell) provokes a perception in the body that is perceived as alien. In Synaesthesia this may be a related sensory perception such as a sound triggering a colour; in PTSD this may be a perception such as noise triggering a fragmented memory. I am interested in these alien perceptions, their superimposed existence in the body, their durational wear on the body and how they change our understanding of where the edges of our body lie.
In my practice I use latex as a painting ground. By exploiting the material’s propensity to degrade, I intend to make the human body more palpable in the work. I use large quantities of solvent (turpentine) to swathe composition-defining brush strokes in the painting. The solvent thins the latex and causes it to lose its structural integrity, curling under, folding, and billowing outward. This physical reaction resembles inflammation, swelling, skin folds, wrinkles, etc. This reaction also echoes the painted image, which can be likened to internal bodily structures such as the womb, neural networks, or layers of tissue. In this way the latex can be controlled with solvent to billow in certain areas emphasising the painted landscape in three dimensions.
Another process I have used is metal discolouration. Latex is reactive to particular non-ferrous metals and will turn a yellow/brown/green colour over an extended period of time when in close contact with these metals. It can therefore be made to resemble bruises blooming on human skin when the latex is secured with metal hooks or stretched over metal sculpture. This references the reaction of soft tissue to piercing or prodding and the evolution from initial contact to injury.
The last and most important process I have undertaken has to do with the manipulating of finished paintings by hand, to crack and fracture the pictorial surface. This process serves chiefly to subject the painting to violent action, as a body may undergo, but it also allows the tensile strength of the latex to play a role in shaping the composition. As the latex is stretched to its limit the paint flakes and piles, cracks, and bursts off into the atmosphere. This is a precursor to the degradation the latex will exhibit over time. As it ages the material will wear out, lose its stretch and begin to crack and peel away. I like to see this as the latex making reference to its impending lifetime, and taking agency to shape the composition into something that is subject to its growth and decline, like a second skin.
Steering group member Frederick O’Brien gives a personal response to our visit to the Science Museum’s archives at Blythe House in London:
Gifts from History
Archives are strange, touching places: so many products of life boxed up and shelved, kept only out of some deep need to remember what has come before. We were lucky enough to see the earliest forms of plastic during a trip to Blythe House.
By the time you read this Blythe House will no longer exist as an archive. Its contents have been painstakingly sorted, labelled, and shipped to a new home in the country. We were the last group to visit before the move.
Hundreds of pieces of Parkesine (the semi-synthetic plastic invented by Alexander Parkes) lined the shelves ready to ship, each wrapped in brightly coloured bows like gifts. The room had a sweet, slightly sterile scent. Apparently each room in the archive has a smell matching its contents, be it brass or decaying leather. Our room was full of plastic.
Dr Susan Mossman showed us round. Her passion for Parkes’ work was endearing – and infectious. Handling the items with latex gloves, she showed us everything ‘from the mundane to the high Victoriana’.
The detail of the objects there was astonishing. Even the most mundane items were given exquisite care. Medallions and walking stick handles were carved as if they were made of marble or ivory.
It is disappointing how much better we treat a material when there isn’t much left of it. Plastic wasn’t a cheap, disposable material then and it isn’t now; all that seems to have changed is that now we treat it badly.
In the collection is a box of Alexander Parkes’ papers. Parkes is the founding father of plastic and his letters are preserved in glossy wallets. It seems right for Parkes’ memory to be preserved in plastic. It is an unconventional burial chamber, but quite appropriate.
There is no doubt that today’s world would be a vastly different place had the development of synthetic and semi-synthetic plastics somehow never happened. In my view, it’s only when you delve deeper into history that you realise the importance of modern plastics. Our latest visit brought us to Ipswich, home of Suffolk Record Office and not far from the site of British Xylonite Company’s Brantham factory.
Due to the vast catalogue of information available at Suffolk Record Office we were asked prior to our visit to order up to four items to view on the day. I was particularly curious to learn about the impact of plastics during the war and about people’s working lives at British Xylonite.
I began by reading the memoir of Harry Greenstock, a second generation employee whose family worked for British Xylonite for over 50 years. Greenstock’s anecdotes paint a picture of the company’s modest beginnings. Reminiscing about his childhood, he mentions periods when payday had been a lottery for the workmen. His father would frequently approach the gates of the company’s original factory in Homerton after a day of visiting outstanding accounts, with eager eyes focused on him. If his father held up a bag, cheers would erupt from the workmen as they knew this was the sign they’d be getting paid.
The original engine from British Xylonite’s Homerton factory, later transferred to Brantham.
As well as revolutionising household products, plastics were particularly vital during both world wars. Production of Bexoid, the non-flammable equivalent of Xylonite, was stepped up to meet the growing demand for aircraft vehicles and visors for gasmasks. While Xylonite’s flammable properties had once been a hindrance, during the war it came to be a valued asset. The RAF was keen on creating a “light weight incendiary” to help destroy forests where enemy ammunition and factories were hidden. This led to the development of an “incendiary leaf comprising small pieces of Xylonite” which was released over German forests. Such was the effectiveness of this tactic that even Hitler himself referred to it in his 1941 New Year’s speech,culminating in a somewhat failed attack on the Brantham factory, with only minor damage inflicted on the building.
In the years following the war an increased emphasis was placed on research and development as well as co-operation with other businesses. This contributed heavily to the rapid growth of plastics production, which almost tripled during the 1950s. From its humble beginnings in Homerton in 1877, British Xylonite Company evolved to become one of the largest organisations in Britain engaged in the plastics industry during the twentieth century.
In the afternoon, we had a chance to look through Vestry House Museum’s plastics collection, including an extremely large comb used for product displays. Most of these objects were made by the British Xylonite Company and they included many examples of imitation ivory and imitation tortoiseshell. We saw toothbrushes (seemingly not used), vanity cases, hairbrushes and billiard balls. Before the invention of plastic, all of these objects would only have been attainable for the elite few who were rich enough to buy real tortoiseshell and ivory.
It is noteworthy that while companies such as British Xylonite (based in Hale End, London) made these usually expensive items accessible to the general public, it did not mean that these items became disposable. Perhaps this was because they were made from a new and desirable material?
We also found numerous examples of Halex brand and other British Xylonite brochures advertising the company’s participation in public events, including the Olympia Trade Show that continues to this day. Here the British Xylonite Company championed the quality of its vanity wares, which were considered luxury items.
As time passed, plastics producers managed to create a stable and reliable product which vastly reduced the cost of manufacture. We now see cheap plastics used for everything from food packing, to disposable cups, to cheap clothing. Companies profit from the public perception that plastic is worthless and doesn’t last, which has led to the use-and-dump attitude that confronts us with so many environmental problems today. Seeing the archival materials at Vestry House Museum made me think about how the way people have valued plastic has contributed to its effects on the environment, and how this perceived value has changed so much in the last 150 years.
Located in the middle of the lovely Walthamstow Village, the Vestry House Museum sits in its own beautiful garden and certainly offers an oasis of calm in the midst of the bustling city. The museum focuses on the history of the Waltham Forest area. The building itself has had a rather chequered past, having been a parish workhouse, police station and private home. Now, in its current guise of local museum, it proved to be a treasure trove of information and artefacts.
In the morning we reviewed some of the many documents the Archivist and Assistant Curator had kindly prepared for us, focussing principally on items relating to British Xylonite Ltd (BXL).
The British Xylonite monthly company magazine proved to be a goldmine of information on factory life for both management and staff, covering a wide range of topics. The magazines provided updates on company sales, product developments, trade events and the like, but also reported on company social events a little nearer to home like the opening of the new Athletics Pavilion in June 1936, the Staff Sherry Party in December 1955 and the then seemingly brilliant news in March 1970 that M&S was switching 100% to the use of plastic bags in all its branches. How times change!
Anyway, from reading the magazines it was evident what a benevolent employer BXL had been, not only a pioneer in respect of their products, but also pioneering in its attitude to the welfare of its workers. Evidently in the first edition of the magazine in 1922 the then chairman, Mr C P Merriam, said that “the prosperity of the company is completely identified with the prosperity of its employees – you cannot have one without the other.” In these days of excessive corporate spiel such a statement might seem trite, but, given the numerous examples of measures taken to improve the lives of the workforce, I sensed a heartfelt sentiment behind this declaration.
In addition to the company magazines there were several product catalogues, which not only highlighted the company’s broad product range, but also provided us with more useful detail on some of the items we saw at the Museum of Design in Plastics earlier in the year.
In addition to learning more about BXL we also unearthed details of another plastics manufacturer based in the Walthamstow area, namely the Pluton Manufacturing Company Limited, which was based initially based in Shernall Street. In 1911, De La Rue, a company more associated with the manufacture of bank notes, playing cards and stamps, acquired Pluton. Within the company’s range of moulded products were the “delicately coloured tableware” range Enduraware and the small moulded cabinets designed to hold the increasingly popular radio wireless sets.
As production grew to meet growing demand for plastic products the factory became increasingly overcrowded and so in 1936 the business opened a new and more up-to-date factory on Walthamstow Avenue, next to what it now the North Circular. It was in the mid-1930s that the company built and designed a machine to begin experiments with plastic laminates, experiments which resulted in the discovery of decorative laminate product which was ultimately sold under the brand name Formica. Production continued on the Walthamstow site until 1982.
On our visit to the V&A Museum we were delighted to be introduced to the team of curators and collections specialists including Dr Brenda Keneghan who started us off with an introduction to the history and development of plastics. I was very interested to learn the various differentiations between plastic types, starting with natural forms (those that involve any heat-able and mouldable material, including horn and shellac), to those that are fully synthetic and what we more readily recognise as plastics today (such as Nylon and Perspex).
The second part of our visit allowed for viewing of objects and booklets from the V&A Collections. The mixed array included items of original packaging and brochures that were used for sales and promotion of Bexoid and Lactoid plastic products by the British Xylonite Company. A lovely example of creative promotion of one’s material was illustrated in a 1936, spiral-bound “BEXOID – Special Purpose Material” booklet where the cover included a minutely detailed sheet of patterned plastic. The patterning provided a frost-like effect, casting a semi-transparent appearance over the title sheet below. The cut-out shapes were designed to line-up over the text on the sheet below.
Some of my favourite pieces in the collection were the striking green powder and dressing-table boxes. These were simple in style, featuring geometric lines and smooth curves in line with the Art Deco style of the 1930s period in which these items were made by Halex Ltd of Hale End in Walthamstow (also a part of British Xylonite Company). The addition of lead phosphate particles was said to have been added to achieve an organic looking sheen, imitating the look of iridescent jade or marble.
As has been highlighted through our various visits to museums and archives, the older plastic objects have been showing signs of plastic disintegration, a concept that is not widely recognised – with many people assuming that all plastics last forever!
Some of these signs included cracking at the bottom of a pot, and oozing of a powdery substance on the lid of another. Even the lovely BEXOID spiral-bound booklet’s plastic cover had shrunk in size. The timeline for such objects is clearly limited and it would appear that deterioration of these can only be slowed down (using airy storage spaces and charcoal cloths) rather than entirely prevented.
Once again, engaging with a valuable museum collection gave us a bigger picture of plastics, both at its material level and in its introduction to our everyday lives.
In a world littered with ‘disposable’ plastic, from bottle tops to honey dispensers, it may feel odd to find such objects behind the glass displays of a museum collection. The Museum of Design in Plastics at Arts University Bournemouth houses an extensive collection of items falling under the category of ‘plastic’. The term ‘plastic’ refers to any natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic material that can be softened by heat and moulded. One quickly comes to realise just how many plastic objects make up our material world, from electric kettles, to yoghurt containers, to bread bags, to Kevlar windscreens. Tucked away on the second floor of the university library, the Museum of Design in Plastics’ exhibition space consists of a square room lined with mirrored glass cabinets. It houses a rolling exhibition mapping out the many uses and histories of this incredibly versatile material.
However, for me, the real treasure lies behind the doors of the museum archive. This rich resource, rendered available through a full catalogue on the MoDiP website, includes natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic objects as well as documents such as photographs of early manufacturing labourers and the first plastic company adverts.
We have come here to take a look at some artefacts from these early plastic companies, in particular objects made of Parkesine and Xylonite; two brand names that stand for the compound cellulose nitrate – the first plastic. We are viewing a handful of objects that give us a picture of the varied application and appearance of this Victorian material. First among these objects is a lavish aqua-green bathroom set which resembles a kind of precious stone. The surface of these ornate objects is pressed into a dotted pattern to recall shark skin, a common Victorian motif referred to as Shargreen. This set includes a bristle hair brush, a mirror and a container to store human hair. Plastic was often used for bathroom articles, as it was cheaper, waterproof and did not decay; or so they thought. The archivists proceed to uncover a comb. The humble comb was one of the most popular uses for cellulose nitrate, launching it onto the market at a much cheaper price to its wooden, silver or ivory counterparts. Plastic was hygienic, flexible and could be manufactured en masse. A series of decorative objects followed these, among them some intricate plastic-coated lace, a section of what looked like a wooden bowl or bracelet inlaid with mother of pearl and a tiny plastic cover for the Holy Bible. It’s hard to believe that these precious objects could have led on, in some way, to today’s single-use plastic bags. These products appealed to an aspiring upper-middle-class who could perhaps not quite afford the real thing, but welcomed these ingenious lookalikes.
The objects that I found most compelling, however, were the ones that most closely resembled natural materials: ivory, tortoiseshell and various types of animal horn. A sample of Ivoride from Daniel Spill’s Homerton factory displaying an elephant in relief and a billiard ball in the same material, replaced an ever scarcer natural resource. But cellulose nitrate did have its flaws. Not least of them was the fact that it was extremely flammable. Such billiard balls were rumoured to occasionally spark on collision, while hair clips made out of this material were known to catch on fire! In a talk by Carolyn Clark of the Plastics Historical Society, we heard that it was not uncommon that a woman sitting too close to the fire wearing such an ornament, to suddenly awake to a burning head of hair. Another major downside to cellulose nitrate is that it is rather unstable. Left under direct light for too long, it begins to crumble. A chemical reaction takes place within it, eating away at its inner chemical structure and eventually causing it to collapse. What was once an impenetrable casing, as smooth as slabs of marble, disintegrates into splintered fragments of matter. We are lucky enough to study a handful of these degraded objects: some broken hair pins and a couple of trays, one of them almost completely disintegrated. For me, there is something cathartic in seeing these objects decay, watching them complete their life-cycle. One wonders what will happen to the zip-lock, single-use wrappers that seem to live forever, what will it take for them to degrade too?
Is time able to stop, to divert within the city? Are there places which allow us to freeze the frenzy of a chaotic life, using history to distort the perception of hours flowing and slipping away from us? Spaces which facilitate our smooth move through time and a feeling of wholeness within it? These questions kept popping up in my mind while browsing around the records and skimming through dusty historical written artefacts, at our visit at Hackney Archives, our first approach to the RawMaterials: Plastics project as a steering group.
As our first visit, this was an opportunity to get to know each other and understand more about the project before really delving into the Lea Valley’s plastics history. Archivist Elizabeth Green introduced us to the Hackney Archives collection, which comprises all the records, diaries, personal papers, photographic and audio-visual documentation related to the London Borough of Hackney, which are here stored and preserved, and can be accessed by the public. With the oldest piece dated 1356, and the majority of the collection ranging from 17th century to 20th century, the archives represent a unique and rich source of Hackney stories, through local studies, online database and survey maps.
Detail of map held by London Borough of Hackney Archives
The first ‘find’of our research mission was quite impressive. We managed to access two maps from 1870s, which clearly showed the location of the Parkesine Works factory in Hackney Wick, the first site ever to produce plastics,together with an adjacent Waterproof Clothing Works.We later discovered that this waterproof clothing works was owned by the brother of Daniel Spill, who was the former works manager of the Parkesine Works factory – and also the person who took over when Alexander Parkes’ own venture went into administration. We went through papers, journals, price lists and several patents which demonstrated the popularity this discovery had acquired in the short term, both locally and internationally. In fact, what really struck us was the diversity of uses this material was immediately tested with, with pen tubes, polarised lights and even dolls faces seeming the most requested items on the market.
Despite only spending a few hours in the archive, this first attempt at digging into the plastics history of the Lea Valley demonstrated the importance of this material within the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the area and it raised our interest in coming back to explore in more detail and unveil further stories.
Massimo Iannetti – Steering Group member, Raw Materials: Plastics
The Northern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel is an unlikely place to find a Tudor love nest and an 18th-century calico factory. Set in a post-industrial wasteland, Bromley Hall was rescued from collapse and demolition by Leaside Regeneration in 2001 at the cost of £1.2M. Hiding behind a Queen Anne façade, it is reputedly the oldest brick house in London dating from 1485 (the date of the battle of Bosworth) and it now sits isolated, facing on to the A120 (M) next to the Red Box Container Business Park and the classical façade of the old Poplar Borough Library. All these premises are now offices tenanted by small businesses—although Bromley Hall is sometimes open to the public at Open House.
It is difficult to believe this was once a Tudor hunting box, a rural retreat by the River Lea and a place to display luxury tapestries and paintings. Inside the building though, there are some exciting clues. A Tudor oak-framed doorway just inside the entrance has a carving of a hound on one side, pursuing a stag on the other. The passageway continues with rare traces of grisaille (black and white) wall painting. It is difficult to fully distinguish now, but this painting contains an elaborate border with mythical beasts and part of an inscription.
It is the Blount Room opposite which is the real attraction. Although supposedly haunted, you want to linger here to imagine the fine wood panelling (removed some time ago and given to the V&A), and to view the stunning roll-moulded ceiling still in situ, the brickwork fireplace and another more colourful wall painting. This time, the wall painting shows the outline of a large Tudor man fashionably dressed in bright red. He seems to be standing under a classical portico. If this room was used for entertaining, I cannot help but wonder if it was here that Henry VIII first met the teenage daughter of his gentleman bodyguard, John Blount. Elizabeth Blount was to be the King’s mistress and mother of his illegitimate son.
A glass panel in the floor reveals a channel or cistern covering the foundations of an older building beneath. Holy Trinity Priory had acquired the property in 1490, only to lose it again at the Dissolution in 1531. It had formerly been the site of the 12th-century Bramerley Manor.
This building and its outlying grounds have had so many incarnations. It served as a Civil War gunpowder factory, a merchants’ suburban retreat (hence its Queen Anne makeover), a 19th-century retreat and residence for William S Wood, Victorian author and entertainer, a missionary headquarters, a nurses’ home and paediatric training hospital, a garage and a carpet warehouse. However, what interests us most here is its time as a calico works.
From the 1680s to the 1820s, Bromley Hall descended through members of a very prominent Quaker family becoming one of the largest factories on the River Lea. Benjamin Ollive had been a linen dyer and inherited his father in law’s dye-house at Cripplegate. By 1719, he had become a calico printer; his sons followed him into the business and more extensive premises, with a ready supply of water, had been found at Bromley by the River Lea. Joseph Ollive lived at Bromley and bequeathed his business and the house to his nephew, Joseph Talwin. By 1799, Joseph Foster was managing the firm as Talwin & Foster. He had acquired copper printing plates from a bankrupt printer at Merton in 1783. A rare pattern book of 144 copper plate designs, belonging to the firm, survives in the V&A.
Talwin & Foster’s products had a market both at home and abroad. Their sought-after prints were shipped to America and can still be seen in American museum collections today. A former apprentice of Talwin & Foster, John Hewson, had also journeyed across the Atlantic and set up the first American textile printing factory in Philadelphia, in direct opposition to English exports in the 1770s, advertising his apprenticeship at Bromley Hall.
Sitting in a traffic queue waiting to get back into London at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel—it might be difficult to envisage this place as a rural retreat or, set as it is in a post-industrial wasteland, an area of a once-thriving industry which supplied expensive textiles to an eager market at home and abroad. If you are able to stop the car and wander round the corner along Bromley Hall Road, take a look behind the newly constructed housing blocks. You can just catch a glimpse of the curve of the River Lea, a reed bed or two and, across the water, a large Sainsbury’s and a distribution centre for today’s global business—Amazon…
I suppose it had to happen eventually. South of the River Lea. South of the River Thames. The London Overground made it painlessly quick and easy to reach Denmark Hill.
We are heading to the Heritage Centre at the William Booth College, part of the Salvation Army’s training headquarters.
The building itself is quite remarkable, a towering edifice with nice simple lines on the less is more principle. The architect Gilbert Scott has given London some fine buildings, as well as the iconic red glazed telephone box, but this feels like a bit of New York art deco in south-east London. The bronze-topped lighting columns at the entrance are mighty, the windows to the facade, although painted white, remind me of Gilbert Scott’s telephone boxes. I am already getting some south London envy.
For those of us who arrive early, free tea or coffee is available in the light, airy ground floor coffee lounge. We don’t have too much time to get comfy on the sofas though and head up to the heritage centre. Almost everyone comments upon the open lift shaft; some of us probably remember attendant-operated lifts with metal closing gates from our childhoods. I am taken right back to a provincial department store. The lift has been replaced, but the original would doubtless have had metal gates, probably very state-of-the-art, and there would have been a lift attendant too.
The archivists know that we are interested in the intriguingly named Salvation Army Knitting Home, known also as the Knitting Factory, in Upper Clapton. It provided training in machine knitting and safe accommodation for women, some barely more than children, who were at risk in Victorian London.
The archive materials are comprehensive and we are able to access bound copies of the monthly magazine produced by the Salvation Army, The Deliverer. The magazine cost a penny and updated supporters about the work of the Salvation Army in the United Kingdom and overseas. Many of the editions have an advertisement for the Knitting Factory on the back page, urging readers to buy their winter hosiery and underwear, “superior quality, best of workmanship, and low prices”, reminding prospective buyers that their purchase “will help the Kingdom of God, and encourage our ‘Industry Girls’ who are desirous of earning their own living.”. Other advertisements offer Tripadvisor-style reviews from happy buyers; from West Dulwich, “many thanks for socks, which please my brother much”; from Streatham Hill, “I am very pleased with the socks, and beg to enclose a P.O.”; from East Finchley, “Mrs D- herewith encloses P.O. for stockings just to hand. She is very pleased with them as they fit very nicely”.
The main treat and privilege of the visit must be seeing the admission record books for the residents at the Knitting Home. The stories are heartbreaking. One sixteen-year-old girl’s “cause of fall” is recorded as “going with boys about twelve months ago”. She had been in domestic service from the age of fourteen, and “the Mistress came home one night at 9.30 and found a man in the kitchen” and she then went to other posts, at the last of which another young man visited her there. Her mother had been informed and “consulted the S.A. Insurance agent who applied for this sixteen-year-old girl to be admitted into the Knitting Home”. It was noted that she had never stolen. Her personal appearance was recorded as “rosy, healthy girl – auburn hair” and she left the home for another situation in domestic service in October 1904, where it was said that “this girl came to God and showed by her life that a definite change had been wrought, she can work well, and ought to do well, with a kind firm Mistress”.
Each page of the record books tells a human story. Considering that these reports were written without any thought that people might be looking at them over a hundred years later, I was struck by the kindliness with which they were written. A glimpse into the stories of the unfortunate circumstances through which these young women found their way into the Knitting Home was quite unexpected and very moving. The stories will certainly stay with me.
One poor girl had been raped by her step-father, who had been tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment. At least her rapist had faced justice, particularly as he was a family member. I just hope that her work and living at the Knitting Home allowed her to regain her life, learn a trade and feel a bit empowered. I can’t help hoping though that she had not been sent away by her family as some form of punishment for the fact that she had been raped.
The hours worked seem long compared to the average day in employment now. In the October 1899 edition of The Deliverer, we are told “with the exception of Saturday afternoons, from eight o’clock until twelve of the morning, a little more than two hours and a half of an afternoon, and from a quarter to five until seven of an evening, the happy work goes on, a scene of happy usefulness that it would be hard indeed to surpass.”. There were nineteen women then working in the factory, producing hosiery, knitted goods including uniform jackets, jerseys and Norfolks, vests, pants, cardigans, skirts and dresses. The factory would also accept special orders and repairs, and had added a new line, “cycling knickers”. Aside from the advertisements and articles in The Deliverer, there were pedlars who sold items produced door-to-door across the country. The pedlars were officers of the Salvation Army and the peddling seems to have been part of their duty, spreading the word about the rescue work and selling its machine-knitted produce.
I would urge everybody to visit the heritage centre, not just for the splendid building, but to feel part of some real social history and experience the moving stories of some of the women who were “rescued”, given refuge and an opportunity to learn a skill and recover their lives at the Knitting Home. There was no requirement for the women to become members of the Salvation Army, although some did.
We were so lucky to be tipped off by Naomi Sharpe at Queen Mary University of London about the Knitting Home, otherwise we would never have come across it. The factory did not produce early fancy printed calico, new dye colours or wood-blocked repeat printed fabrics for well-known stores, but it quite possibly produced a greater sense of pride in its output to its workers, young women whose lives had been harsh in a way that few of us will have experienced.