Getting the decorators in: trade and practice c1850-1950

In 1922 William Travis, ‘Painter, Paper Hanger and Decorator’ of Ulverston, Lancashire carried out extensive decorating for local householder Mrs Bamber. ‘Stripping paper from walls in Dining room and of Front bed Room – washing off ceilings and Distempering same papering walls painting and Enameling, Graining woodwork varnishing Staircase ceilings Distem Walls, papering Dado with anaglypta paint Rail and Varnishing Distempering Middle bed Room painting woodwork distem pantrys and scullery Papering Kitchen washing woodwork Back parlour Distempering walls varnishing etc.’[1] Travis charged his client £25-5s-6d for 188 hours of labour, plus £18-16s for materials.[2] This bill, taken with a range of similar documents from across seven English counties, (Cumberland, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Northumberland) provides a means of investigating a largely neglected topic – the history of the English house-decorator over a century of economic, technological and organisational challenge and change.

‘The Art and Trade in all its branches’: getting started

The traditional way to become a decorator was to enter into an apprenticeship; a legally binding agreement between a master of the trade and a trainee, usually, though not always a school-leaver. The master contracted to teach the youngster all aspects of the trade, and in turn the apprentice would work for a very modest sum. Validated apprenticeship papers were proof that the bearer had completed his training, was ‘time-served’. The document confirmed his professional identity and was valued accordingly. The system was also intended to be formative in the boy’s personal development, it carried a moral force, as can be seen in William Humphrey’s agreement with master Lancelot Usher in 1840 that during his apprenticeship he would not ‘marry, play at cards or dice tables’.[3]

An illustration of how training was delivered has been extracted from the business records of Robert Loft & Son, Bury-St-Edmunds.[4] A boy named Hempstead started with the firm in 1903. His first tasks were menial – washing windows and cleaning carpets. From there he progressed to learning how to weigh and mix distempers and paints, the shop-floor chemistry. Other duties included ‘Getting out stuff’, ‘Getting things ready’ and ‘Helping load’, responsibilities that familiarised him with the trade’s complex equipment and materials. Hempstead was also set to ‘Helping his Father’ or simply ‘Helping others’, occasions on which the master tradesmen modelled the work for the learner. In due course Hempstead is to be found working in clients’ homes, without supervision, an able craftsman.

Some men learnt the trade by working for a member of their family. For example, Harold Richardson, who started working for his father in Derby in the mid-1930s aged fourteen and a half, set up his own business in the 1940s and went on to employ eight people. He later reflected that his father ‘was a good tradesman – I learnt graining and signwriting from him – so I got a pretty good grounding in the trade’.[5] Little surprise perhaps such men should be so forthcoming in their appreciation of how much they had benefitted from that form of instruction.

During the period examined college-based training became increasingly common, either in conjunction with a formal or informal apprenticeship, or as an alternative form of training. The craftsmen rarely comment in detail on their experiences of these ‘school days’, though some remarks suggest the colleges supplemented the essential skills which really could only be learnt ‘on the job’. Indeed, some time-served tradesmen believed that school-based learning could not compare to the graft of extended years in the ‘real world’ and rather resented the exclusively college-trained City & Guilds man, an antipathy akin to that recorded in other trades.

Days of work

One of the significant features of the decorating trade is its seasonality. Decorator Michael Crane described how ‘You have to go from day to day; can go for six weeks in the winter without money. December is the worst month because nobody wants you.’[6] When employment could not be guaranteed year round money earned in the summer had to be eked out through the long winter months. Equally it meant that when work was available men were compelled to put in very long hours. Men who entered the trade between 1920-50 usually started work at 8.00a.m, finished at 6.00p.m., plus a further stint of four or five hours on Saturday mornings. By the mid-1940s factory workers were benefitting from legislation which reduced their working week from 54 hours to at most 48 hours, but such changes were probably slow to impact on those employed by small house-decorating businesses – and the self-employed.

Prolonged periods of overworking obviously increased the likelihood of health problems, as did the stress which arose from the uncertainty of securing employment, though admittedly those were features of many workers’ lives. In addition, however, decorators were at risk of falls, because they worked on ladders and scaffolding. They were frequently exposed to dust from canvas, paper and plaster and to noxious fumes from paint, thinners and primers from working in poorly ventilated sites. Arthritis was aggravated if not actually caused by working in cold and damp conditions. A recurrent reference amongst interviewees is that lead in paints was one of the principal hazards of their work. Wilson James, in describing working conditions between the wars, described how he and his colleagues were issued with milk and cheese in an attempt to counteract their exposure to lead particles.[7] Although the risks associated with lead ingestion had been known for decades there was no outright ban on lead in paints until 1992. There seems to have been a general acceptance in this trade, as with so many, that work would be bodily damaging, a notion that prevailed as much in the 1950s as it had at the beginning of the period studied.

To what extent the decorator’s clients contributed to the stress of his working day is harder to quantify. Arguably the very fact that the decorator worked within the domestic space thrust he and his clients into a form of quasi-intimacy. Certainly clients’ expectations regarding their decorator would have been quite different to those involving other tradesman. With the decorator lay the responsibility for dressing ‘the Home’, and thereby making a crucial contribution to the household aesthetic. In 1891 Hotson & Sons, Yaxham, Norfolk, decorated a client’s bedrooms. The ledger records not only supply of wallpapers but also itemises ‘Train expenses twice to Norwich, A Telegram, Railway expenses after Patterns, Rail fare to Norwich for Stencils, Train expenses after man ½ day time going.’[8] One senses exasperation on the part of the decorator.

Inside the workshop

Whatever the size of the enterprise the successful tradesman seems to have set great store by a well-organised workshop which favoured day-to-day tight stock control. When times were hard profit margins could be very small. Equally during economic up-turns increased competition could whittle away at the income. Meticulous control of stock was therefore crucial. An early 20th century trade text book stresses the importance of having ‘one book, always at hand, fixed (like a chained Bible) if desired [that] must contain a record of everything that goes in or out of the shop and stores. Materials, tools, plant or objects to be or that have been painted, must all be set down in the order they occur, with the date and name of destination or derivation’.[9]

Traditionally the Paint Shop was the site of manufacture as well as storage. Grinding and weighing pigments and mixing paints was skilled work and maintaining consistency between lots and avoiding waste were key aspects of the job. As noted, time in the paint department was an important part of an apprentice’s training. However, the Paint Shop was an unhealthy environment, with dust and fumes a constant hazard. The technological developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which led to the ready availability of pre-mixed paints, brought a change that must surely have been welcomed on health grounds, albeit that it contributed to a degree of de-skilling in the trade.

The Wallpaper Store and its associated records provide information regarding suppliers and quantities ordered. Wallpaper calls for careful handling and storage. Bulky and heavy, ever susceptible to damage from damp and rough treatment, even quite large decorating firms preferred purchasing to order, rather than have large quantities sitting in their stores. In addition, wallpapers have ever been subject to the vagaries of fashion, a notion that by the early 20th century was fostered and furthered by the manufacturers, who issued their seasonal sample books on a pre-agreed date, thereby heightening public interest, controlling the market and limiting the appeal of ‘last season’s papers’. The marketing strategies of the Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd (WPM) both led such practice and employed punitive measures against merchants who purchased outside the ‘Combine’.[10]

An early Invoice Analysis Book of T. Ward, Barrow-in-Furness, records that during March 1939 the company purchased wallpapers from no fewer than ten suppliers. However, during both World Wars the Wallpaper Store stood empty as the industry ground to a halt because there was no paper, no printers, and of course no customers. Not until the take-off of the DIY trade in the late 1950s and the associated expansion of the wallpaper retail sector, exemplified by the ‘Home Charm Stores’, did shops carry a large array of stock.

The workshop records also reveal the complexity of equipment in use until changing fashion and technical developments rendered redundant some processes and products. Thus in the 1930s the trade called for graining rollers, laminated lead sheets for damp walls, veining flitches, scumblers, wallpaper trimmers and books of gold leaf – all items which disappeared from the shelves over the following decades. A deal of equipment also had to be made and maintained. The 1953 End of Year Accounts for Henry Clitheroe, Gloucester included ‘the Manufacture of Trestles, Set of Ladders, Set of Paste Boards, Renewing the strip on the Wallpaper Cutting Board and redecorating the Costings and Estimating Department’.[11] Plainly such overheads had to be costed, and were another aspect of the exacting process of keeping a business in sound financial order.

Balancing the Books and Making a Living

In line with having a well-ordered workshop a wise tradesman approached his book-keeping with similar care and attention. Business records show materials used and time taken on jobs, data then used to inform billing and future estimating. G.W. Joliffe, Weymouth, Dorset appears to have been as skilled with his accounting as with his paper-hanging. He set up in business in 1871 and the firm only ceased trading in 1943. Over the course of 70 years Joliffe’s carried out decorating and glazing work, ran a builders merchants’ shop and employed a number of tradesmen. Although the records show Joliffe borrowed funds in 1879, this may have been for expansion as he appears to have done particularly well during the economic upturn of the 1880s. The firm continued to prosper. This makes more poignant the final item in the archived collection, a Day Book dated 1940-43. It indicates the firm had shrunk to a one-man operation, probably because the workforce had been called up into the armed forces.[12]

Most men who worked in the trade were employed either by specialist firms or those who offered decorating in conjunction with allied trades. It follows that the bulk of records relate to the employers’ purposes. Few documents refer directly to individual tradesmen. However, surviving records show that in 1936 Pickford & Son, Gloucester, paid decorators in their employ 1s-6d per hour, £3-10s-6d nett for a 47 hour week. Similarly, in 1935 T. Ward, Barrow-in-Furness, paid their employee T. Holmes an hourly rate of 1s -5 ½ d and by 1939 he was on 1s-7 ½ d per hour. During 1941 B. Ward & Sons, Grange-over-Sands paid their master decorators 1s-8d and other grades 1s-6d. These examples suggest that extreme variations in rates of pay, so common earlier in the century were by then occurring less often.

For some men self-employment was more attractive than working for a boss. For a master craftsman it was relatively easy to set up in business as not a huge amount of capital was required. Equipped with his skills, tools of the trade, a work-shop, something in the bank and a degree of credit at the local merchant a decorator could make a start on his own account. Herbert Charles Little, Micheldean, Gloucestershire was one such enterprising individual. One of Little’s ledgers and a cashbook have survived, and on the free endpaper of the former it states: ‘Capatial in Start of Busness. Cash in Hand 10-0-0 Cash Borrow off E.S. 10-0-0 MJC Ltd 13-5-0 Total 33-5-0 Out June 29th 1915 F. Sleeman MJC Ltd Stock 26-8-6, Farrow & Ball 6-6-0.[13] Despite this alarmingly tight budget, Little immediately took on a man and was still in business, with the same employee, when the paper-trail comes to an end in 1935.

Trade culture: cohesion and conflict

One of the most striking characteristics to emerge from this enquiry is the degree of pride in their work displayed by men across the trade hierarchy. Although some men were employers of tradesmen who decorated grand mansions whilst others were employees working in modest dwellings, they shared a commonality of purpose, namely the improvement of the Home, those idealised spaces society holds in such regard. The improvement of domestic space lay at the heart of decorators’ professional practices, fostering a sense of collective identity and giving additional weight to their interactions with their clients.

The combination of an extended training period and a hierarchical workforce should have ensured the decorator a place amongst the labour aristocracy. That it did not do so was primarily due to the seasonality of the work and the resultant uncertainty of income. Of course the size of his pay packet was not the only factor in the tradesman’s life, and other elements at work favoured continuity. Security of employment, particularly in a long-established firm, may well have carried greater weight than a pay increase, the more so during times of economic depression or stagnation. Longevity of employment in such a vulnerable trade was held in high regard and improved one’s standing in the community.

However, as discussed, technical developments and changes in decorating fashion simplified some aspects of the work, and created a role for semi-skilled workers. In some sections of the trade this resultant dilution of the workforce led to undercutting of wages, causing resentment amongst more skilled tradesmen. Equally the erosion of the apprenticeship system was deplored by the Federation of Master Painters: ‘the war of 1914-18 may be said to have dealt the system a blow… almost killed it, and […] in 1939 the numbers of properly indentured apprentices in the craft was pitifully small.’[14] As increasing numbers joined the trade by other routes, and developed varying levels of skill, the old hierarchies were subject to pressure, with inconsistencies in rates of pay likely to cause conflict and resentment.

Materials examined support the idea that greater cohesion was to be found at earlier dates and in small firms with correspondingly fewer employees. This was in part because such house decorators frequently worked in relative isolation, therefore limiting contact with other members of the decorating trade, and with men in other trades. Decorators in larger organisations had more daily contact with other trades, and it seems possible that fostered political awareness, though not necessarily unionism.

From their inception trade unions were active on behalf of some sectors of the trade, though take-up was patchy. In sites such as Barrow-in-Furness, Ipswich and Newcastle-upon-Tyne a strong union presence developed and it seems likely that even non-members would have a greater awareness of the labour movement than their peers away from the cities. So unionism as a force for change within the decorating trade should not be underestimated, and its significance cannot be measured solely in trade union membership. How far the unions impacted upon the house decorator away from the large industrial centres is hard to judge. It is tempting to suggest that in small isolated communities political awareness was slower to develop, though clearly such tradesmen were far from living in rural idylls. Further work is needed to assess the extent to which trade unions had agency in the processes of change within the trade in different locations.

Summary and suggestions for further enquiries

Across the period and in all sites examined the decorating trade emerges as rich in tradition, its master craftsmen exhibiting an astonishing depth and range of skills. Those who carried out complex work had to undergo extended periods of training. Equally during the century some aspects of the job were simplified, resulting in a steady increase in semi-skilled labour. This threatened the position of the skilled man – being a master ceased to carry the same authority. Findings have revealed the fragmentary nature of the workforce, its resultant lack of bargaining power that may have constrained the extent to which the trade participated in the labour movement.

As decorating was a trade requiring only low capitalisation a number of tradesmen were tempted into self-employment. Some met with success but it could be risky, with problems of oversupply leading to cut-throat competition which impacted on employer and employee alike. Overall perhaps the most marked characteristic of the trade was its vulnerability, owing not only to its seasonality but also because home decorating was, if not a luxury, certainly a non-essential process, and householders were obliged to give it a low priority during times of hardship and economic and material shortage.

Clearly there is important work to be done to build on the findings of this preliminary enquiry. For example, what of women decorators? Doubtless there were women within the trade, though many worked alongside their menfolk in the shop/workshop and office and do not emerge from the business records. Of women who were time-served in the trade no traces have come to light. The invisibility of women is a perennial challenge for those investigating trade histories.

It has not yet been possible to identify regional variation in professional decorating practice. In locations where there was limited access to goods it seems probable that localised practices would develop and persist. Conversely in towns which expanded rapidly the decorating trade flourished. Did this serve to stimulate an appetite for high fashion in home decorating, and if so how did the trade respond? Answers to questions such as these call for micro-studies in sites across the country and a comparison of findings.


2016 Dianne Lawrence, lawrencedianne@hotmail.com

The author requests that this work is cited: Dianne Lawrence, ‘Getting the decorators in: trade and practice c1850-1950’, Wallpaper History Society, http://www.wallpaperhistorysociety.org.uk

For further publications on the painting and decorating trade see:

Lawrence, ‘Tales from the Trestle’, Wallpaper History Review, pp. 55-59, 2015

Lawrence, ‘The Art of oiling the wheels of business,’ Wallpaper History Society Newsletter, Issue 10, pp.4-5, Spring 2016.

Lawrence, ‘Meeting Miss Benham: memories of a mid-century decorator’, Wallpaper History Society Newsletter, Issue 9, p.4, Spring 2015.

My thanks to Professor Stephen Constantine for reading and commenting on a draft of this essay.


[1] Layout and spelling as per the original, BDHJ/83/54, Cumbria Record Office

[2] British currency was decimalised February, 1971. Prior to that date the pound was divided into 240 pence. Money was normally expressed in pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d). Thus £1 = 20s, 1s= 12d. Each penny was made up of four farthings (discontinued in 1958), two of which made a halfpenny

[3] DX441/24, Tyne & Wear Record Office

[4] HC533, Suffolk Record Office

[5] C900/03059, Sound and Moving Image Collections, British Library (henceforth SMIC, BL)

[6] C900/13665, SMIC, BL

[7] H1535/2, SMIC, BL

[8] BR201/1 Norfolk Record Office

[9] W.J. Pearce, Painting and Decorating (London, Charles Griffin & Co Ltd, 1949), p.19

[10] For detailed discussion on the expansion and marketing of the wallpaper trade see C. Woods, ‘Proliferation: late 19th century papers, markets and manufacturers’, in L. Hoskins (ed.), The Decorated Wall, (London, Thames & Hudson, 1994)

[11] D4594/4, Gloucester Record Office (henceforth GRO)

[12] D393/1 GRO

[13] Sic, D3539/2 GRO

[14] ‘The National Master’ cited by A. Seymour Jennings, The modern painter and decorator: a practical work on house painting and decorating (London, The Caxton Publishing Co., 1947), p.164