In the Beginning there was Floorcloth

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We have already covered the remarkable Nairns in our Project (Object 13), specifically in terms of philanthropic legacy. But the name was always going to recur, given the family's unique contribution to manufacturing history.

 

Guest writer Gavin Grant, Collections Team Leader at OnFife, relates the story of how Kirkcaldy's floorcloth industry grew from modest local beginnings, how the development of linoleum had global impact and how Kirkcaldy did indeed come to 'floor the world'.

 

Gavin brings great authority to his subject and we look forward to hearing and seeing more of OnFife's project and collection.

Floorcloth
00:00 / 06:27

Audio

Marble Surface

In the Beginning there was Floorcloth

We are delighted that this month’s object is authored by not just one guest but two. Gavin Grant and Lily Barnes of Fife Cultural Trust, who are the driving forces behind an exciting two year project launched by the Trust entitled – Flooring the World – Exploring the Fife Linoleum Industry, have kindly agreed to relate the history of linoleum. The project itself is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

The object behind the project is to engage people with the linoleum held by OnFife in its Museum and Archives collections. Incredibly, over 6,000 items ranging from banners, paintings, pattern books, photographs and archive material are held.

Lily, the Engagement Curator, will be exploring ways to make the Collection more accessible and also uncovering recollections from those who worked in the industry, had relatives involved, and even those who simply had linoleum on their floors! This is the town’s story and perhaps you can be a part of it. If you have any recollections or reminiscences the project team will be delighted to hear from you on lino@onfife.com

It seemed an ideal opportunity to collaborate with Gavin and Lily to produce a comprehensive history of one of Kirkcaldy’s foundation industries.

The full story is a lengthy one and to make it more manageable it was decided to break the narrative into three episodes over the coming 12/18 months – starting with floorcloth, moving onto linoleum itself, and finally a summarising of the project’s successes and achievements.

Before linoleum appeared Kirkcaldy had a flourishing industry in its predecessor – floorcloth. Floorcloth was simply canvas covered by thick layers of paint with a hand painted or printed pattern added. Most of the production was concentrated in the south of England. It was this market Michael Nairn serviced from his canvas works in Coal Wynd.

An astute businessman he determined that, rather than only supply others with canvas, why should he not diversify into manufacturing the finished article himself?

Borrowing a substantial sum, Nairn built his factory on a site overlooking Pathhead Sands, naming it the Scottish Floor- Cloth Manufactory. His wisdom was questioned as the process was time consuming and many months passed before the finished article was fit for sale – no quick profit here! One of the most time consuming aspects of the process was the drying time involved – it was achieved simply through using ventilation windows.

However, the advance of technology, particularly through steam power, along with better and faster processes for both dying and painting, reduced production time. These improvements led to a greater demand and extensions were often required to the factory which started to sprawl down towards the Forth.

There is a fascinating 1849 report in Chambers Edinburgh Journal detailing the labour intensive manufacturing process of the time. In 1858 another author claimed that Nairn now operated the largest floorcloth factory in the world.

Despite the early death of Michael Nairn his widow and children both continued and expanded the business. 

Where Nairn led others followed and soon another five companies had sprung up in Kirkcaldy. The second of these was set up by former Nairn’s manager, James Shepherd, along with Michael Beveridge, and it also operated from the Pathhead area. Those who followed later made the area closer to the town’s railway station their preferred sites. In living memory that area was still dominated by these factories.

Floorcloth could easily imitate carpets and tiles and was in high demand domestically, commercially, for shipping, and even the Tsar’s yacht. It was in 1880 that three Kirkcaldy manufacturers produced the floorcloth for Tsar Alexander II’s new yacht which was being built in Govan.

By the 1860/70s Kirkcaldy manufacturers were winning medals for their designs and their quality.  Kirkcaldy was indeed on the floorcovering map!

Fire was always an ever-present danger. In 1880, close to the station, one factory was completely consumed by a blaze within little more than an hour. Thousands of pounds were lost in the inferno and the business did not re-open.

The search for improvements to floorcovering was ongoing and very soon came the invention of linoleum by Frederick Walton and in the 1870s the queer like smell became familiar to the town’s inhabitants.

Despite the invention of the thicker and longer lasting linoleum it is a mistake to think that it sounded the death knell for the manufacture of floorcloth. It continued in Kirkcaldy well into the 1930s with Nairn’s St Mary’s Canvas Works having seen a major extension in 1914.

The full story, enhanced by many photographs from the Trust’s own collection, can be reached through the icon below. We look forward to the next episode of the trilogy – linoleum itself – and hope that readers visiting Kirkcaldy Galleries, especially if viewing the Vettriano exhibition over the coming months, take the opportunity to see some linoleum items in the Moments in Time display.  

The culmination of the project will see a larger temporary exhibition about linoleum towards the end of 2023.

Marble Surface