I have already written about two other significant brands of Water Paint in the twentieth century – Thomas Parsons’ Parlyte Water Paint and Duresco – the ‘King of Water Paints’. However, it is perhaps Walpamur, the subject of this essay, that is the best known and was something that Papers and Paints was still selling when I came into the business in 1980. In fact Walpamur made more than water paint as will be seen.
You will forgive the large number of black and white photographs, I hope. So rarely does one come across images showing the manufacture of paint; the business of colour checking and the putting together of colour cards, let alone a 1950s typing pool. Most of these processes have changed radically in the last fifty years and are worth recording.
A Brief History of Walpamur1
The River flowing through Darwen, near Blackburn in Lancashire, played a major part in the development and growth of industry in that town in the early nineteenth century. The water was of particular use to the calico printing and bleaching industries, and it was here in 1818 that Richard Hilton started the paper making industry that his sons were to develop. Hilton’s Paper Mills were soon the largest paper making works in the world and by 1840 had become the largest employer in Darwen, with a workforce of over 400.
In 1844 Hilton’s was taken over by Charles and Harold Potter who already owned a calico printing business in the area. Wallpaper manufacturing (known as Paper Staining was added to their repertoire and the wallpapers that they produced were of such quality that they soon become world famous.
The Potters were friendly with a designer called James Huntington, who was invited to become a partner in the firm, being joined by his two brothers ten years later. It was a son of one of the two, Major A.W. Huntington who, returning from the Boer War, became a partner in 1892 and after the formation of a combine known as The Wall Paper Manufacturers Limited in 1899, became a director. He set up a laboratory at the Hollins Paper Mill and carried out experiments into the making of a reliable Water Paint. A satisfactory formula was discovered and in August 1906 production commenced with a few hands borrowed from the mill. By 1908 the staff consisted of eight men and three boys, who appear in the photograph below which shows them grouped around a horse-drawn wagon. This was pulled by a horse named Jimmie and used to take paint twice a day to Darwen Station.
The water paint was initially sold under the name of “Hollins Distemper”, but it was re-branded with the name WalPaMur being taken from The Wall Paper Manufacturers’ title.
Drums at this time were made in three sizes – 28 lbs; 56 lbs and 112 lbs (1 cwt) and they were returnable by clients. When they were sent back they were washed out in vats with caustic soda and a number was stamped on them to show how many times thay had been sent out. This practice continued until 1926. The early tins were decorated in green, black and white and these came in three sizes – 4 lbs; 7 lbs and 14 lbs.
The first female member of staff joined the firm in about 1913. This was a momentous step for the company and the management issued a warning that anyone talking to her unnecessarily would be instantly dismissed.
The other major development was the decision to set up depots throughout the country and by 1920 a series were established at Manchester, Birmingham, Sunderland, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Belfast, Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Southampton, Plymouth, Sheffield, Gloucester and London.
At the same time the factory was reconstructed and some adjoining land was purchased to allow for future expansion. In the course of the work the River Darwen was bridged and built over, the laboratory was expanded and research began into the manufacture of oil paint. Exposure Stations were established in various parts of the country to provide information on the weathering of the paint and practical research was undertaken by decorators into the application of each new product.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, rapid steps were taken to convert the factory to the needs of war-time economy. Once again the older generation and the women kept the works producing while the younger men were in the Forces. Paint and dope were needed in great quantities for a wide range of war purposes and Walpamur again produced varnish and paint for ammunition as well as paint for camouflage, for black-out and for military vehicles and aircraft.
In connection with the latter, Walpamur were asked to deliver 90,000 gallons of white paint within a very short period for the painting of identification stripes on Allied aircraft participating in the invasion operations.
Even during the War the factory was developed and enlarged. A new building for cellulose paints was erected together with a large new office block. Another building was set aside to deal with one of the major industrial problems of the immediate post-war period, that of training for industry the masses of young men being released from the Forces. Here experienced Walpamur men gave courses to apprentices on painting and decorating. In later years this demonstration block was used to display a selection of paints and wallpapers in settings that reproduced actual interiors.
As with any paint, every Walpamur paint was a composition of two main ingredients – a pigment and a medium for binding. Naturally, both vary according to the type of paint involved. A visit to the dry colour store would reveal piles of sacks, drums, barrels and boxes brought from places as far afield as Australia, Burma, Bolivia, West Africa and the Persian Gulf. The quantities used were considerable and as many as one hundred tons of pigment might be unloaded into this store in a single day. The media or binding agents were classified under three main headings – Oil Paints, Water Paints and Nitro-Cellulose Paints.
Varnish was the most important binding agent for oil paints and the two main constituents – resin came chiefly from the Belgian Congo and linseed oil from Argentina and Canada. At one time Walpamur’s Varnish House was the largest plant of its kind in Europe. In the Enamel Paint Department the varnish was combined with pigment in pug-mills to form a paste. This was then ground in ball-mills to ensure more complete dispersion. The next stage saw the paste being fed through vertical steel roller-mills (see below). One of the most colourful sights of the factory was provided by the paste as it was collected from the rollers by the scraper and flowed down to accumulate in rich folds.
After further processes the end result would be Duradio Enamel Paint.
The famous Walpamur Water Paint was made in a separate building. Here oil varnish was made and emulsified in water to produce the binding agent (in essence it was an early emulsion paint). This and the required pigments were ground in a machine known as an edge-runner, which can be seen below.
Walpamur were very strong on research and development and carried out much experimental work. One of these projects led to the production of water-based gloss and satin paints – the sort of paints that are in increasing demand nowadays.
Walpamur Water Paint
Walpamur, or “wallop” as it was often referred to by the decorator, was an oil-bound, non-poisonous flat paint for walls.2 It was supplied in paste form and made ready for use by thinning with Walpamur Petrifying Liquid or water. It could be applied by brush or spray and dried to a smooth matt finish.
It was recommended that porous or loosely-bound surfaces should first be given a coat of Walpamur Primer to provide a sound foundation for the Water Paint. The Primer was supplied in either a transparent or a suitably tinted form.
One hundredweight (1 cwt) of Walpamur, when thinned to proper working consistency, covered approximately 350 square yards with two coats on smooth non-porous surfaces. Under normal conditions two coats would produce a solid finish, but where Walpamur Tinted Primer of a suitable shade had been used the second coat of Water Paint may not be necessary.
Printing was handled by the Stationery Department which, in addition to supplying the central administration, the depots and subsidiary companies with office stationery, made some of the Walpamur shade cards. The colour chips were sprayed and stored in special fire-proof rooms, before they were mounted on the cards by hand or by machinery.
During the early years staff amenities were very restricted, but by the period after the First World War the facilities had improved immeasurably. The sports and social side of the company were very active and there was a singular effort to develop a feeling that the work force were part of one large family.
In many ways, Walpamur was too successful. In the early 1960s, the Wallpaper Manufacturers (WPM) group came under investigation by the Competition Commission. In spite of growing competition, WPM still controlled 79% of the wallpaper market. The paint side of the business was also of concern. By 1964, Walpamur had 89 depots, 42 of which were owned by subsidiaries, and 6 of which were jointly operated with Smith & Walton, an associated business. Probably as a result of the investigation, WPM sold Walpamur in 1965 to Reed International.
By the 1970s the company began producing emulsion paints. Feeling the name Walpamur was too closely associated with water paints, it was decided in 1975 to change it to Crown Decorative Products. The company was acquired by Wiliams Holdings in 1987, and in 1988 the name was changed to Crown Berger. In 1993 Crown Berger was taken over by Nobel (from 1994 AkzoNobel) but when AkzoNobel acquired in 2008 Imperial Chemical Industries, the maker among others of Dulux paint, the European Commissioner for Competition feared the company would have a near monopoly in several countries, including the UK. As a result AkzoNobel decided to sell Crown Berger in a management buyout backed by private equity firm Endless LLP.3
Current Availability of Colours
As with almost all the colours shown on this site they could be mixed into conventional modern paint by Papers and Paints Ltd
The Walpamur name is still used in Australia:
Notes and Sources of Information
1 Most of this has been taken from Walpamur Golden Jubilee – 1906-1956. Published by Walpamur, Darwen. 1956.
2 I don’t like using the word distemper in connection with Walpamur Water Paint because that causes confusion. This was not a Soft Distemper with all its advantages and disadvantages, but an early form of emulsion paint. The use of Water Paint can cause subsequent trouble as indicated in this Post.
3 Sebastien Ardouin.
Richard Ireland (who knows about Mosquitoes).
Although not connected, here is a very interesting account of paint-making in Hull – Some notes on the colourful history of Sissons Brothers & Co Ltd.
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