Survey of London: Volume 45, Knightsbridge. Originally published by London County Council, London, 2000.
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Smith & Baber's Floorcloth Factory
Before the construction of the Harrods depot the dominating building on the Trevor estate was Smith & Baber's floorcloth factory, on the west side of Trevor Place. Built in the early 1820s, this was one of several noteworthy structures, most of them now destroyed, erected in London for the manufacture of ornamental painted floorcloth, an industry particularly associated with the capital. With its tall belvedere tower, Smith & Baber's factory was for some seventy years a distinctive local landmark. The tower was demolished in the 1890s, but the shell of the building survived into the 1970s.
It was the firm's third factory. The first was erected in the mid-eighteenth century for Nathan Smith, whose sonin-law, James Baber, later claimed that Smith had founded the works in 1754. In fact a date some ten years later is more likely to be correct. Baber's further assertion that it had been the first floorcloth manufactory was more or less specious. (Both claims were embodied in a prominent inscription on the 1820s building.) (fn. 2) There certainly were earlier factories – one of them in Knightsbridge, just east of what is now Sloane Street (see page 31) – though they were not necessarily on such a large scale as Smith's, nor perhaps were their products comparable with his in quality and durability.
It was in March 1763 that Nathan Smith, a painterstainer of Fenchurch Street, patented a composition and machinery for making floorcloth. Oil-cloth used as a relatively inexpensive floor-covering had then been around for many years, since the very early eighteenth century if not before. (fn. 3) It was also utilized for awnings, tents and garden buildings. The manufacturing process involved covering the canvas base with several thick coats of paint, and then applying a printed pattern with wooden blocks. By the late eighteenth century techniques had reached a high degree of sophistication, allowing production of very large and elaborately patterned cloths.
A problem with the earlier floorcloths was that the water-soluble size or glue used to prime the canvas backing would go soft if the cloth was washed down, causing the paint to peel. Smith's patent composition, which had to be pressed into the cloth by a rolling apparatus, was intended to supersede sizing. (fn. 4) He is also credited with introducing two further innovations in floorcloth manufacture: block-printing instead of stencilling for making patterns; and 'seamless' floorcloth, achieved at first by sewing canvases together without a raised seam, and later by using specially woven canvas of exceptional width. (fn. 5)
Whatever his earlier involvement, if any, in floorcloth making, it seems certain that Smith's factory originated as a workshop built on ground adjoining Powis House in 1764. (fn. 6) The exact circumstances of the building of the factory, however, and the nature of Smith's tenancy, are unclear. Possibly the building was erected for manufacturing floorcloth using his newly patented process, though the first ratepayer was Jonathan Durden esquire, who lived at a neighbouring house in South Place for a few years, and Smith's name does not appear in the ratebooks in connection with this building until 1766. In 1785 a lease of the factory site (about an acre in extent) was granted by the Trevors to the builder Henry Holland, during the lives of two of his sons, Henry (the architect) and Richard, and the Prince of Wales. Holland assigned this lease to another son, John, who appears to have continued to hold it for many years. Smith presumably, therefore, became an undertenant of John Holland, and it may be that the Hollands had some interest in the business. (fn. 7)
In February 1794 a fire destroyed the original factory. The cost of the damage, including the loss of £15,000worth of materials for the cavalry and other government contracts, amounted to £20,000, and as nothing was insured a collection was set up to help the proprietors, which managed to raise about £500. Within a couple of years a new factory had been built on the same site, together with a dwelling-house; a second house was built later (see Plate 5c). (fn. 8) A design for the new factory was shown at the Royal Academy in 1794 by W. S. Newman (who had earlier exhibited at the Academy giving his address as Mr Smith's, Knightsbridge). (fn. 9)
Although a building with some pretensions to style, the 'Phoenix' floorcloth factory was, according to W. W. Pocock, only made of wood (Plate 54d). (fn. 10) It stood well back from the road behind a grass area with a goldfish pond and a statue of Time standing near by, holding his scythe and hour-glass. (fn. 11)
Nathan Smith seems to have retired in 1798, (fn. 12) evidently to Brighton (if he was the Brighthelmestone gentleman named Nathan Smith who, late that year, patented a vapour-bath contraption for treating gout). (fn. 13) The factory was taken over by his son-in-law James Baber, a man of humble origin who had trained as a mason and stonecutter, and with whom Soane is said to have worked at one time. (fn. 14)
Between 1822 and 1824 Baber's factory was rebuilt on a much grander scale than previously. The new site, which was a portion of the field in which the original factory had been built, had a narrow frontage to Knightsbridge and extended southwards along the west side of what is now Trevor Place. It was extended further south in 1828, as far as the roadway at the north end of Montpelier Square, on ground recently acquired by Lord Dungannon from T. W. Marriott. (fn. 15) Two houses (Nos 1 and 2 South Place), also included in the site, were occupied for many years by the Baber family or their employees. (fn. 16)
The new factory was designed by W. F. Pocock, Lord Dungannon's estate surveyor. It was an architectural composition of some distinction, shown to good effect in a contemporary perspective view, probably drawn by Pocock himself (Plate 54a). (fn. 17) Visitors entered through a domed rotunda at the north end, which gave on to a single-storey showroom, south of which lay the manufactory itself. This comprised a large block of more than double-storey height containing the framing- and drying-rooms, where the floorcloths spent the greater part of the time-consuming manufacturing process, mounted in wooden frames for priming and painting or simply hanging up to dry (Plate 54b). The interim stage of block-printing was carried out above in the lower stage of the central tower. Particularly long floorcloths were hung up to dry from the tower, reaching down into the drying-room. Other activities, including paint-making, block-making, and carpentry repairs, were carried out in smaller rooms at the south end of the premises. The tower, which may not have been completed for several years after the opening of the factory, was built to a different design from that shown in Pocock's perspective (Plate 6b). The engraving used on the firm's stationery, as much as two years before the new factory can have been in use, shows the tower completed only up to its first stage; (fn. 18) an increase in rateable value in 1828 may mark its completion. (fn. 19)
Smith & Baber's products had a considerable reputation, and the manufacturing techniques used at the factory (where nineteen men were employed in 1851) (fn. 20) were wellpublicized during its heyday. (fn. 21)
After the closure of the floorcloth factory about 1888, the premises were acquired by J. C. Humphreys (the future purchaser of the Trevor estate) and used by him for several years for manufacturing iron buildings. Humphreys had entered into an agreement to redevelop the site with houses or flats, (fn. 22) but this scheme was ultimately abandoned and in 1894 he let the factory to an ice-skating company. There was strong opposition from some nearby residents (including Lord Llangattock at South Lodge), and a music and dancing licence for the proposed 'Pôle Nord' was refused by the London County Council. (fn. 1) When the project did go ahead, as Prince's Skating Club – an offshoot of the nearby Prince's Club – there were various restrictions to ensure that it did not become a nuisance, including a ban on alcohol, singing and late-night opening. Moreover, ice-skating was restricted to a six-month season, with 'high class entertainments' only to be held during the rest of the year. (fn. 23)
Opened in September 1896, the Prince's Skating Club retained little of the old factory beyond a large part of the shell. The tower went, a new iron-and-glass roof was erected, and the principal block, comprising the former framing- and drying-rooms, was extended southwards as far as Montpelier Square (Plate 54c). (fn. 24) The south extension followed the plain round-arched style of the factory; at the north end, the main entrance was at the corner of a singlestorey wing, somewhat showier with stone dressings and ball finials on the parapet. Replacing or converted from the old floorcloth showroom, this building, latterly No. 243 Knightsbridge, contained a lounge, refreshment room and offices. Two more storeys were later added. (fn. 25)
Although a 'brilliant success', the skating-club was put up for sale in 1897, probably because of the difficulties over licensing. But no buyer was found until 1903, when it was purchased by the Duchess of Bedford – the future 'Flying Duchess' was a keen skater and determined to keep the place open. The building had already housed, in 1902, an exhibition of Austrian art and furnishings, and a succession of exhibitions and bazaars followed over the years leading up to the First World War. (fn. 26) The Olympic winter sports were held there in 1908, and in the following year it was used for an exhibition by the Women's Political Union, when the hall was decorated with purple, white and green murals to Sylvia Pankhurst's designs. The rather cloying blend of Pre-Raphaelite, Biblical and pagan symbolism, with a female sower and angels as the centrepiece, was heavily influenced by Walter Crane's socialist imagery. (fn. 27)
After the First World War the building became a car-hire depot, and this it remained until its demolition in the mid1970s for the South Lodge redevelopment (see page 134). (fn. 28)