Rare lino fragment in exhibition in Kirkcaldy – the town that floored the world

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A rare fragment of lino created by Victorian designer William Morris, saved from a skip in the 1970s, is to be exhibited at a Fife museum.

The marigold-patterned floorcovering was rescued during a home clearance in London, and features in an exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries that celebrates the town’s phenomenal success as a centre of linoleum manufacturing.

Morris’s striking design was the only linoleum pattern that the arts and crafts movement’s pioneer ever produced.It was his first design a floor covering – registered in 1875 – and pre-dating the development of his woven carpets after 1878.

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Described in the Morris & Co catalogue of 1875 as ‘corticine floor cloth’, it was a popular floor covering, costing three pounds and 10 shillings per yard and sold in 72-inch widths. It was produced in two different colour combinations – green and yellow, like the Kirkcaldy sample, and another that remains a mystery because the Morris catalogue was printed in black and white. Very few examples of the linoleum remain. Usually laid in high-traffic areas, early versions were surface printed rather than inlaid, so the pattern would wear down and the linoleum would be discarded.

From left: Linoleum portrait of Queen Elizabeth, made in Kirkcaldy in 1955; Linoleum produced by William Morris; and linoleum pattern, adapted from a design for wallpaper by Walter Crane, and produced by the Kirkcaldy Floorcloth Company in the late 1800s (Pics: On Fife)From left: Linoleum portrait of Queen Elizabeth, made in Kirkcaldy in 1955; Linoleum produced by William Morris; and linoleum pattern, adapted from a design for wallpaper by Walter Crane, and produced by the Kirkcaldy Floorcloth Company in the late 1800s (Pics: On Fife)
From left: Linoleum portrait of Queen Elizabeth, made in Kirkcaldy in 1955; Linoleum produced by William Morris; and linoleum pattern, adapted from a design for wallpaper by Walter Crane, and produced by the Kirkcaldy Floorcloth Company in the late 1800s (Pics: On Fife)

The William Morris Society, which rescued the fragment in the 70s, donated it to OnFife which runs the Galleries, last year. Curators now hope to establish precisely where the fragment was made.

Flooring the World, which opens on Wednesday, November 15, showcases a fascinating array of objects linked to one of Fife’s most enduring industrial success stories. Displays feature products made in Kirkcaldy – and the villages of Falkland and Newburgh – which floored millions of homes, offices and public buildings worldwide.

Exhibits include a piece of congoleum – a felt-backed budget version of linoleum – which covered the hall of Paul McCartney’s childhood home in Liverpool. Also on show is a delightful miniature elephant, created by pop art sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi in the 1970s for a marketing campaign to boost linoleum sales.

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Among the many exhibits being displayed for the first time are photographs, pattern books, catalogues, samples and workers’ tools.

Nairn’s Ladies Hockey Club, pictured at Priory Park in Kirkcaldy, in 1955-56 season.Nairn’s Ladies Hockey Club, pictured at Priory Park in Kirkcaldy, in 1955-56 season.
Nairn’s Ladies Hockey Club, pictured at Priory Park in Kirkcaldy, in 1955-56 season.

Linoleum, and its many variants, has been dubbed the most ubiquitous and democratic of floor coverings, bought by customers across the social spectrum.

The industry employed one in 10 of Kirkcaldy's population at its peak in 1914 but, with consumers increasingly choosing vinyl flooring or carpets, just one factory was left by 1963. One fashion trend was a dagger to the heart of the industry around that time – the stiletto heel. An advert reassuring customers of linoleum’s durability is included in the show.

Fife’s sole remaining linoleum factory, built by Kirkcaldy’s first floor covering manufacturer, Michael Nairn & Co, is still operational and owned by international flooring company Forbo. The Swiss-based firm recently gifted OnFife its historical archive, which dates back to Nairn’s foundation in 1847. Treasures include banners carried by Nairn’s staff on summer excursions, photographs of the company’s fire engine and a paint block, cut from a deposit of emulsion that had built up beneath a printing room floor.

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Other curiosities include striking linoleum marquetry pictures. Among them are portraits of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, made by Kirkcaldy Linoleum Market and presented to the Town Council in 1955. Also featuring are arresting photographs of a strike that took place 100 years ago in a distant and little-known corner of the town’s linoleum empire.

A paint block found beneath Nairn’s print room floor – a cross-section of the built-up layers of spilled paint that had trickled between the floorboards over many years (Pic: OnFife)A paint block found beneath Nairn’s print room floor – a cross-section of the built-up layers of spilled paint that had trickled between the floorboards over many years (Pic: OnFife)
A paint block found beneath Nairn’s print room floor – a cross-section of the built-up layers of spilled paint that had trickled between the floorboards over many years (Pic: OnFife)

The images capture scores of French workers downing tools as they fight for better pay. In one, a man plays an accordion, while his colleague, gesturing at the camera, holds a half empty bottle of wine. Another captures a group of men crowded around a handwritten sign. It reads: “Ninth day of strike. Morale excellent. We swear to fight to the end.”

For years, the pictures have been in the collection of OnFife, yet the French connection to Scotland proved a mystery. Until recently, all that was known about them was that they were taken at a French linoleum factory, but as part of the new exhibition, curator Lily Barnes decided to try to find answers.

She turned her attention to the Bibliothèque National de France, the French national library in Paris. Based on the type of clothing worn by the men in the photographs, she searched through the collection’s early 20th century online archives. While the majority of the material was simply newspaper advertisements for linoleum, one publication, L’Humanité, which served as the official journal of the French Communist party, turned up an intriguing lead.

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Ms Barnes explained: “In an issue dated March 7, 1923, it mentioned a strike at a linoleum factory in Le Houlme, Normandy, operated by a company called La Compagnie Rouennaise de Linoleum (CRL). At the time, Nairn’s and Barry’s were consolidating their power, and we know that Barry, Ostlere and Shepherd was officially formed in 1899 by a merger. There was, however, a fourth company included in its DNA – the little Normandy venture.”

CRL was formed in 1897, but became part of Barry’s, headquartered in Kirkcaldy, two years later. At the time, it employed around 150 people, but at its peak, the workforce stood at approximately 500. While the precise date of their strike – which centred around winter pay – remains as yet unknown, further research by Ms Barnes suggests that the factory’s connections with Fife was in itself a source of grievance.

“A report in our collection written in the 1950s by one of Barry’s managers, noted that the French factory often had to make do with out-of-date equipment,” she explained. “When new machines were purchased, these were prioritised for Kirkcaldy who then sent their cast-offs to Normandy. It is possible that the feeling that the French factory was something of an afterthought may have been present in the 1920s, and contributed to the feeling of discontent among the workers.”

The exhibition is the culmination of a £115,000 social history project that has sought to engage people with OnFife’s globally renowned linoleum collection.

> Flooring the World runs from Wednesday 15 November 2023 to Sunday 25 February 2024.

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