The History and Origins of the Old Paint Company









          Alan Newnham with Lord Kings Norton        

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In Homerton High Street, a few hundred yards from the Berger factory, is Sutton House, a National Trust property.  Contact with the Curator confirmed their special interest in the history of East London and thereby in Berger records.

Accordingly I offered them memorabilia including two books “The House of Berger during the years of WW2” and “The New History of Lewis Berger & Sons” by F. Armitage.

My comment that I had served for close on 50 years led to the suggestion that I put on record my recollections.  What follows is the result, it being written in 1996 that is 19 years after retirement. At that stage these arrangements were discussed with Mr. B. Giordan, Technical Director, Herberts Paints Group, a member of the Hoechst Group, and current owners of the former Berger factory at Chadwell Heath.  Mr Giordan confirmed his great interest in acquiring all available Berger records.  His subsequent cooperation is gratefully acknowledged. I fear however that the scope and nature of the story that follows becomes complicated by virtue of it having to be of interest to two very different classes of reader.  I trust that I have achieved that objective.




I joined Berger in 1928 at age 16, having matriculated at the Central Foundation School in the City, the weekly salary was 17s/6d (87.5p today). My boss said, “By the time you retire you should be earning £1000 pa”!

In the following pages I have put on record my recollections of 49 years service from 1928 to 1977.  I must emphasise that these are the pictures that remain in my mind, not the result of research as is the “New History” written by my friend, and colleague Frank Armitage.

I have tried not to duplicate the contents of the “New History “ but where this occurs have given a cross reference.  My contribution is intended to give a picture of my years with Berger and is in no way intended to deal in detail with the underlying technology.  If this account is found patchy, blame my failing memory!  I write 19 years after retirement.

 I deal largely with the areas in which I worked, that is the Technical Departments.  No reference has been made to the activity of Sales and Accounting Departments although obviously major changes must have occurred therein and contributed to the success of Berger.  As an exception: it is of interest that at an early stage, that is around mid 1960, a computer centre was created at Brentwood.  I remember a large room with floor to ceiling cabinets using valve technology and requiring air cooling.

My thanks are due to Mrs. Beatrice Armitage for providing papers relating to her husband and to Frank Creed, a colleague of 44 years, for help given in the preparation of these pages.  Also to Mr. Bruno Giordan, Technical Director, Herberts Paint Group,  for arranging the printing and presentation of these pages.  On a personal note, there is attached a press release on the occasion of my retirement. (appendix 1).


About the Author of “A New History of Lewis Berger & Sons”


Frank Armitage joined Berger in 1940 as the first Manager of the Group Research Laboratory, a position he held until his resignation in 1962 to join the Sherwin Williams Co. in the USA.  Reference can be made to the letter,  entitled “SW’s Man in London news letter 49” (appendix II).

It was in the development of styrenated copolymers that Frank made his greatest contribution to paint technology.  His name appears on numerous patents.  He was a prolific author, his writings being published in the scientific and technical journals and relating to the history of the paint industry as well as to current scientific topics.

The depth of research required for the “New History” is clearly to be seen and is characteristic of the man and his writings.  Whilst “FA” was by profession a chemist his outside interests extended into amateur dramatics, and literature.  He closely followed professional cricket, above all that of his beloved Yorkshire . 

Amongst his friends he will no doubt be best remembered for his ability to engender argument, sometimes heated, on controversial social and political issues whilst himself remaining dispassionate and amused.


Frank died in 1993 leaving a wife “Bea” formerly responsible for import-export documentation.  She, his son and two daughters made a very close and happy family as might be expected from Frank’s ever cheerful disposition.


The Company - Growth and Demise       

The “New History” refers to Lewis Berger & Sons Ltd.  However in 1951 the UK company traded as Lewis Berger (Great Britain) Ltd on the Homerton site, (appendix III), while Group Headquarters transferred to Berkeley Square W1.

In 1960 the group merged with Jenson & Nicholson Ltd of Carpenters Road Stratford, at that time a company managed by the Nicholson family.  Like Berger, J & N had a long history having been founded in 1810.  This purchase also brought into the  Berger Group another family company, John Hall of Bristol, also Cuprinol of Frome.   The Berger Group now became Berger, Jenson & Nicholson Ltd. or “BJN”.

In 1965 Berger acquired British Paints of Newcastle who specialised in ships paint.  The Berger Group by now consisted of about 30 manufacturing companies in 23 countries, each of major importance in the country of operation.  One may mention  amongst others the UK (Dagenham, Wigan, Bristol, Newcastle, Glasgow), Dublin, France, Portugal, Canada, Jamaica, East Africa, West Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The year 1970 saw the Group acquired by Hoechst AG, Frankfurt.  This gave their  existing, German paint company “Herberts” world wide coverage.  The Berger connection with “Herberts commenced in the 1950’s.  In that year a technical exchange was initiated.  Hoechst held a partial interest in the company, it being understood that on the death of Dr.Kurt Herbert they, Hoechst, would acquire the remaining interest.

The writer, when Technical Operations Manager, visited Wuppertal in 1956 accompanied by W. J. Smith, Manager Technical Services, F. Armitage, Manager Research Lab.  Incidentally this was my first air flight, other than a 10 minute joy flight over London from Croydon airfield. 1988 Hoechst decided to concentrate their operations and sold the Berger Group for the most part to Williams Holdings, a fast growing conglomerate.  However, Hoechst retained the industrial paints operation at Chadwell Heath, this being operated under the Herberts name. In 1990 Williams sold their paint interest, namely Crown Paints and Berger Paints to Nobel Industries (Sweden) who in 1993 merged their interests with Akzo (Netherlands). So, in a period of just 30 years control of the Berger Group passed into the hands of three chemical giants - Hoechst, Nobel, Akzo.  Hence the demise of the House of Berger which for 230 years had been in the forefront of pigment and paint technology - over 200 years in Morning Lane, Homerton. 

    To summarise on an international input basis:-            

1760 Founded by Louis Steigenbeger                                      Germany

1910 Managed by Sherwin Cottingham ex Sherwin Williams         USA

1936 Owned by Vera Cottingham neé Vera Sklarevskia              Russian

1970 Bought by Hoechst                                                      Germany

1988 Sold in part to Williams Bros.                                         UK

1990 Williams part sold to Nobel                                            Sweden

          1996 Nobel merged with Akzo                                               Netherlands
    Early Reminiscences     

In 1928, the writer’s first year, there was to be seen inside the main gate, on the right the uniformed sergeant, the M.D.’s Humber with its chauffeur, then an object of interest and envy.  On the left was situated the cooperage.  Here, about 20 coopers  fabricated casks and barrels for use by the dry colour sales department.

Adjacent to the cooperage on the site labelled Loc. 100 on the 1939 map provided, (appendix III) were still manufactured Emerald and Paris Greens ( P17 and P30).  Near by was a laboratory during the demolition of which I found a 12 inch section of elephant tusk, proof of the earlier production of Ivory Black (P7).  This piece of tusk showed very extensive erosion by dental caries - the original owner must have been one of the proverbial elephants who ran amok. 

Vermilion (P17) was still in production by a secret process.  Entry to the building (loc. 37 on site plan) was refused to all including the writer whose then task was to collect the foreman’s daily reports.  This was received via a flap in the bolted door!!!  Also found in an abandoned building in the course of the writer’s wanderings were sacks of cochineal bugs (P13).  

Close by flanking Berger Road was the original house of Mr. Berger (Loc.50 on plan).  In 1928 and subsequently this was occupied by the chief engineer George Heighington .  

My career as chemist started in the house next door on the ground floor of which  was the Cellulose Laboratory, size about 25 x 10 ft.  The staff comprised L. E. Wakeford  manager, W. J. Smith chemist, myself and a “lab boy”.  Associated with the laboratory was the Spray Shop holding 2 spray booths.  Here all production batches were tested for colour, application properties, etc..  Here also customer staff, mainly from car repair garages, were trained.  The chief demonstrator also acted as Technical Service representative.

On the upper floor, above the Cellulose Laboratory, was the Varnish Laboratory, manager Freeborne, later Bond, 2 chemists and junior De Vroome, who later created the Insulation Varnish Laboratory.  Next door was the Round Room library and Dry Colour Laboratory.

Near by was the keg washing plant sited over the original brook which crossed the site.  Two tanks of boiling soda solution were used to clean kegs, pails etc. to be returned clean and ready for re-use.

Not far away was the Pump House, sited above the artesian well which in those days supplied much of the factory requirements.     

Horse transport was still the norm, (see tailpiece) although a few early motor vans had just been acquired.  I seem to remember they were named “ALBION” and had solid tyres, chain drive and were of French origin.  Transport within the site involved a “yard gang” of 20 or so men employed day-long rolling 45 & 90 gall (200 & 400 lt.) barrels of incoming raw materials to production, or store areas.

Most employees lived locally, arriving on foot or by bicycle. Others including managers used public transport.

The Works Director, W. F.  Starkey, travelled daily by number 106 bus from Finsbury Park! Only the Managing Director possessed a car - the afore mentioned Humber.  Even sales representatives travelled by bus, tram, or train.  Incidentally, in those days prior to the availability of electric lamps the cyclists used oil or acetylene lamps, the latter running on calcium carbide and water.  I cycled to work and home at Upper Clapton for lunch.  In 1936 I moved to Chingford and travelled by train, fare 6 pence a day.

Factory hours were 8.00am - 6.00pm, on Saturdays 8.00 - 12.15. Start and stop times were announced by the factory whistle.  Entry was refused to a factory worker arriving more than 5 minutes late.  Arrival and departure times were recorded on a time clock.

In order that I could study for a B.Sc. degree at the Sir John Cass Technical Institute, Minories, I was allowed on 4 nights a week and for 5 years to leave at 5.00pm.

After graduation I studied paint technology at the Borough Polytechnic.  Of interest to “chocoholics”, my evening snack on the bus to college was a 4oz (112g) bar of chocolate, standard price 4d but only 3 1/2d at the cut price shop in Mare street (1.5p today).  After a first year in the Factory Office came the promised transfer to the cellulose lacquer laboratory.  My task for the next 3 years was to subject every new raw material consignment to extensive test: included were cellulose nitrates (a near relative of gun cotton) resins, plasticisers, solvents. Typical consignment size was 5 - 10 barrels, kegs or casks. 

Then in  1932 my boss returned from Sherwin Williams Co. in the USA with a file of papers detailing the method of making a new range of synthetic resins known as Alkyds. Paints based on these Sherwin Williams formulae proved unacceptable to the UK market.  Development of a range of acceptable resins and enamels was the task entrusted to me.  My early development had to stem from the SW formulations provided, there being no further contacts with SW Co. Furthermore at that date there was a total absence of literature references to alkyd resins in patents or technical journals.  After promising initial properties, confirmed by several years exposure  tests on the factory roof, the main Berger coach and decorators enamels were reformulated on to alkyd resin basis and sold under the names KEMITONE and POMPEIAN.  They  were probably the first  nationally marketed paints to be based on alkyd resins  This was in 1938.

A small traditional varnish kitchen was provided for production (Loc. 64 on plan) equipped with 6 gas fires and ducting leading to an eighty foot chimney.  The traditional copper bottomed pots were however, replaced by aluminium pots.  In spite of loss of reactants in the ducts, good reproducibly was achieved.  Production ceased on the outbreak of war due to non-availability of glycerine - required by the explosives industry.   


The War Years


In spite of continual air raids during the Battle of Britain and the V1 and V2 raids, life continued almost normally.  Journeys to and from work were often subject to delay if an air raid was in progress or roads were blocked by bomb damage.  Working hours were likewise interrupted whenever the air raid warning siren sounded.  At first employees were required to switch off machinery and hurry to the nearest shelter as shown on the site plan dated 1939 (appendix  III).  Later one only took cover when the “look out”  on the Loc. 100 roof gave warning of approaching aircraft.

Staff were formed into patrols for day and night duty as fire-fighters and as Home-Guard.  Fear was not a common emotion during work hours, however especially on night watch one was concerned for the safety of one’s family.  On arriving at work one morning I was given a message by the telephone operator instructing me to return home immediately. A V2 bomb had severely damaged my home in Chingford.  The front door had been blown open stunning my wife and blowing my 6 year old daughter from the dining room into the adjacent kitchen.  The house was condemned.  For the next year we lived near Croydon in a house repaired after a V1 raid. 

Reference can be made to the booklet entitled “The House of Berger during the years of WW2". 

Production was limited to the requirements of the armed forces.  A big problem was the non-availability of normally used raw materials due to their being restricted for munitions, e.g. glycerine for nitro-glycerine or due to their origin overseas and hence to  enemy attack on convoys at sea. 

Camouflage paint was in great demand. To confuse the Luftwaffe, black camouflage was used to create “look alike roads”, khaki paint to mask existing hedges, airfields, buildings.  Such paints were formulated from sodium silicate (water-glass), bitumen or wool-grease emulsion.  The only black pigment available was a charcoal black waste product from the refining of sugar.  One night heavy explosions were heard, it was presumed bombs had fallen on the site.  In fact the sugar in the black emulsion paint had fermented.  Pressure of the gas had been sufficient to burst the barrels with explosive force.  

All field equipment, transport, artillery, ordnance etc. had likewise to be painted in camouflage colours and in quality providing protection against rusting and corrosion under adverse conditions of storage and use.  Much of such paint had to be resistant to penetration by mustard gas, that is, affected areas had to be easily and safety de-contaminated.  A contract for anti gas paint involved double shift operation from 6.00 am to 10.00 pm.  Later a Berger employee serving in the army reported that hundreds of kegs were left abandoned on the beach at Dunkirk.

Berger, with six other manufacturers, was appointed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to provide the requirements of the aircraft construction industry.  A joint committee of paint manufacturers and constructors called “SOBAC” (appendix IV) met monthly in Oxford to agree specifications. A M.A.P inspection system ensured that every batch of paint possessed the required properties.  Cellulose “dope” was supplied for tautening  and protecting the fabric covered bodies of the early aircraft.  Alkyd type paints were used on the later aluminium bodied planes.

Sometimes camouflage was the reverse of the objective.  Shortly before “D day” we were asked to develop paints having high visibility for application to ground - sheets.  Our best offers were applied to small panels and taken for demonstration to a tall building in Baker Street.  The panels were laid in a courtyard for viewing from roof top.  Our offers were accepted.  Later we learnt that tanks in the Normandy offensive displayed the ground sheets in a colour code notified to the RAF so as to avoid any “own goals”!

 Paint supplied to the various government departments had to comply with a performance specification sometimes incorporating composition clauses.  Specifications based entirely on composition were judged to be restrictive and inflexible, especially in times of supply interruption.  Each manufacturer was required to establish an internal inspection system.  Samples judged to meet the specification were passed to the central laboratories of the  Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Aircraft Production or Royal Navy.  Once approved all production batches were subjected to test by the approved company inspector.  An independent “Chemical Inspectorate” operated to  oversee the internal testing system.




As binding agent for the pigment, paint and enamels used oils or varnishes based on linseed oil cooked into natural fossilised resins such as Copal from the Congo or Kauri from New Zealand.  Such resins required heating at high temperature to convert them into a form soluble in linseed oil.  This critical process was carried out by the “gum runner” using only his senses to judge the end-point.  A low resin to oil ratio gave products slow to dry, lacking hardness and gloss but of longer exterior life and were the basis of decorators paint.  The higher resin to oil varnishes gave shorter drying times, a hard, wear resistant film and were the basis of many interior paints and enamels.  The exterior quality decorators paints were pigmented with white lead, which combination gave the best exterior durability.  Decorators enamels were pigmented with zinc oxide which give non yellowing, hard, glossy films, and improved drying time - 12-18 hours!!!  In the industrial field nitro-cellulose lacquers were widely used for example on car production lines, coach, vans, furniture, kitchen equipment.  For conditions of continuous immersion or chemical resistance, coatings based on tar and pitch were commonly used.


Post War


As in the years following the Great War 1914-18 when industrial paints were transformed by the advent of nitrocellulose lacquers, so, after WW2 both industrial and decorative paints were transformed by the activity of the chemical industry which became the main supplier of raw materials to the paint maker.  To a large extent the paint maker no longer had to rely solely on his own research and development as resins and emulsions became available from sources at home and abroad.  Thus the result of international research was available to the paint maker.  His job became the evaluation and selection of the type required for each end use.  However, the larger paint companies augmented this choice by retaining their own research, development and production facility.  Such was the policy of Berger..

Many versions of the original alkyd resin were available from the chemical industry, and in particular those known as thixotropic alkyds, the basis of jelly-like paints which eliminated the heavy sedimentation of pigments during storage, enabled thicker coats to be applied without sagging, and made possible one-coat  repaint enamels.  Under the Magicote label, Berger was the first UK company to market such paints, which received instant approval from the DIY market, first as a matt wall paint, later as gloss enamel and emulsion paint.

Other new products available in the post war era were the Vinyl Acetate, later Vinyl Acrylate emulsions which replaced the pre-war oil-bound water paints known as Matroil.  For chemical resistance one had access to a range of epoxy resins, such as “Araldite” and chlorinated rubber, for coating constructional steelwork after grit blasting.  Berger offered priming coats based on metallic lead powder made by the associated company Spelthorne Metals Ltd at Rickmansworth of which I became Director/General Manager.  These metallic lead primers were widely used on the early motorway bridges. Metallic lead  powder also found an important outlet when compounded with rubber for gloves giving protection against X rays.  For reasons of toxicity such metallic lead primers were by the late 1970’s replaced by metallic zinc primers known as zinc-rich primers.

By the late 1950's the traditional oil based paints had been completely displaced  by alkyd paints which gave faster drying times, higher gloss and longer durability.  In the industrial markets the use of cellulose lacquers met severe competition from stoving versions of alkyds or alkyd/urea/melamine combinations.  Such paints became exclusively used by the motor industry.  As regards pigments, by far the most important development was the introduction of rutile titanium white in exterior enamels as replacement for blends of anatase titanium and antimony oxide. This resulted in cost savings, reduced yellowing of white enamels, and improved gloss retention.  Regarding interior enamels, anatase titanium replaced zinc oxide and “Lithopone”, a zinc sulphide based pigment used in low cost paints.

The use of the term “paint” became inappropriate as a result of the great diversity of products.  The term “coating” and “coating industry” became established.

Not all the activity of the chemical industry proved beneficial.  Many markets were lost due to the availability of resin and plastic components used in building, transport and furniture and appliances.  One can cite resin coated panelling such as Formica, resin bonded wood - chip board, plastic pipes, gutters, moulded components of electrical appliances, and so forth.     

Competition within the industry was intense, there being over 300 paint companies in the UK.   The laboratories received from the sales dept dozens of requests a month for coatings requiring special formulation as regards colour, hardness flexibility, speed of air drying or stoving etc. etc.  Often the enquiry turned out to be for uneconomic quantities, perhaps 5-10 galls.  An extreme case I remember was for a quick drying red paint  subsequently found to be for coating the small hand on gas meters, order size half a pint (280ml) p.a.

The time came, I think in the early 1960's when the company abandoned a large number of small outlets to the small paint makers.  Berger was then able to  concentrate its research and production facilities at Chadwell Heath to the requirements of the bulk user or bulk market.  Marketing, as opposed to just selling, became the company policy. 

    The Post war - Application Methods            

The paint industry does not exist in isolation.  It must by its own research assist its customers to modernise or improve their efficiency.  Alternatively the industry has to adapt their products to changed customer requirement.  Changes in methods of application require corresponding change, often major, in the type of paint supplied  involving much laboratory time and effort.  The following are some of the most important developments.


Decorative Paint


As regards decorative paints,  the main change was undoubtedly the introduction to and rapid acceptance by the DIY market of paint rollers to coat large surfaces such as walls and ceilings.  Trade acceptance was very slow, due to the resistance of tradesmen to abandon the traditional and ingrained use of the brush.  The acrylic emulsions paints were particularly amenable to roller application.

In the industrial markets the two main methods of application were dipping and  spraying,  Dip tanks were used when both sides of an article required coating and the article was of complex shape,. After a short draining period the article on its conveyer line would be passed through a hot oven.  An example of such usage was the post war “Prefabricated Housing Project”, such houses having a planned 10 year life.  Aircraft and Tank factories were converted to construct steel and aluminium and later asbestos cement housing.  Berger held a contract to fill and maintain tanks of 10,000 gallons capacity at an aeroplane factory in Dundee.  From memory, wall panels of 8 x16 ft. size were coated by passage through this tank and then into the drying ovens.  Maintaining  condition was obviously not an easy task.

However, spray application was by far the norm. The original hand-held gun was used not only for small scale batch production, but also for large scale conveyor line systems.  It gave way to fixed guns systems which automatically opened as components passed by.  Other variants were the use of the “hot spray” system in which the paint was pre heated to thin it to workable viscosity.  The object here was to reduce the solvent content of the paint with resulting cost savings. Spray application results in not only the coating of articles, there is also a large percentage of paint which misses the component, the “over spray” This was avoided by electrostatic spray systems which direct the paint to the required areas.

Industrially much paint is dried, hardened or cured by heating at temperatures of 100-150°C.  Improved shorter drying times were sometimes obtained by the use of paint that cured as the result of infra red of ultra violet radiation.

Later the quest for reduction in the solvent content of paint led to the  introduction of coatings applied as powder and subsequently sintered.

    Production and Warehousing               

My colleague F.R.Creed, in his career of 44 years with Berger, held the position of Manager, Varnish Production, Works Manger, Production Director and Group Production Controller.  In these various appointments he was closely involved in the introduction of new plant and building design.

The changes in the nature of the products produced and the increase in the scale of manufacture involved corresponding change in production plant.  That in turn led to a need to modernise the design of the production areas.  Specifically one may mention:

·       The replacement of 100 gallon varnish pots heated on open fires by 2-4000 gallon (9-18000lt.) enclosed reaction vessels.

·       The replacement in the 1930's of batteries of 30 or more cone mills producing only a few gallons per hour by precision roller mills running at high speed.

·       In the mid 1930’s the use of ball and pebble mills made of toughened chrome manganese steel or lined with ceramic blocks, the grinding media being steel balls or porcelain pebbles.  According to size of mill, batches of up to several hundred gallons became possible with the duration of grinding being 8-24 hours depending upon the required particle size of pigment.  

·       The production of oil bound water paints on edge runners was superseded by the bulk production of vinyl emulsion paints on high speed dispersion mills similar in action to modern kitchen food processors.

·       In the 1960's continuous production of paint was envisaged. A first semi-continuous high speed grinding mills were developed using high density small beads or selected siliceous sand.  Batch sizes of 1000 gallons became possible.

·       The changes in scale of production of both resin and paint required corresponding change in method of handling.  This in turn required radically different design of production buildings and warehouse.

·       In the 1950's the method of transferring pigments from storage site to weigh tanks by air flotation, replaced manual handling of sacks or drums.

·       Manual stacking and retrieval of raw materials and finished goods gave way to computerised and palletised stacking using high reach fork trucks.

·       The above mentioned changes in plant together with the greatly increased sales demand required substantial new building.


Planning consent could not be obtained from Hackney due to the site being designated as residential.  Hence in 1937 the present site at Chadwell Heath was acquired.  Complete closure of the Homerton site took place by 1958.  The Homerton story ended!






From the earliest days the paint and colour industry had purchased, processed and used many pigments that involved a health hazard.  The use of Mercury for Vermilion Red, and Copper and Arsenic for Emerald Green has long been abandoned.  There remained the use of mercury, arsenic, copper mixtures in the antifouling paints used on the hull of ships.  Such paints repel the adhesion of crustaceans and seaweed to the hull with consequent elimination of drag.  Fuel reduction and speed were thereby gained.  The introduction of organic tin as antifouling agent proved disastrous, giving rise to pollution of harbours and marinas. The use of White Lead was abandoned in the 1930 by virtue of the availability of titanium dioxide.  The discontinuation of Red Lead priming paint proved difficult as it alone provided adequate anticorrosive properties as a priming paint on constructional steelwork which had been weathered to remove black mill scale, so leaving a heavily  rusted surface.  Not until scale could be removed by grit blasting was it possible to abandon the use of red lead and calcium plumbate.   

The use of lead, cadmium and chromate in yellow pigments continued  providing their presence was indicated on the package label.

    Binding Mediums              

Oils, resins and plasticisers involved no toxic problems, in handling. However, in their production toxic fumes arose as for example with phenol or urea resins (similar to Bakelite and Melamine) which required efficient containment The installation of large, closed reaction vessels for alkyd manufacture ended the need to discharge the fume  through the 80ft. chimney stack.  Likewise the early versions of vinyl emulsion contained traces of toxic unreacted monomer which required attention.  In cellulose lacquers the use of certain organic phosphate plasticisers became prohibited.




Many solvents give rise to toxic fumes - benzene, once a common ingredient of cellulose lacquers, being notorious.  All other solvents can create a toxic environment unless used in well ventilated areas.  The greatest hazard is, however, fire and explosion, but correctly handled those risks can be almost eliminated.  What cannot be eliminated is  air pollution caused by the evaporation into the atmosphere of countless thousands of gallons of solvent during the drying process.  For long the industry has sought the total elimination of solvents.  Although great strides had been made, total success had yet to be achieved, especially in the production of full gloss coatings.

In all fields of activity, medical, agricultural, industrial there has been ever increasing awareness of the hazard to personal health, direct and indirect via the environment created by manufacture and use of chemicals.  As has been indicated above this is true of the paint industry.  Awareness led to positive action and one can now say health and safety of employees and the public has become foremost in the mind of the employer.

It was not until the 1970's that a safety officer was appointed. In my earlier years, little or no attention was given to the provision of clean air.  The air in both laboratory and factory, especially the cellulose lacquer shops, was heavily polluted: yet operatives seemed not to suffer, and indeed became insensitised.  One’s clothing however caused comment on the return home, as is today caused by  cigarette smoke!!!




On page 34 of the  “New History” there is reference to the 25 years long service of certain senior people.  My own 25 years service was recognised by the presentation of a gold watch inscribed “for meritorious service”   This should however, be put into perspective.  A noteworthy aspect of Berger was its policy of retaining, developing and promoting from within.  Both office and production staff included many who had served the company for the whole of their working life.  When I joined the company in 1928 at age 16 I was surprised to meet so many “old men” around me who had seen active service in the Great War of 1914-18.

Throughout my own period of service an amazing number represented the second or even third generation to serve the company.  On reflection this must have been the consequence of Berger being the major employer in the locality.  Even so it must have been fostered by a sensitive personnel policy.  An amicable relationship with the trade unions ensured that throughout my working life the company was free of strikes.

Being the major employer in the area it is perhaps not surprising to hear that the company also operated as a sort of matrimonial agency.  To name two such romances, I refer back to Frank and Beatrice Armitage, also to Frank Creed who, looking over the laboratory bench, saw Joan, varnish chemist and bride-to-be. 

From the employees angle the major change between the 1930's and the 1970's was the creation of the industrial paint market.  In the 1930's the market for decorative paints was highly seasonal.  Come the winter months many were made redundant until the spring demand arrived.  As might be expected from the foregoing, pages another major change in staffing was the growth between the 30's and 60's in the number of technologists employed.  In the 1930's, apart from the Dry Colour Laboratories, only in the Varnish Laboratories were there qualified chemists - three in number.  Thirty years later that number had increased to at least 15 with an equal number of both technologists and laboratory assistants.

Company publicity at the time claimed “100 chemists” but the number presumably included company operations at factories and depots in the UK.  In the place of the three small rooms I refer to in my “Early Reminiscences”, by around 1936 the laboratory space had expanded to a third of the new 3 story Admin. block (Loc.100)  The organisation of the technical effort being: 

·         Test Room Purchased pigment

·         Test Room Paint

·         Technical Operation Laboratory all production

·         Technical Services Laboratory largely industrial products

·         Research laboratory

·         Cellulose Lacquer Laboratory sited along side production at Chadwell.


Being the major employer in the area it is perhaps not surprising to hear that the company also operated as a sort of matrimonial agency.  To name two such romances, I refer back to Frank and Beatrice Armitage, also to Frank Creed who, looking over the laboratory bench, saw Joan, varnish chemist and bride-to-be. 




In the early years 1930-40 there was a strong sports club with grounds at Tottenham and later Highams Park.  After the war ample sports facilities were available at the Chadwell Heath site.  Each summer one looked forward to the company sports day and summer outings by “charabanc” to a coastal resort.

At Christmas, a company dance was held in a hall in Stoke Newington.  An event eagerly looked forward to by our wives was the Christmas parcel of a turkey - until one year a large number “had gone off” leaving wives without the essential of a Christmas dinner.  Subsequently and in the age of “mail order” a hamper of “goodies” was provided to every serving and retired member.

The “Quarter Century Club” comprised all employees who had served the company for 25 years, including those retired.  An annual dinner took place in the dining hall at Chadwell Heath when new members were introduced and pensioners  were once again able to swop stories of the past. The 1960 membership list is attached (appendix  V).

The existence of a company pension scheme in 1934 was far from being commonplace, yet in that year Berger introduced a pension, life assurance scheme to male staff employees.   The employee’s weekly contribution increased with current salary up to a scheme maximum of £550 p.a.  In 1942 a revised scheme graded salaries up to £1450 which remained unchanged in 1951 and 1960.  A  further revision in 1970 extended the scheme to women.  No salary scale existed, contributions were 4½% of salary. In 1974 the same scheme was introduced for the factory hourly paid workers.




Mrs. V. Lilley. I use the name by which she was known for many years.  An émigré from Russia aristocracy, she came to Berger by marriage to the American Managing Director Sherwin Cottingham becoming the major share - holder of Berger. On his death she married Thomas Lilley, of the Lilley and Skinner shoe family, after whose death she married Mr. Hue-Williams a stockbroker. Three millionaires in total.  She was a lady not only of considerable charm, with that intriguing foreign lilt in her voice, but one whose strong views on company policy were not always popular with the board.

During visits to the Homerton site she would find time to tour the laboratories, taking keen interest in visual displays, - sometimes a bit phoney!  My worst moment was at a Dorchester Hotel reception.  I failed to recollect her current married name and greatly flustered, addressed her as Mrs Lilley.  I was rewarded with a kindly smile.


Vera Lilley with John Butler


Mr. Charles Berger


Charles was the last of the family, to serve the company.  He was a man of great charm and popular with all.  He became Manager of the Export Dept.  After the war he was appointed Managing Director, New Zealand.  I met him there and found him unchanged, full of boyish good humour.  I was glad to be able to give him my copy of “The New History,” a copy of which had not been presented to him.


Bernard Nicholson


“Mr Bernard” was a man with a “reputation,” a man to be feared. However, I first met him during his period of office as President “BJN”.  As such he was invited to be guest of honour at an O.C.C.A luncheon at the Savoy.  I, at the time, both chairman of the London Section and a Berger man, was delegated to be his escort.  We travelled in Mr.B’s car, both putting our bowler hat on the rear shelf,. After the lunch we collected our hats from the cloakroom.  On reaching the car I heard a voice say “Someone has taken my hat!”  with foreboding I tried on “my hat”.  A quick exchange followed.  That was not the end of my day with the President.  At Berger House, being my usual polite self, I grabbed the handle of one side of a double door, to let the President enter.  Unfortunately his finger got trapped.  Not a word said!  A week or so later, we met at the same double door, “see Newnham” he said “the bruises have nearly gone!”  An ogre?  No, a real gentleman.


Mr. R. Ashley-Hall   


“Dick” as he was generally known was ex R.A.F a wing Commander and also upper-crust county!  Normally a man of consider-able charm he never the less expected status to be recognised.  At a Spelthorne board meeting, someone not to be named addressed him as “Dick.”  “Dick” was not amused.  The speaker was quickly deflated.

Personally I found him very supportive, especially at a time when an outbreak of lead poisoning occurred at Spelthorne.



                              Richard Ashley-Hall at a Spelthorne Xmas party


My Directors


Mr Percy Murray


A big, bluff hearty Scot of whom I have two cherished memories.

First: The phone rings when I am alone in the office.

-“M.D. here, please bring me the daily report”

-“Sorry, sir, I Don’t know where they are”

-“Are you the new boy?”

-“Yes sir”

-“Well, don’t say you don’t know.  Better to say “I’ll do my best to find them, sir!”

      Second, a few weeks later at the Company Sports day    

M.D. - "You are Newnham, the new boy, aren’t you?  Feeling lost?"

-“Well, yes sir”

-“Hi Dodds (an accountant) look after this young man, he’s new”  

      Of course in those days the company was still small in numbers permitting the M.D. to be in touch with even small events.    

Alone in the “lab” the phone rings.

-“Mr Starkey talking, that you Newnham”

-“Yes sir”

-“Come to my office and tell me what you are doing”

Enter the M.D.’s office

         -“You are surprised that my desk is not littered with papers? Just one small piece of paper! That is so I

               can concentrate my mind.


“WJD” arrived from I.C.I Colour Division.  Small in stature, but big in every other respect. He brought a breath of fresh air into the company.  On a flank wall facing the main entrance the following words appeared:

 “The man who says it can’t be done is overtaken by the man who has done it”  

“WJD” was both an image and empire builder.  Immediately after the war he bought 34 Berkeley Square, Mayfair, as a prelude to the creation of a modern Group Headquarters next door.  Post-war building was however strictly controlled, priority being given to housing.  Nevertheless, 38 Berkeley Square, Berger House, began to rise leading to an official enquiry, the Lynsky tribunal, at which WJD was accused but exonerated of bribery.

The years ahead saw the expansion of the Company’s overseas operations with new factories being opened in each Australian state, in Africa, New Zealand, Jamaica.  LBS became established as an international group company.

An example of the “cheek of the man” relates to Lifeguard Car Polish, a major item in the garage and retail range.  Many wax polishes appeared in the market claiming great advantages by virtue of the incorporation of silicone oil, WJD countered this by having the label state in bold letters “Guaranteed not to contain silicone”.

For many the WJD reign will best be remembered for the inter-company conferences, staff and executive parties - this in the post war boom years.


Mr & Mrs Halpin


John M. Butler


'JMB' came to Berger from Shell.  He had New Zealand origin and was a big, bluff, hearty character, - an extrovert, best with one or more in attendance.  Each Friday, managers met at 6.00 p.m. in his office.  After “drinks” discussion followed.  A main item in his evening was the reading by J.M.B.  of extracts from General Montgomery’s book on “Leadership".

JMB’s main influence was to bring into the company the concept of marketing.  His launching of  “Magicote” - the first jelly paint - through a large distributors conference in the West End was typical.  A not so welcome trait was the abandonment of yesterdays top priority in favour of a later project described with great enthusiasm.





W. J.Vines       

“Bill” Vines was by origin an Australian, but very much in the mould of an “English gentleman”.  An accountant by profession, he rose to M.D. level in the Australian company before being promoted to Group Managing Director in the UK.  He was a man, tall, slight in build with an eagle eye, respected by all and not only for his intellectual ability.  He was reputed to be at his desk by 7.00 am.  A keen golfer, he once said “golf is the best counter-irritant to the stress of the office”.  Many a golfer would agree.

His recall to Australia by the Prime Minister Menzies to head the Wool Secretariat was regretted by all. 

      Bill Hughes          

Another Australian although with a Yorkshire origin.  Big, hearty, and with aussie bluntness of expression.  His out-standing role was in the battle between Sherwin Williams in the USA and Hoechst AG for the take over of Berger.


Lord Kings Norton


Lastly a memory of his Lordship, chairman in the years 1967 - 75.  Only after perusing “Burke’s Peerage” in preparation for this paragraph did I learn about his outstanding achievement as evidenced by his numerous appointments as President, Chairman or Director of some of the most prestigious learned societies and industrial organisations.  As example I quote the President of the Royal Aeronautical Society, President of the Royal Institution, plus honorary doctorates, from a number of Universities.  I first met his Lordship at Berger House in company with my Spelthorne chairman, Stan Barnett,.  No longer can I recollect the subjects discussed, just the enormous slide - rule that stood at the side of his desk: no ordinary slide rule but a rotating cylindrical model almost a meter long.  Presumably this was a memento of his early days, before ennoblement, when he was involved in the assessment of the air - worthiness and certification of the airship R100 - not the ill - fated R101.

Our next meeting was on the occasion of the official opening of the new office and warehouse for Spelthorne Metals at Rickmansworth.  (see frontispiece) for me a very memorable occasion. 


          Berger Conference June 1964 Stratford boardroom

   [Charles Berger, front row, extreme right]



The 1930's will be seen to be the years from which the craft of paint and varnish manufacture gave way to a chemical based industry.  It was therefore an ideal time for a young chemist to enter the industry.  I count myself fortunate in being such a young chemist.

Product development gave great satisfaction as the end result, that is production and market acceptance, followed on a relatively short time scale - a few years.  Adaptation of existing products to suit individual buyers was a major activity requiring solution in weeks in a climate of fierce competition.  Close collaboration with the buyer brought the chemist particularly those in development or technical service departments the added interest of seeing the inside of production processes in a wide range of industries.  Even more so, he could see his “brain child” proving a success.

This story would not be complete without reference to the Oil and Colour Chemists  Association (OCCA), of which I was an active member from my earliest days.  Monthly meetings, an annual conference and, dinner/dance enabled one to meet ones counterparts elsewhere in the paint and printing ink industries.  The monthly journal known as JOCCA was an important educational source for me as for all members.  Beyond this, membership of OCCA must have contributed to my own development as well as being the source of many good friends.

I write these final paragraphs having returned from a family gathering in the Cotswolds where with my wife we celebrated our Diamond Wedding: fifty years with Berger but sixty years with my wife Margaret!!

We both look back remembering so many Berger staff functions particularly those in the post war boom years of the Darby Days (W.J.Darby, Managing Director)  And in a later era, the pleasure we had in entertaining at home many continental friends made in my Spelthorne days.

Against these social activities is the memory of countless evenings when I would work for long reading, writing or studying the technical journals.

Fifty years service with one company in today’s culture sounds incredible.  The question “why” deserves an answer.

My reply is that from the day in 1933 when I was entrusted with the development of alkyds, persisting throughout my periods of office as Technical Operations Manager and Chief Chemist, I was totally engrossed in my departments development and the long term success through exposure trials and the like.  Another major influence was undoubtedly that at all times I was on my own and without technical help or guidance from above.  Likewise in my later years as Director/General Manager, Spelthorne Metals, I was allowed to run the company with only financial control from H.Q. Without such freedom of action this story might well have been different.  Of course life was not always trouble free.  I had a number of major battles with authority, fortunately with satisfying outcome.  How fortunate I was to have congenial days at work plus a happy and relaxed home life, thanks to an understanding wife and two lovely daughters. So!! It is pleasing to be able to say in retrospect that I enjoyed my career with Berger at Homerton, Chadwell Heath and later with Spelthorne Metals Ltd at Berger House and Rickmansworth.

From contact at Quarter Century Club. dinners I judge that there are many who would agree that like me they enjoyed life at Berger.