1902 Voysey House

1902 Voysey House

by Mark Wardell

C.F.A. Voysey, Voysey House, 1902

In 1879 Arthur Sanderson opened his wallpaper manufacturing works in Chiswick, on the site of a former barracks.* This is currently the building, then known as Devonshire Works, that comprises Foxlows and the Barley Mow Business Centre. If you look up from the Barley Mow Passage you can still see the Sanderson’s name writ large. Even the little roadway that goes from the passage to the High Road is still called Sanderson Lane.

In 1902 the building now known as Voysey House was completed. Designed by Charles Voysey (1857–1941), it was added to the other side of the passage, originally connected to the main factory at Devonshire Works via a footbridge, clearly visible in our image. Voysey, briefly a Bedford Park resident who had designed wallpapers for Sandersons in the 1880s, was an architect, and a furniture and textile designer who favoured a simple Arts and Crafts style. This is his only industrial building, though he went on to design several country houses. There is another Voysey house in Chiswick, a private residence on South Parade.

The building is considered an important formative work in the evolution of the Modern Movement in architecture, and is listed Grade II*. Construction costs were under £10,000, and the council planners needed persuading to permit the footbridge. Initially, the building was known as the White Building, referring to the white-glazed bricks that cover it, with contrasting bands of Staffordshire blue bricks, now painted black. Each floor was designed to be open plan.

Arthur Sanderson died only three years after opening the Chiswick works. His three sons, however, were more than competent. The oldest – John – took care of sales; the second – also Arthur – took charge of accounting; and the youngest – Harold, – still only 18 years old, took charge of production.

Harold had been apprenticed aged 16 to a French block printer at Chiswick, and he threw himself into the business. Block printing and eight roller printing machines ensured a large production of artistically high-quality papers of great diversity.

In its heyday over 1,000 people were employed on the site (on both sides of the passage), and the firm was one of the largest in the area. The Sanderson family was much appreciated in Chiswick. In 1897 the local library was facing a great crisis, having outgrown the small house on the corner of Duke Road and Bourne Place where it had been for seven years; borrowers frequently had to queue down the stairs, while readers wishing to consult newspapers and magazines were crammed into two tiny rooms. In October of that year Arthur Sanderson wrote to the council offering to “give our house, Number One Duke’s Avenue to the parish for use as a public library. We thought it would have been a fitting way of celebrating the Jubilee [to mark Queen Victoria’s sixty years on the throne].” The council eventually offered £500 to pay for the conversion of the private house to a public library. Sanderson’s old house is Chiswick’s Library to this day.**

Sanderson employed five designers and accounted for around 98% of all wallpaper manufacture. Alain-Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes, worked at Sanderson as a translator in the summer of 1905 and described a fête in his famous novel which was supposedly inspired by one of the Sanderson social club fêtes.

All this came to an end when, on 11 October 1928, fire broke out in the Chiswick warehouse. It raged for more than six hours, consuming hundreds of tonnes of paper. The White Building was unscathed, but the main factory was critically damaged. In the aftermath many of the technical innovations and ‘trade secrets’ had to be divulged to other works, in an effort to fulfil orders. The Chiswick site was deemed impractical for further expansion and an 80-acre site was purchased in Perivale. It was to be a model factory, with sports fields, swimming pool, health centre and other amenities for the staff.

With Sanderson out of the picture, the White Building was purchased by the Alliance Insurance Company. The bridge was removed and the building was used as a printing works, stationery store and offices. There were many alterations over the years, and in 1968 the National Transit Insurance Company adapted the building as its own offices, converting the west end to a garage, adding a glass lobby, false ceilings and partitions, and removing the original roof.

In 1986 the building was offered up for sale and was purchased by Stillingfleet & Co, a company set up by some of the occupants of the building. Acanthus LW, the firm of architects who had occupied parts of the building since 1984, made proposals by which many of the accretions were stripped out and a few alterations were made in the spirit of the original design. Acanthus still work on the ground floor.

Acknowledgements: Voysey’s watercolour courtesy of RIBA Collections. With thanks also to Christopher Richards. We would also like to thank Sanderson for their generous support of this project.

* Freddie Launert, “Work and Colour: Sanderson and Chiswick 1879–1928”, Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001),
** Carolyn Hammond, “Chiswick Library: the Move to Duke’s Avenue”, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)

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