Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 162,842 pages of information and 245,375 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

George Waterston and Sons

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December 1927.
February 1961.

of Warriston Works, Edinburgh and 8 St Bride Street, London, EC4

1752 - 2002

1729 William Waterston was born.

1752 After teaching at a school in Dunbar and working for a local business, William travelled to Edinburgh to become clerk and bookkeeper to James Lorimer, a dealer in flambeaux. Lorimer went out of business but William had taken learnt how to make flambeaux and he recorded his first sale on 6 December, when he sold 5½ dozen fine wax flambeaux to the Duke of Hamilton. At the same time William had the opportunity to learn the art of making sealing wax. Sealing wax recipes were closely guarded, especially those for making the more expensive finer polished qualities, often imported from Holland. William firstly made only the coarser types, together with paste wafers, buying Dutch wax either directly from Holland or through agents in London.

1756 William was awarded a silver medal by the Edinburgh Society for the Promotion of Arts, Science and Manufactures, for the best sealing wax and wafers.

1758 William married a lawyer’s daughter, Theodosia Jackson (d.1775), and they had three children, only one of whom, Margaret, survived infancy.

By 1760 he was offering customers a choice of at least nine different qualities. His workshop in Cowgate in the Old Town was filled with the tools and materials of his trade. There was a great demand for sealing wax in Edinburgh, a city of lawyers, bankers and government officials. Almost all letters were sealed with wax. William soon obtained a list of important customers and also sendt wax, wafers and flambeaux to customers all over Scotland.

1776 Following the death of his first wife a year earlier, William married the redoubtable Catherine Sandeman from Perth. (Her brother George founded the famous Sandeman firm of wine shippers). From this second marriage came three more children, all boys, William, George and John.

1780 William Waterston died suddenly at the age of fifty-one after what his son described as ‘a short and violent illness’. Catherine Waterston continued to carry on the business. Her husband died intestate, so all his property went to his daughter, as his eldest child, while his widow and three sons shared his stock, furniture and other goods. The only workman employed soon left. At first Catherine was helped by her young cousin, Robert Sandeman, but he too fell ill and died.

1782 She recruited more workers and opened the firm’s first shop. Here she sold wax, wafers and flambeaux wholesale and retail, wax and spermacite candles bought in from London, Japan ink and a short-lived range of patent medicines.

1786 Catherine remarried and her husband, Robert Ferrier, a former clergyman, joined the business which then traded as Ferrier and Waterston.

1788 The family, enlarged by Ferrier’s three children from a previous marriage, moved to a larger house near Holyrood, where they took in lodgers. Here he built a workshop financed by profits from the business where Waterstons would make sealing wax for nearly two hundred years.

1796 When his step-father died, George Waterston returned to join his twice-widowed mother in the family business. George was the only brother to remain in the firm, but his heart was never wholly in the business to which his mother continued to devote her all.

1803 He married Jane Blair and they had nine children, five boys and four girls, of whom all except one reached adulthood. George, was admitted as a partner and took a greater interest as his mother grew older.

1814 George’s share of the profits from the partnership with his mother was increased to two-thirds.

1816 The latter years of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath created a very difficult business climate. Ferrier and Waterston were not immune. George had to put one man on half wages as demand dropped, discharged soldiers sought jobs and unemployment rose.

1820 Business had slumped and did not recover until the late 1820s. This economic misery was not confined to Edinburgh or to Scotland; it lingered over the whole of the United Kingdom, compounded by bad harvests which led to soaring food prices and provoked violent riots. George Waterston had never been an entrepreneur and his tendency to allow the business to potter along did not change under these altered circumstances. It was when his son, also George (born 1808), joined the firm that its fortunes began to rise once again.

George II realised, from working as an apprentice for a bookseller and stationer, that his father’s business could never develop by selling only sealing wax, wafers, flambeaux and ink. The market for flambeaux was shrinking as Edinburgh’s main streets became illuminated with gas lamps. He also inherited his father’s energy and intellectual curiosity and, after work, he taught himself the art of bookbinding, learnt how to make sealing wax and took a chemistry course at the University.

Although George II did not join his father until mid-1829, when he was still only 20, he was influencing his father in business affairs long before that and soon prompted a move to another part of the city.

The firm was known as Ferrier and Waterston until the death of Catherine Ferrier in January 1831, aged 76, after which it became known as George Waterston and Son.

An advertisement in a trade directory describes an extensive stock, partly of their own manufacturing. This covered stationery, drawing papers, cards, packing papers, account books, quills, pens and accessories such as inkstands, pocket books and pencils. Account books were already made by the firm, employing George’s bookbinding expertise. As well making every quality of sealing wax, wafers, flambeaux and inks, the firm also stocked wax candles from London, wax tapers, night lights, matches, candlesticks and taper stands.

1835 George junior gradually increased the manufacture of wax as well as running the stationery department. Although production did not match the volume of 1815, George doubled and quadrupled the output of the more profitable finest and second quality waxes.

1840 An important event occurred when the Uniform Penny Post was introduced on 10 January. Within two years the volume of letters had risen from 75 million to 196 million, soaring to 329 million by 1849. As well as increasing the demand for writing paper, and creating a whole new market for fancy stationery, writing implements and accessories, this also transformed the humble envelope from a novelty for the wealthy into a mass produced article for general use.

1846 George Waterston senior retired from the partnership on 31 March.

1850 Ninety per cent of letters used envelopes and popular demand had prompted the invention and patenting of the first envelope-making machine.

1851 The display of Waterstons’ sealing wax at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibiton was a huge success and won a prize medal. This introduced the firm to the London market.

1863 The catalogue for January listed Waterstons departments – bookbinding, paper ruling, account book manufacturing, envelope manufacturing and folding, black bordering, heraldic embossing and die cutting, pocket book and leather case making, sealing wax and wafer manufacturing. (Black bordering was used extensively on personal stationery as a sign of mourning). The firm still made flambeaux and torches but also published copy books for schools and sold a variety of related goods, including goose quills, best Welsh school slates, a huge number of ink stands and ink bottles, and a range of Valentine cards and envelopes.

Until 1864, George senior's son remained the sole proprietor under the trading name of George Waterston Junior. The firm also won a 5 year contract to print bank notes for the London and Natal Bank. George Waterston admitted his son, the third George, as a partner. George junior had joined the business at the age of sixteen in 1854, eventually assuming responsibility for the retail side of the business while his father concentrated on the sealing wax factory. It was probably the third George Waterston’s interest in printing which resulted in the bank note printing contract and it was the printing side of the business on which he would concentrate.

George Waterston III was keen that the firm should take a share in the new market which was opening up for lithographic printing.

1865 The firm began planning their lithographic enterprise at Whitsun, when Waterston's took a lease on the lithographic and envelope-making shops on the two floors above Thomas Paton’s printing works at 54 Hanover Street - 9 litho presses were installed. Sealing wax, stationery and printing, combined with a retail base in Edinburgh, salesmen travelling the country and an agent in London, were a successful combination and the firm leased more and more property along Hanover Street.

1876 George’s younger brother, John, became a partner. His talents lay in administration which suitably complemented George’s innovative flair and lent itself to the detailed preparation of the firm’s catalogues.

1878 Waterston's led the trade when it introduced the innovation of stationery boxed sets for the first time.

George Waterston III had obviously inherited the entrepreneurial streak of his father who lived until 1892. He married Agnes Millidge and they had a family of eleven children, two of whom died as infants.

1879 Another significant individual within the business was George Stewart who became, in 1869, the only person outside the family to become a partner. For the next ten years the firm traded as George Waterston, Sons and Stewart until Stewart decided to leave the firm and establish his own business in 1879.

1880s The business employed some 200 people.

1892 The business was not as profitable as it should have been so an accountant was appointed to review the whole business.

1899 George junior and James became partners

1902 George Waterston and Sons built a new factory built in Warriston Road overlooking the Water of Leith. At the same time the firm opened new shop premises in George Street.

1908 Allan, the fourth and youngest son of George Waterston III, was sent to London. Allan, like his elder brother Robert, had not intended to make his career in the family business. He had several years’ experience in the wine trade with Mckinlay’s in Edinburgh and Sandeman’s in Glasgow. He persuaded the partners to admit him to the business in his early twenties.

A year after George’s death, Charles and Robert were admitted as partners and Allan joined them in 1910.

The influence of the senior partners, George and John Waterston, continued until their deaths in 1922 and 1924 respectively. By then, however, Charles at Warriston Road, Robert at St John’s Hill, Allan in London and James at George Street had become used to running their own part of the firm without interference.

1914 In June, the first meeting took place of the board of the limited company of George Waterston and Sons Ltd. The first directors were the previous partners, George, John, Charles, Robert, Allan and James Waterston. Two months later the British went to war against Germany. Both Robert and Allan Waterston served with the British forces, Robert was seriously wounded in action in Palestine. 104 employees from the company enlisted, and 23 died on active service. Invalided out, Allan Waterston returned to London and took over as manager in 1917.

Business in London was booming, and rather than pay the Excess Profits Duty imposed by the Government on the extra profits being made from inflated wartime prices, Allan refurbished the entire office for the first time since the 1890s, including the installation of electric lighting.

Post-WWI Peace brought a short-lived but remarkable economic boom followed by a deep recession. To keep the Warriston Road factory going, the company filled the machines with mass runs of cheaper, often unprofitable lines. The need to remain competitive, particularly in the often cut-throat envelope market, led to several changes, including the folding and gumming of envelopes by machine rather than by hand.

The wax factory suffered from a shortage of work - with two effects on the London office. Firstly, during the boom, it had been decided that London should pursue turnover flat-out since the wax factory was making good profits on sales to London. More agents were appointed overseas – the company had five in India and the Far East, two in Canada, four in South America and one each in Italy, Egypt, Sweden and Australia – but they soon found themselves a drain on profits.

Sales of wax plummeted during the recession and the company made a disastrous decision to buy a rival firm in London as a means of reducing competition and increasing turnover. The business failed and the responsibility of sorting out the mess was given to Allan Waterston. The Edinburgh wax factory remained profitable, thanks to Robert Waterston’s careful purchasing and because of a resurgence in the demand for letter wax stemming from a growth in banking worldwide. This helped to offset a decline in the demand for bottle and parcel wax and a general reduction in turnover.

The slender profits of the London office rested on the success of the 5-year agency for the metal-cased Terston Pencil (the brand name, a contraction of Waterston, was later used for the company’s gift stationery). This came to an end during the late 1920s just as the market worsened.

1922 Listed Exhibitor. "Bee" Brand Sealing Waxes; General Stationery; Account Books, Diaries, Calendars; Printers and Engravers; "Terston" Magazine Pencil. (Stand No. K.73)

1926 A run of poor results which had already put paid to plans to build another storey on the Warriston Road factory was compounded by the long-running coal strike and then the General Strike which closed the factory for a week. In the same year a fire at the wax factory caused major damage.

1928 Waterstons’ profits were insufficient to pay an ordinary dividend and when another loss occurred the directors decided on a detailed independent investigation into the way the factory operated. Changes were implemented under James Melville Waterston, the 22 year old son of the chairman, who was given the newly created post of works manager.

1929 He was joined by his 18 year old cousin, George, son of Robert Waterston

1930s Under James Melville Waterston, improvements at the factory brought almost immediate benefits and the company returned to profit over two years. Unfortunately, there was little time to build on this achievement as the world hit its worst ever economic crisis. The 1930s were much worse than the 1920s. Overseas markets collapsed completely, forcing many firms like Waterston's, which had built up export business on minimal overheads, to try and recoup lost sales from an equally depressed home market. Things only began to look up after 1934 and even then the record was patchy. It was not until 1937 that the company was able to make some progress in restoring the wages and salaries which had been cut in 1931. In 1932 James Melville Waterston was appointed a director but resigned from the board only two years later.

WWII By the middle of the war Waterston's was enjoying sales not seen since the early 1920s, while profits were the second highest on record. Froms were needed in great numbers, as was wax for sealing parcels sent to soldiers, sailors and airmen. And while the envelope department was badly hit by the use of economy gummed labels, these were supplied in their millions by Waterston's. 'eorge and Allan Waterston junior were among those from the firm who joined up.

1941 The office endured 91 alerts, 11 high explosive bombs, 9 incendiary bombs and one parachute land mine before being destroyed, along with most of the rest of St. Bride Street, in May 1941. After being run from the back parlour of a local pub, the office was then moved to the Highgate home of the firm’s cashier with a warehouse rented nearby and these arrangements remained in place for the rest of the war.

Post-WWII James Waterston junior had been re-appointed to the board. All the other directors were in their late 60s or early 70s and showed no signs of relinquishing their responsibilities. James Waterston and his cousin Charles had both celebrated 50 years with the business. But James Waterston junior was not yet 40, George Waterston was in his mid-30s and Allan Waterston junior, who returned from the war to become James’s assistant, was still in his 20s. A fourth member of the sixth generation returned from the war to qualify as a chartered accountant before taking up a post with the firm in 1947. Eldred Waterston was the son of the late John Henry Waterston, the chairman’s brother and auditor to the company, and brought some much-needed financial expertise to the business.

1949 In June, 4 safes were robbed when intruders discovered the keys on Robert Waterston’s desk. Two men were later arrested and most of the money recovered. In August the Water of Leith broke its banks in one of the worst floods on record. The Warriston Road factory was flooded. It was also the year when the new extension at Warriston Road was brought into operation with its many advantages over the existing factory.

It was the company’s banks that brought a change in management. This came as a condition of the loan being made for the new extension at Warriston Road. They insisted not only that the older generation should give up day to day responsibility for the business but also that the younger generation should devote themselves entirely to running the company.

James had made an impact on the business as works manager. James learned very quickly from the example of his elders that closer co-operation was needed in the management and direction of the business. As a first step towards this, he and his cousins, Eldred and Allan, agreed that they should all be based at Warriston Road.

1950s General stationery manufacturing became ever more competitive. Fashions were changing to loose leaf from the traditional bound ledgers for so long made by the firm. One innovation was the decision, in 1956, to start manufacturing continuous stationery being adopted by many commercial concerns. Initially used to save time by typists, it was later adapted for use with computer printers.

1966 The firm acquired Thomas Symington and Co’s former coffee essence works at Beaverbank in Logie Green Road to house the expanding continuous stationery operations (sealing wax production was also transferred there) where it remained until 1970.

1960s The process of printing bank notes remained essentially unchanged until the late 1960s, although a more sophisticated and foolproof printing ink was adopted in the 1950s. Magnetic ink was adopted in 1961 for printing cheques as the banks became more automated. In the early 1960s the banks were still important customers for sealing wax. As well as the expanding continuous stationery business, Waterston's developed a very successful range of social stationery which was almost entirely responsible for a revival in the company’s exports, particularly in Scandinavia and Europe.

In the late 1960s two unfortunate events upset the company’s determined progress. Firstly, in July 1966, the company’s experienced sales director, Bert Forrest, died suddenly. Then, a year later, James Waterston died unexpectedly, aged 61, when he collapsed at the wheel of his car near his home. These events strained the executive responsibilities of the remaining board members. Allan Waterston combined his role as marketing director with that of sales director before becoming managing director. Eldred Waterston, who had recently completed a term as chairman of the executive board of the Stationers’ Association, became the company’s chairman.

1970s One specialist market disappeared in 1970 because Waterstons was not large enough to compete effectively when a merger between the British Linen Bank and the Bank of Scotland placed its contract for the printing of bank notes with De La Rue who operated on a much larger scale and could do the work more cheaply. Ten years later the company’s four most important customers were all banks. A lot of its business came from orders for Waterston's continuous stationery whose sales more than trebled between 1966 and 1970. New premises were needed and in 1970 the whole operation was moved to a new factory which the company leased a mile from Warriston Road at Craighall Road. At the start of the early 1970s Waterstons was well-established as a leading manufacturer of social and domestic stationery, including notelets, pads and scrap books in colourful, modern, innovative designs.

By the early 1980s it was on the banks that Waterstons relied for most of its continuous stationery sales. By taking stands at overseas exhibitions, appointing agents and regular visits abroad, Waterstons range of social stationery was being exported to 40 countries, of which the United States had become the most important. The studio, trading as Terston Design Studio', became a magnet for talented young artists who cut their teeth at Waterstons before moving on.

In the printing side of the company, the major change was phasing out letterpress printing during the late 1970s in favour of concentrating entirely on lithographic printing. The board was very aware of the disadvantages of having the company’s manufacturing operations in three separate sets of premises at Warriston Road, Craighall and Beaverbank. In the late 1970s the company employed nearly 350 people. Sealing wax was made at Beaverbank and continuous stationery was produced at Craighall while the Warriston factory concentrated on Terston stationery, general and security printing. The London office, although much reduced in scale, was still at Morocco Street.

If the 1970s were difficult, the early 1980s were dreadful. In the worst slump since the 1930s, British manufacturing suffered badly. In 1981 the company managed to remain profitable but only by freezing recruitment and imposing short-time working, half of the costs of which were under-written by the Government. Exports were crippled by high exchange rates while customers placed less frequent and smaller orders. The way in which the company had operated in the past was no longer adequate for the much more competitive 1980s.

1982 The company decided to divide its business into four separate profit centres with a fifth providing finance and administrative functions. These became Security Print and Business Forms, Retail, Trade, and Direct Print and Sealing Wax.

1984 The annual general meeting was the last over which Eldred Waterston presided as chairman. He had served with the company for 37 years and with his cousins, James and Allan. His place as chairman was taken by Allan Waterston.

2003 George Waterston and Sons Ltd (which the wax business was part of) de-merged in June. It split in half with the printing side going in one direction - as George Waterston (Security Printers) Ltd. The office supplies, wax, shop in George Street, and a very small part of the printing business then became Waterstons Mackenzie Storrie. That company went into receivership in December, 2003, when the Wax side was sold onto another company.

2004 The other - George Waterston (Security Printers) Ltd, went into receivership in October.

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Sources of Information