Grandison & Son Ltd have been restoring, conserving and stabilising ornamental plasterwork in Edinburgh, the Borders, Scotland and the North of England for 130 years. It is a family owned business where skills and knowledge are passed from one generation to another. The company is based in Peebles, the Scottish Borders, one of the most picturesque parts of Scotland, only one hour away from Edinburgh. The wealth of this legacy can be seen in the Grandisons’ workshop, which contains numerous plaster moulds and architectural features created and collected for well over a century.
The firm was found by Leonard Grandison (1860-1934) in 1886 at the age of 26 years, with capital of £80. However, already at the age of 12 he became an apprentice plasterer with then well-known plastering firm James Annan of Edinburgh (with branches in Perth and London). Leonard was almost certainly the youngest apprentice working at a major plasterwork contract being carried out at Cortachy Castle, Angus. Despite struggles of the business due to the Glasgow Band failure in 1879 Leonard remained in his occupation thanks to construction of new tenements in Edinburgh. He became a foreman in his early 20s and came to work at three sites in the Peebles area: Portmore House near Eddleston, which was being rebuilt after a serious fire; the new British Linen Bank in Peebles High Street; Tantah House, a large villa being built about one mile south of Peebles.
One of the larger contracts was the plasterwork for the Peebles Hydro rebuild after the fire in 1905. Since the firm’s own regular staff was not large enough to cope with a contract of that size, Leonard offered an additional half penny/hour to get plasterers from further afield. There were no mechanical hoists for this five storey building. Labourers had to carry the lime in hods and would take a hod up one of two storeys, leave it leaning against a wall (known as “shanking”), and then another labourer would carry it up the next one or two storeys. Of course, the empty hods were returned to ground level in the reverse manner.
By 1914 Leonard Grandison made a “name” for himself and was involved in ornamental plasterwork in many houses in the Scottish Borders and around Peebles where he eventually settled down and built his workshop. In 1914 John Grandison, Leonard’s son, was still a schoolboy when his father got him to cast ornament in the evenings. As most of the men went to the war every pair of hand that supported the business was important. John started his apprenticeship in 1915 and at the age of 17 he volunteered to join the army. He did his training with the Royal Engineers at Chatham and then worked with a team laying concrete runways on airfields in East Anglia. He was then sent to France and was near Mons at the time of the armistice. John survived the war unscathed but he was marching into Germany to join the army of occupation he developed influenza. He was in hospital for two weeks after which he joined his unit near Cologne. He was demobilised in 1919, re-joined the business and was made a partner in the 1920s.
After the war the market has changed and ornamental work had a smaller demand against programmes of council housing, constructions of bathrooms and toilets in farm cottages as well as upgrades of cow byres sheep dippers in order to combat various diseases. In the meantime John Grandison became a good draughtsman known for production of excellent drawings of the more elaborate ornamental ceilings. The firm was also steadily growing as it bought its first car in 1923, a second-hand Vulcan DS130. In 1920s also technology of work has changed as a new gypsum plaster called “Hardwell” was introduced as well as the invention of plasterboard, which has replaced the traditional timber lath. In 1930s the firm has installed its first telephone.
Leonard Grandison Snr died in 1934 leaving John in charge of the business that was struggling through the economic depression. Soon after that John started introducing young Leonard Jnr to the business in the same way his father did after 1914. Just before the II World War he visited various projects in Scotland and met prominent clients including architect Sir Basil Spence at Gribloch mansion near Kippen (Stirlingshire) owned by the Colville steel-making dynasty. When the war broke out, as in 1914, most of workers left to join the forces and at one stage the firm was down to three men. It seemed like the history had turned the full circle.
Leonard Jnr started his five year apprenticeships in 1948, and during that time, studied building construction at Heriot Watt College in Edinburgh three evenings a week for five years. He has finished with a Higher National Certificate in building and passed the Licentiate examination for the Institute of Builders. During the apprenticeship, he has experienced all aspects of plastering and worked on one of the last lath and lime plaster contracts, which was an extension to the Vert Memorial Hospital at Haddington. After the war the firm went through some difficulties, which peaked during the Thatcher’s time when Grandisons had to lay off men because trading conditions were very difficult.
In 1978 John Grandison Jnr (son of Leonard Jnr) started his apprenticeship. This was somewhat interspersed with being at university. When he completed both, he spent a few years with a quantity surveyor, which gave him experience with that side of the business. John Grandison Snr died in 1983. Also during that time the plasterwork technique has changed as traditional wet plastering was considerably reduced by dry lining. This involves fixing plasterboard not plastered but only having the joints filled.
In 1990s the revival of lime has started because conservation was becoming increasingly important and there was a call for traditional methods and materials to be used in restoring older buildings, which were in need of repair. Thanks to that Leonard Grandison became a renowned expert on plastering and application of lime and therefore throughout 1980s and 1990s he was asked to give talks to master classes in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. At that time the firm has also developed a method called “rivet replacement”. This stabilises distressed and mainly at risk ornamental ceilings. This method does not normally require any temporary support of the ceiling and has been used successfully on several occasions with the approval of Historic Scotland and National Trust.
Grandison & Son owns a very large collection of original patterns of ornamental features and some of them are as old as the firm itself. With continued interest in conservation, Grandisons decided to open Museum-Workshop of Ornamental Plasterwork to the general public in 1988. The workshop still contains an old lime pit, which Grandisons call “ark”. It has not been used for well over 30 years but its owners were encouraged by Historic Scotland to undertake a full run of putty lime for young plasterers. At about 1998 Leonard wrote a little book about plasterwork. There are plenty of good technical books but he wanted to give the public a flavour of what plasterwork was about in non technical terms. The book is called ‘’The Nearly Non-Technical Book on Plasterwork’’
Currently, the firm is run by Leonard and his son John. In the recent years the Museum-Workshop became a popular place for everyone interested in traditional trades due to its amazing collection and remarkable history behind. The firm has been training plasterers until recently and it is not clear whether anything is going to change in this regards. It is interesting to find out about Leonard’s take on the future of the industry eight years ago in 2008:
“War, famine and pestilence…perhaps the apocalyptic vision is a bit farfetched, but, it is not hard to see the impact of diminishing and more expensive oil supplies, of steps to combat global warming and terrorism and how they impact our lives and business.
Day to day maintenance will always go on, but large projects which could have a political dimension could be spasmodic. There is currently talk of building three million affordable homes, but we will need to wait and see what the outcome is. Certainly too much or too little building work available within a relatively short time can cause problems.
Could the bureaucratic burden of running a business become too onerous and put people off going into business?
Slow payments can lead to cash flow problems. In this respect we have usually been reasonably fortunate, only occasionally have customers used dubious pretexts to delay payments. If, however, cash flow problems occurred with say redundancy; the outcomes could be extremely serious.
We started off doing lime and ornamental work and 121 years later we are now back doing the same
My hope is that L Grandison & Son will continue for the foreseeable future, but if it does eventually stop, it is my hope that our unique collection of originals (plaster patterns) can be preserved for posterity”.