The Magrath Family, Colour-Makers & Varnish-Makers

The Edward Magrath who married Jessie Owen bore the same name as his grandfather. The latter, though born in England, was a 'J Colour Maker' lodging at 59 Constitution Street, Leith, near Edinburgh in 1841. Soon afterwards, on 15 June 1841, he married Janet Storar, daughter of Robert Storar [IGI]. In 1851 Edward and Janet were twenty-eight and they were living with their children, David (9), Robert (7) Edward (4) and John (1), at 5 Fox Lane, South Leith; the first two children were natives of South Leith but the two younger children had been born in England, which suggests the family may have lived south of the border for some years. Edward was still a 'colour maker'.

The spelling of 'Storar' varies; the son, Robert, was generally listed as 'Robert Storer Magrath' once he had moved south and settled in the Birmingham area. In 1867 he married Harriet Sanders (née Butts) [Aston 1867, 3rd qt]. She had been born in Harborne, just south of Birmingham [Kings Norton 1843, 2nd qt]. At sixteen she had married a man more than twice her age, Charles Sanders [Kings Norton 1859, 4th qt]. The marriage produced three children: Martha Rosa, [b Kings Norton 1861, 2nd qt], Horace Charles [b Kings Norton 1863, 1st qt] and Ada Elizabeth [b Kings Norton 1865, 1st qt]. Charles died [Kings Norton 1867, 1st qt] and Harriet remarried less than a year later.

Robert and Harriet's only child, Edward Magrath was born on 10 August 1870 [Birmingham 1870, 3rd qt]. He was christened at Aston Juxta, Birmingham, Warwickshire, on 18 September 1870 and was seven months old in the 1871 census when the family, including the children from Harriet's previous marriage, were living at 44 Legge Street. This continued to be the family home until at least 1891, though by 1881 Horace had left (I believe he died in Wellington, New Zealand on 4 April 1893). Martha Rosa Sanders married Walter Henry Edwards [Birmingham 1885, 4th qt] but died [Kings Norton 1890, 4th qt], probably in childbirth. In 1891 Walter, a 'copper plate steel engraver', and their six month old daughter, Hilda Hope, were living with the Magraths. By then, the census distinguished between 'employer' and 'employed'; Robert was the former and, having been previously listed as a 'colour maker', he was in 1891 listed as a 'colour manufacturer'. Walter Edwards was also an employer but Edward Magrath was 'employed' as a 'varnish maker'.

Robert Magrath of Legge Street was familiar with County Courts in obtaining settlement of debts; at Birmingham County Court he was successful [Birmingham Daily Post, 29 May 1886] but at West Bromwich he was not [Birmingham Daily Post, 20 Oct. 1892].

Harriet died in 1897 [Birmingham 1897, 2nd qt]. Her daughter, Ada, continued to live as housekeeper with her step-father, Robert, until his death on 24 June 1901 [Aston 1901, 2nd qt]. By then they had moved to 117 Cherrywood Road, Birmingham. Robert's estate was valued at £838 and Administration was granted to Edward Magrath, varnish-maker.

There is a website which traces the history of a large paint and varnish making business in Birmingham. This section includes mention of 'Mr. Magrath'. In 1829 Mr George Postans of Birmingham wrote a recipe book in which he refers to the manufacture of picture varnish stating that they had used a certain method of making picture varnish for the previous thirty years, and a Mr Perkins had used this method of varnish manufacture for twenty years prior to this, thus dating its inception to approximately 1780. Lacquer or varnish makers were required to supply the dozen or so japanners in Birmingham. The European technique of japanning, used on furniture and other objects, involved applying several coats of varnish. One of the most influential families associated with varnish manufacture in Birmingham were the Docker family; in the mid-nineteenth century, Edward Docker was a japanner and button-manufacturer in Legge Street, where Robert Magrath and family lived. However, the process of japanning had all but died out by the late nineteenth century and as early as the beginning of that century many manufacturers of japanning lacquer had switched to the production of varnishes required by the developing Midlands metal trades. Towards the end of that century several of the Docker brothers were making their fortune supplying varnish. It was a lucrative if dangerous business.

In 1901 Mr Sam Rogers became an employee at the small Birmingham company of J.T. & G.F. Morley, makers of colours from pigments ground in oil. In his 1950 account of his time there, he wrote: "These were the days of Master Painters who preferred to do their own mixing and their methods were kept very secret." (No doubt this was how Robert Storer Magrath operated.) Sam would rise to be works' manager and a major influence in what became a very large company. Early in 1905 the Morley brothers felt they were in a position to manufacture some of their own varnishes and installed a varnish making plant and oil boiler. They also installed several 500 gallon tanks for storing Oak Varnish and Gold Size; these highly combustable materials matured with age so required plenty of storage. The company continued expanding and experimenting with new colours "until a disastrous fire started with sparks from a passing railway engine ... early in 1907 entirely gutting the factory and plant". Ultimately this forced a move to Trevor Street, about a mile and a half south of where Edward and Jessie Magrath were living.

The following extract from Sam Rogers' history is also quoted on the original page of this site about Jessie and Edward Magrath.

Towards the end of 1908 a new Director arrived, Mr Magrath, a well-known paint and varnish expert. He was a very skilled varnish and enamel maker with whom came many new ideas and formulas and this opened up many new sources of output and my time was very urgently needed in the Laboratory to keep pace with ever growing new enquiries and so Mr Magrath decided to take over the varnish making to release me. He then produced many classes of varnish quite new to me which became a great asset to the business giving me greater scope than ever before.

A few months after this in July 1909 an Agreement was entered with Postans the well know varnish makers of Lionel Street* to amalgamate. This was successfully carried through and all their staff were transferred to our works in Trevor Street and the firm became known as Postans & Morley Bros. Limited.

New Varnish making plant was soon installed which included preparing fire holes, a fume stack and Oil Boilers and very early in 1910 everything was working smoothly. Mr Magrath taking charge of varnish making and spending most of his time with the new staff and getting a thorough knowledge of their manufacture, while I in the laboratory was testing everyone out so that I should be in a position to compete with all enquiries. I now took control of the Works and Laboratory ....

[ * Lionel Street was about half a mile from the Legge Street premises that Robert Magrath had occupied.]

This was almost certainly Edward Magrath since his speciality was varnish-making but it is worth noting at this point that there was a William Magrath (c1836-1914) in Birmingham, who for many years was the proprietor of the Birmingham Colour Company at Montgomery Street, Sparbrook; two of his sons, John William (1862-4.1.1934) and Frederick (b 1866), were also involved in the business (Frederick may have retired abroad, possibly in the West Indies). William was a Bordsley councillor and often made charitable donations. Bordsley and Sparbrook were very near where Edward Magrath lived.

William McGrath (common alternative spelling), colour maker and son of Edward McGrath, farmer, married Jane Brooker, daughter of farmer, James Brooker, on 18 December 1859 at St Thomas’s, Stepney; both gave their address as 21 Antcliffe Street.

Walter Stanley Magrath After Jane's death in 1881 [Aston 1881, 1st qt] William married Clara Elizabeth Pughe [St Georges Han. Sq. 1884, 2nd qt]. In most of the censuses William was said to have been born in Middlesex but the 1891 and 1901 censuses indicate that he was born in Scotland, the former specifying Edinburgh. William had been associated with Camp Hill Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, which suggested a possible association with Scotland. Still a colour manufacturer and an employer in 1901, he and Clara were living in Bedford with their four children, the eldest three having been born in Birmingham and the youngest in Llandudno, which is where the family were living in the 1891 census. By 1911, William was living at 47 Parliament Hill, Hampstead, which is where he died on 16 December 1914, aged 78, leaving an estate of almost £14000. Clara died on 3 November 1935, aged 79. Their youngest son, Walter Stanley Magrath (right) joined the Royal Navy in 1908 and acquired his Royal Aero Club Aviator's Certificate on 6 June 1917; he died in Palestine on 11 December 1923.

John Magrath (c1826-1873) was yet another colour maker who lived and worked in the Birmingham area for many years. He was almost certainly the John Magrath who in 1841 was fifteen and was serving his apprenticeship and living with David Magrath (23), a colour mixer, and his wife Mary (19) in White Horse Terrace, Stepney, Middlesex. John and David were almost certainly brothers though the Christian names of their father are inconsistant on their marriage records, the father was in both cases a 'paviour'. On 20 July 1856 there was a Greenwich marriage at St Alphege between John Magrath of South Street, colour maker and son of Dennis Magrath, paviour, and Emma Morris of Clarence Street, daughter of William Morris, blue maker. All further records indicate that Emma was born in about 1834 in Hull, Yorkshire. By 1861 John and Emma had moved to Kings Norton, just south of Birmingham and about 5 miles south west of the area in which the above Edward and William Magrath were living. Emma's father, a traveller, was also with them as he was ten years later when they were living at 222, Moseley Road, Kings Norton. John maintained his occupation but in 1871 it became 'colour manufacturer' instead of 'colour maker'. John William Magrath died, aged 47 [Kings Norton 1873, 2nd qt] and in the following two censuses Emma was visiting families locally. Interestingly, in 1891 the family she was visiting was that of Andrew Robertson (31), a Scot and colour manufacturer, who was in partnership with the above William Magrath and his son, John William Magrath, in the Birmingham Colour Company at Sparkbrook. Tragically, Andrew died three years later on 18 January 1894 [Solihull 1894, 1st qt] and William's younger son, Frederick, joined his father and brother as a partner in the company [London Gazette, 9 Oct 1894].

The above-mentioned David Magrath (c1817-1873), probably John's brother, never moved away from Middlesex. He had married Mary Ann Palmer at St Botolph, Aldgate, on 20 April 1840, both of them stating they were of Jewry Street, London; David's father, also called David, was a paviour. In 1851 David's colour-making business in George Row, City Road, Middlesex, went bankrupt, after which he found himself in the London Debtors' Prison. He recovered from this and later went into partnership in the Stratford Colour Works, West Ham. The 1841 census indicates that David was not born in Middlesex but later censuses indicate that he was. He was 52 when he died at his home in St Paul's Road, Stepney, on 21 May 1873, leaving an estate of only £100.

I mention all this to provide some possible lines of research for descendants of these Magraths; it would be surprising if there was not a familial link between them. It is highly likely that David and John, both born in London, were brothers and there would appear to be a possible link between John and William though Emma Magrath's stay with Andrew Robertson need not mean there was a close association between John and the Birmingham Colour Company. It might have been assumed that these Magraths became colour- and varnish-makers through following their fathers' occupations but marriage records suggest this was true only in the case of Edward, who followed his father and grandfather into the profession.

This site shows that there are many records concerning these Magraths in the Winsor & Newton (CAFG) Archive at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, and it may be that these records can shed some light on the picture.

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