Victorian and Edwardian Geometric and Encaustic Floor Tiles
of the finest geometric and encaustic tiled schemes are to be found
in Victorian churches, as here at St John’s, Bath.
THE 1860s geometric and encaustic tiled floors started to appear
in public buildings, churches and the more expensive Victorian villas.
Their rise to fashion was assured by their use in such prestigious buildings
as the Victoria and Albert Museum, and by the 1890s they had become
an essential feature in the most ordinary Victorian terraced houses
from Dover to Aberdeen. As well as adding prestige and colour to a Victorian
hall, they were also remarkably practical. Although it’s improbable
that the average Victorian builder gave much thought to the lifespan
of such a feature, it is a fact that most domestic interior tiled floors
have survived 100 years of family wear and tear. With a little care,
they will probably be good for another 100 years. There can be few other
floor finishes that offer such durability, while looking so good.
these floors fell out of fashion during the 1960s and ’70s, when many
of them were covered over, they are now being rediscovered by their
present owners and restored to former glory. Although many need a significant
amount of work carried out, around nine out of 10 are generally repairable.
buildings and ecclesiastical buildings normally have a solid or vaulted
floor structure that is integral to the structure of the building itself.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, has solid bases over vaulted
cellars on the lower floors. Upper floors used a variety of structures
depending on the spans involved, ranging from vaulting to suspended
timber. Some smaller buildings may have part groundbearing slab bases
and part suspended timber structures.
properties from 1870 to around 1910 usually had a modified suspended
timber floor. Joists were laid at the same level as those for surrounding
boarded floors, with battens and pugging boards added at the bottom
of the joists to form troughs. The troughs were then packed with a lime
pugging, and the tiles laid on a wet screed of around half an inch (12mm)
pulled over the top.
few floors have been found with iron joists and a cast slab of some
sort, others supported by large slabs of York stone, all on brickwork
piers. Where flights of steps were tiled, the steps themselves were
normally bridging York stone slabs keyed into the brickwork either side,
with additional brickwork supports for larger spans. Risers could be York stone, rendered
brick, marble or slate. From 1900 onwards, cast slab bases slowly started
to replace the suspended timber floor. These bases were nominally ‘concrete’
but often consisted of a great deal of lime, with a variable proportion
of broken brick, no doubt left over from the main building work. Such
slabs were usually laid directly on the ground and not tied in to the
building structure at all.
were made from clay (often locally sourced), and always had a square
(or almost square) edge. This square edge (in section) is significant
and is the key to the flat surface that these floors have, unlike some
modern reproductions. There were many manufacturers and it is not uncommon
to find a mix of different manufacturers’ tiles within one floor. There
were around ten common colours, but there could be many variations in
shade, particularly in reds and buffs. Plain coloured tiles tend to
be more durable than encaustic tiles as they are generally harder (see
below). Some plain colours wear relatively more quickly, and it is quite
common to find a floor showing very little wear, except for the buff
tiles, which may all be dished. Blue and green tiles were used more
sparingly, as they were – and still are – expensive to produce, requiring
a white clay and much expensive dye.
Glazed tiles are
rare, as most floor tiles were unglazed. In ecclesiastical floors, however,
the odd glazed tile was sometimes used, most often a green one. Strangely
these inserts were often made using a green glaze on a buff tile.
Glazed tiles can
also be found in geometric tiles used for fireplace hearths. The
vast majority of tiles used only 90º and 45º angles. Dimensions were
fairly constant, all flowing from a six inch square, via Pythagoras’
theorem – so squares are found in 6”, 41/4”, 3”, 21/8”, 11/2” and 1”.
The dimensions of octagons, hexagons, trapeziums and triangles all matched
up to these. Rectangles were commonly in 6” lengths for border edges
in 1”, 2” and 3” widths, plus 41/4” by 21/8”, which was a popular size
for the Edwardian red herringbone field design. There were nevertheless
some small variations in these sizes.
A few manufacturers
produced some unusual shapes, although curved edges are rare, as they
require a matching tile to fit to the curved side. A little more common
are designs worked to include tiles with 60º/120º angles.
can use a very large number of small tiles with up to 600 tiles per
square metre, so the hall floor in a fine Victorian terraced house could
easily have around 4,000
tiles in it.
Victorian domestic tiled schemes: A hall floor before (top) and
of the manufacturers of plain geometric tiles also made encaustic (patterned)
tiles, using a medieval technique re-invented by Herbert Minton, which
involved inlaying layers of different coloured clays to create a design.
His company was particularly successful and ‘Minton’ is the name most
commonly found on the back of original encaustic tiles, although there
were several different companies which incorporated the Minton family
name. Encaustic tiles were most commonly two-colour that is to say the
body of one colour (red for example), impressed with a pattern filled
with a different colour (such as buff). However, there are plenty around
with three and four colours, and you can find them with five or six
colours with a bit of searching – the Palace of Westminster has good
were used relatively sparingly in geometric design as they were always
much more expensive than plain geometrics tiles. Such tiles can show
some excessive wear after a hundred years or so, as the secondary colours
were added in the form of liquid clay slips, and so were often softer
than the main body of the tile. Different inlay colours wear at different
rates, so it is quite common to find one particular colour completely
worn away, and ridges appearing between the other colours in the design.
were laid to a very high standard, although on careful inspection, the
odd mistake can usually be found. Grout lines are usually so fine that
many people think these tiles were butted together. That was rarely
the case, most floors were laid with a fine grout line to allow small
Tiles were always
laid in a wet mortar screed, and the skill of the tilers can be appreciated
in the flatness and alignment of the tiles. Designs were normally set
out centrally from the main entrance. Again, the skill of the tilers
in setting out must also be recognised. The bedding screeds originally
used were normally very hard. Some of the earlier floors (particularly
in the Midlands) used a softer lime based screed, but after around 1880
almost all floors that have been encountered in the South East used
a hard lime and Portland mix.
FAULTS, CAUSES AND REMEDIAL WORK REQUIRE
broken and cracked tiles are the most common faults found in Victorian
and Edwardian tiled floors. Individual loose and broken tiles are normally
the result of wear and tear and can be simply replaced. Wear and tear
can of course embrace impact damage, where something heavy has been
dropped on the floor. In such cases, the exposed bedding needs to be
closely examined, to see if it is showing cracking or any sign of sinking.
Larger areas of
loose tiling are normally due to some kind of movement in the floor
structure. As the screed used to bed the tiles is normally very brittle,
tiled floors cannot tolerate any significant deflection without cracking.
Once the screed cracks, the adhesion of the tiles to the screed will
begin to fail. The cause of movement must be identified and corrected
before any re-tiling takes place. In particular check:
- the joist
pockets for movement
- all the
timbers for wet or dry rot, or insect infestation
- all the
- all the
- the nailing
to all battens
- the condition
of pugging boards
- for removal
of original cellar partitions below (timber partitioning often
added significant stiffness and even brick piers may have been
- for adequate
support to wall plates supporting joist ends
- for evidence
of subsidence or settlement.
path with geometric tiles
is easy to detect if there is any ‘bounce’ in the floor by kneeling
on it and banging the floor with the ball of your hand. If you can feel
the floor vibrating through your knees, then it has too much bounce
in it. The bounce must be stopped before any repairs to tiling takes
Work to the tiling
can begin once the floor structure has been secured. Loose tiles should
be lifted carefully as it may be possible to reuse them. Cracked and
damaged tiles that are still firmly fixed will have to be cut out with
a hammer and chisel. This must be done very carefully as collateral
damage to adjacent tiles is likely.
Any mortar that
has been used to infill where tiles are missing should be carefully
cut back to the existing screed, but no further. Such infills are usually
relatively soft and easy to remove.
If at all possible,
removal of any of the existing screed is to be avoided. As this is normally
very hard, the process of removal will often cause further areas of
tiling to come loose. To ensure that there is room for a thin bed adhesive,
the tiles should be thinned rather than the screed by taking off 2 to
3mm from the back of the tiles with a water fed diamond face grinder.
If there is evidence
that the screed is breaking up or losing its adhesion to the pugging
below, it is worth impregnating the screed with an acrylic based resin
to consolidate it. When carrying out such an operation, some of the
resin may penetrate right through the floor, therefore anything stored
below should be covered or removed. It can also be useful to resin treat
the exposed edges of existing tiling once damaged tiles or screed has
been cut out. Large cracks in the screed may require an epoxy mortar
repair, or some replacement of areas of screed.
‘concrete’ bases can be the most problematic, and extensive failure
or movement can mean the end of the floor. Very often the ground supporting
the base was ‘made up’ and poorly compacted. Subsequent shrinkage can
often leave substantial voids beneath the base. Considerable movement
of part or the whole of the base is found to have taken place, as can
be determined by checking the levels against the line of the skirting.
If the floor has cracked across a corner and dropped, it may be possible
to remove this area and lay a new section of base, but the vibration
caused during the removal process may cause failure to further parts
of the base. Tapping across the floor with a metal object can reveal
whether there are voids beneath the base – if there are, it is not generally
practical to rectify this without removing and replacing the whole floor.
It should be noted
that, unless the tiles are laid on a soft lime bed, taking up and relaying
the original tiles is not a practical proposition. It is likely that
at least 75 per cent of the tiles will be damaged during the taking
up process, and cleaning off the mortar residue will damage more. If
repairs cannot be made without wholesale removal of tiles, there may
be no choice but to replace the floor with a replica – as this approach
may be far more cost effective.
Once the base problems
have been addressed, the tile laying can commence. Areas should always
be dry laid first, before attempting to fix, as some tile dimensions
may need adjusting to fit the space available. A thin bed cementitious
floor tile adhesive should be used to fix the tiles and the levels and
alignment of points checked frequently with a straight edge. A fine
cementations grout should be used. Usually a dark grey grout will be
best, as the original grout will have dirtied down to almost black.
Light grey grout can make an area stand out as repaired, until the grout
The materials mentioned
may have to be modified if the conservation policy for the building
dictates the use of traditional materials only. However, the use of
lime based bedding for tiles should be undertaken with caution – setting
times are very extended even if an hydraulic lime is used, and the floor
may have to be out of use for some weeks.
the floors were new, they were generally scrubbed and waxed or oiled
every week. The surface seal was important for internal tiling, as natural
clay tiles are a little absorbent. It is usually many years since the
floor was regularly waxed or oiled, so dirty washing water will have
been absorbed into the tiles. Intensive cleaning to remove this dirt,
and then sealing to prevent further absorption will generally transform
the appearance of the tiles.
Victorian tiles - still looking good after 100 years
All substances to
be used for cleaning and finishing tiled floors should be carefully
considered in conjunction with any applicable conservation policies
and with due deference to the historic significance of the floor and
its surroundings. For example, finishes to painted or polished skirting
boards, architraves and doors may be too delicate to allow the use of
paint stripper in the vicinity and wallpapers may need protection from
splashing. Although some chemicals are very effective their use may
not be permitted by supervising conservation bodies. There are also
Health and Safety issues to consider. As a general rule, good ventilation
of the area is necessary, both to avoid build up of chemical fumes and
to ensure prompt drying.
Tiled floors should
never be ‘soaked’ with large volumes of chemicals or water as this could
eventually loosen tiles, damage substrates and even cause structural
damage. All cleaning should be done with as little liquid as possible
and any surpluses mopped away immediately.
A detailed inspection
will reveal if there are any paint splashes from decorating work – there
normally is. These should be cleaned off with a chemical paint remover.
Clean treated areas with plain water to remove paint remover residue.
The main clean should
use an intensive alkali based cleaner specifically tailored for unglazed
tiled floors – there are several different makes on the market. Note
that these are normally diluted with water, and start off with the lowest
concentration specified. If necessary, the strength of the solution
can be increased. Such cleaning agents work better if a low speed scrubbing
machine with a plastic scrubbing pad is used, but hand pads work well
– it’s just more strenuous. Work with a hand pad will be needed if there
are dished tiles that the machine pads cannot get into. Clean relatively
small areas at a time and when each area has been well scrubbed, rinse
several times with clean water and mop as dry as possible. Once the
whole floor has been treated, do it all over again. Throughout this
process it is most important to monitor the cleaning solutions and rinsing
water. Change them frequently as they as get dirty.
Acid cleaning solutions
can be useful, especially where cement based levelling compounds have
left residue on the surface of tiles. Only use acids where there is
no danger of damage to the fabric or finishes of the building. Again
only use small quantities and in the weakest possible solutions. Remove
acid solutions as quickly as possible, rinse with water and then clean
the area again with an alkali based solution to neutralise the acid.
Once the floor is
clean, it must be sealed. Acrylic sealer/polishes are perhaps the best
option today. They are easy to apply, quick drying, the amount of sheen
can be tailored to your preference by altering the number of coats and
they are durable subject to correct maintence. Best of all, these sealer/polishes
are non-permanent and readily removable.
Over the last ten
years, various television programmes have suggested strange mixtures
of natural waxes for these floors. Waxes should be avoided. They trap
dirt, discolour as coats accumulate, can be slippery under certain conditions
and demand a lot of maintenance.
suggest the use of microcrystalline waxes, presumably on the basis that
this is a more traditional finish. However, such waxes are modern chemical
products – they are no more traditional than an acrylic finish. They
are also considerably more demanding in terms of subsequent maintenance
requirements. If a traditional finish is required, a colourless oil
rubbed in is a reasonable compromise, but be prepared to re-apply it
once or twice a week.
It should be noted
that exterior tiling should never be sealed, as it can reduce the frost
resistance of the tiles.
article is reproduced from The
Building Conservation Directory, 2004
THOMPSON is Restoration Consultant for Original Features (Restorations) Ltd.
He has been examining and reporting on Victorian and Edwardian tiled
floors for 11 years and has overseen restoration work to around 1,000
tiled floors and pavements, most recently including a ten week project
at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003.
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