George Tutill: Forest Gate resident and Trade Union banner manufacturer

Sunday 7 February 2016

In our recent article on Forest Gate's listed buildings we mentioned (here) that the Red House, in Upton Lane, was, for a while, home to Mr Tutill, a prominent trade union banner manufacturer.

Early 20th century photo of the Red
House, Tutill residence 1871 - 1887
This was very much an understatement of Tutill's role and importance. Distinguished labour historian Gwyn A Williams wrote this of George Tutill in his introduction to John Gorman's definitive history of trade union banners, Banner Bright:

During the 1840's union banners began to be made in the general style which remained in favour for a hundred years: lavishly illustrated on both sides of silk panels, highly ornamental and trimmed up to sixteen feet by twelve feet in size to be paraded in public, stately and striking.  The uniformity, which extended to designs as well as materials was due largely to one man, George Tutill, who set up in banner making in 1837 and over the next fifty years earned for his business a virtual commercial monopoly and a world-wide market.

George Tutill lived in Upton Lane's Red House (illustrated above) between 1871 and till his death in 1887. This post is his story.

George Tutill, posing in the
 regalia of Grand Templars
 - produced by his firm 

He was born in the Yorkshire village of Howden in 1817, two years after the defeat of Napoleon and two years before the significant Peterloo massacre. His father was an illiterate miller. In 1837 the twenty year-old Tutill established the company which was to manufacture more trade union banners than any other in the world- more than three-quarters ever commercially manufactured.

Details of his life before 1837 are obscure, but the company he established in that year still survives and is now based in Chesham, Bucks.

Advert for Tutill's banner makers

The story of how Tutill came to be recognised as the 'universal provider' of trade union regalia was related to Gorman by Ronald Caffyn, whose family had a long tradition in working for Tutill's and whose father had worked with George, the founder:

George Tutill began his life as a travelling fairground showman. In those days ... it was common practice for a showman to decorate his own sideshow, caravan or roundabout, embellishing it with ornate lettering and design, which Tutill did with great style. ...Tutill first met trade unionists during his regular visits to public houses (where the union's held their meetings). He also met with the friendly societies for whom he was to produce so much in the years to come. ... On one occasion ... he was asked if he would paint a banner for a union, which held its meetings at the inn. He accepted and the members were delighted with the result.

And so began his career as a banner maker. Details of his career over the next few years are patchy.  But, as an indication of his artistic talents, a painting of his, entitled Scarborough Castle (a few miles from his native village), was exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Front cover of 1896 Tutill catalogue
 - showing various aspects of banner
 making at City Road workshop

By 1857 he was living in Islington and soon after he established his business at 83 City Road, in a purpose built workshop.. By 1860 he moved house to Canonbury, a more up-market part of Islington, a sign of his increased success and prosperity. A key to his success was moving banner-making on from a simple artisan workshop activity to an almost production-line process.

All of his banners were made from pure silk, and he built on the East London, Huguenot-influenced, tradition of silk weaving in Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

Tutill banner from 1890's

In 1861 he took out a patent for "treating materials for the manufacture of banners and flags". It was designed to give flexibility and durability to the materials he used in the manufacture of flags, where paint and oils were mixed and then covered with a small film of india rubber, to create and preserve the pictures in the centres of his trade mark banners. The formula was so successful that some of his early banners survive today (130 years on) - images intact.

One of the brass name discs used to
 secure lead tapes to Tutill's banners

Tutill's activities at City Road were not confined to trade union banners. Regalia for Oddfellows, Masons, church Sunday schools, Bands of Hope, temperance societies, Rechabites, Orange orders and every kind of friendly society were made, to order. According to Gorman:

Satin sashes, printed emblems, aprons, collars, regalia cases, caps certificates, medals, chains, horns, girdles and even robes and false beards for the Ancient Order of Druids supplied insatiable demand.

With business flourishing, Tutill continued to prosper and in 1871 moved into the Red House, on Upton Lane.

Tutill banner from 1899

The house, itself had been built shortly before 1762 and had been inhabited by Isaac Blijdesteijn (who became and elder in the Dutch church at Austin Friars, in the City, in 1803), son of a Dutch merchant.

Tutill was to live there with his wife, Elizabeth, and their only surviving child, daughter Georgina, until his death in 1887. Elizabeth died in December 1884 and is buried in the near-by Emmanuel Churchyard, in Upton Lane.

Tutill was not one to let the grass grow under his feet, in the business world. In 1881 he installed the largest Jacquard loom in the world in his City Road premises, in order to weave the ever larger banners in a single piece.

Largest Jacquard loom in the world, installed
 at Tutill's City Road. The punch cards which
 programme the machine can be
 seen in the foreground
Tutill seems to have embraced all the elements of a successful Victorian businessman, according to Gorman. He was self-made, creative, inventive and boldly kept pace with the expansion of industrial capitalism, at home and abroad.

He soon cultivated a successful export business. In the firm's catalogue of 1896 (after his death), it stated the firm was exporting banners to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and "to the remotest parts of the civilised world"!
Banner believed to have been
 designed by George Tutill, himself
Tutill, himself, was presented with the highest award, a gold medal, and a special commendation at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. He also took prizes at exhibitions in Brisbane in 1880, Melbourne in 1881 and Adelaide in 1882. He sailed to Melbourne to pick up his award in person.

Although, over fifty years, Tutill made more trade union banners than anybody else, he did not share the political or economic sympathies of his clients. He ran a non-union company, which remained so until well after his death, in 1935.

Design from 1890's

He also obtained a great deal of business from the temperance movement, but that did not affect his fairly notorious drinking habits. He is said to have kept two barrels in his office - one filled with whisky for the drinkers and one filled with port for the non drinkers!

Tutill was a meticulous artist and business administrator and kept long-hand records of all his correspondence from 1840 onwards. Later he kept photographs of every banner the company produced. The entire collection, however (with the exception of three boxes of negatives from the 1920's) was destroyed in the blitz of 1940.

The giant Jacquard loom was removed to Braintree for the duration of the war, to preserve it, but as technology moved on, it became redundant in 1965.  It was offered to the Science Museum, who declined, and so it was broken up, for parts.

Design c 1895

The company itself, transferred to Chesham in Buckinghamshire, following the destruction of its City Road premises, after the Second World War.

Back to Tutill, himself. He died on 17 February 1887 at home, in the Red House. A large decorated stained glass memorial window was subsequently constructed at the south west end of Howden Minster. The inscription along the base of the window reads:- "To the glory of God, and in affectionate remembrance of George Tutill, Esq. Born April 16th 1817. Died Feb. 17th 1887. J B Capronnier, Bruxellensis, Fecit 1888."

The business passed to his daughter and son-in-law. Thus business continued and prospered in the boom decade on the 1890's. In the twentieth century demand for banners declined until after the First World War, when there was an upsurge in trade union banner making. Following the General Strike of 1926, demand dropped off again, until 1947, when it prospered with post war confidence (and major nationalisations).

The demand dwindled again until 1967, a year in which the firm of Tutill's did not make a single trade union banner for the first time for 130 years.

As far as the Red House was concerned, soon after Tutill's death, it was occupied by the local MP Major George Banes, who served the area until 1900. According to a certificate inside the building, by 1907 it became a local gentleman/workingman's club apparently a gift to the area by a former resident. It is not clear whether this was Banes or not. The English Heritage's version of its 20th century history is somewhat at variance with this.

Footnote: We are deeply indebted to John Gorman's 1975 book: Banner Bright (pub Allen Lane) for much of the information in this post, and also to Roger Logan's account of Tutill's roles in producing banners for friendly society's, available here 


  1. Hi I have an early one. Perfect condition. Boxed with poles yellow silk with circular painting of feed the those in need. I don't know what to do with it, any answers. Lisa

  2. I have a cast iron press paper seal. Imprint reads " Loyal Huguenot Lodge"

  3. I have 1 boxed poles and finials off a baptist church

  4. Is there copies of the tutill banner catalogues of the late 1800s in any museums or archives. I am looking for photos of some mining banners 1870s

  5. Thank you for a most interesting piece about George Tutill

  6. Hi, I am looking for a miners' Lodge Banner Albion Colliery Cylfynydd South Wales. We have searched National Union of Mineworkers records and Swansea University miners library for the elusive Lodge luck anywhere; can anyone help us find the banner or a photo of it. Thanks in advance for any assistance.


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