There is an unsolved puzzle in the background of the business that lays claim to being Yorkshire’s oldest business. The full name of the man who started it – and why he chose Leeds as his base.
Mr Miers found premises on Vicar Lane and established a firm that is still with us nearly 300 years later. Today it’s called Hicks and Weatherburn, and the man in charge is Jonathan Wain.
But it dates back to 1741 when Miers opened up shop. It seems highly likely that, with his surname and its spelling, that he was an immigrant from Europe. Across the Channel, it was certainly a time for thinking about moving to somewhere rather safer – Frederick the Great was rampaging about defeating everyone who dared to disagree with him.
At some point, many years later, Miers’ descendants sold up to Messrs Hicks and Weatherburn. “That must have been in the late Victorian period”, says Jonathan, “because there’s a rather fine sepia photograph that we have in our files, of a rather proud gentleman standing in in the main doorway at Vicar Lane, surveying the scene, with two of his staff in the background.”
There’s a Samuel Miers in one of the earliest of the local trade directories, dated for 1817, which is about as thick as a school exercise book, and he is described as a ‘house and sign painter and gilder’.
“The thing is that the Hicks family clearly kept up a friendship with the Miers, because a census shows that Mrs Elizabeth Miers was visiting the Hicks family when they had to fill in the official forms.
“And they also kept the association with the Mierses in their business as well, for that photograph shows the Hicks and Weatherburn sign, and, just below it, on a slightly smaller board is one which says ‘Late Miers and Co.’ They obviously wanted the goodwill to continue”.
Jonathan himself took over the firm almost a decade ago, and moved it from premises on the city boundaries to an industrial complex off Meanwood Road. “It was the perfect opportunity for me, right place, right time. These were the Beverley brothers, and they had had the firm for three generations, so they must have taken over from William Henry just after the First World War, or in the early twenties.”
Jonathan studied chemistry at Leeds University and started work in the chemical industry at 21. He spent 30 years in his field, many of them in the United States, but when he returned to the UK, and having hit 50, he found that good jobs for men in his field of expertise were pretty thin on the ground. “Actually, they were non-existent. So the answer was clear – become my own boss.”
It was, he says, “very much a case of learning ‘on the hoof’. I’d never run a business on my own before. I went in completely blind… I took about two or three years to really understand it all”.
The rest of the work team are all part-timers. “So it will be very clear that we are not up there competing with Crown, or Dulux. We make about 30,000 litres of paint a year which is small when you look at what all the chains stock. We are very much a developing niche market.”
But the paint is quality stuff. And each shade – this was one of Jonathan’s first ideas – is named after a location in Yorkshire. ‘Hawes Cream’ is exactly the shade that you’d guess it was. ‘Buttertubs’ is exactly like the dairy product. ‘Malham Tarn’ is a dark slate blue, and the heather colour is ‘Burnsall’. They sit – 70 shades in all – alongside the likes of Herdwich Grey, Lime Kiln and Valley Of Desolation. Jonathan laughs: “I know. I often think of someone having their hallway decorated, and a friend dropping by to ask ‘What’s that colour you’re using?’ To which they get the reply ‘Valley of Desolation.’
To make the colour charts even more original and accurate, each shade is painted onto a series of eight cards, with the name printed alongside, held together by a loop of string. The job of painting the cards and assembling them is done by the inmates of Askham Grange prison, and Jonathan pays them for their work.
The paints are loved by interior designers all over the country, and they are also popular with many of the local theatres and arts organisations – Hicks and Weatherburn sell to the likes of Northern Ballet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Opera North. Oddly, the best-selling colour for those venues is... matt black. Jonathan explains: “They use an awful lot of that to mask the edges of the stage, and the scenery. We also sell a lot to the film and TV industry. Set builders like our paints – they have to be fluid and adaptable, because a lot of sets are constructed in rather cold and often damp old factories and former mills, and then they have to be put up to bear the heat of the lighting equipment in studios.”
H and W are far from sitting in the past and on their venerable heritage. “You have to keep ahead of the game”, says Jonathan, “which is why social media is so important these days.
“Tastes are ever-changing. Remember when avocado bathroom suites were all the rage? They are sneered at now. A range of light greens may be all the vogue for a few years, but then you’ll see that yellows are starting to come back it. Strong colours are also quite popular today, but I always think that it is wise to consider very carefully what you are going to put on your walls in your own house. What might appear very trendy at the pub is fine if you are only going to sit with it for a couple of hours every week, but it might not be quite what you want if you have to constantly live with it at home.”
Jonathan, a keen walker, never seems to run out of enthusiasm. What he is running out of, however, is new names for new shades. “I get a lot of inspiration when I go out on one of my walks”, he says, “but if anyone has something original, I’d love them to get in touch. The challenge, and the fun, is always matching that new name to the new colour.”