I was incredibly lucky with my first research assignment for Ghost Signs of Glasgow.
The history behind Ghost Signs often feels like it is pulling away from the researcher, a train leaving the station into obscurity. However, learning about Miller’s 1893 was the furthest experience from that. I met David Millard, co-owner of the business and family historian, who was incredibly generous with his information and his family’s story. For David the family’s history came together through his own personal research as well as many of details surprising him, such as a long lost family member walking into the shop! The ghost sign that sits at the top of Miller’s 1893 is a testament to four generations of the Millard family. It’s also lovely to look at.
That story begins with William Millard, born in a poorhouse in London, he made his way to Glasgow as a travelling linoleum salesman. When he arrived he rented sheds at 11 Charles Street (Olympia Street since 1932) selling linoleum and other flooring, and adapted his family name to sound more Scottish. So Miller’s Linoleum Stores was established.
Millard later purchased the land from the North British Railway Company and in 1913 gained planning permission to build the current studio as seen in the planning permission papers. As the business grew Miller’s Linoleum Stores expanded to 3 Waterloo Place in Edinburgh. In 1916, after the death of his first wife, William remarried to a woman called Ellen Holden.
After Millard’s death in 1929 he bequeathed the Glasgow showroom to his son Albert, who was the eighth of his nine children. However, Albert’s inheritance came with a caveat; he was required to pay 10 pounds a week to his stepmother on top of her inheritance of the Edinburgh showroom. Albert continued to run the business until his death in 1964, when the mantle was assumed by his sons. His youngest son Allan set up his own business in the Barras Market, the Loch Fyne Shell Fish Bar, before joining the company in the early 1980s, eventually taking over the management of the business.
The current owners are his sons David and Stephen Millard who have grown and cultivated the company, extending the legacy of Miller’s Linoleum stores into the present. The building’s exterior is a result of the brothers’ refurbishment in 2013 as the building had fallen into disrepair, a project which revealed much of the original details of the 19th century business. The original exposed beams emblazoned with the word ‘blankets’ are juxtaposed with the brother’s new samples that tile the walls; the past and present are one in this inherited building.
The font used for the modern sign is based on a wooden sign found when work started on the building. However, the painted ghost sign was touched up last year as an effort by the brothers to help save the original sign from weathering. The sign was restored to its original glory by a sign painter using a combination of the paint remnants and photographs. Another sign is the original wooden shutter that says ‘Scotland’s leading linoleum house’ which had to be removed for preservation.
My visit to the shop delivered a collection of photos which are an impressive insight into the history of the building and the family that has been its guardian for four generations. One photo is a postcard a local cab driver found on eBay. Another shows a cart bearing the name of the business with men sitting on top. The beauty of most ghost signs is their ephemerality; they appear, are uncovered and often disappear. Miller’s 1893, unusually has survived for generations, its owners making an art of preservation.