Victorian and Edwardian Tiles – circa 1870 – 1910

On this page you will find guidance on cleaning, paint stripping and removal of damaged tiles.

Atrium floor, Osgoode Hall, Toronto.A brief history

One of the purposes of the nineteenth century floor tile was to provide a cheap but elegant substitute for polished stone or marble flooring aimed at the middle classes. Eventually tiles were produced for wall, floor and ceiling as a colourful, hygienic, and cheap covering for almost any interior. Manufacturers were not shy of educating their clients in the best ways to use this most practical and decorative of materials. Most manufacturers employed both in-house and freelance designers and published their catalogue of suggested designs for interior tile schemes for domestic interiors. Builders, sometimes with the help of their clients, would simply choose a design from the catalogue and reproduce it.

Manufacturers would also produce designs in-house for prestigious municipal, civic or commercial buildings, usually recommending and providing designs which would cover every possible surface and function.

They also found a ready ecclesiastical market during the flurry of church building and restoration in the nineteenth century. Floor patterns, both on individual tiles and as design configurations, were actively modelled on actual or perceived medieval designs and many churches large and small were the willing recipients of gifts of tiles from pious manufacturers, notably Herbert Minton.

Nave Aisle, St Sennens, County Clare, Ireland Thus the manufacturers themselves were more often than not the source of the flagrant use of flamboyant colour and pattern which typifies much of Victorian tile design and use.

Probably the first Victorian to initiate and put into practice the idea of a complete design concept was Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. He was not only influential in his advocacy of medieval gothic style and architecture, he also advanced the idea applying a high standard of design to modern, mass produced materials in order to build complete interiors.

Victorian and Edwardian tiles includes a broad church of different styles of form and function ranging from common Victorian geometric floor tiles found in domestic and ecclesiastical settings, through utilitarian interiors such as stables, hospitals, pumping stations, railway stations, schools and bathrooms fitted out with glazed wall tile, all of which may include elaborate pattern or pictorial decoration. Included also in this group are the far from utilitarian fabulously colourful glazed interior entrance hallways and foyers of grand hotels, municipal and commercial buildings and the ever popular pubs and gin palaces.

Palace Hotel, ManchesterMany of these interiors would also include ceramic mosaic floors which reached a high degree of complexity of design and execution throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century.


Practical guidance on simple conservation issues.

The information on these pages is for guidance only we do not accept responsibility as a result of any person carrying out any works according to the advice contained in this web site. Always follow Health and Safety measures described on products, tools and materials. Jackfield Conservation Studio is not responsible for the work which you do, the responsibility is yours and yours alone!

Cleaning Victorian Encaustic and Geometric Floor Tiles

Victorian encaustic and geometric floor tiles are usually made of fairly robust ceramic.

The most common problems encountered are;

  • Dull dirty appearance due to over a hundred years of wear and tear.
  • Paint spills and encrustation’s of other coatings.
  • Grease, oil or rust stains.
  • Ancient coatings of waxes and linseed oil which have absorbed into the body of the tiles and turned black.
  • Dirty and missing cement grouting.


Remember that any cleaning treatment on old floors is always experimental and is not bound to be effective, so with that in mind never start the cleaning process in the middle of the floor, always find an unobtrusive corner in which to test your method or product.

It is important not to over wet the floor as tiles could become loosened or a salt crystal reaction could be set up.

In domestic buildings the best method of cleaning is by hand. A steam cleaner is a good solution for regular maintenance cleaning in churches rather than ‘mop and bucket’. Steam will use approximately 60% less moisture on the surface of the tiles

Recommended cleaning products are ‘Synperonic A’ and ‘Vulpex’ spirit soap’, available from conservation suppliers, or ‘HG Extra’, ‘HG grease remover’, or ‘BAL Ceramic Floor Tile Cleaner’ available from good tile suppliers.

All products are non ionic, ‘Synperonic A’ is a mild detergent with a balanced ph, ‘Vulpex’ is an alkaline soap, whilst ‘HG Extra (blue label)’ is a stronger detergent which contains phosphoric acid. HG grease remover is an alkaline cleaner and BAL floor tile cleaner contains sulphamic acid.

Whichever product is chosen, the tile should be pre-wetted, the product should be applied neat (with the exception of Vulpex which should be diluted) onto the surface of the tile and agitated manually, left for twenty minutes and then thoroughly rinsed off. The product should not be allowed to dry on the surface of the tile. Each tile should be given individual attention.

To agitate the detergent use ‘Scotchbrite’ green pan scourers. These are made of a plastic material which is abrasive enough to work the liquid into the body of the tile, but will not scratch the surface. Never use wire wool or any hard abrasive material.

Hardened substances which are on the surface of the tile, such as paint splashes may be removed using a ‘Stanley’ blade at a 45 degree angle, red plastic holders which hold the blade thus can be bought from hardware stores.

Where glazed surfaces are concerned it is very important that the glaze should not be scratched during the cleaning process, make sure that the glaze is robust enough to withstand nylon ‘Scotchbrite’ pads, most tile glazes are but do a test area first. If there is any slight scratching of the surface use a soft cloth instead.

When the tiles are cleaned, regrouting is often a good idea. Clean new grout will often give the tiles a visual lift, it will also protect the edges of the tiles in areas of heavy tread. Weak cement grout is preferable to lime mortar grout as lime is likely to stain the tiles, however the choice depends on ‘like for like’ with the rest of the building. Rake out by hand all loose grout or dirt from the joints.

Never use bees wax or linseed oil as a protective coating.

Wearing of rubber gloves and eye protection are recommended against the effects of detergent splashes.

Carpets and covering can be especially damaging to tiles if the ambient environment is outside the ideal range. Moisture absorbed into tile floors from the substrate below cannot escape if coverings do not allow evaporation or drying at a continuous and brisk rate, the result is salt crystallization and mould growth.

Film production Isaac Durbin

Paint removal from glazed surfaces

Paint removal from tile or glazed surfaces is a relatively straight forward process.

‘Nitromors’ green label, water soluble paint stripper is recognised as reliable for conservation use. However it does have Health and Safety implications for its use in confined areas. Adequate ventilation or air extraction should be provided, or the correct breather masks should always be used

‘Safe Paint and Varnish Remover’ is a non chlorinated paint stripper which is now available from conservation suppliers.

Once the paint coating has softened after the application of paint stripper only plastic spatula tools should be used to scrape away the paint.

Under no circumstances should wire wool, wire brushes or metal scrapers be used as they will inevitably scratch or scour the glazed surface of the tile and permanently damage the glaze.

Paint may be left in the grout lines. Further applications of paint stripper should be applied, then the grout lines may be brushed out with a nylon or bristle scrubbing brush.

The tiles should be thoroughly washed down with clean water after all of the paint has been removed.

If adequate ventilation is unavailable, or the paint stripping is to take place in a confined or public area, ‘Langlow’s Strip Away’  is an effective and safe substitute for ‘Nitromors’. It is also water based and gives off no toxic fumes. However it is an alkaline substance based on Sodium Hydroxide. Therefore careful and thorough neutralisation, using acetic acid, of the tile work must take place after paint removal to prevent an alkaline residue forming on the surface of the tiles when dry.

Safe removal of damaged historic tile from walls or floor

This process will assist removal of damaged historic tile in readiness for replacement with new, avoiding further damage to other surrounding historic tile in the process, if carried out correctly.

Uncontrolled impact with a hammer and chisel will cause shock waves to run through the ceramic at random thereby causing fractures to run in any direction, often across cement grout lines, and into the adjacent tile. This should be avoided.

Grouting material in historic tile schemes, dating from the Victorian era, is almost always made up of the same cement based mortar used to fix the tiles to the substrate, it is therefore usually very strong and will have bonded adjacent tiles together to the extent that they have, to all intents and purposes, become one object.

The damaged tile must first be separated from its neighbours, before any shock waves have the opportunity to cross the grout line.

Using a small hand held angle grinder fixed with a diamond cutting blade, 115mm or 125mm in diameter, cut width of 1.2mm (or similar) make cuts to the depth of the tile around the perimeter, at a distance of 5mm inside the grout line, avoid going closely into the corners as any overrun of the cut will damage the next tile. See Fig. 1.

Make a second series of cuts to the same depth diagonally across the tile. See Fig. 2.

Make a third series of cuts across each of these diagonals. See Fig. 2.

Fig 1

Fig 1

Fig 2

Fig 2

Taking a flat two inch (50mm) cold chisel and a hammer starting at the centre of the tile and working outwards begin to knock away all of the parts of the tile until all that remains is the 5mm. of tile which is at the edge. Change to a one inch (25mm) chisel with a thin blade and carefully tap along the grout line with the chisel at 90 degrees to the tile face. The remaining tile should fall away.

If more depth space is required on the now revealed cement bed, because the replacement tile is either of the same thickness or thicker than the original, then use the same method for removing excess concrete.

Do not be tempted to cut along the grout line, as this will always lead to damaged edges of the adjacent tile. The saw blade will automatically find the weakest part of the groove, taking at least 1mm of the adjacent tile away and thus creating an overall space which is larger than the replacement tile.

This principal of tile removal can be used for any size or tile type.

This process should only be attempted by persons who are trained or experienced in the use of diamond cutting power tools.