Lamb’s was an oil and colour shop kept by two old brothers with rosy pink faces and snow white hair. In those days there were no ready-made paints – they had to be made from ground powder colours, turpentine, and white lead.

Professional decorators came in to buy their raw materials and mix their own paints, but the brothers had to make paints for the amateurs – a task which required a great patience, as very few folk had any idea of colours or the quantity they needed.

Naturally, service was very slow. You had to be prepared to wait at least half an hour to be served while the brothers wrestled patiently with problems. 

Usually, it went something like this:

“I want some paint for my scullery walls.”

“What colours had you in mind?”

“Well. Mrs Smith has just done hers a lovely green.”

“Were you thinking green?”

“Well, do you think it would look alright?”



“What sort of green do you want?”

“Well, a pretty green but not so light it shows the dust.”

At this point, Mr Lamb would emerge from behind the counter with a board bearing a splatter of colour. 

“Is that about the right shade?”

“Well, do you think it’s a bit dark?”

Mr Lamb disappeared again to alter the shade. Usually this was repeated several times until the customer finally approved.

With that problem solved, the next one wasn’t far away. 

“How much paint do you require?”

“How much do you usually need?”

“Well, that depends on the size of the room.”

“About as far as your door to here wide and about the length of that counter long.”

Usually, the customer changed their mind about this several times before agreeing on the size. Finally, the patient Mr Lamb, who would by now be exasperated, asked: “Have you a tin?” 

After a few minutes he’d come back with the paint, and away went the customer, leaving Mr Lamb now exhausted – but still politely enquiring what the next customer required.

Rhoda King (1898-1988)

This is one entry in Rhoda King’s private notebook OId Businesses of York, which offers an insight into the nature of the city at the turn of the 20th century. Rhoda was raised in Beaconsfield Street, Acomb, by her father Henry – a painter and decorator – and her sickly mother, also named Rhoda. She moved to Holgate in the 1960s and became known in her social circles for her exceptional memory and ability to recall remarkable details about York’s many characters. Rhoda passed on her passion for history to her daughter, Sheila, and the pair often enjoyed embarking on their own historic sightseeing tours together in and around the city.

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