Every Dark Cloud Has a Silver Lining: London’s Last Umbrella Maker
After nearly 200 years in the brolly business, London’s last umbrella maker has learnt a trick or two about weathering difficult storms. Imogen Lepere visits the master crafters’ workshop.
27 July, 2022
In the watery light of a London afternoon, I peruse a rack of walking sticks. They stand as straight and shining as a boarding-school choir, their polished shafts complementing the hand-carved figurines that serve as handles: Lord Nelson's head, hares, skulls and even a parrot that brings to mind Mary Poppins' magical talking umbrella. Above my head, curiously shaped horns throw strange shadows on the whitewashed wall. "They come from some animal that's long extinct. Nobody remembers its name. The second James Smith brought most of the curios in the shop back from his travels in the 19th century."
Phil Naisbitt is the manager of James Smith & Sons. His polite, attentive service continues a tradition stretching back 192 years. Known to local cabbies fondly as "the umbrella shop", this landmark emporium is the last in London to make umbrellas on site, and is still owned by the fifth generation of the Smith family.
A staff member repairs an umbrella, left, and a cluster of wooden handles.
When this branch opened its doors in 1857 (the business started in 1830), Queen Victoria was yet to reign for another 44 years. The cobbled alleys that surrounded it were paved with dung from the horse-drawn carriages that were the city's only form of transport. Sheep with soot-stained fleeces functioned as living lawnmowers in Regent's Park. It's a far cry from the traffic-choked intersection of New Oxford Street the shop finds itself on today.
"The building was the only one on this block to survive the Blitz," says Naisbitt, leading me outside. "We didn't close during the war or in any of the recessions. The only time we've ever had to was during the coronavirus pandemic." Its mahogany and glass signage makes the shop look like a Victorian ghost that has taken a wrong turn on its way to the underworld.
A carved umbrella handle, left, and the shop's window display.
This image is cemented when I descend to the subterranean workshop where curious instruments - many dating to the 19th century - perch on wooden benches. Most of the umbrellas are made from durable nylon twill these days, as it folds well, although they still use silk on request. Naisbitt points out the bell the team rings to announce another umbrella is complete, which typically only happens around three times each day. It looks unreasonably high.
"How do they reach it?"
"With an umbrella, of course."
Back up in the shop, a mezzanine sags under the weight of ring binders - accounts are still kept by hand. A new till is one of few concessions to modernity, and I sense Naisbitt views it as a necessary evil rather than a convenience.
The shopfloor bristles with every conceivable variation on the umbrella: elegant gentleman's options with needle ends and hooked "Derby" handles; solid blackthorn umbrellas that can be cut to size while you wait, making them the perfect walking aid; canes made from materials that sound like unfamiliar sweetmeats - Indian rose, malacca, ebony.
"Parts are ordered from specialists across Europe, but we do have to keep adapting, as many have gradually gone out of business," Naisbitt explains, showing me the lightweight steel frames that earned the shop so much attention when they were introduced in 1851.
An eye-catching umbrella handle, left, and the old-school shop interior.
Lucky horseshoes hanging in various corners nod to the fact that several of the James Smiths were superstitious. Briefly, I imagine the inner turmoil they must have gone through every time a customer asked to open an umbrella inside. However, this venerable business' success has had nothing to do with luck. It has survived where all rivals have quietly faded away by maintaining the integrity of its craftsmanship. As I head back out into the chaos of New Oxford Street, I smile to myself. The fact that this still speaks in our age of mass consumerism strikes me as a major silver lining.
Discover more stories from the Craft issue here.