Every Dark Cloud Has a Silver Lining: London’s Last Umbrella Maker

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.

Read more in Vol. 37: Craft.

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 &
. 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 at James Smith & Sons takes a needle to an umbrella canopy
Wooden handles of umbrellas

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.

The carved handle of an umbrella from James Smith and Sons against a red background
The wooden handles of umbrellas stacked in the shop window of James Smith and Sons

A carved umbrella handle, left, and the shop’s window

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.

A crocodile-shaped umbrella handle at James Smith and Sons, London
The interior of James Smith and Sons Umbrella shop

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.

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