The following is an extract from my book Best of British: The Stories Behind Britain’s Iconic Brands, published by Prestel. Dedicated copies are available to buy here
James Smith & Sons
Two or three times every day, a bell rings through the shop of James Smith & Sons in London. It proclaims, to the waiting shop staff, that an umbrella is ready.
When a customer purchases one of the house’s single-stick umbrellas, the tip of the umbrella must be cut to a length that corresponds to the customer’s height.
A single-stick umbrella is essentially a walking stick with a canopy, and is strong enough to be used in the same way. The customer must be measured, therefore, using an old adjustable stick, and the tip cut to size.
The adjustment is done in the workshop downstairs, while the customer waits. He peruses the rare snakewood canes, perhaps, and their ornate carved handles. Or stares out onto the busy street outside: James Smith & Sons is, as a writer once said, an island in a sea of traffic.
Then all of a sudden, the clear peal of the bell. A subterranean worker, rather than walk all the way up to the shop, has struck the bell with his finished umbrella and left it hanging on an adjacent rail. It’s a delightful way to be informed that your order is ready.
The existence of such traditions will not surprise a casual visitor to Hazelwood House – the building James Smith & Sons has occupied since 1857 on New Oxford Street.
There is a myriad of souvenirs from almost 150 years in continuous business, including an odd little mezzanine – where clerks can look down suspiciously on customers – and a horseshoe hanging from the ceiling – to ward off the bad luck of opening umbrellas indoors.
Robert Harvey, who runs the firm today, is the fifth generation to be in charge. The name hasn’t been Smith for a while – it changed through marriage – but he is proud to still run a family-owned company in the centre of London.
His son-in-law, Phil, also works in the shop, and recently had a son. “That boy’s future is all set out for him,” Robert quips.
The company was founded in 1830 on Foubert’s Place, just off Regent Street. James Smith was a one-man band with a workshop in the back and a counter in the front. Customers would ring for attention and he would come out to take orders.
“I like to think that we retain some of that same atmosphere,” says Robert, “with the workshop downstairs and orders coming up and down.”
There have been a few eccentric orders over the years (though fewer these days, with many of the customers international or online).
One customer famously wanted an umbrella in every English wood that was available. James Smith & Sons fulfilled the order, with over 40 umbrellas in total. “We could probably do the same today, but most of the woods wouldn’t be grown in England unfortunately,” says Robert.
The trouble is trees must be farmed specifically to supply sticks for umbrellas. They are ‘coppiced’, with the trunk cut off about three feet from the ground and new shoots allowed to grow out.
So apple wood, perhaps the most English of the materials available, cannot be harvested from apple orchards. It requires dedicated farming – most of which is now in Italy or eastern Europe.
Most visitors to James Smith & Sons are not looking for dozens of woods, however, or even something special. They just want a well-made, functional umbrella – and this is precisely what the company has always prided itself on supplying.
“We like to think of ourselves as a democratic operation, with an emphasis on quality and utility,” says Robert.
The shop still sells umbrellas for £15, as well as £500, and can repair almost anything. It’s a far cry from the disposable, £5 umbrellas sold at most London train stations – but also refreshingly different from the sniffy boutiques of Mayfair.
Photography: Horst Friedrichs