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At James Ince & Sons, Umbrella Makers

January 20, 2011
by the gentle author

The factory of James Ince & Sons, the oldest established umbrella makers in the country, is one of the few places in London where you will not hear complaints about the rainy weather, because – while our moist climate is such a disappointment to the population in general – it has happily sustained generations of Inces for over two centuries now. If you walked down Whites Row in Spitalfields in 1824, you would have found William Ince making umbrellas and this week, six generations later, I was able to visit Richard Ince, still making umbrellas in the East End. Yet although the date of origin of the company is conservatively set at 1805, there was a William Inch, a tailor listed in Spitalfields in 1793, who may have been father to William Ince of Whites Row – which makes it credible to surmise that Inces have been making umbrellas since they first became popular at the end of the eighteenth century.

You might assume that the weight of so much history weighs heavily upon Richard Ince, but it is like water off a duck’s back to him, because he is simply too busy manufacturing umbrellas. Richard’s father and grandfather were managers with a large staff of employees, but Richard is one of only four workers at James Ince & Sons today, and he works alongside his colleagues as one of the team, cutting and stitching, personally supervising all the orders. Watching them at work this week, it was a glimpse of what William Ince’s workshop might have been like in Spitalfields in 1824, because – although synthetics and steel have replaced silk and whalebone, and all stitching is done by machine now – the essential design and manufacturing process of umbrellas remains the same.

Between these two workshops of William Ince in 1824 and Richard Ince in 2011, exists a majestic history, which might be best described as one of gracious expansion and then sudden contraction, in the manner of an umbrella itself. It was the necessity of silk that made Spitalfields the natural home for James Ince & Sons. The company prospered there during the expansion of London through the nineteenth century and the increase in colonial trade, especially to India and Burma. In 1837, they moved into larger premises in Brushfield St and, by 1857, filled a building on Bishopsgate too. In the twentieth century, workers at Inces’ factory in Spitalfields took cover in the basement during air raids, and then emerged to resume making military umbrellas for soldiers in the trenches during the First World War and canvas covers for guns during the Second World War. Luckily, the factory itself narrowly survived a flying bomb, permitting the company to enjoy post-war success, diversifying into angling umbrellas, golfing umbrellas, sun umbrellas and promotional umbrellas, even a ceremonial umbrella for a Nigerian Chief. But in the nineteen eighties, a change in tax law, meaning that umbrella makers could no longer be classed as self-employed, challenged the viability of the company, causing James Ince & Sons to shed most of the staff and move to smaller premises in Hackney.

This is some of the history that Richard Ince does not think about very much, whilst deeply engaged through every working hour with the elegant contrivance of making umbrellas. In the twenty-first century, James Ince & Sons fashion the umbrellas for Rubeus Hagrid and Mary Poppins, surely the most famous brollies on the planet. A fact which permits Richard a small, yet justly deserved, smile of satisfaction as the proper outcome of more than two hundred years of umbrella making by seven generations of his family. A smile that in its quiet intensity reveals his passion for his calling. “My father didn’t want to do it,” he admitted with a grin of regret, “but I left school at seventeen and I felt my way in. I used to spend my Saturdays in Spitalfields, kicking cabbages around as footballs, and when we had the big tax problem, it taught me that I had to get involved.” This was how Richard oversaw the transformation of his company to become the lean operation it is today. “We are the only people who are prepared to look at making weird umbrellas, when they want strange ones for film and theatre.” he confessed with yet another modest smile, as if this indication of his expertise were a mere admission of amiable gullibility.

On the ground floor of his factory in Vyner St, is a long block where Richard unfurls the rolls of fabric and cuts the umbrella panels using a wooden pattern and a sharp knife. Then he carries the armful of pieces upstairs to Rita Smith, the irresistibly charming machinist with vivid green eyes that match her uniform, who sits perched by the window eager to sew the panels together, deploying a deceptively casual expertise honed over sixty years at her machine. Seventy-six year old Rita has sewn umbrella covers for three generations of Inces, Richard, Wilfred and Geoffrey, Richard’s father, whose picture she glances at occasionally for reassurance, high upon the wall in the workroom. “I never wanted to try anything else. My Aunt Eva got me the job when I was fifteen and I worked beside her at first. If I got it wrong, she said, ‘Do it again or I’ll knock you off your chair!’” confided Rita to me mischievously, enacting the role of Aunt Eva with fearsome conviction. “I started in Spitalfields in 1950 as a machinist.” she continued brightly, “Upstairs there used to be a cutter for ladies and gentlemen’s umbrellas and one for garden umbrellas, and below four machinists who did garden umbrellas and three who did ladies and gents’ and golf umbrellas, as well as six ‘tippers’ who sewed the covers on by hand.” All the time Rita spoke, she worked, almost automatically, sewing the triangular panels of slippery fabric in pairs, combining them into fours and then adding a thin, perfectly even seam, all round the circumference once she had made a complete cover of eight pieces.

As soon as the covers are sewn, Job Forster takes them and does the “tipping,” consisting of fixing the “points” (which attach the cover to the ends of the ribs), sewing the cover to the frame and adding the tie which is used to furl the umbrella when not in use. Job was making some huge umbrellas for The Berkeley, used by the doormen to shepherd guests through the rain, and I watched as he clamped the bare metal frame to the bench, revolving it as he stitched the cover to each rib in turn, to complete the umbrella. Then came the moment when Job opened it up to scrutinise his handiwork. With a satisfying “thunk,” the black cover expanded like a giant bat stretching its wings taut and I was spellbound by the drama of the moment – because now I understood what it takes to make one, I was seeing an umbrella for the first time, thanks to James Ince & Sons (Umbrella Makers) Ltd.

Richard Ince, seventh generation umbrella maker, prepares to cut covers for brollies.

Rita Smith of Bethnal Green began sewing covers for umbrellas in Spitalfields in 1950. “I’ve always liked the work. I only do two days now, but I go home and I just get bored to tears sitting on my bottom – I found myself playing Chinese patience the other day. I don’t think I’ll be here much longer though, I’m thirty years older than anyone else, but we all get on pretty well considering the difference in years. I’m not a trouble maker.”

Job Forster sews the cover to the ribs of the umbrella.

James Ince, born 1816

James John Ince, born 1830

Samuel George Ince, born 1853

Ernest Edward Sears, born 1870

Wilfred Sears Ince, born 1894

Geoffrey Ince, born 1932

Richard Ince, “Prepare for a rainy day!”

New photographs copyright ©  Chris Hill-Scott

Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Carol Harvey permalink
    January 20, 2011

    I want to thank you for the wonderful stories you post here and I receive in daily emails, for me it’s like having a grandparent who answers all the questions I wish I’d asked my parents/grand-parents when they were alive. They invoke so many personal memories as I join you on your journeys down memory lane. Thank you for taking the time to do it, and for doing it so well.

    Kind regards,
    Carol

  2. January 20, 2011

    Fascinating. I think one of my great-great-great uncles was working in the business in Spitalfields around the turn of the nineteenth century. Who knows, he may have been one of the original Mr Ince’s workers.

  3. Christine Rowntree permalink
    February 27, 2011

    My maiden name was Ince. As Ince is such an unusual surname, I was fascinated to read of James Ince, umbrella maker, and also of William Ince, cabinet maker. William Ince was my late father’s name. He was born in Northumberland in 1913. My brother Derek has been researching our family tree for a number of years. I wonder if there is any connection?

  4. pamela permalink
    March 6, 2011

    George Ince was an umbrella maker in Stoke by Clare. A relative of mine Ann Martin lived with him and his wife in 1851.. At the time he employed 2 men. Later she visited William who at that time [1861]was a tailor and also born in Clare. My grandmother talked of a shop in Shepherds Bush market. l wonder if there is a family connection. My grandmother was Allsop. Many thanks.

  5. Anne Webber permalink
    June 5, 2011

    I was born in 23 Clemence St., E.14. We had a semi-circular sewing machine which my mother
    always said was for making unbrellas I wish I had had a proper look at it now. We lived in a
    3 storey house with 9 rooms. The bottom 2 front rooms, instead of having a solid wall between
    them like the other houses, had a large window and my mother always said it was for passing
    the work through.

    The family names in the past were Hicks, Turner, Paver, Stokes.

    Have you any records to say this is correct please? One day I should go to the sewing machine
    museum to see if they have anything like it. Unfortunately I think my mother or sister disposed
    of it. I left home in 1951 when I got married.

    Anne Webber,
    17 West Ridge Gdns.,
    Greenford,
    Middx.,
    UB6 9PE

  6. dian maloy permalink
    August 26, 2011

    I live in america,i have an idea to improve the existing product,and benifit the lifes of the comsumers.I would sell u my idea for a small sum.would your company be interested?Thank u for your time in this matter.

  7. kim hurley permalink
    November 3, 2011

    I am trying to find out about a james powell born 1805 westminster umbella maker married afrances ward any information would be greatful as he is my 4x great gand father

  8. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    November 7, 2011

    The article is fascinating. Thanks very much. Christine Rowntree mentions that her brother, Derek Ince, has been researching the Ince family. I am keen to make contact with her concerning a member of the family. brooks@netvision.net.il

  9. Sue Davis permalink
    November 25, 2011

    The umbrella that Richard gave me in 1986 is still going strong – can’t say that about many products nowadays!

  10. janet bowles permalink
    January 21, 2012

    I WAS DOING MY FAMILY TREE ABOUT 4 YEARS AGO AFTER MY AUNT AND I WERE TALKING ABOUT THE FAMILY AND SHE JUST HAPPENED TO SAY THAT MY GRANFATHER’S FATHER’S FAMILY WERE UMBRELLA MAKERS IN LONDON, SO I DECIDED TO LOOK IN TO FURTHER AND WAS AMAZED TO SEE THEY WERE STILL TRADING I RUNG MY AUNT WHO COULDN’T BELIEVE IT.I MANAGED TO GET A PHONE NUMBER AND RUNG, RICHARD ANSWERED AND I SAID THAT WE MAYBE RELATED HE SAID HE DIDN’T THINK WE WERE AS HE HAD INQUIRIES BEFORE, AND THEY WERE NOT INDEED RELATED, AFTER MORE DIGGING ,I RUNG RICHARD AND TOLD HIM WERE INFACT 3RD COUSINS.WE ARRANGED TO MEET WITH THE REST OF MY COUSINS RICHARD BROUGHT SOME FAMILY PHOTOS OF THE OLDER FAMILY, AND MY AUNT GOT VERY EMOTIONAL AFTER SEEING PHOTOS OF HER GRANFATHER MY GREATGRANFATHER,MY AUNT WAS ABLE TO FILL IN THE GAPS OF THINGS MISSING ON RICHARDS SIDE , I AM VERY PROUD OF RICHARD AND HIS FAMILY FOR ALL THE HARD WORK THEY HAVE PUT IN, TO ALLOW A PIECE OF HISTORY TO CONTINUE, WHEN AT TIMES IT MAY HAVE BEEN EASIER JUST TO SAY ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. JAMES INCE MY GT,GT,GT GRANDAD WOULD BE EXTREMELY PROUD OF HIM,WELL DONE RICHARD I AM VERY PROUD OF YOU LOVE JANET

  11. Kevin Ronson permalink
    March 4, 2012

    A question really – Bren and I have been trying to trace a Robert Arthur Peck who fell in the Great War. We, and the Mayor of the village where he lies, are keen to find out what we can about him. We know that he was a “carman” before 1900 and an umbrella maker leading up to the war. We are trying to explore every link however tenuous it might be. We know that he lived in Kensal Rise and was married to Florence Jane. He was 40 when he died on Christmas Eve 1916.

    I realise that there is only a very small chance that he worked for James Ince, but no stone must be left unturned. We would be grateful for any pointers that you might be able to give us.

    Bren and Kevin

  12. bob daniels permalink
    September 3, 2012

    my great grandfather was an umbrella maker in spittlefields london he lived in keates street
    in 1841c
    bob daniels .

  13. January 2, 2013

    My Wife , Stephanie and I thoroughly enjoy our umbrellas. Stephanie also delights in her parasols.It has been interesting and fascinating to have seen umbrellas in the making. Stephanie has for some time enjoyed ladies frilled umbrellas ,including deep frilled umbrellas.
    She is particularly pleased with modern auto-opening umbrellas so ready to protect from sudden onset showers. Parasols are more leisurely than umbrellas and the modern versions protect from harmful Ultra-Violet radiation. Umbrella or parasol Stephanie when under her portable canopy always says :” Now ! That’s Better……….” and so it is .
    Peter and Stephanie Walsh.

  14. September 7, 2013

    What a delight. I receive these daily updates and I look forward to reading them on the train journey into the City. Thanks so much! I would like to ask is the photo of Rita Smith the same Rita, cousin of the Kray brothers… Her D.O.B., and background including her profession all fits in even the author’s reference to her green eyes, that she was noted for as a young blond in Bethnal Green in the 1940′s & 50′s. Mother was May, father was Albert and Rita went on to marry and have two children- Kim and David. Anyway, thanks for the history it fascinates me greatly.
    Many thanks & best regards xx

  15. Richard permalink
    September 28, 2013

    Sorry Susan i am sure she is a different Rita Smith. Our Rita grew up in Wellington Row as Rita Cole, near The Birdcage pub (Columbia Road), and went to the same junior school as R & R Kray but the names of the children you mention are not correct. She was also a red head in those days (apparently)!!

    thanks

  16. Maggie Chandler permalink
    April 30, 2014

    I worked for an umbrella company called Grant Barnett in Leyton, for 42 years, and I loved every moment I worked there,, so looking at these pictures brought back fond memories, thank you xx Maggie,,

  17. Dan Walker permalink
    July 22, 2014

    Hi Richard, it was a pleasure meeting you today at Grandads funeral. Would there be any chance sometime I could come and have a look at what you do please. I find family history and this sort of thing very interesting. My email is danny423walker@gmail.com and my phone number is 07875671088. Kind regards Dan

  18. Elizabeth Manley permalink
    August 5, 2015

    Hi, Do you still make umbrellas? I am looking for a 24 ” one,with a curved handle, not a folding one & am finding that this size appears not to be made any more. Colour is not so important, and the design of the fabric, as long as it is suitable for an elderly lady,doesn’t really matter either. I found one supplier who had this length, but they were children’s umbrellas with childish designs on them.
    I would be interested to hear from you if you can help me.
    Many thanks,
    Elizabeth Manley

  19. Luke the Drifter permalink
    November 8, 2015

    The wonders of socialism:

    “But in the nineteen eighties, a change in tax law, meaning that umbrella makers could no longer be classed as self-employed, challenged the viability of the company, causing James Ince & Sons to shed most of the staff…”

    Have fun collecting taxes from unemployed people.

  20. Brenda Quaife permalink
    April 9, 2016

    I wonder if you can help me. During the 1950/1960s I used to visit an Aunt for lunch and remember she used to assemble or sew the covers of umbrellas at home. She would have been 56 at that time, and should imagine that that must have been her occupation during her working life and wondered if the company she worked for was James Ince. I am wondering if James Ince still hold personnel records for the period 1929 onwards. I am researching my family history at the moment and trying to fill in more personal details for each ancester. Her name was Christina Ruby Cotterill nee Willis.

    Many thanks.

  21. richard permalink
    May 16, 2016

    Hi Brenda
    Outworkers were very common in our trade as being a seasonal one we needed flexibility with production. I do not recall your aunt’s name but that is not to say she didn’t work for us. The Bishopsgate Institute holds our archive and there is a wage book and i think an address book from that period. Contact them if you are able to come in to central London and have a look.
    Chances are she would have worked in an Umbrella factory somewhere probably before kids and then opted for outwork for family reasons. hope this helps.
    Richard Ince

  22. Muriel Hall permalink
    July 17, 2016

    Hi
    My Grandmother worked as an Umbrella Tipper in around 1900-1914 near Bethnal Green where she lived.
    I have a photo of ladies in a workshop which my Grandfather took around that time but do not know if it was at umbrella workshop .
    Let me know if you are interested in viewing it.
    I am trying to find out where it was taken.
    My grandparents moved to Edinburgh in 1914
    Regards
    Muriel hall

  23. richard permalink
    October 11, 2016

    Hi Muriel
    i would be interested in seeing your image. although there were a fair few makers in the East End it may well give an insight into production and set up which is always nice to see and appreciate.
    There is a short film on Pathe News website about Umbrella Making made in the fifties i think, if you’re interested.
    Look forward to hearing from you
    Regards
    Richard

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