Skip to content

Terry Coleman, Umbrella Maker

November 7, 2011
by the gentle author

There are fewer umbrella makers in London now than you can count upon the spokes of one of their creations. Yet when I spoke with Terry Coleman, fifth generation umbrella maker and the most senior member of the trade still working in the East End, he boasted to me he had the oldest name in the world, as if it could be possible to romance his arcane profession still further. “Of all the names in the Domesday Book, only three remain and one is Coleman,” he informed me gruffly with a sagacious frown, “and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 626, it says, ‘Coleman and his men went back to their own country.’” – proposing that his venerable ancestry might extend even further.

It was suitably erudite patter to accompany the “slotting” of umbrellas – cutting the grooves in the wooden shaft that hold the hand-spring and top-spring, simple devices securing the umbrella in the “up” or “down” position – as we passed a quiet morning at James Ince & Sons Ltd, Britain’s oldest umbrella maker, founded in Spitalfields in 1805 and now operating from a modest factory next to the canal in Vyner St. “There were slotting machines but it’s much quicker to do it by hand. If you use the machine, it requires no skill – you simply feed them in,” Terry declared in disdain, without lifting his eyes from an intricate pastime that filled him with such evident delight.

“We are all umbrella makers in our family, my father, his father and his father, all my aunts and uncles were umbrella makers. My father had is own company, J.W. Coleman of Hackney, and I’ve been an umbrella maker from when I left school at fourteen – there was no choice! As children, we were threadling up the umbrella covers. My dad paid us so much a dozen and we enjoyed it. Me and my brothers were racing each other. Even before we left school, we learnt the trade. I started off as a frame maker but I can do everything – I am a frame maker, cutter, finisher, machinist and tipper. All defunct trades now.”

Richard Ince, the current incumbent of the business started by his forbears more than six generations ago and a man bearing the personal distinction of being Mary Poppins’ umbrella maker, stood across the other side of the workshop, occupied at another bench yet absorbing Terry’s monologue with quiet appreciation. “When me and my brothers are gone, you’ll be the only one.” said Terry, over his shoulder and catching Richard’s eye in an affectionate glance that was indicative of their shared history – both coming from families of East End umbrella makers stretching back generations and witnessing the sharp decline of the trade at the end of the last century. James Ince & Sons Ltd was once a major business in Spitalfields, occupying a prime position in Bishopsgate and employing a large workforce, until the nineteen eighties when a capricious government decided that – for tax purposes – umbrella makers, who had been self-employed for generations, were to become employees – thereby destroying an industry already struggling to compete with cheap imports.

“I’ve been associated with Ince for years and years.” continued Terry, At first, I worked for Richard’s grandfather, Wilfred.  He was a typical City gentleman. Sometimes, he’d ask me, ‘Would you go upstairs and make the frames?’ but the other frame makers used to say, ‘Slow down!’ because they made three dozen in a day whereas I could make a gross. I remember Richard’s father Geoffrey too, an absolutely lovely man who couldn’t offend anybody. He played the organ at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and I used to go and sit in the organ loft with him when he played lunchtime concerts.

I set up a little workshop of my own in Hackney and I made umbrellas for Inces, from sixteen-inch up to ten-feet diameter. At one time, I would say we had the monopoly in golfing umbrellas. They were all wooden-shafted then and golf was still a top-end pursuit in the nineteen sixties, so the market accommodated an expensive umbrella. It was my grandfather and his father who pushed the trade towards leisure, and I earned a good living from Ince as a frame maker. One day in 1963, I went in and there was a bundle of golf umbrellas on imported metal frames and Richard’s grandfather said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to catch on’ – but now that’s all there is. When I started an umbrella cost a week’s wages, and all the City gents had an umbrella and a bowler hat.

Umbrella makers were traditionally self-employed, if business picked up there was always a market for skilled craftsmen. I’m retired now, but I’ve kept my hand in by making umbrellas for Inces. I wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t have this order. I haven’t done this for twenty years.”

The copper-plated iron hand springs that Terry was fitting so expertly were from old stock manufactured in the nineteen fifties and Richard Ince had invited him to come in to fit them as part of a forthcoming collaboration between James Ince & Sons Ltd and Ally Capellino, the bag lady of Shoreditch. Ally has specified all aspects of the design of this exclusive batch of umbrellas which are being manufactured at the factory in Vyner St under the personal supervision of Richard Ince. And, once the frames are complete, I shall be returning to report upon the progress of the umbrellas when Richard cuts the covers and attaches them to the frames.

It was a rare privilege to spend a few hours among the last heroic umbrella makers of the East End and be party to their soulful history which began more than two centuries ago in Spitalfields, where their ancestors once contrived contraptions out of whalebone with covers made from silk woven locally. After all this time, they carry knowledge, techniques and language that are theirs alone. This was a trade derived from the sword-stick and walking-stick makers with strong connections to the tent makers and flag makers, part of the vast interconnected panoply of skilled artisans who once existed in the East End. “It’s nice to make something,” said Terry in understated satisfaction, admiring the bundle of wooden shafts each with gleaming hand-springs fitted by hand, the rare handiwork of the East End’s senior umbrella maker, a man with a lifetime’s experience in his trade and a man with the oldest name in the world.

Terry shows the hand-springs from the nineteen fifties to be used for the Ally Capellino umbrellas.

“We used to make umbrellas with a parrot’s head handle and a moving beak”

Richard Ince, sixth generation umbrella maker.

Terry Coleman, fifth generation umbrella maker.

You may also like to read about

James Ince & Sons Ltd, Umbrella Makers

Ally Capellino, Bag Lady

28 Responses leave one →
  1. November 7, 2011

    A lovely interview and piece. It is so sad that another traditional trade is dying out. But of course, I would no more pay a week’s salary, or even a day’s, for a hand-made umbrella than the next person. Not when I can get one for a tenner and not worry if the wind turns it inside out after a year’s use and bends a spoke…

    I know time moves on and some trades do disappear, but others appear. But still, when you learn of people with a lifetime’s skills, which will likely not be passed on, there’s a sadness.

  2. November 7, 2011

    Fascinating. Not a trade that one thinks of yet we still use loads of umbrellas.

  3. November 7, 2011

    I’d never have guessed that umbrella-making is still a craft skill. But sadly, people like me can’t give Terry Coleman a livelihood. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to hang onto an umbrella for more than 10 days, so bargain-basement prices are everything to me in this instance

  4. jeannette permalink
    November 7, 2011

    a friend of mine fell in love with poland just as it was emerging from 50 years of soviet colonization. one of the things she fell in love with was that everyone had kept, and worn, and carefully repaired — like the 1950s cars of havana, which run on a brake fluid composed of shampoo and brown sugar, they told me — their grandpas’ savile row suits. there was, likewise, a trade of umbrella repairers in poland. the mind-boggling sculptor magdalena abakanowicz invented a marvelously articulate sculptural medium — burlap and glue — because there was no other.

    i’ve been thinking about downward mobility and the marvelous DIY culture (prick your finger, for example) of the british punk/straight edge generation. hopefully coleman will find a punk apprentice to carry this on another 2000 years.

  5. November 9, 2011

    Looking forward to seeing the final result. we have the finishing touch ready to apply.

  6. November 9, 2011

    It looks like it’s time to come in from the rain and take a rest after a job so well done.
    Wait, those aren’t raindrops, they’re teardrops.

  7. Ana permalink
    November 11, 2011

    This post is a great reminder on the importance of workmanship.
    These days, most umbrellas are mass produced in some factory in China, they may be a bargain to buy, but their poor durability and structure means that they cost more in the long run.
    If I knew of an umbrella maker in Sydney, I’d definitely consider a purchase.

  8. Betty Mason permalink
    November 15, 2011

    I too come from a long line of umbrella manufacturers, The Caffell family, I have a photograph taken outside The Umbrella Hospital in Galway street, in the City.
    I understand that there was an umbrella shop near Tottenham Road, where my relatives worked, perhaps you may know more than I, it would be good to know more about this.
    The records show that many of the family worked in this industry.

  9. cy matthews permalink
    November 29, 2011

    hi terry
    my mother rene mcneill was your dads cousin and sometimes she used to work for him, my mother was the only one in her family to work in the umbrella trade. mother told me many stories about her grandfather william coleman. great to read all about you.
    cy

  10. Jenny Coleman permalink
    December 3, 2011

    Hi Cy,

    My dad (Terry) Remembers your mum very well. It would be great if you could get in touch??

    jennicole7@aol.com.

  11. melora Assal permalink
    December 3, 2011

    Hi jenny my mum knows your dad!

  12. Carol Sweeney permalink
    June 24, 2012

    Look wonderful. Please send me a land line tel. no. I can contact you on. I am part of the Buy British campaign and you may be interested in knowing what we are doing for British Manufacturers! Speak soon hopefully.

  13. Denis McWilliams permalink
    July 16, 2012

    Being a typical Scotsman, I always look for the best quality at a fair price, and like most people have had my share of disappointments over the decades by trying a bargain priced ‘lookalike’ or ‘copy’ product. You have to admire people whose skills and craftsmanship continue to be passed down through the generations in order to produce quality items. The price you pay in part reflects this, and by their continually developing and improving the finished article, we as users get the best complete package.

  14. November 3, 2012

    i’ve linked to this and the ince post in a sustainable fashion post, thanks.
    tp://jeannettesmyth.com/2012/11/02/sustainable-fashion-upcycling-adults-clothes-for-children/

  15. Peter Valentine permalink
    January 9, 2013

    Hi, Betty Mason.
    I am also related to the Caffell Family. Other members of the family owned the Brass Foundry in Maryland Road. Stratford.
    Do you by any chance have any old photos of the Caffell Family and the Umbrella Shop that you can send to me..
    Peter.
    petervalentine@blueyonder.co.uk

  16. Kim permalink
    September 30, 2013

    I would like to purchase an umbrella similar to the one Mary poppins had. Can you help?

    Kind regards
    Kimberley

  17. john cernik permalink
    May 23, 2014

    my great grand father was an umbrella maker in london in the middle of 19th c
    his name was saward can some one help me find out what compny if any he worked for

  18. Julie barber permalink
    August 18, 2014

    Hello. Your son Terry helps us with our hen flock in Norfolk!! Really interesting article !!!

  19. val smith permalink
    August 26, 2014

    where are you exactly, i live in sussex. what i your phone number please

  20. Abbigail permalink
    September 26, 2014

    I have just stumbled across this lovely piece in my search to become an umbrella-maker/repairer’s apprentice/intern. I can think of no skill i would rather have, I am 23 and would like to learn a tradition skill to bring back to the North East of England and have always dreamed of my own little umbrella shop .. please could you put me in contact with Terry Coleman, or someone who would be willing to teach me the trade?

  21. Henry Roberts permalink
    January 6, 2015

    My great great grandfather James Roberts (born 1835 died 1911) was a Walking Stick and Umbrella Maker in both Spitalfields and Whitechapel area during his life starting as a teen apprentice. Being you are in the trade, would there be a way to find out if he worked for a specific company by way of employee records or if he owned a business? I am also interested in how he would have made the sticks back in those days. Any help would be appreciated.

  22. richard permalink
    January 16, 2015

    I am sorry but we have no records (at James Ince) going back that far. Terry’s ancestors were based in Hoxton and then in Hackney making and sub contracting to the trade. As far as i am aware they have no records either. You will have to trawl the street directories (Kelly’s etc) to find out if he had his own business. The Bishopsgate Institute has quite a few in their ref library.
    All the best

  23. james sedgley permalink
    February 29, 2016

    do you repair umbrellas
    I do love a British umbrella but some need repair Fox repair their own but the others I cant get fixed

  24. Tim Monaghan permalink
    July 19, 2016

    Hi,

    Would you be able to make me a single umbrella or do you have a minimum order?

    Many thanks,

    Tim.

  25. Bob Carey permalink
    February 27, 2017

    A couple of generations of my family – Careys and Heudebourcks – were umbrella makers. Is it possible to know if they worked for James Ince? Is there a register of East London Umbrella Makers?

  26. richard permalink
    June 27, 2017

    Hi Bob
    don’t recognise the names; sorry. you don’t mention which period in time though.

    No such register exists just the street and trade directories of the day.
    There was The Umbrella Federation but that was a trade organisation and as such didn’t get involved with employees. it disbanded after the Far east got going with mass production

    all the best

    richard

  27. Ann Frost permalink
    June 28, 2017

    Looking at my family treeI found that my ancestors were Huguenots and one is mentioned as being an umbrella frame maker .(they resided in Spitalfields)!

  28. Ann Frost permalink
    June 28, 2017

    Thankyou

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS