Terry Coleman, Umbrella Maker
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.
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