CHIT CHAT – The Umbrella Maker, the Dairyman & the Paper Bag Seller
Last week, I invited Richard Ince (6th generation umbrella maker of James Ince & Sons), Henry Jones (4th generation dairyman of Jones Brothers) and Paul Gardner (4th generation paper bag seller of Gardners Market Sundriesmen) along to the Bishopsgate Institute for a chit chat about family businesses in Spitalfields. Colin O’Brien took their portraits.
I’m Paul Gardner, a fourth generation paper bag man and scale repairer. My business started in 1870 in Spitalfields and it was my great grandfather – James Gardner, that began it, and he carried on until he died, when my grandfather, Bertie, went into the business. He was sent to the Western Front in 1917 and got called off the train because he was one of the only people who could do scales repairs in the area, and it saved him. He carried on until my dad, Roy, came into the business in the 1940s, he was in the Elite Air Arm in the Second World War. Slowly we diversified into selling paper bags, carrier bags, and things like that, shop sundries really. My dad carried on in the shop until 1968 when he died at forty-two and my mum had to run the shop and leave us to get ready to go to school by ourselves – until 1972, when I took over.
It was something I wanted to do really. On the first day of my school holidays, my mum said to me, “You’ll have to go up to the shop,” and that was it. I think she asked me, “Do you mind working the first Saturday? Just working six days a week to start with?” I said “Alright” and I was doing it for twenty-six years. I used to get to the shop at half five but I finished by one o’clock so that wasn’t too bad. It was always entertaining up there, you had all sorts of different characters coming in the shop. When the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market moved to the Hackney Marshes it was a big worry how we would continue, but slowly the area has improved for me in the last few years with lots of little markets opening up. I do want to carry on as long as I can because its something I’ve done all my life. And the other thing is that most of my customers are my friends now.
My name’s Henry Jones of Jones Brothers Dairy. My grandfather, Henry, started it in 1877. He came from the family farm in Borth, near Aberystwyth. They were cow keepers and they drove the cows up from Wales and kept them around the Barbican area, milked them and then bottled the milk and actually delivered it around the City and East End. My grandmother was Sarah and they had thirteen children and all lived beside Middlesex St, in Stoney Lane. They actually lived behind the business and you can appreciate how difficult it is to keep cows, run a business, deliver milk and have thirteen children.
When my grandfather passed away in 1921, he left my grandmother with five children under the age of six to bring up, as well as running the business. She did marvellously well and when she passed away in 1937, two hundred people went to Paddington station to see her off, because she was very good to the local community. She’s buried in Borth, same as my grandfather, back where our roots are.
The children each had shares, but my father Henry and one of his brothers bought the shares off the other siblings and that’s how the name changed to Jones Brothers. When my father and his brother went off to serve in the war and the girls ran the business, delivering the milk all around the city. After the war the brothers came back and, in 1968 when Stoney Lane was pulled down, we moved into the new shop, where we’ve been for forty-two years, in Middlesex Street. I’m fortunate my children follow in my footsteps – and I’m very proud, one of the proudest people around, that I’ve managed to keep my children involved.
I’m Richard Ince, sixth generation umbrella manufacturer. Circa 1800 or so, my ancestors came down from mid-Suffolk, round Cavendish way, moving to this part of town because silk was woven here and I imagine whalebone came off the docks – mainly out the front door, but maybe out the back door as well – for ladies’ carriage parasols.
Two or three Inces merged into James Ince & Sons, round about 1830. My father did all the research into the history and he just left me the umbrellas. So I do different research, buying old Ince umbrellas or finding some of the patents that my ancestors took out, I know of three. We had about half a dozen premises in Spitalfields including the one next door to the Bishopsgate Institute, plus we were based where Pizza Express are right next door and we were based in Norton Folgate too, I believe we were also in White’s Row at some point. But the biggest property was the corner of Spital Square, 298 Bishopsgate, where we were for about forty-eight years, manufacturing ladies umbrellas, gents umbrellas, what people call parasols these days but then were called garden umbrellas or sun umbrellas.
We had a big export trade through the NAAFI and Army and Navy Stores and organisations like that. We had a big staff, too up to about thirty people, but today I employ three, plus myself, and it’s been like that for the last fifteen years. Nowadays, we do niche work – umbrellas that perhaps you wouldn’t think of, flame retardant umbrellas for welders, lot of theatre props, film work. As Paul Gardner was saying, it’s never dull, every day’s different, and it’s always a challenge.
I’m fairly sure we’re two hundred years old. So we’re looking forward, but obviously we’re not sure what the next two hundred – no, next twenty years – will bring…
PAUL GARDNER: Two years!
RICHARD INCE: I think the biggest challenge will be staff, finding people who are interested in craft. We’re not a sweat shop, we pay proper money and you treat as you wish to be treated. That’s what my grandfather did and he drove the business through the war years.
HENRY JONES: I would say though it’s always difficult for an old business to come through. It is a success story - Spitalfields - without a doubt and it’s lovely to be involved in it, but if you’re a small trader, it’s very difficult because the rents are pushed up by the big companies coming in.
PAUL GARDNER: With me now, I’ve got Urban Outfitters and Tesco and Nandos more or less opposite me so that my last lease was quite hard to negotiate. I’m worried for the people in the Spitalfields Market, some of the rents for small shops are 90,000 pounds – it’s madness really. In Cheshire St, three shops moved out about a year ago and the places are still empty because they’re asking too much rent.
RICHARD INCE: I’m so surprised you’re still going, with respect Paul.
PAUL GARDNER: I know.
RICHARD INCE: It’s fantastic.
PAUL GARDNER: It’s a unique shop. You can get things off the internet, but once people come into my shop they find it different. It’s such a mess – you can hardly get in the door. It’s a selling point.
RICHARD INCE: But you know where it all is, don’t you? It’s organised chaos.
HENRY JONES: Do you sell predominantly paper still?
PAUL GARDNER: It’s gone full circle, I used to sell 50,000 carrier bags a week which were all plastic. I find that the people in the markets just go for the cheapest, but the shops now are going over to paper and I’ve had a few film companies, they buy them for extras in the films. I think there’s a film about Paul Raymond coming out in Soho …
HENRY JONES: Richard, you’re doing some umbrellas for films, aren’t you?
RICHARD INCE: We’ve done all the props for Singing in the Rain. Front three rows get wet, very wet apparently. We’ve done about four Harry Potter films with various props, Dumbledore’s Umbrella, Mrs McGonagall’s umbrella, Hagrid’s umbrella, background props…
PAUL GARDNER: That’s amazing, if you can do that.
RICHARD INCE: It’s being able to turn your hand to something no one else can do.
HENRY JONES: Something special?
RICHARD INCE: Indeed. We did all the props for the Mary Poppins shows. And that was a nice earner, because it went from the West End to Broadway, then touring the States, and there’s another one touring the Far East, Australia and Japan. So you thought one order was nice and then …
HENRY JONES: Can I get one of them umbrellas?
RICHARD INCE: What where she flies off? Do you know, the funniest thing about that was, when it first started in the West End, she was literally breaking one of those props every other night
PAUL GARDNER: Handy.
RICHARD INCE: Well it was for me, because they’d all come back for repair or replacement.
PAUL GARDNER: You know with your dairy Henry, do you go out delivering things all the time? Because that must be hard to now to get around London or do you still go out very early in the morning?
HENRY JONES: We start a lot earlier than what we used to – about 1 o’clock in the morning now.
PAUL GARDNER: Blimey, that’s not much fun is it really?
RICHARD INCE: Are we holding you up?
HENRY JONES: (Laughs) I’m used to it! It’s changed, we deliver to businesses, to schools, to cafes, restaurants, we haven’t any residential customers any more. We got through to the last two companies in the tenders to deliver to the Olympics. It’s hard, you have to go through such a long process today with all the paper work you have to fill in. The difficulty I find is I get to the top level and fill in all the paperwork and then they go, “Oh, you’re not on the list of approved suppliers,” so the difficulty for the small business is to get into these companies at all. And obviously, if you have a small profit margin, it’s nice to have that turnover – it pays your rent, pays your rates, lets you go into the pub and have a drink, doesn’t it?
PAUL GARDNER: Only once a week!
RICHARD INCE: The tender process for the Olympics is fantastic, you think “great opportunity” and yes, I was asked, and I can tell you about this because they’ve mothballed the idea and it’s too late to get 7,600 umbrellas, one for every athlete in the opening and closing ceremonies. You have to provide three years of profit and loss accounts, proof of professional indemnity, employer’s liability, and you have to have it all on computer so that you can upload it to them. So, thankfully, that tender went away because I…
PAUL GARDNER: Good job they didn’t need any paper bags from me then.
RICHARD INCE: It promised a lot didn’t it? The theory was great because we’re all within a stone’s throw of the Olympics.
HENRY JONES: I was able to fight through it, because I’ve got another generation below me that’s actually capable of doing the paperwork for me.
RICHARD INCE: Everything above 7000 pounds has to go through the tender process, so that’s a lot of tenders. Fortunately, I’m going through someone else now who’s already done the tender process and been accepted.
PAUL GARDNER: So you’re making some things?
RICHARD INCE: I’m not allowed to tell you too much because obviously they’d shoot me.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
QUESTION: Henry, just going back to what you were saying about your grandparents coming up from Wales, bringing their cows with them, obviously at that time it was a real feat? It would be a real feat now. Why did they do it?
HENRY JONES: They drove the cows up and milked them and sent them back again. I don’t know how they ever did it. At the time, London was a magnet for Welsh people to come and start dairies. I think a lot of Welsh people came up – D.H. Evans, John Lewis, Peter Jones, all the big stores.
QUESTION: Throughout the time that your families have been in the area have you ever been aware of any traders’ association existing?
RICHARD INCE: No.
HENRY JONES: I think it’s an excellent idea to be quite honest with you.
QUESTION: What would you like it to do?
HENRY JONES: My business is quite active, promoting ourselves but there needs to be more promotion for the likes of Paul Gardner, people need to know that he’s there. Obviously what we’re all after is getting customers and being introduced to larger businesses in the area, especially larger businesses, where they can be supplied from us.
PAUL GARDNER: We need to unite the small shops because, in the next few years, unless they stick together, they’ll all go – especially if the rents keep on going up – and the rates. I think my rates have doubled in three years. It is a worry for me, what’s going to happen in the next few years. So, it would be good if we could bring the small businesses together, so we have more of a voice. Because, you’re by yourself and you’re confronted by big rent increases… I’ve had it over the years where I was scared of answering the phone. Luckily, I came through, but it isn’t much fun when you’re on your own, so if we can unite the small businesses that would be a good idea, I think.
Portraits copyright © Colin O’Brien