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Colin Rosie, Hat Seller

January 24, 2014
by the gentle author

Over this last autumn and winter, Colin Rosie has established himself as one of Spitalfields Market’s most celebrated characters. Always debonair in his grey three-piece suit with gloves and sporting a topper, Colin has brought distinction to the market and gets photographed as many as fifty times a day by admiring tourists.

With shiny patent leather shoes, glittering diamond ear studs and waving his tablet computer authoritatively, Colin can tell you everything you wish to know about his carefully selected range of characterful second hand hats.

But less than a year ago, Colin was homeless and living on the streets. Existing like some latter-day ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow,’ even while sleeping on the street, Colin was determined to hold onto his self-respect as manifested in his dapper duds – yet he did not ever expect that his sartorial swagger would become his salvation. As I learnt when I kept him company on a quiet afternoon recently, while he was steaming an old hat to restore its former shape, and he told me his story.

“I was homeless until the end of May 2013 when No Second Night Out, a homeless charity, approached me sleeping outside Victoria Station. They helped me to sign on at a Job Centre and then I got a room in a YMCA hostel. They told me I was the only homeless person they had ever picked up in a top hat! Only I wasn’t actually wearing my top hat at the time because I was sleeping in a doorway and using it as a pillow. I always wear my top hat and, when I signed on at the Job Centre, they asked me if I had ever given any thought to whether I could sell top hats. The gist of it was if I could raise £100 they would lend me £100, so then I bought a lot of top hats and came here in August to the Spitalfields Market, and I’ve been here seven days a week ever since .

I used to have long curly hair but one day I decided to change. I’ve worked all over the world as a photographer and, when I lived in Russia seven years ago, I couldn’t explain to a hairdresser how I wanted my hair cut, so I shaved my head and when I was next back in London I got a top hat. I used to sell my photos here in the Spitalfields Market years ago, so when I was going to sell hats this was my first choice.

I am a Orcadian from Kirkwall and in Orkney, they say, ‘Either you all stay or you all leave.’ None of my family is in Orkney any more, I haven’t lived there for over forty years but I’ve got aunts, uncles and cousins who’ve never left. I’m fifty now and I left Orkney at nine years old, forty-one years ago. I grew up in army bases around the world but, whether I’ve lived in Iceland, Lithuania, Russia or America, I’ve always gravitated back to London.

Just because you are homeless, you don’t have to look homeless. I had gone from being well-off  to having a cardboard box for a bed. I owned only a holdall containing an overcoat, some trousers, a pair of shoes and my top hat. I had just 56p in my pocket. I put on my overcoat and top hat and got into all these fancy hotels to wash and shave. I did whatever I could to keep up appearances but, when everyone was heading home at night, I’d be left walking the streets. My shoes had no soles and I was eating daily in soup kitchens. Most nights, I walked around Kensington & Chelsea, because obviously I stood out like a sore thumb in my top hat and three piece suit, and I found it was safer there. I travel light, I could pack in half an hour because I don’t have many possessions.

I came here to Spitalfields for two months in June and July, getting to know the market before I started in August. I just came along and said I wanted to sell hats but I didn’t have enough for a stall, so I entered into an arrangement with Mal Hallett who let me have a table on his stall. I sold all my eight top hats on the first day, and then I went out and bought more hats and I never looked back. Within three weeks, I was off benefits and in profit. Now Mal & I are business partners – fifty-fifty – and our business is called ‘Last Stop For the Curious.’ I raise money for No Second Night Out – ten per cent of my turn-over goes to them.

I like hats. I wear them and they sell themselves. I’m talking with hatmakers Locke & Co, and Christies have been in touch too. Locke & Co came to see me at the weekend and I’m going to be their only outlet in the East End. I’ve taught myself how hats are made and how to restore them through research, I’ve worked with milliners since I started in the market. I’ve met a lot of milliners, some have even heard about me and come and approached me.

If you think you’ll never suit a hat then you never will and then there are those who collect hats, and everybody else is in between. You can easily tell someone’s shirt or shoe size by looking at them but heads are deceptive, the average head size is 57.”

Colin gets photographed by admirers as many as fifty times a day.

Colin Rosie, Hat Seller in Spitalfields Market

You may like to read these other Spitalfields Market stories

Matt Walters, Human Statue

Alex Guarneri, Cheesemonger

Les Bobrow, Wood ‘N’ Things

28 Responses leave one →
  1. January 24, 2014

    You tell many extraordinary stories, but this is one beats the lot. An amazingly meteoric rise to recognition, and yet it’s not exactly rags-to-riches either. Good luck, Colin Rosie. By the way, I’m one of those people who ‘doesn’t suit a hat’, I rather wish I did.

  2. January 24, 2014

    Oh wow! Well done you. I’m so glad that things are looking up for you. I wish you every success. It’s these stories that gladden my heart. There’s hope for my son yet who has been out of work for too long due to mental illness and nearly homeless because I would not throw him out. I’m hopeful.

  3. Sarah permalink
    January 24, 2014

    Your tale of brave courage is told with such a wonderful light touch! It matches your appearance. I wish you the very best – you deserve it.

  4. Joe permalink
    January 24, 2014

    I salute you sir ! What a gent.

  5. January 24, 2014

    I always wore a hat when I worked in the insurance industry way back before Colin was born and I recall the old advertising slogan “If you want to get ahead get a hat”; I loved wearing the old trilby’s (not a bowler).
    My grandmother bought me my first for my 15th birthday, I probably looked a complete clown but I didn’t care I just loved hats.

    And I’m glad to see that Colin does too :)

    Back then the sizes were a bit strange I wore a 678 that was 6 and 7/8 ths, 678 of what I never knew

  6. January 24, 2014

    Hats off to Colin Rosie — he is really a Bon Vivant and I admire those people!
    And by the way: I constantly wear my English flat cap, it has style!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  7. January 24, 2014

    Good for Colin, his story should encourage others not to give themselves up! Valerie

  8. Chris B permalink
    January 24, 2014

    What a touching story. There’s something wonderful about this chap’s refusal to allow destitution to get in the way of his dignity. His love of sartorial dress ended up giving him a living.

    All the best Colin, I’ll pop by next time I’m down East.

  9. Sarah Correia permalink
    January 24, 2014

    Wonderful story. Glad he is doing so well. Love the hats.

  10. Elaine Napier permalink
    January 24, 2014

    I saw Colin in Spitalfields Market when a friend and I were snatching coffees before joining your Writing Your First Novel course. I thought he must be a sartorially superior wedding guest as he strode past. Later, I realised my error when I saw him again by his stall of amazing hats.

    I love hats too – congratulations to you for your success and great taste in hats, Colin.

  11. Gary Arber permalink
    January 24, 2014

    An example to us all !
    Well done.
    Gary

  12. sprite permalink
    January 25, 2014

    I agree with the first comment: you tell many extraordinaries stories but this one beats the lot.

    I’m coming to buy a red hat some day to join the Red Hat society…. just saving a few more pennies.

    and then the rabbit
    said to the mad hatter…
    i’m late, i’m late, i’m late
    no matter said Alice
    one day you’ll wear purple

    sprite

  13. January 25, 2014

    Inspirational. Beautiful. Heartwarming.

  14. Wayne permalink
    January 28, 2014

    This website is pure delight. Whenever I need to be taken away from the pressures of life I always turn to this little treasure
    The photography is superb and the little stories anecdotes and other readers comments are always so inspiring
    It’s a very gentle journey going through all the different stories – thank you so much my little piece of calm sometimes of a bygone long forgotten age

  15. CHRIS BOURCHIER permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Well surprise surprise, there you are Colin. How many Guiness are you on a day now Colin, now that you’ve hit the big time ?? John and I will have to pop in and say hello to talk over old times, next time we’re in London. See you soon. Chris

  16. Mark Reich permalink
    May 3, 2014

    Hi:

    Your story about Colin is great. How can i contact Colin?

    I was at Spitalfield Market about 2 weeks ago and tried on this hat at the stall w. I didn’t get the proprietor’s name and contact info and I didn’t buy the hat- which of course I want to now.

    Do you know his
    contact info- email and telephone #- for that fellow? GREATLY appreciate if you can send any info to me.

  17. Barbara Wallace permalink
    February 6, 2015

    Bought a gorgeous Fedora today and met Colin.. It was a wonderful shopping experience.. I googled you Colin and read this.. So inspired by your story and the charity that supported you.. God bless you

  18. Simon Walmsleuy permalink
    April 9, 2015

    As a collector and someone who loves wearing hats I am going to drop by the market and look for Colin’s stall. And I wish him well in his endeavours to turn things around, it sounds as though he has found his vocation in life though hats of all things. I hope to pay a visit soon and check out your collection.

  19. Robert Morgan permalink
    May 20, 2015

    Today is May 20th 2015. I’ve just been listening to Colin on the radio (BBC Radio 4 – Midweek at 9am) and I found his personal story inspiring. I share Colin’s love of hats and his experience of homelessness. I found myself homeless also – many years ago (no drugs or illnesses involved – a marital/family breakup hit me very hard financially and emotionally). Thankfully now I am back living in under a roof and with some money in my pocket.
    I have had a love of hats since my 20s (I am now 48). I wear one almost every day and have
    (over the years) amounted a large collection of them. Most of my hats are ‘Christies’ hats but I have others from other manufacturers (different types and colours). Many people approach me and compliment me on wearing a hat. It happens almost on a weekly basis. Some people have even offered to buy the hat I am wearing right off my head (As Colin says in the article and I believe him – “I just wear them and the hats sell themselves”.
    For me, hats add character and intrigue to any outfit. In a crowded place my eye will always gravitate to a person who is wearing a hat. It compliments the wearer and those around them.
    Colin, if your reading this and you ever want to meet a guy with a similar passion for hats as yourself, please get in touch. I live in Edinburgh, but the next time I’m in London I’ll head over to Spitalfields to visit your stall and have a chat. Congratulations on turning a passion into a business. I wish you all the best and if you ever want to expand your business in Edinburgh, I’m your man :-)

  20. Elaine Shorrock permalink
    May 24, 2015

    Long may you prosper and may many take a leaf out of your book. x

  21. Marion permalink
    June 17, 2015

    Some weeks ago you had a boater from Kings Canterbury do you still have it ?

  22. Sam permalink
    June 30, 2015

    I didn’t realize I was living next door to a celebrity. It’s really good to know you.

  23. Isabella permalink
    September 17, 2015

    Love you Colin,

    what you do and how you are is amazing! You are a walking advert as i have always said and everyone admires you.

    From nothing to something so special you should be proud!

  24. Lehne Leverette permalink
    September 25, 2015

    Bought an amazing pink top hat from Mal and Colin when I was visiting Spitalfields in May of 2014. It traveled to Colorado with me and since, has been admired and coveted. Two amazing gents running a fab stall!! Love you both!!

  25. nichola permalink
    February 21, 2016

    I bought a hat from Colin at the weekend (it was bought for me as a gift). What a delightful experience. Colin is a gentleman and took time to find the right hat for me.

  26. July 20, 2016

    What an inspiring story :)
    I love reading stories like these.

  27. Tony Lane permalink
    August 25, 2017

    Met Colin yesterday as a hobby photographer at spitalfields. Let me take some great images and was a very charming man. No pun intended but hats off to you for getting back on your feet.

  28. Lori-Louise Boyton permalink
    September 10, 2017

    This is a brilliant article, I me Colin yesterday when I picked up a grey Fedora from his stall to try on. Straight away he approached me with such grace and elegance and that sold me before I had even made my mind up on the hat. He told me this incredible story and it’s something that will never leave me.

    I wanted to research more about him as felt he would have a story but didn’t expect this. Such a gentleman and I cannot wait to wear my grey Fedora with my winter boots. I shall be back for another colour very soon!

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