Colin Rosie, Hat Seller
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