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At William Gee Ltd

August 10, 2017
by the gentle author

Speaking as a lifelong connoisseur of quality haberdashery, let me say that if you are in need of a button or a reel of thread, there is no finer place to go than William Gee Ltd at 520 Kingsland Rd. For the haberdashery lover, even the windows at William Gee set the pulse racing with their ingenious displays of words contrived from zips – yet it was my privilege recently to explore behind the scenes at this glamorous theatre of smallwares, trimmings, threads, buttons and zippers, visiting the mysterious warren of storerooms at the rear of the shop, where I met the self-respecting guardians of this beloved Dalston institution that styles itself as “trimmings for all trades.”

My guide was Jeffrey Graham, maestro of the proud company boasting London’s largest selection of zip fasteners. He led me up an old brown lino-covered staircase between walls panelled in wood-effect formica to the locked, dusty upper room lined with happy photos of works’ outings and jamborees of long ago. Here Jeffrey  brought the title deed to the property dating from the sixteenth century when this was Henry VIII’s land – Henry was the king that the Kingsland Rd refers to –  and he had stables here for hunting when there was still forest, recalled today only in the name of Forest Rd. Then, once we had established this greater chronological perspective, Jeffrey brought out the tiny sepia photograph of William Goldstein that illustrates where the haberdashery business began.

“William Goldstein started in 1906 with two pounds in the kitty selling buttons and trimmings, and he changed the company name to William Gee. This was across the road where Albert’s Cafe is now, but after several years he needed larger premises and moved into the current building. He had two sons, Alfred & Sidney, and I knew both of them. Alfred died in 1970 and Sidney worked until he was eighty-five, and died four or five years ago. They grew the business and made it one of the largest of its type in the country, at a time when there was a large textile industry in the East End – which was full of clothing factories until a few years ago.

In the middle of the last century, there were more than eighty people working here. I remember coming in as a child and there were twelve ladies who all had their own button-making machines for covering buttons and they’d all be sitting there jabbering away making buttons, and some had machines at home and even carried on making them there too. When I was twelve or fourteen, I did a holiday job helping out and going out on deliveries with the drivers, so I saw a lot of the places we delivered to. My impression was that everything was bustling, everyone was busy, no-one had any patience and everyone knew everyone.

My father, David Graham, had a similar business at 77 Commercial St. He served all the factories in the little streets around Spitalfields and my grandfather had a haberdashery shop before him, on Brick Lane, M.Courts – it was still there in name until very recently. In the early sixties, the two businesses merged and my father became managing director of William Gee and we were supplying manufacturing companies that made uniforms and corporatewear, brideswear companies, hospitals, sportswear companies, hatters in Luton, – anyone really.We were doing a wholesale business in bulk that was very competitive.

The heyday was in the sixties through into the eighties, before manufacturers began to have their clothes made by cheaper labour in Eastern Europe, North Africa, or the Far East where much of the clothing is made today. It closed many factories and suppliers, they could not compete. It was no accident that people talk about “sweatshops,” because there wasn’t legislation to control how they should be organised then, but after legislation was enforced employers could not compete with overseas competitors.

It became a thing that you were delivering to shippers rather than factories, and  then the types of customers became smaller and more varied – from engineers and printers, to film and theatre companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera, and lots of designers including, Gareth Pugh, Alexander McQueen Matthew Williamson, Vivienne Westwood, Caroline Charles and Old Town. What has come instead is a cottage industry, where individual designers are setting up and making a business out of it, and one of the largest sources of sales in recent years have been the colleges for fashion, textiles and art departments. But there are so many of them now that I wonder what will all the students do afterwards?”

Leaving this question to resolve itself we set out to visit the departments. First the button department which fills the shop next door, where buttonmaker, Janet Vanderpeer, presides over neat shelves stacked with rare ancient buttons from companies that closed years ago. Here I found her secreted behind a curtain in a cosy den, placidly making fabric-covered buttons at a press. Did she  like it? A nod to the affirmative. How long had she been doing it? “A good while.” And without missing a beat she kept the buttons coming.

From here, we passed behind the shop to the three storey warehouse where the comprehensive supply of zip fasteners are kept and tended by their own designated keeper “You might think a zip is just zip,” said Jeffrey, rolling his eyes and gesturing to the lines of shelves. Then we stepped out into Forest Close whence the works’ coach parties departed in the nineteen fifties and crossed the road to the large warehouse where Janet’s brother David Vanderpeer, despatch manager, who joined the company thirty years ago at the age of sixteen, inhabits his own cosy den complete with microwave and ceramic leopard.

All fourteen staff at William Gee today have been there at least ten years and there is a sense of quiet mutual understanding which enables everything to run smoothly. Jeffrey told me a man will come in to say that his grandmother sent him here to buy buttons as a child and then ten minutes later another senior gentleman will come in to say the same thing. Yet in this appealingly utilitarian shop, that appears sublimely unaffected by any modern intervention, whoever comes through the door to stand between the two long counters is met with respect and patience. Even the old lady who did a high kick to place her ankle on the counter, when I was there, in order to display the kind of elastic she required was met with unblinking courtesy. And when Jeffrey Graham informed me authoratively, “The styles of clothing may have changed but the basic components are the same whatever the fashion.” I could hardly disagree.

William Goldstein’s haberdashery shop in 1906, that became William Gee.

A leaving party for Ivy Brandon in the seventies, with David Graham on the far right and Sidney Gee on the far left.

Sidney Gee & David Graham celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary in 1981

The warehouse round the corner in Forest Rd.

Princess Diana in a coat with lining supplied by William Gee, 1986.

Jeffrey Graham, Managing Director of William Gee.

Janet  Vanderpeer, Buttonmaker.

David Vanderpeer, Despatch Manager.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    August 10, 2017

    I didn’t think such places existed anymore! Like hardware shops (the smells!), they seem largely to have been made extinct by the internet or subsumed into sub-departments of failing chains. It’s nice to meet a survivor.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    August 10, 2017

    Echoing Jim M
    I may have to go there, since I’m one of those people who occasionally needs reels of obscure-coloured wools ( Darning tweed-jackets for the use of! )

  3. August 10, 2017

    So glad the place still exists, I remember the shop well. Valerie

  4. Sparks permalink
    August 10, 2017

    Thank you for the wonderful tour of Gee’s, I have passed it many times at weekends but it’s never open on Saturdays – I wasn’t sure if they were open to the public at all.
    I hope they are able to keep going for a good number of years.

  5. Stephen Barker permalink
    August 10, 2017

    Jim, I was going to make the comparison with hardware shops as well. Long may the business continue.

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    August 10, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for your colorful piece about these haberdashery survivors in London. Long may they continue.

    Reminds me that last year I had occasion to try to match a button on a jacket I owned. It had been many decades since I pursued such a quest. I could not believe how difficult it was to find any store actually selling buttons! I had remembered a very enterprising “Windsor Button Shop” nearby in my youth – now long gone.

    Finally came across something to fill the bill in a fabric store – but not the same…

  7. August 10, 2017

    I remember shops like this one when I was a kid. Long may it continue and more people discover and buy from it.

  8. August 10, 2017

    I was quite taken by how “hand made” the window displays were. As if, perhaps, the employees had come in early and done them themselves, using anything at hand. “Here, we could spell out the name in buttons…….and, wait a minute, how about using strands of trimmings to form
    streamers? Yes, that’s it.” Everything about this place is inviting — I could spend hours there.
    GA, thanks for knowing how much we love to see sample cards and signage.
    Another discovery. Another reason to marvel.

  9. August 10, 2017

    I too thought of hardware stores; indeed thought the essay might be about one, rather than a haberdashery.

    Why? Maybe the look of the first photograph: the broad open counters, the overall color scheme (ca 1965), the stuff hanging from walls…

    Lovely story.
    And the photo of Janet Vanderpeer, Buttonmaker. Nice to be reminded that buttons like everything else, need to be made by someone!

  10. Gary Arber permalink
    August 10, 2017

    This post revives a memory from the past of my old printing works.,In the 1940′s and 1950′s we used to print for a cardboard box maker in Hackney Road called Sollash, he made boxes for William Gee, he sent van loads of flat cardboard on which we had to print the name “William Gee” he then made them into packing boxes for the company’s products.
    Gary

  11. August 11, 2017

    Lady Diana was not a Princess, she was Lady Diana Princess of Wales.

    HRH Katherine Duchess of Cambridge is not called ‘princess’; neither is Prince Charles wife, HRH Camilla Duchess of Cornwall

    Why do people call Lady Diana, Princess? Especially English people who should know better.

    I’m English! I doubt if this will pass for publication! :(

  12. Marcelle Garner permalink
    August 11, 2017

    What an amazing shop.I am always complaining about the lack of Haberdashery shops .They are sadly missed.Here in Australia there are only superstores where one can buy haberdashery & they only sell a small amount,normally not having what one needs.plus if one does not have a car ,As I do not it means difficult public transport journeys .If I still lived in London this is where I would go. Such a wonderful history.Thank you.

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