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Terry Smith, Envelope Cutter

July 25, 2013
by the gentle author

There is not much that Terry Smith does not know about envelopes. He has been cutting them for fifty years at Baddeley Brothers, the long-established family firm of fine stationery manufacturers in Hackney. “When I tell people I make envelopes, sometimes they look at you and ask, ‘What does it take to make envelopes?’ Terry revealed to me with a knowing smile, “So I tell them to get hold of a piece of paper and a knife and a ruler, and try to cut out the shape – because that is the trade of envelope making.”

Envelopes, especially of the brown manila variety, are mostly mundane objects that people prefer not to think about too much. But, at Baddeley Brothers, they make the envelopes of luxury and the envelopes of pleasure, envelopes with gilt crests embossed upon the flap, envelopes with enticing windows to peer through and envelopes lined with deep-coloured tissue – envelopes to lose yourself in. This is envelope-making as an art form, and Terry Smith is the supreme master of it.

Did you know there are only four types of envelope in the world? Thanks to Terry, the morning post will never be the same as I shall be categorising my mail according to styles of envelope. Firstly, there is the Diamond Shape, made from a diamond-shaped template and in which all four points meet in the middle – once this is opened, it cannot be resealed. Secondly, there is the “T” Style, which is the same as the Diamond Shape, only the lower flap ends in a straight edge rather than a point – permitting the top flap to be tucked underneath, which means the  envelope can be reused. Thirdly, there is the Wallet, which is a rectangular envelope that opens on the long side. And lastly, the Pocket – which is a rectangular envelope that opens upon the short side.

“The skill of it is to make all the points meet in the middle,” confided Terry, speaking of the Diamond Shape, and I nodded in unthinking agreement – because by then I was already enraptured by the intriguing world of bespoke envelope-making.

“I was born in Shoreditch, and my mother and father were both born in Hackney. My dad was a telephone operator until the war and then he became a chauffeur afterwards. My first job, after I left school at fifteen, was at a carton maker but I was only there for three or four weeks when a friend came along and said to me, would I like to work in a ladies clothing warehouse? And I did that for a year until it got a bit iffy. The Employment Exchange sent me along to Baddeley Brothers and I joined when I was seventeen, and stayed ever since.

The company was in Tabernacle St then and I worked in the warehouse alongside the envelope cutters. It was a good thing because as somebody left another one joined and I worked with them, and I picked stuff up. Eventually when one left, they said to me, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, give me a try.’ At first, I did the easy ones, punching out envelopes, and then I started to learn how to make the patterns and got into bespoke envelopes.

It is something that I should like to pass on myself, but I have not found anyone that can handle the paper. Once you have got the paper under the guillotine, it can be hard to get just the shape you want. And it can be quite difficult, because if the stack shifts beneath the pattern it can be very tricky to get it straight again. After you have trimmed the paper in the guillotine, then you put it in the adjustable press, and set up your pattern to cut through the paper and give you the exact shape of the envelope. I design all the patterns and, if we need a new knife, I design the shape and make the pattern myself. All of this can be done on a computer – the trade is dying, but this firm is thriving because we do bespoke. If a customer comes to us, I will always make a sample and nine times out of ten we get the job. You won’t find many people like me, because there’s not many left who know how to make bespoke envelopes.

I retired at sixty-five after I trained somebody up, but two months later I got the phone call saying, ‘Will you please come back?’ That was two years ago nearly and I was pleased to come back because I was getting a bit bored. It’s a great pleasure producing envelopes, because I can do work that others would struggle with. There’s a lot of pressure put upon you, you’ve got a couple of machines waiting and a few ladies making up the finished envelopes.

I was brought up with sport and I ran for London, I am a good all-rounder. I am a swimming instructor with disabled people at Ironmonger’s Row Baths. Every morning, I do press ups and sit ups to keep in shape – a good hour’s work out. I know that when I come into work, I’m ready to go. I’m probably fitter than most of the people here.

They’ve asked me how long can I go on making envelopes and I answer, ‘As long as I am able and as long as I am needed.'”

Terry at work making envelopes in 1990 in Boundary St.

Terry sets a knife to cut the final shape of a stack of envelopes

Die cutting, 1990

Jim Roche checking the quality of foiling on envelopes

Checking the quality of foiling, 1990

Alan Reeves and envelope machine

Alan Reeves and envelope machine, 1990

Gary Cline

Die press proofing, 1990

Folding envelopes by hand

Folding envelopes by hand, 1990

Gita Patel & Wendy Arundel – “We are the best hand finishers”

Proofing Press, 1990

Alan Reeves, Gary Cline, Terry Smith and Jim Lambert.

Baddeley Brothers at Boundary St in the building that is now the Boundary Hotel, 1990

Colour photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

Black & white photographs copyright © Baddeley Brothers

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Glenn permalink
    July 25, 2013

    Fascinating! I always thought it was done by a machine…..
    Thanks for another local small business story.
    You always capture the people so well.

  2. SBW permalink
    July 25, 2013

    Fantastic to learn about Terry, very much admire his skills and expertise required to make these beautiful products, as well as his fitness regime! Thank you.

  3. Christine Carder permalink
    July 25, 2013

    Yet another fascinating post,I am so enjoying my Spitalfields Life start to each day.Thankyou.

  4. July 25, 2013

    Thankyou so much for another wonderful story which is indeed intriguing.
    Lovely to meet you Terry… and your colleagues 🙂 …

  5. Michael Brown permalink
    July 25, 2013

    Another fascinating look at life in the East End.

  6. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    July 26, 2013

    How fascinating I never really thought about them.I love the ones lined with tissue paper,they make you want to write letters or send invitations!

  7. July 27, 2013

    This is absolutely brilliant, thank you! Fascinating to learn about a craft and even better still to see it and the employees who make it possible keeping it alive. We need more like this x

  8. July 27, 2013

    How fascinating. It’s always special to receive mail in a ‘quality’ envelope. At least you know it’s not another bill. I love heavy paper, probably a creamy white, and like Elizabeth Cornwell, am a sucker for the ones lined with tissue paper. Long may you continue, Terry Smith and colleagues!

  9. August 6, 2013

    I was absolutely enthralled, a most interesting post on something I and everybody else no doubt would not give a second thought to, the making of an envelope.

    In future when addressing an envelope I shall think of Terry Smith his craft and treat my envelope with a great deal more respect; and will in the future refrain from just ripping them open when I receive my mail.

    Thank you very much for this post it’s made my morning 🙂

  10. josie bruce nee turner permalink
    August 25, 2013

    hi terry
    nice to here from shirley and your link to to role in paper envelopes. glad you are keeping well
    lv jo xx

  11. Shirley Starling was Smith permalink
    August 25, 2013

    I loved to read this interesting story, all the more because its about my brother. Keep up the good work Terry, for as long as you can.
    Lv shirley

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