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Terry Smith, Envelope Cutter

July 9, 2024
by the gentle author




There is not much that Terry Smith does not know about envelopes. When I met him he had been cutting them for sixty years at Baddeley Brothers, the long-established family firm of fine stationery manufacturers. “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 © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Black & white photographs copyright © Baddeley Brothers

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Gullen permalink
    July 9, 2024

    Fascinating – I was a customer of Baddeley Brothers back in the 1960s when I worked in the City for printers Eden Fisher and then McCorquodales – absolutely amazing work that they produced.
    “Mr David” [David Baddeley] used to call in to our offices every other week to collect orders etc – he had a capacious “poacher’s pocket” in his suit for all the paper-work! . . . and later on, a young, Roger Pertwee took over the calling in.
    Mr David offered me a job in about 1967 but I turned him down, despite the increase in salary of about £1 a week I would have had!

  2. July 9, 2024

    Yes, stationery is really a big theme. I love to browse around in the related stores. Whether it’s ink for my fountain pen or special notebooks — I often get things from France because there’s still a distinct culture for it there.

    Here in Kassel, a traditional stationery store has been forced to close. The reason: the declining writing culture (because of WhatsApp on mobile devices).

    When I still had time and leisure to send homemade greeting cards, I also made my own universal envelopes. I know what Terry Smith is talking about!

    Love & Peace

  3. Cherub permalink
    July 9, 2024

    I don’t think I’ll ever look at envelopes in the same light again. Such a simple thing most of us use, but actually very technical. I’ve loved stationery ever since I learned to read and write and reading this was fascinating.

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 10, 2024

    Fascinating! I’m still a letter writer as was my mother before me, and really appreciate good quality writing paper – and its envelopes. I have an American friend/former work colleague who now lives in Canada, and an old senior school friend who lives in Surrey, and like me, are determined not to lose the skill of writing letters. I had a third one, a cousin, who sadly lost her life under tragic circumstances 4 yrs ago, but am comforted that I still have most of her hand-written letters sent to me over the years.

  5. July 11, 2024

    Great to see Terry still going strong. I assisted photographer Peter Mackertich on the shoots at Boundary St, over some very hot summer days. I remain very good friends with Peter, would it possible to credit him for the black and white images in this feature, as he is in the BB book ? I think we did two separate projects there, initially for the British Printing Industies Federation annual report, then for BB directly. Art Director on both, I recall being Michael O’Reilly. I remember Roger well too, a real gent.

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