James Smith & Sons – Umbrellas

I am a huge advocate of the “find the one thing you are good at and do it well” maxim.

I have a some reticence about “brand extension” where a brand that is known well for its shoes, belts or watches allows its name to be affixed to sunglasses, rucksacks or perfumes. I get it, if the brand is well known for a product that costs £1000.00 and a bottle of eau de toilette is a snip at £75.00 then the market at £75.00 for association with an aspirational brand is much larger than at the higher price. Hence the value of their perfume lines to many up market brands.

To me it is so solidly satisfying to see a business like the remarkable James Smith & Sons Ltd to have a single focus on one product group, in their case, umbrellas, canes and walking sticks.

Founded by James Smith in Foubert’s Place (London) in 1830 – with umbrellas being made in a small workshop behind the shop – further branches were to follow in Saville Place – where the shop was so narrow it necessitated going outside to open an umbrella – and Burlington Street – which was later destroyed in a bombing raid in the Second World War.

In 1851, Samuel Fox invented a lightweight steel frame for umbrellas and James Smith II was one of the first umbrella makers to use Fox Frames. As a result the Smith business grew and in 1857 bigger premises were needed.

The new store at Halewood House, 53 New Oxford Street was refitted in 1865 and its traditional Victorian character remains to this day as a perfect example of Victorian shop-front design.

In 1930, Mr R Mesger, the great grandson of the founder returned from Tasmania to run the business.

Short of losing an umbrella the staff at James Smith and Sons advise that they can repair any part of a broken James Smith supplied umbrella. Indeed many are made by hand in small family factories or otherwise in their own basement workshop below the store.

It is said that until the 1960s, James Smith & Sons accepted customers’ umbrellas for repair without requiring claim tickets. The then owner is reported as having said that he didn’t need them as his shop was for gentlemen – “And we would always trust a gentleman.”

Nearly a hundred years on James Smith & Sons are still plying its familiar trade with Robert Harvey the fifth generation in charge. Customers continue to be reverently attended and those who plump for a classic “single-stick” umbrella are obliged to await the few minutes that it it takes in the basement workshop to correct the length of a new umbrella for the customer’s height.

I have had a nearly six decades of relationship with London and can easily remember many of these fine single product shops, with Fribourg and Treyer on the Haymarket blenders of snuffs and tobacco being a particular favourite. They do still exist in the depths of Jermyn Street and St James’ – the associated arcades but they have shrunk in number but will hopefully prevail as our tastes for quality continue to mature.

Image from James Smith & Sons Ltd.

 

 

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