Stick specialist and brolly boutique
James Smith and Sons, New Oxford Street, WC1
Although umbrellas were used in ancient China, Babylon, Egypt and elsewhere, they were not commonly found in England until the early 18th century, when they considered suitable only for women, though they were cumbersome contraptions in those days, and very heavy – especially when their oiled silk covers were wet. Nowadays, even the most traditional looking umbrellas tend to have nylon covers.
Jonas Hanway publicised masculine usage of the umbrella from about 1750 by carrying one regularly in the streets of London – and he incurred a good deal of ridicule in the process. Hackney carriage drivers would try to splash Hanway and hustle him to the kerb because they feared the umbrella’s detrimental effect on their foul-weather trade. “The cabbies needn’t have worried” – avers Mark Easton in his delightful book, Britain etc. “– you can never find a taxi in the rain to this day – even though the umbrella has become a ubiquitous feature of national life. It is seen as representative of British fascination with the whimsy of the weather and emblematic of the country’s character.”
In 1830 James Smith opened London’s first dedicated umbrella (and stick) shop, on the west side of Soho in Foubert’s Place, a thoroughfare named after Major Foubert’s military academy and riding school, which had stood here for about a century from the 1680s. When the brolly business in Foubert’s Place outgrew its cramped premises, Smith’s son, also called James, opened new shops off Savile Row and in New Oxford Street, in St Giles. The former was demolished to make way for a new road and relocated to New Burlington Street, where it prospered until its destruction in the Second World War. The New Oxford Street store survives to this day, with its original brass and mahogany shop front and interior fittings.
In an age where cheap umbrellas abound – and often don’t survive the first sharp gust of wind – James Smith’s devotion to quality is admirable, though prices are correspondingly high. (You may need to save for a rainy day.) Many of the umbrellas and walking sticks are made in the basement of the New Oxford Street premises, but demand outstrips the capacity of this little workshop so production is also commissioned from other small family firms.
“It is inadvisable to lend your James Smith umbrella to even your closest friend,” the shopkeepers portentously advise. “Give them our address instead.” It’s 53 New Oxford Street.