Freelance writer and wanderer always on the lookout for quirky activities that take you off the beaten track.
Published May 24th 2011
In 1830 a man named James Smith began making umbrellas in a workshop at the back of a shop. Today, nearly two centuries later James Smith & Sons is still in the very same spot, still heaving with umbrellas of all shapes and sizes and still very much brimming with a sense of old-world charm. Just standing outside and peering through the window of the historical Victorian business will make you feel as if you've stepped back in time. Furthermore, take one stride inside and the personalised, bespoke service is sure to amaze and delight.
If you visit James Smith & Sons, you will undoubtedly find yourself reminiscing of a calmer time where the high streets were not dominated by chain-store clones and where dapper dandies and flaneurs roamed the streets, fancy duck-headed black umbrellas in hand. You'll find wicker baskets that are overflown with sleek, shiny walking sticks in every kind of English wood, while glossily coloured umbrellas with hand-carved handles jostle for gaps in the beautiful oak stands. With a deep breath and a hefty whiff of imagination, you may even be able to envision Charles Dickens or Lewis Carrol emerging from the store to take a gentlemanly stroll with their hand crafted umbrellas that are so well made that they could suffice even as parachutes.
Snap back to reality: and another £2 plastic umbrella has shred to pieces in a slight downpour, or you've found yourself in a very unladylike Mary Poppins-esque pose thanks to your cheap sun parasol blowing inside out in a gust and pulling you along the street. It's time to pay those shrewd craftsmen James Smith & Sons a visit.
The design and materials of the traditional umbrella have changed little over the years thanks to the passing down of rituals through generations of this family business. It is generally understood that London is the home of the best umbrellas and walking sticks in the world and James Smith & Sons certainly live up to and continue that tradition.
They do carry a range of diversely priced pieces from the everyday umbrella to the ceremonial swagger stick. The infinite array of handsome, handmade products available here are generally for people who enjoy the finer things in life and are therefore willing to pay for them. These are investment pieces that one might have for several years or more. Prices can be up to £150, with some umbrellas reaching costs of over £200, but you will also find a nice, half-decent range for about £25.
Don't be fooled by the old-fashioned look of the place. Both the fabrics and frames used are the latest in terms of pattern and technology. You may fret that you'll only leave it on the tube the next day, but for the experience I would definitely suggest at least coming in to take a look at the exquisite ladies parasols, hand carved wooden handles and elegant old fashioned gentlemen's canes. Even if you are not particularly on the prowl for a new umbrella, it is hard to wander past without gawping at the collection and craftsmanship of the umbrellas and other products.
Peddling every kind of umbrella, walking stick, mace and cane imaginable is not the only pull of James Smith & Sons; the products are housed in a remarkable building garlanded with original hand-crafted fittings and concealed behind a distinctive Victorian shop front. It is clear that the shop's magnetism doesn't merely lie in its high-quality range of goods. James Smith and Sons has preserved the original fixtures designed and made by the master craftsman employed by the business and the architecture and décor is a work of art in itself. It is a spectacular reminder of the Victorian period.
If you need an umbrella that will last forever or simply wish to experience a historic jewel in the heart of London's retail district, look no further. If a shop is still going strong after 170 years, you know it will be doing a good job and after all, who doesn't love a successful family run business? Even if you don't intend to buy, it is a wonderful place to browse or ironically, hide from any inevitable London drizzle.