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210 years of rain and shine

Richard Ince

Over 210 years ago members of the Ince family came to East London almost penniless and set up a business making and repairing umbrellas.

They came to Spitalfields because the silk industry was thriving there and it was a good spot from which to sell into the city.

The umbrellas produced by James Ince & Sons Umbrellas Ltd were hand-sewn by gas light and sold on markets in London and Suffolk. Umbrella frames were made of cane, ivory and whalebone. The arrival of their first Singer sewing machine in the mid-1800s and the first steel Umbrella frames changed the business drastically, as did the arrival of electricity later on.

Times were hard until a leisure boom in the late Victorian era brought a surge in demand and the company diversified to offer garden, golf and fishing umbrellas, tents and garden shelters. At its biggest, the company had a staff of over 50 and supplied globally around the Empire, especially India and Burma, via the Army & Navy Stores, NAAFI (Navy, Army and Airforce Institute) and Harrods catalogues. During the First World War the business made umbrellas for officers and they made machine gun covers during the Second.

Today the business, based in Bethnal Green, is Britain’s longest-running umbrella manufacturer, supplying many brands, fashion houses and independent retailers. It’s a major supplier to the theatre and movie industry and sells direct via its website. Johnny Depp, Robbie William, Robbie Coltrane, Dame Maggie Smith and numerous other celebrities have used them as props.

Production in Bethnal Green

It’s run by 52-year-old Richard Ince, the sixth generation of his family to take the helm. He joined the firm at the age of 17; taking deliveries to the West End and learning the ropes from the production team. Richard took over from his father, Geoffrey, in 1998.

“I knew from a very young age what my future held,” he said. “At school people envied me because I had a job to go to – but I never felt I was missing out – I didn’t have ambitions to do anything but this.”

Richard added: “At first stepping up to run the company was horrible because I’m quiet by nature – I’m an introvert. But I’ve always enjoyed taking things apart, learning how they are made and putting them back together – because I’m quite creative, I’ve been able to spot very niche market opportunities and when people ask for something unusual I know we can find a way to make it happen.”

Ince offers stunning heritage umbrellas, handmade from woods such as scorched maple, chestnut, Malacca or Whangee with polyester. They’re beautifully-finished and made to last. It’s the latest business to join the Local Buyers Club (info here), with a 10% discount to members via the online shop.

In the late 80s when Habitat and Conran started selling big timber parasols, Ince Umbrellas diversified and launched its own product line in a greater variety of colours. Technology has enabled Ince Umbrellas to run as a much leaner operation, with a staff of seven now running the show.

Among the movies and shows featuring Ince Umbrellas are Harry Potter, Dark Shadows, Paddington 2, Mary Poppins, Cats, Wicked and umbrellas for the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The company also supplies umbrellas to the Evening Standard vendors and make for brands who are stocked in John Lewis, Fenwick and Fortnum & Mason to name but a few.

When he’s not making umbrellas (he’s still very much a hands-on member of the production team), Richard is a real history buff and loves researching the happenings in East London that may have impacted the company’s workers.

Richard added: “It fills me with awe to think of the conditions they were working in when the company was first founded. I often look at the memorial at Bethnal Green Station and wonder if the people who worked here were caught up in that.”

Workers would take cover in the basement during air raids in World War Two and the factory relocated from Norton Folgate after it was damaged by a nearby bomb blast in 1941- sadly many of the documents about the company’s history were lost – the remaining documents are mainly kept at the Bishopsgate Institute.

When the Ince’s first started their family business in 1805 they were based in the West Suffolk town of Clare making for the Suffolk and London markets. When James Ince moved to Spitalfields in the early 1800s he set up in White Row baking onto ‘tenter ground’, where the silk was stretched out on stakes. In 1840 Elisha Ince moved on to Spital Square, land originally owned by a silk merchant.

The business witnessed the merging of villages and city creep.

From Spitalfields the business moved to Bishopsgate, followed by Norton Folgate, back to Bishopsgate and then to Bethnal Green in 1985, where it has remained for more than 30 years.

As for the future? Richard added: “I have nieces and nephews who are welcome to take it on - I would like to keep It in the family.

“The umbrella industry is evolving all the time using lighter aluminium and fibreglass and recycled fabrics. Although we always make our umbrellas the traditional way, we use technology to assist with digital print, laser cutting, and we are currently testing fabrics with sustainable proofing finishes using bionic and nano technology. All helping to create a well-crafted umbrella using the best available materials, sourced as close to home as possible. It’s very much a heritage product – you wouldn’t want to leave one of our umbrellas on the bus!”

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