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James Lock keeps ahead
Feature: 3/10/2004



World celebrities are mad about the hatter

What did Lord Nelson, Princess Diana and Madonna all have in common apart from popularity?

They all went to the same London hat shop.

According to an article by James Lovell for Reuters, James Lock & Co has been a supplier of hats to the well-heeled on the same premises in London's St James's Street for nearly 250 years and has a list of past and present clients that reads like a who's who of history (News, Monday 25 October).

“Our ledgers go back to 1759 and we have the head shapes of 60,000 clients past and present – including the Queen – on card index”, said the company's Patrick Lamb.

“People think that hats are going out of fashion. But they are not. We have compared our ledgers going back more than 200 years and the tempo of the business has barely changed at about 45 to 50 customers a day”.

Nelson, the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, had his hats made there as did Princess Diana and pop diva Madonna two centuries later. The Duke of Wellington, Bernard Shaw, Salvador Dali, Graham Greene, James Cagney, General de Gaulle, Charlie Chaplin, Jason Robards and the Bee Gees are among the clientele who have entered the hallowed shop, that literally creaks of history.

“We are sure there are ghosts here. But they are benign. I have heard footsteps on the stairs late at night when I know no one else is here”, Lamb said.

Calm interior
The battered green front door dates from the late 1700s, the clock facing the entrance from 1710 and the main staircase is Elizabethan.

The male staff dress in morning suits and the women in quietly understated attire, ushering customers into the calm interior where hats of all colours, shapes and sizes line the walls.

“If Lord Nelson walked in here today he would recognise the shop. It hasn't changed. Not only is the clock still here, but the atmosphere is the same. That is why people still keep coming back”, Lamb said.

The styles have changed and the range has expanded to cater to modern tastes. Some 70 percent of the clientele now come from the United States.

But otherwise there is little to indicate that the shop is not some sort of hat time machine.

The major concession the shop has made to the 21st century and the age of plastic money is that only two account holders remain on the books – the Duke of Edinburgh and his elder son Prince Charles. “They are what we term prompt payers”, Lamb said. “Everyone else is cash or charge card”.

A few villains
While Lamb insists that everyone who enters the premises is not only treated equally and behaves impeccably, he happily admits that there have been a few villains among the clients.

Society playboy Lord Lucan who disappeared without trace in 1974 and is suspected of having murdered his nanny and attempted to murder his wife, was a client – and he left with an unpaid bill. “It was for about 20 guineas. We sent the bill after he disappeared. It was returned marked 'gone away'. We have now written off the debt”, Lamb said.

Oscar Wilde too was a client. But he too went into the bad debt book with an unpaid bill of four pounds, 12 shillings and 6 pence for a velvet hat he acquired in 1894 – the year before he was jailed for “acts of gross indecency” and declared bankrupt.

The shop also has its store of historical anecdotes including that of a former Prince of Wales in the 1700s who used to transit through the premises daily to visit a prostitute in the street behind.

“He didn't want his mother to find out what he was doing, so he used the shop as a front”, Lamb said. “He would come through the front door and out of the back. After an hour with her he would retrace his steps and leave”.

The arrangement was to the benefit of all parties. Not only did the prince have his entertainment but, to cover his tracks, he would buy a hat on each visit. “He got a lot of hats and we got a lot of money”, Lamb said with a chuckle.

The nineteenth century parliamentarian Lord Palmerston also had a penchant for hats – but not enough to actually enter the shop regularly.

“As he was passing by he would stop and shout 'hat!' and move on. One of the shop's employees known as 'Young William' would hear the shout and, as he knew the size and style, he would go and get one and take it down to the House of Commons”, Lamb said.

“Palmerston didn't really talk to the likes of us”, he added.
Author: John Gibbon
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