Popping into London’s oldest umbrella shop James Smith & Sons in New Oxford Street

Every well-dressed gent knows that a beautifully made umbrella is a veritable boon.

James Smith & Sons is housed in a Grade II-listed building of Victorian design (All photos: SooPhye)

First things first. Let’s be clear about the definition. Umbrellas offer protection against rain while the parasol serves as a sun shade. They are not one and the same, although the terms continue to be used interchangeably. Malaysians would certainly take the side of the Brits when it comes to championing the former. After all, regular thunderstorms and heavy showers can wreak havoc on outfits and hairdos. Although most locals still treat it as nothing but a mere implement, a utilitarian tool of no beauty against soggy weather, it is high time to ditch the free golf umbrellas sitting in your car boot in favour of something artisanal and beautifully crafted — in other words, an umbrella fit for a lady or gentleman.

Urban history cites a certain English eccentric by the name of Jonas Hanway as the first male Londoner to dare sport the umbrella. Despite being scorned by passers-by for doing so and jeered by cab drivers who considered the lightweight, mobile shelter a threat to potential taxi fares, Hanway doggedly advocated its use, which quickly caught on. So, if you are looking for a rakish companion to see you through less-than-fair weather days, London is considered to be the destination par excellence for umbrella-shopping, with a worthy selection of canopies, frames, shafts and handles carved from all manner of fine woods.


The umbrella and sticks company is one of the UK’s oldest, dating back to 1830, and a neighbourhood landmark in itself

Located at No 53 along New Oxford Street is James Smith & Sons. Housed in a Grade II-listed building, the 193-year-old establishment is within walking distance of the British Museum as well as all the sights and sounds of London’s West End. The façade is quintessentially Victorian in design and the store itself is quite the local landmark.  If you were to hop into a black cab, all you’d have to say is “Take me to the umbrella shop” and chances are you’d be brought here.

Once inside, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of brollies and walking sticks. A City banker might wish to pair his bowler hat and pinstripe suit with, say, a slim rolled umbrella complete with jaunty handle carved in the shape of a duck or jaguar’s head, while a gentleman landowner’s selection might veer more towards a solid stick umbrella to go on country rambles with. Even the selection of wood handles is a pleasure to peruse, ranging from blackthorn to Malaccan cane, cherry, ash and hazel.


Choose from jaunty umbrella or walking stick handles bearing the head of a duck or, perhaps, even a jaguar

James Smith’s umbrellas can best be divided into five main categories for the gents. If you are looking for a lightweight yet sturdy option, pick from the London range. For something durable, hardy and crafted using a sturdy steel tube, it is the City selection you want. The pièce de résistance, though, are the Solid Sticks, made from an individual piece of wood and finished according to the owner’s height so they may double up as valuable walking accessories. Ladies, meanwhile, may choose from the smaller Pencil umbrellas, which are all handmade and strong, yet lightweight, or perhaps, the Birdcage, an iconic transparent umbrella once favoured by Queen Elizabeth II. Although each James Smith umbrella is as British as they come, the store also stocks fine, German-engineered models by Knirps, which invented the modern folding umbrella, as well as quality French ones by Pierre Vaux.

Not that everything here is about protection against inclement weather. A fair portion of the store is dedicated to beautiful walking sticks, country staffs and, for those among us whose knees are getting on, the curious but incredibly useful seatstick. Sometimes called a shooting stick, it’s a perfect, mobile resting place — ideal for when you have to stand in line for a long period of time, attend a local event in the great outdoors or even to just get a bit of rest when trawling museums and galleries.

This article first appeared on Apr 10, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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