Did you know Bankside’s role in the invention of one of Britain’s most iconic fashion items?
The Earl of Leicester had a problem: his gamekeepers hats kept on being knocked off as they went about their work, because in the mid-19th century gamekeepers wore impractical tall hats. He dispatched his younger brother Edward Coke to posh St James’s hat-maker Lock and Co to find a solution.
Lock and Co got in touch with a certain hat-maker’s on Bankside to design a solution. Bankside has a long history as a centre of hat making, at least to the Tudors, now sadly only recalled by the Mad Hatter Pub on Blackfriars Bridge Road. The hat-makers were the brothers William and Thomas Bowler, who had their factory just by Southwark Bridge. They had just invented a new hard resin, made from boiling down insect shells. The Victorians were nothing if not inventive!
Responding to the brief, the Bowlers invented a low-domed, tight-fitting hat, toughened with their new resin. The prototype was returned to Lock and Co in December 1849. Famously. Edward Coke looked at the hat, put it on the floor and jumped on it. The hat retained its shape, and he said: ‘yes that will do!’
Lock and Co still refer to the hat as a Coke, while the rest of us call it after the not so famous Bowler brothers. As well as the fashion staple of stockbrokers the bowler hat was very much the hat that won the west. This tough tight-fitting hat was a favourite of cowboys and can be seen in the more authentic movies.
Lock and Co established in 1676 is still there on St James’s and they are very welcoming. Last time I was in there they were delighted to let my young guests try on this season’s new hats. They seem to have relaxed their Coke naming for their social distancing guidance: ‘Keep 8 Bowler hats apart’.
As we look to return back into London I will be running my popular tours of Borough and Bankside, starting from Borough Market and ending at Tate modern, exploring the fascinating history of this area. Join me in my Borough Market and Beyond Walk!