If the cap fits... Rumsey Wells was the man for the job
It was 200 years ago when an announcement appeared in the Norwich Mercury... which resulted, a century later, in the arrival of one of the most colourful and flamboyant shopkeepers Norwich has ever seen.
It said: 'George and Samuel Wells, of 14 Cockey Lane, beg to acquaint their Friends and the Public that they have this day opened the above situation, where there is now ready for their inspection an elegant and extensive selection of Goods, in all its various branches.
They were in the cap business.
At the time, 1815, few members of the male population wore caps. Some schoolboys wore skimpy cut-affairs but tall beaver hats were trendsetters of the day.
Slowly but surely fashions changed and the next generation of the Wells family came along to run the business which moved to 6 and then 4 St Andrew's Street, Norwich, which they leased from the brewers, Lacons.
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In about 1849 the firm was joined by Thomas Wells, his son, also named Thomas then came over and he was followed in 1905, by the one and only Herbert Rumsey Wells who went on to take over the company and under his watch it became world famous.
Always known as Rumsey Wells, a century after his great grandfather had placed that first polite announcement in the Norwich Mercury, he addressed his public rather more forcibly.
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He wrote: 'Some men wear some sort of a cap made from some sort of cloth, cut in some sort of way – the sort of chap you see in railway carriages (God forbid they should be seen anywhere else) – they serve their purpose there I suppose, but, if these men knew what awful sights they looked in them, they would have more respect for themselves and consideration for those who have to look at them.'
Rumsey. a man with a twinkle in his eye had arrived. and he proudly boasted that he made the 'most expensive caps in the world.' He was no cheap and cheerful back street cap maker.
He invented the 'Doggie.' The Rolls-Royce of the cap world which was individually made to fit the wearer's head. The measurements were taken by what was known as a conformateur, and Rumsey claimed once made his measurements were sent across the world to wherever the cap wearer ended up.
Rumsey had customers across the Empire saying they would be recognised by wearing his cap. Ex-patriots would greet them with a hearty handshake saying: 'I don't know who the blazes you are, sir, but you're wearing a Rumsey wells cap, so dash it, come and have a drink!'
The Doggie cap cost a guinea, others, made to specific needs could cost as much as £2 and Rumsey said they were made of 'the nicest English, Scotch and Irish tweeds, sewn with English sewing silk, lived with English Polonnaise silk, and made in the capital of the King's County, Norfolk.'
He was so proud of his city and his country and to make the point Rumsey gave his caps local names.
There was the Blofield, the Brancaster, the Brundall and the Reepham which was made to protect the back of the neck while driving a car.
For ladies he produced the much-sought after Rumishanter with a matching scarf and for Norfolk schoolboys there was the Lad's Sprowston.
A century ago Rumsey also sought out some of the experienced weavers left in Norwich and worked with them to produced finely woven and beautiful silks in traditional patterns. He uncovered an 18th century peacock-patterned Norwich design which he offered in no less than five hundred colourings.
He announced that his attempt to revive the Norwich silk industry had received Royal recognition and that his company 'has been honoured with Royal Commands for His Majesty The King, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and other members of the Royal Family.'
Even those who couldn't afford his caps knew and loved jolly Rumsey as he flew around Norwich on his bicycle. He did much good work and supported local charity and cycling organisations. He attracted top cycling champions to visit the city.
He went to produce 'head-gear, neck ware and leg ware' to suit every occasion.
Norfolk author, the late Robert Bagshaw, who wrote about Rumsey in his book Echoes of Norfolk, recalled visiting his shop as a boy saying:
'He had a collection of military headgear of earlier years which had been lovingly collected by members of the Wells family. The very names of the regiments conjured up visions of brave deeds in past wars: The Norfolk Yeoman Cavalry, The City of Norwich Volunteers, Hay Gurney's Light Horse, The West Norfolk Militia and a regiment often quartered in the city in the mid 19th century, The Sixteenth Lancers.'
Robert writes: 'He and his shop occupied a unique place in the life of the city of Norwich. I suppose there were some to whom the shop was a little bit posh, but it was also rather place, as its owner.'
In December 1939, at the age of 60, Rumsey died and there was no fifth generation to take his place. It seemed like the end of an era.
The staff had other ideas. After talks with his widow they took it over. The 'elegant' Edna Watling and Elsie Bugden, a wonderful double act, took over the running of the shop and ran it until 1974. They found it difficult to find the craftsmen to make the caps...and locked the doors for the last time.
Some buyers wanted to go for mass production. Edna said 'No.' Rumsey would have hated that.
- With thanks to the late Robert Bagshaw.
Unlike so many other great Norwich characters Rumsey is remembered. There is a blue plaque on a housing development named after him and the Rumsey Wells public house stands on the spot where his shop was in St Andrew's Street.
So why not pop along and raise a glass to toast the one and only Rumsey Wells – the most expensive cap maker in the world.