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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Rumsey Wells

 H Rumsey Wells 

Herbert Rumsey Wells - Image courtesy of Picture Norfolk
Herbert Rumsey Wells

The firm of G. & S. Wells, Club, Regimental & School outfitters, was established in Cockey Lane (now London Street), Norwich in 1815. This was at a time men wore tall beaver hats to play golf, bowls, and for fishing, shooting and hunting. The only people who wore caps were schoolboys, and gamekeepers, who wore black or blue 'Melton' cloth caps with neck and ear flaps similar to the modern skiing cap.

Thomas Wells, born 23rd June, 1841, and educated at the Model School in Princes Street, was, by 1879, senior partner in the firm of T. Wells & Son, who were manufacturing hats and caps for the wholesale and retail trade in a three-storey building at No. 19 St. Andrew's Hill. They manufactured a wide variety of headgear and supplied best-class establishments throughout the country. Thomas Wells won many prize medals, and was the first maker of sporting caps suitable for hunting, racing, bicycling, boating, riding, smoking, shooting or travelling, and in all sorts of materials ranging from tweed or cloth to furs and velvets. They also made forage and other caps for the Services and supplied a large number of boating and other clubs, bands, etc. Thomas said 'The Hussars, at present stationed in Norwich, are excellent judges, and their officers are highly satisfied with the articles supplied to them from this establishment. '

Thomas had a son, Herbert Rumsey. Born in 1877 at Hellesdon, he became a partner in the business in 1904, by which time the firm had moved to number 4 St. Andrew's Street, whence issued forth a stream of advertising material promising caps and ties cut from hand-woven material to order in the course of three hours. They also sold embroidered badges, club, school and regimental colours in ribbons, ties and sashes, clerical felt hats, birettas, and vestments from Norwich silk. When hats were made to order records of size and shape were kept for many years. One middle-aged man returning to Norwich after many years and wanting a new cap was amazed to find they still had the measurements for his school cap.

Rumsey Wells were not slow to introduce new styles into their headgear. Caps gradually became fuller in the front, at the sides, and eventually all round. With the advent of the motor car came the flat, circular-topped cap with its padded lining, and that is when Rumsey Wells got the chance to design his famous 'Doggie' caps which became known all over the world. The first were called the 'Brancaster' and the 'Blofield'. During the First World War he produced the first semi-soft service cap for officers, and after the war, the 'Westwick' and the 'Conesford'. He was quite a character, with elegant whiskers, fine hats, a cloak, and immaculate shirts and ties.

Service, quality and humour were the trademarks of a business which, in 1935, was advertising its caps as the most expensive in the world. Rumsey said 'No other capmaker, except my grandfather and father, properly 'finished' a cap by putting a row of stitching at the edge of the cap. This finish is one of the distinguishing features of a 'Doggie' cap and enables it to be put on and raised from the head like a bowler hat. '

An ingenious and indefatigable self-publicist, Rumsey liked to produce booklets and pamphlets extolling the virtues of his hats and caps and telling a little of the story of Norwich and its silk industry. In 1919 he wrote 'A customer, travelling over from South Africa, arrived alone at Cairo, not knowing a soul. After a bath and change he put on his cap I had made for him, and took a walk. Seeing another man on the other side of the street, -he walked up to him, clapped him on the back, saying 'I don't know who the blazes you are, sir, but you are wearing a Wells' cap, so dammit come and have a drink.' This little story is intended to convey the distinction occurring to men who invest in a Wells cap.

Rumsey Wells died in 1937 but the business continued until1974. The premises are now a public house - St Andrews Tavern. If you visit the Strangers Hall Museum you can still see the sign depicting the three wells and the rising sun, for Wells & Son which was a familiar sight outside the shop in St. Andrews for so many years.

Joyce Gurney-Read

1987

Amended by Nick Williams April 2008

 

Image courtesy of Picture Norfolk.