Beavering away

Before CrossRail cabbies would pass the rear of Henry Heath’s Hat Factory as they negotiated the ‘Dirty Dozen’ twelve roads that once connected Regent Street with Tottenham Court Road.

I’ve often glanced at the decorated tradesmans’ entrance of his factory in
Hollen Street [left] – the richly decorated back entrance while the customers entered his shop at 105-109 Oxford Street.

[B]oasting of his contribution to ‘rational dress’ with a Royal Warrant as ‘Hat manufacturer to King Alphonso and the Royal Court of Spain’ Henry Heath proudly boasted how he only sold direct from Ye Hatterie on Oxford Street and sneered at the idea of supplying other shops where customers wouldn’t experience his impeccable service.

During Victoria’s reign most gentlemen wore a hat for occupational use, or as a fashion accessory, and the top hat was literally at the top end of the titfer market. Replacing the tricorne they were known as a toppers, chimney pots and stove pipes.

In 1797 a certain Mr Hetherington, wore a top hat on the streets of London it was said that a large crowd gathered around, inducing such chaos that the gentleman was arrested and accused of disturbing the public order, the officer who dealt with the problem went on to testify that:

Hetherington had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.

Henry Heath’s hat factory once employed upwards of 70 people. An advertisement at the time asked: Why Wear an Ill-Fitting hat? They could be assured of solving this annoying sartorial problem with a visit to Henry Heath’s subjecting their craniums to a ‘successful system of Head Measurements ensure the luxury of a well-fitting Hat adapted to the form of the Wearer’s head’.

A relief of King George IV, fairly unrecognisable as a Roman emperor crowned with leaves can still be seen above one of the windows of Heath’s shop, with the date 1822 most likely referring to the firm’s establishment. Next to it is a young Queen Victoria, 1887 being the date the premises were rebuilt.

Henry Heath-1 The biggest surprise is what accompanies the two Monarchs. Four North American beaver perch on the gables of Henry Heath’s hat emporium – an unlikely place as any for the nocturnal, semi-aquatic, tree-chewing animal.

Beaver were hunted to near extinction simply because the most desirable top hat was covered with felted beaver fur. Hundreds of thousands of pelts were shipped from America.

To separate fur from the pelts, factory workers soaked the skins in a compound of mercury. Unfortunately, fumes from the chemical had the unpleasant side-effect of poisoning their nervous systems. This made them drool, tremble, talk gibberish and have bouts of severe paranoia, giving rise to the expression mad as a hatter. Heath ensured these unfortunate souls were kept well away from customers.

When beaver colonies were wiped out and less discerning manufacturers slipped rabbit fur in the mix, Victorian fashion readjusted and the reign of the silk hat began.

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