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Portrait of James Lock, 1731-1806

James Lock, 1731-1806

The Oldest Hat Shop in the World: the archives of J Lock and Company, hatters

Established in 1676, Lock & Co, hatters has the oldest surviving hat shop in the world. The firm’s rich history in hat innovation and design is reflected in the company’s archives. Lock & Co had previously deposited a portion of the archives in 1967 and 1970, but a major recent acquisition of additional volumes (in 2014 and 2015) now creates a more complete archive. The collection documents orders for many well-known customers and is an important contribution to the business archives held at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Liza Shapiro, conservator, James Lock & Co Ltd describes the history of the company, its archives, and the challenges of the conservation project with which she has been involved.


In 1676 Robert Davis established a hat shop in one of five houses he leased on St James’s Street.  Ten years later, George Lock, a successful importer of coffee, chocolate and tobacco, leased seven premises on the same street. The two families came together in 1747, when James Lock, the grandson of George Lock, became an apprentice at the hat shop and later married Robert Davis’s granddaughter, Mary.  In 1759, James Lock inherited the business, and on the 24 June 1765, he and his family opened their shop on 6 St James’s Street, thus establishing what would become Lock & Co, the oldest hat shop in the world.

Lock & Co has supplied headwear to many tens of thousands of people who have sought out quality and service. They are proud to hold the Royal Warrants for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.  The Lock & Co archive is comprised of historical ledgers that contain hat orders and accounts from 1781 through to the early 1980s. Lock & Co has been responsible for aiding key historical trends, as well as creating hats for some familiar faces, including Admiral Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill, Charles Chaplin and Sir Anthony Eden.

By 1756, James Lock had established himself as a military ‘hatter and capmaker’; perhaps the most famous military hats produced by Lock & Co were the cocked hats for Lord Nelson. The first record of Nelson visiting Lock & Co dates to 1800, when he ordered a ‘Cocked Hat and Cockade 7⅛ Full’. He ordered two more cocked hats in 1801 and 1805 with his signature eyeshade. Nelson visited the shop to settle his bill in September 1805, just before setting sail for Spain and to his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. 

Another celebrated hat designed by Lock & Co is the coke hat, more commonly known as the bowler.  The idea for the distinctive hat came about in 1849, when Edward Coke from Holkham Hall, in Norfolk, visited Lock & Co to order a bespoke shooting hat. He did not want the traditional tall hat, but something more practical that could be worn by his gamekeepers. James Lock and his brother designed a simple fur felt hard hat with a low, rounded crown and curled brim. They sent the design to Thomas and William Bowler, hat-makers in Southwark, to produce the prototype; little did they know they had designed one of the world’s most iconic hats.  In 1893, Lock & Co sold 254 coke hats in just one month.

Liza Shapiro at LMA with catalogued volume

​Liza Shapiro at LMA with a catalogued volume

​Conservation and care of the archives

The ledgers and other volumes which make up Lock & Co’s archives showcase the company’s longevity, history and innovative supply of hats to wider society. The conservation and care of the archives was a multi-faceted job, requiring patience and determination. As the shop evolved, space at Lock & Co had become increasingly limited, with the books stored in a damp basement on the premises, leading to specific problems faced throughout the project. As the environmental conditions found in the basement were not ideal for fragile artefacts, the majority of the ledgers suffered from red rot, a degradation process found in vegetable tanned leather when the material experiences fluctuating temperatures and relative humidity. The conservation goal was to document all the books, and then surface-clean and consolidate the red rot where possible. This was achieved with the help of Harwell Document Restoration Services.

Carrying out conservation treatment in a busy shop with no conservation studio created some challenges. Written documentation for all of the books needed to be completed before any other treatment could take place. With no computer access, a bespoke template for the condition reports was handwritten. After recording each book, surface cleaning was carried out and the red rot was consolidated where possible, onsite in the shop’s basement. Finally, a cataloguing system was designed to combine all the information from Lock & Co and Harwell in order to facilitate the efficient transport of the organised volumes to LMA. The cataloguing system was integral to the smooth running of the project and enabled an efficient transfer of the information into LMA’s electronic catalogue. With the exception of items identified as requiring further conservation treatment, the newly catalogued additional volumes will be available for consultation with descriptions on LMA’s online catalogue by end of May 2015 (collection reference code B/LK). Non-volume format archives remain at Lock & Co and will be deposited at LMA in the longer-term.

This project was very rewarding; it enabled a personal and bespoke approach to the conservation, cataloguing and evolution of the collection and closed the gap between archives seen behind closed doors and those available for public viewing.  The deposit at LMA will ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of the archive, with the hope that the process will serve as a model to other small historic businesses that want to preserve their records for the future.

06 May 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018