Inside Lock & Co. – London’s Oldest Shop

Lock and Co
The shop front of Lock & Co. Hatters, London
Lock & Co Hatters, London

I (Joel) first read about Lock & Co. in a book about London, full of fascinating stories and facts from the city’s incredible history. Fast forward a few days to a job I was on in St James’s, just a stone’s throw from Lock & Co. I mentioned the shop to my colleague, who knew all about it because her mum’s neighbours are the family who own it. Ever the opportunist, I asked her to connect me, which she did.

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Inside Lock & Co.

Lock & Co. is a hat shop in the exclusive area known as St James’s, not far from Buckingham Palace. But it’s more than just a hat shop. It’s a piece of living London history, connected to the very roots of shopkeeping in London. It has an incredible history and is full of stories, so let’s start with one you’ll know – Alice In Wonderland.

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The story goes that some claim a chap named James Benning, the shop manager of
James Lock III inspired Sir John Tenniel’s famous illustration of the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. The phrase “mad as a hatter” is rooted in the occupational hazard associated with the hat-making process: mercury poisoning, where hatters inhaled mercury vapours from the felting process.

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Thankfully, that doesn’t happen any more, and you can rest assured there are no Mad Hatters left at Lock and Co., just Roger, the Chair of the Board, and his team of specialist hatters. When I first met Roger, he introduced me to the shop and explained that his staff aren’t salespeople, but hatters. During my visits, I met the Master Hatter, the milliner, and Maxwell, the assistant manager who hosted me, and I can confirm the team’s warm welcome and customer service are a testament to the shop’s core values and standards as hatters.

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The surface of Lock & Co. is interesting, but once you scratch beneath it, there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. You don’t walk into Lock & Co. to buy a hat. You walk in for an experience. So with that, let’s take a look inside Lock & Co.

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The World’s Oldest Hat Shop

Believe it or not, Lock & Co are the world’s oldest hatters, established in 1676. They are also London’s oldest shop, predating some of London’s most famous brands, including Twinings (1706), Fortnum & Mason (1707), and Hamley’s Toys (1760). It’s also the world’s 34th oldest family-owned business – another remarkable feat in today’s commercial world.

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Home of the Bowler Hat

The bowler hat, with its distinctive silhouette, is an icon of British fashion and was created right here at Lock & Co. From Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick antics to the rough-and-tumble Wild West and its continued presence in the City of London, the bowler is as recognisable as its famous wearers. The bowler stands as their most celebrated invention and a timeless fashion staple for over 170 years.

Although the bowler hat became a fashion icon, this wasn’t the intent of its creation. The bowler was made in 1849 for Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Eal of Leicester, who required a hard, protective hat to protect the heads of Coke’s gamekeepers at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, from the branches of low-hanging and thorny trees as they rode their horses and carts. The bowler hat is still used at Holkham Hall today.

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The famous bowler hat

A Royal Warrant

Lock & Co. are one of around 800 holders of a Royal Warrant. The Royal Warrants of Appointment represent a vast cross-section of trade and industry, from individual craftspeople to global multi-national companies. They are united by a commitment to the highest standards of craftsmanship, excellence, service and quality, all of which you will find in abundance at Lock & Co.

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Celebrity Prestige

Beyond the Royals, Lock & Co. has a strong celebrity status. I say celebrity, but their prestige stretches beyond celebrities. Inside a cupboard is a piece of British history. It’s the ledger, written by Horatio Nelson, for a “cocked hat and cockade 7 1/8th full”. It was to become Nelson’s signature bicorne hat, complete with eyeshade.

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Nelson’s ledger

If you don’t know who Nelson is, he’s a British naval hero, and his statue stands atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Side note – you can see an original invite to his funeral in The Painted Hall in Greenwich.

Beyond Nelson, Lock & Co. has made hats for other British legends, including Winston Churchill, and even featured in the film Kingsman, where Samuel L. Jackson is filmed leaving the shop wearing a Lock & Co. silk top hat.

There’s a heritage room at the back of the shop, where you’ll notice some frames on the wall containing a series of odd oval shapes. They are the head shapes of some of the hatter’s most famous clientele, including Eric Clapton, Nicholas Cage, David Walliams…the list goes on.

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The shapes are taken using the contraption below, called a conformateur. When I visited, I had the complete treatment, including my head shape taken using this functioning Victorian antique.

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The conformateur device used to take your head shape

The Milliner

Traditionally, a milliner is a hatmaker specialising in women’s headwear; unbelievably, Lock & Co. still have them. In today’s fast fashion and commercialist world, it’s remarkable to see one in the corner of an attic in one of London’s most prestigious locations, creating unique, custom-made hats.

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My first visit to Lock & Co. was a flying one, to do nothing more than introduce myself. When I returned and got a good look behind the scenes, I was introduced to their milliner and her wonderful world of hat creation. I never expected to see a milliner, let alone see the lengths she goes to to create hats – from custom-made colours to hand-cut fabrics.

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My second visit to Lock & Co. was an inspiring one, and it won’t be my last. One day, I will return to buy a hat. Perhaps one from the 007 Collection which Maxwell found for me – the perfect fit and style. After all, they are hatters who help find you the right hat.

Visitor Information

📍 6 St James’s St, St. James’s, London, SW1A 1EF


🕙 Monday – Saturday, 9:30 am–5:30 pm, closed Sundays

📞 0207 930 8874

Lock & Co Hatters, London

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