Notebook: Dressing to kill can cost you pounds 28,000

Michael Fathers
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:28

PICTURES appeared in the papers last week of the Prince of Wales and his elder son armed with guns and (at least in the the case of Prince Charles) dressed in an interesting way. They were shooting pheasant at Sandringham. Some criticism was directed at them (when is it not these days?) from the lobbies who think it wrong to kill animals for amusement, but nobody commented on the clothes. Which is odd, considering their oddness; the shoes with concealed laces, the socks furled over the trousers, the jacket with capacious pockets - all presumably from some previous age of rurality, but set off with a smart urban collar and tie.

I wondered if anyone could look like this, and how much it would cost. As a gun is the most vital item to achieving 'the look', I started in the Long Room, the inner sanctum of James Purdey and Sons, gunmakers to the Royal Family, at the firm's four-storey redbrick home in Mayfair. Here a customer is 'measured' for his shooting piece. Two and a half years later he will be invited back to take delivery of his Purdey shotgun, test it on a range in west London and head for the moors, swamp, farmland, or wherever he chooses to shoot game or clay birds. The cost? A mere pounds 25,250 per gun.

The chairman of the firm is Richard Beaumont, son of a lord and given a majority shareholding in James Purdey and Sons by a kindly uncle, another lord, in 1950. Like the guns Purdey produces, Mr Beaumont is perfectly presented, traditionally made and precision drilled. In his tailored suit he gives off that image of perfection a foreigner tends to expect of an English gentleman. On a nearby table are his overcoat, leather gloves and trilby, laid out neatly for when he leaves the building. And, like his firm's guns, Mr Beaumont is very discreet. Discretion is a watchword for all the tradesmen-gentlemen who kit out the Royal Family. But at James Purdey and Sons it covers not just the Royal Family, but the living and the dead.

In a recent history of the gunmaker, the Field magazine said Purdey customers had included Nikita Khrushchev, the one-time Communist Party boss of the Soviet Union. When I asked Mr Beaumont if this were true, he reluctantly admitted it. Someone in the firm had 'blabbed'. This was unfortunate, he said, and made quite clear he did not want to talk about Mr Khrushchev or any other customer. Although you needed only to look around the Long Room at the scores of photographs, silhouettes, paintings and engravings to see virtually every crowned and uncrowned king, emperor, kaiser and tsar in Europe and every viceroy, nawab and district commissioner of India is on the firm's books. Most of the household regiments and large chunks of the aristocracy are there too.

I use the present tense because a record is kept of every gun Purdey makes, and it makes them to order only. The list so far stands at around 15,000, some 9,000 of which were made between 1890 and 1914, the boom time of game shooting when thousands of birds were shot in one day. Most of these guns are still being used, popping in and out of Purdey's for adjustment as each heir take his place on the line. Today's guns tend to go to customers abroad, Americans usually.

I don't know if Prince Charles is using his granddaddy or great granddaddy's Purdey guns, or whether he has had his own made. You would certainly never find the answer from Mr Beaumont. If the boys were using the guns of George V, the old monarch would have paid pounds 87 a gun, the equivalent of a chief butler's salary before the First World War, Mr Beaumont said. In 1950, during the reign of George VI, a Purdey cost pounds 500. Mr Beaumont didn't know whether a chief butler was paid pounds 25,250 today. I suggested it was more likely the salary of a headteacher at a primary school.

My next port of call was John Lobb, bootmakers of St James, which provides Prince Charles and his parents with hand-tooled footwear. The firm's founder was a farmer's son from Cornwall who fell off a donkey and turned to trade. London rejected him and he headed for Sydney where he opened a boot shop for the squatters of New South Wales in 1849. Talking to his descendants, who have the clubbiest of accents, you realise the old boy was something of a larrikin. He fell in with the Prince of Wales (Bertie, not Charlie) when he returned to London in 1863 and has clad the royal foot since.

Hunter Lobb, a director and great grandson of John, would not tell me if the heavy footwear Prince Charles had on his feet during last week's shoot were Lobb shoes. Assuming they were, because they had hobnails and Lobb hammers them into all its outdoor shoes, the pair would have cost pounds 1,075 plus VAT. Ankle-length boots, usually more popular for shooting, were slightly more at pounds 1,176 plus VAT. High boots are pounds 1,845 plus VAT.

When I suggested that pounds 1,000 was rather high for a pair of shoes, Mr Lobb said it was important to realise that the family firm dealt with a wide variety of successful people from many countries who were 'awfully rich'. Like Purdey's shotguns, most of Lobb's boots go abroad.

So to Savile Row for the tweeds. Bernard Weatherill Ltd at number eight has the royal warrant to supply the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother with riding kit and livery. Their latest royal commission was a pair of breeches for Princess Michael of Kent, catalogue price pounds 500 plus VAT. The firm's present head is the former speaker of the House of Commons, now Lord Weatherill.

The firm made Prince Charles a pair of riding breeches when he was a boy, but he hasn't been back. However if you want a bespoke shooting suit this is the place. Here they talk of 'doing for' someone. This is where the Queen has the suits of her retainers, the gillies and the keepers for the shoot at Sandringham, made in Balmoral tweed, or patched or reshaped to suit a new lad.

Peter Ferguson-Smith, the managing director, said the firm made between six and a dozen shooting suits a year - a Norfolk jacket with pleats in the back so a gun could be raised easily and a pair of plus-two knee-length breeks (trousers). That would set you back pounds 1,250 plus VAT. If you wanted an extra pair of trousers the bill would be pounds 1,468 plus VAT. Who, I asked, buys these suits when you can get everything - jacket, plus-twos, long socks, shirt, tie, leather gloves, shoes or boots - from the accessories shop at Purdey's for about pounds 750?

He didn't like to say. At least two of his customers were dukes, and they often complained about the prices. But the era of the country squire and gentleman farmer had gone. Today's customers were wealthy businessmen both here and abroad, individuals, I suppose, who want to dress for each occasion as they think they should.

Lying on a bench in the cutting room of Weatherill's is the cutter's bible, a huge tome known in the trade as Thorntons which dates from the 1920s and illustrates suits for every activity. The clothing for shooting has not changed because, I was told, it was ideal for the sport: a jacket that kept you warm, knickerbockers that did not get wet, heavy socks to protect and warm your legs, and solid shoes or boots to keep you steady. Only the tie was optional today. But since Prince Charles is a traditionalist I suppose it was inevitable he should wear one on his Sandringham shoot.

The lesson of all this research, therefore, is that to look like this would cost you upwards of pounds 28,000 - say pounds 28,500 plus VAT if you chuck in underwear, shirt, socks and tie purchased at the royal hosiers and shirtmakers. Alternatively, you could buy a small house in the Hebrides and simply wait for the clothes and His Royal Highness to drop in.

(Photographs omitted)

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