Cloaked in secrecy: a little-known tale about Burberry and Basingstoke

Written by Kaia Vincent
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As autumn brings more frequent showers and blustery winds, we’re reminded of one of Basingstoke’s most famous exports – the Burberry raincoat. If you didn’t already know about the connection between Burberry and Basingstoke, the iconic gaberdine coats started life way back in 1856 at T. Burberry & Sons Limited. The original shop was situated on Winchester Road in the Hampshire town.

Stitched throughout history

Since then, they’ve waterproofed the backs of such well-known historical figures as Roald Amundson, the first man to reach the South Pole, and Ernest Shackleton, who led an expedition to cross Antarctica in 1914. Did you know that a Burberry gabardine jacket was also worn by George Mallory on his attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1924?

When the War Office commissioned Burberry to adapt its officer’s coat to endure modern warfare, the ‘trench coat’ was born. Stylish as well as functional, it has also been worn by movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and Peter Sellers.

Thomas Burberry lived in The Shrubbery on Cliddesden Road and his grave is located at The Holy Ghost church behind Basingstoke railway station.

Faking it to make it

From Chanel to Prada, luxury brands often spawn imitations and Burberry was as vulnerable to this as any other high fashion house…

After a prosperous start, Burberry was forced to lay many of its seamstresses off during the great depression of the 1930s. Having left school in 1926, Ellen Partridge (maiden name White) had become a Burberry girl apprentice seamstress but sadly, she was one of many young ladies they had to let go.

Rumour has it, after several weeks’ unemployment, Ellen answered a knock at the door. Standing there was her former supervisor from Burberry, who offered her a part-time job creating fake Burberry raincoats. As a part of a family of eight, hard times called for desperate measures and Ellen’s economic circumstances left her unable to say no.

Top secret location

A local newsletter reports how the enterprising supervisor had craftily copied the patterns of the best-selling men’s and women’s raincoats and was setting up a business to produce knock-offs. With the country in the grip of the depression, there was a large market for cheaper, fake goods – and no shortage of seamstresses looking for a way to pay the bills.

The covert operation was run from a small workshop, tucked away on Alexandra Road in the Brookvale area of Basingstoke. If you’re curious to see the site of the secret workshop today, take a stroll down Alexandra Road from Worting Road and on the left-hand path about a third of the way down you should be able to see an archway between some of the terraced houses.

Under the archway, there’s a large brick and slate tiled shed which stretches across the bottom of the back gardens. It was here that Ellen and a few other seamstresses made fake Burberry raincoats for 18 months. Their creations were such dead ringers for the real thing that they sold to department stores from Bournemouth to Basingstoke.

The sincerest form of flattery

According to Wikipedia, in July 2018 it was reported that in the previous past five years Burberry had destroyed unsold clothes, accessories and perfume worth over £90m in order to protect its brand and prevent the items being stolen or sold cheaply. So, it seems that throughout history there is one pattern that always endures – where there is true beauty and style, there will always be imitators.

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