Billingham bags have long been a favorite here at Camera West and Leica Store San Francisco. I remember picking my first Hadley Pro up several years ago after Sean convinced me to. Since then, it has been on many trips, traveled thousands of miles, and carried several generations of cameras. During a trip last fall to Europe, Sean and I had the honor of stopping by the Billingham Factory just outside of Birmingham, UK, for a tour of the facility and a visit with the Billingham crew.
Birmingham, UK, was the industrial empire of the United Kingdom through the war. While talking with Harry after he graciously picked us up from our Hotel, he noted some exciting things made in Birmingham, such as the anchor for the Titanic, as well as Range Rover and Jaguar, who have production facilities still in this region. I was fascinated by the industrial complex and focused on craftsmanship with a historical basis. Of course, the level of industrialism and production was far from the glory days it once held many years ago. Still, companies like Billingham thrive in this atmosphere, and their ingenuity persists.
Upon entering the Billingham factory, we were greeted by the amicable staff and the founders and creators of the Billingham bag, Ros and Martin Billingham. Ros and Martin founded the Billingham bag company while working different jobs and filling their spare time by crafting bags for fishing. Later, after discovering that photographers in NYC were using their bags, they shifted their focus to making camera bags. I invite you to read the full story over on the Billingham website. Their stories of founding Billingham and coming up with the original ideas, concepts, and production processes are still present in their bags today and caught the attention of all of us. Martin and Ros are still, to this day, heavily involved in the company, with Martin's desk sitting just above the production floor covered in beautiful concepts, ideas, and prototypes.
A quick deluge from the story at hand to explain the picture above. The sewing machine seen above is the original sewing machine that started Billingham Bags in the 1970s. Ros and Martin purchased this to begin making Billingham bags, and 40 years later, the staff at Billingham had it refurbished as a memento of 40 years of a successful business for Ros and Martin. It now resides in the Billingham HQ main offices. The production floor now has dozens of sewing machines operated by skilled craftsmen and women, along with other amazing modern and vintage tools.
Harry showed us the ins and outs of making these bags from the Billingham offices to the production floor. We saw the materials, processes, machines, people, and even the innovation surrounding how Billingham bags have evolved over the years. Sean and I were both struck by the constant innovation used by Billingham to make a better bag, from bringing processes in-house to creating techniques that wasted less raw materials to finding more efficient ways of accomplishing a workflow. It was clear the Billingham factory was in a constant state of change, betterment, and adaptation to continue to improve on their classic and ever-so-popular motif. Billingham still utilizes waterproof fabrics, the leather sourced is from some of the finest tanneries in Europe, and the fittings you'll find on Billingham bags all date back to their earliest renditions from the 1970s. The processes, designs, and construction have morphed over the years and come to shapes and forms we know and love today, such as the modern Hadley Pro 2020, Eventer Bags, Rucksacks, and more. (see the links at the bottom for some of our favorites.)
After our tour and seeing behind the bag, we were in awe of the level of care put into each bag. Recently I purchased the new Eventer II in Sage/Black for the trip. After experiencing the craftsmanship firsthand and the attention to detail put into each stitch, we left with an overwhelming appreciation for Billingham bags.
Upon exiting the building, Harry grabbed his Billingham bag he had stitched himself nearly 16 years earlier. The bag was worn, stained, patched, and used, but it told a story. The bag resembled that of the new Eventer II I was carrying but from years earlier and loads more miles than mine. In a day and age of disposable goods and constantly updating technologies, it is refreshing to have a product built to last, be repaired if broken, and remain a classic staple of one's day-to-day life. Those who know, know that when you purchase a Billingham, it will probably outlast the gear you put in it.
This year Billingham celebrates their 50th anniversary. We are excited to see where Billingham has come from and where they are today. We proudly stock and highly recommend Billingham bags in our stores. We invite you to contact us with any questions about finding the perfect bag for your kit, or if possible, stop in and see them for yourself.
Photos by Sean Cranor & Ben Carpenter