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Penguins tailors in Chatham, formerly Newcombs where Charles Dickens was customer, to close after 180 years


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It has turned out fine garments for kings and gentry and among its regular customers were Charles Dickens, General Gordon, Lord Kitchener and Lord Tennyson.

But after 180 years of trading in Chatham, the family tailors formerly known as Newcombs and now as Penguins, has come to the end of the line.

The business began as a military and naval outfitters
The business began as a military and naval outfitters

Having survived two world wars, the Great Depression in the 1930s, 48 prime ministers and two pandemics, one of Kent's oldest independent retail companies is closing at the end of this month.

After 56 years, Gerald Newcomb, seventh generation of the Medway family, is hanging up his tape measure and retiring.

While today 90% of business is hiring out suits for weddings and special occasions, over nearly two centuries it has earned a reputation worldwide for quality and service.

The 73-year-old is saddened by the changes in customer priorities when it comes to buying high-end attire nowadays.

Gerald Newcomb is retiring after 56 years
Gerald Newcomb is retiring after 56 years

He said: "It's all about labels and brands, which are meaningless.

"It's the quality of the cloth that is key. I love fabric and it disappoints me it is not appreciated.

"And there's a tendency for wearing clothes too tight.

"My role is to make people look good. Clothes have to hang well."

The old Newcombs shop in Chatham
The old Newcombs shop in Chatham

Newcomb's was launched by brothers Frederick and Horatio, primarily as a naval and military outfitters, in the High Street and Railway Street in the town.

Their father Frederick Newcomb senior was a paymaster in the Royal Navy serving under Lord Nelson.

He was actually married to a relation of Lady Hamilton.

He was determined none of his four sons should follow suit and work for a government service.

Heeding advice from his good friend, Lord Nelson, he encouraged them to enter the commercial world.

Newcomb's Mannequin Parade at Chatham Town Hall, March 1933
Newcomb's Mannequin Parade at Chatham Town Hall, March 1933

In its heyday, the business employed 300 and a had a factory in a side street off the High Street where staff made shirts for King Edward VII.

At one point there was also a shop catering for ladies selling lingerie, silk stockings, hats and corsets.

There was an active social club with regular dinner and dances at nearby venues like The Prince of Wales in Railway Street.

The workforce also took part in community events such as the Medway Carnival.

The business taking part in the Medway Carnival
The business taking part in the Medway Carnival

When Gerald left King's School, Rochester, like his forefathers he completed a three-year apprenticeship in London before joining the business.

He said: "I got £6 a week which didn't cover the train fares from here to London."

He trained in retail and marketing rather that tailoring skills as there was "no money in it".

He added: "In those days there was a real hierarchy, the top role being the jacket maker, which was the pinnacle of success."

Penguins Suits in Chatham is closing. Employees at a sports and social club dinner in November 1938
Penguins Suits in Chatham is closing. Employees at a sports and social club dinner in November 1938

The shop at number 133 High Street was demolished in the 1980s to make way for the flyover and the business relocated numbers 87/89 – re-named Penguins in 1985.

Dickens had an account with the tailors and there are framed notes of his orders penned by the author from his home at Gads Hill, Higham.

In one he writes "Messrs Newcomb – be so good as to supply two greatcoats for my sons Harry and Edward.

"Please do notice that I do not authorise or hold myself responsible for any other orders."

Seventies fashion on show
Seventies fashion on show
Staff show off their wares
Staff show off their wares

In another, dated April 1870, he asks for a new suit of livery for his coachman.

Gerald's son Benjamin, 34, is an architect and has chosen not to carry on the family business.

He said: "I'm fine with that.

"We are seeing the demise of the High Street particularly in the last five years and with Covid on top of that.

"With no weddings and gatherings during lockdown, trade dropped for months."

Closing down sale at Penguins
Closing down sale at Penguins

In the early days, Newcombs relied on word of mouth which attracted business as far away as India, South Africa and America.

To commemorate its centenary, in a feature in the now defunct Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham Observer, the reporter wrote "the name of Newcombe, Chatham, is known and respected wherever the British Navy and Army are stationed throughout the world.

It commented: "In an age of combines, mergers and chain stores, one does not often come across a business that is operating as confidently and successfully and in almost in the same manner as it did one hundred years ago.

"Throughout 100 changing and troublous years, the character of the firm has remain unaltered.

An old advert for the store
An old advert for the store
Suits you sir
Suits you sir

"In 1834 it was launched as a family concern and has as such withstood the test of time. Their future is assured."

Gerald and wife Hilary will be spending more time at their home in Langley, near Maidstone.

He goes to the gym four times a week and enjoys walking and will now be able to indulge more in his hobbies of pottery and wood turning.

He said: "This has been a long time coming. I shall miss interacting with people.

"It's sad that a little bit of history is leaving Medway."

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