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TAILORED BY UMBRO – THE STORY OF AN ENGLISH SPORTSWEAR BRAND

FIRST PUBLISHED: Four Four Two, May 2009
By Chris Hunt

 

A close inspection of the England team’s earliest football shirt, worn for the first-ever international match in 1872, would reveal a discreet double diamond woven into the very fabric of the jersey. It’s not the famous Umbro diamond, as that would not come into being for just over another half a century, but it is an eerie foreshadowing of a logo that would come to dominate the world of British sportswear.

 

Umbro was the creation of Harold Humphreys who, with his brother Wallace, founded Humphreys Brothers Ltd in 1924, a small sportswear company based in Wilmslow on the fringes of Manchester. Lifting the ‘UM’ from Humphreys and the ‘BRO’ from Brothers, the company began trading as Umbro, and in time this simple brand name became synonymous with the production of “garments of distinction” for the sports market, especially in football.

 

Humphrey Brothers Ltd grew from humble origins but just a month shy of its tenth anniversary both FA Cup finalists were wearing stylish new Umbro outfits. By 1952 the company began to manufacture the England football strip for the first time, while six years later, when Brazil lifted the Jules Rimet trophy wearing shirts made in Wilmslow, the company could finally lay claim to being a truly global brand. With the next three World Cup winners also wearing Umbro, it all seemed such a long way from those early days in Wilmslow.

 

Harold Charles Humphreys was born on January 31, 1902, in Mobberley, Cheshire, just four miles from the factory where he would start to grow his sportswear empire while in his early twenties. The son of 34-year-old journeyman decorator James Humphrey and his 29-year-old second wife, Staffordshire-born Minnie Annie Steele, Harold would later recall his mother as “a hard woman”, yet she instilled in him many of the qualities that enabled him to make a success of his company, particularly the desire for “getting on”. His brother Wallace perhaps didn’t share these same qualities, soon fading from the company’s history.

 

Harold left school at 13 and by his late teens he was working at Bukta, the small Stockport-based sportswear brand that had been manufacturing football kits since 1884. Starting off as a warehouseman, he was also sent on the road selling, but in the immediate aftermath of the Great War times were hard and Harold didn’t enjoy life working for someone else. “I couldn’t see any chance of the advancement I wanted for myself,” he would recall. “I was terribly keen on success, so I started a small retail business.”

 

Initially trading from a small cupboard in his mother’s pub, the Bull’s Head Hotel in Mobberley, he started by picking up stock in Manchester and selling it to the regulars. “Transport was a real problem in those days and people couldn’t get to the big shops,” he would say. He also taught himself to string tennis rackets – a much in demand service – and although he had initially traded in fashion items, soon he found himself dealing with an increased demand for the sporting goods he was bringing back from the sports shops of Manchester.

 

It was a time when the general public was renewing its love affair with football after the hardships of the Great War. With so many men away in the services, there had been less enthusiasm for sport and attendances had dwindled, but when football resumed after the war, more people were watching – and playing – the game than ever before. The 200,000 fans that attempted to squeeze into the 1923 FA Cup Final at Wembley were just one indication that football really had become a national obsession.

 

Harold Humphreys watched this trend with interest and in 1924, when he persuaded several acquaintances, including his father-in-law-to-be, to invest in Humphreys Brothers Ltd, the new company moved into the wholesale production of football and athletic apparel. This put Harold in competition with his former employers Edward R Bucks & Sons, Bukta, and the rivalry between the two companies would endure until the Sixties, when Umbro would ultimately win out.

 

On its foundation, a 50 overdraft facility provided by the William Deacons Bank allowed the company flexibility to expand and it took on premises in Green Lane, Wilmslow. Working from the light of a finicky oil lamp perched on top of an old copper boiler, this 18-foot-square washhouse gave the company its manufacturing and warehouse base through the Roaring Twenties.

 

Humphreys Brothers soon recruited staff, the first being 14-year-old Alan Bradbury. In the beginning the manufacturing was outsourced, producing only small runs of sports apparel, but soon Beattie Shuttleworth was engaged as a machinist to operate one of the company’s first Singer sewing machines. By 1926, the company had six machinists, but with no heating, the working conditions at Green Lane were not ideal. “In the winter we would burn scraps of rubber from tennis racket covers we had made,” machinist Lillian Eyres would recall. “It kept us warm but the smell was terrible.”

 

A second hand BSA motorcycle combination was purchased to help with deliveries in the early months, replacing the services of a character known as ‘Whistling Harry’ and his handcart, but by 1925 the motorcycle was exchanged for a temperamental Austin Seven motorcar, and Umbro were up and running on four wheels.

 

The company continued to grow, increasing turnover each year, but it was in the face of the slow trading conditions of the Great Depression that Harold Humphreys took a bold decision that helped make a name for the growing company. “The real breakthrough in the fortunes in those early days was the inauguration of 24 to 48 hour dispatch service,” Harold would recall. “It was a risk but it put us on the map.”

 

By 1933 the young upstart Umbro must have seemed a distinct threat to the longer established local rivals Bukta, who launched a court case against Humphreys Brothers, claiming copyright infringement in the Umbro catalogue, or the ‘Umbrochure’ as it would later become known. The case was dismissed with costs being awarded to Humphreys Brothers, but in his determination to make Umbro a success, Harold would continue to monitor the opposition to ensure his company was doing everything it could to be a success. “If a competitor gains a point on us,” he would recall, “I am apt to blame myself for not being wide awake and therefore I adopt the attitude that next time it must be us who are in front and not our competitors.”

 

If any one event represented a genuine landmark for the company in the pre-war era, it was the 1934 FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Portsmouth, when City took to the Wembley pitch wearing an innovative new Umbro kits, stylishly tailored from what the company would advertise as ‘Tangeru’ (made from Peruvian pima cotton, it was dubbed “the new fabric for football jerseys”). It certainly pleased the cup winners Manchester City. “The fit, quality and smartness of the entire outfit was undoubtedly perfection, and the team to a man were impressed and delighted with it,” wrote manager Wilf Wild in a letter of gratitude.

 

Umbro’s customer base was spreading and not only were its products showcased by the following year’s cup winners Sheffield Wednesday, but they would be worn by at least one of the finalists for decades to come, and by “semi-finalists, league champions, and in many outstanding matches too numerous to mention”, as one contemporary Umbro advert boasted.

 

Under the leadership of Harold Humphreys the company would build upon its reputation as “the sportswear people”, supplying performance garments to everyone from the top tennis stars of the day to Sunday golfers and the boy scouts. It even catered for sports deemed alien to Wilmslow, such as basketball, but football would always remain at the centre of the Umbro business.

 

The company’s steady progress had allowed relocation to more suitable premises in the 1930s, giving Umbro the opportunity to add offices, warehousing and canteen facilities to the manufacturing base at the Water Lane site in Wilmslow that would remain Umbro’s primary factory and headquarters until its closure 50 years later.

The coming of the Second World War, however, very nearly put an end to the company, and Harold only managed to keep the nucleus of the business together by putting Umbro to work on military contracts. Overnight the factory went from producing sportswear to turning out uniforms for the military and even making fittings for the inside of the Lancaster bomber.

 

In the immediate post-war years Harold continued to build the friendly atmosphere that had been a hallmark of Umbro in the Thirties. A firm but benign leader, he made staff feel they were more than just employees. “We always used to say that we felt part of their family and I think that was quite important to ‘Mr Harold’,” recalls Win Croft, who worked for the company at the Water Lane factory from 1946 until 1988. “He was such a lovely man, a kind and ordinary man who would never put himself above anybody.”

 

Harold’s grandson has similar memories, from the days he would follow the chairman on his weekly tour of the company. “On a Friday he would go round with his clipboard and tour each factory,” recalls Charles Humphreys. “He would take notes and he was particularly good with the staff. For instance, if he learned that someone’s family member was sick, he wouldn’t forget that – I’d walk round with him the following week and he’d remember to check on them. He was very caring and he was a great leader.”

 

There were even occasional perks for the staff, who would otherwise spend their days labouring over the clunky Singer sewing machines that made the shop floor such a noisy place. “A gentleman stood by my machine while I was working,” recalls Win Croft. “I didn’t realise who it was until the whisper came round, but I was absolutely over the moon when I realised it was Stan Mortensen. I also got to meet Bert Trautmann, and much later Kevin Keegan and Bruce Grobbelaar when they were on factory tours.”

 

In the Fifties Harold prepared his two sons John and Stuart to take over the running of the business. Both would play their part in the future of Umbro, but ‘Mr John’, as the staff would call him, was the more focused, the more inclined to “getting on”, and he was the brother who had most clearly inherited his father’s business acumen. “John was just finishing his two years National Service in the Air Force when I met him,” recalls his wife, Myra Humphreys. “But he was definitely being groomed to work at the company, because he was sent to college to prepare himself for the job.”

 

As the Fifties progressed John’s impact on the business became more significant. Along with his brother, he was responsible for streamlining the manufacturing process, using cutting edge work practices of the day. Harold would later recall how he tossed one piece of correspondence dismissively in John’s direction, saying: “I don’t know if you’re interested in Time and Motion but I’m not”. In the hands of his sons, it resulted in a significant overhaul of the business and its production processes.

 

John became managing director in 1957 when his father was elevated to chairman and it enabled the company to focus its resources as Umbro finally challenged – and overtook – the dominance of Bukta in the football market. By the mid Sixties Umbro were laying claim to supplying strips to 85 per cent of British clubs. “My dad had certain qualities that were more in line with the modern way of thinking,” says John’s son Charles. “He really understood branding and the idea of focusing on, if not one sport, at least two. Umbro were pretty focused on rugby and soccer in my dad’s days, as it was a time when companies became recognized for more specific marketing.”

John was also encouraged by his father to travel the world in search of new business. It was a period when, in the words of the founder, the company “really began to look outwards rather than inwards”.

 

It was as a result of one of John’s business trip to the company’s Canadian distributors in 1958 that a line of communication was opened with Adidas. Consequently a deal was struck to make Umbro the sole importer and distributor of the German company’s footwear in the UK, an agreement that would last until 1986 and have a huge impact on the fortunes of both companies. Umbro began selling Adidas products in the UK in 1961, transforming the domestic game as footballers abandoned the traditional burly British leather football boots in favour of their sleek but little known European rivals.

 

The 1966 World Cup finals proved a watershed for Umbro. Having written to all the British Embassies in the countries that looked likely to qualify, John Humphreys set off on a global business trip in December 1965, returning the following month having managed to secure the kit contracts for all of the competing nations. “We won the contracts on quality, and because nobody else looked ahead and jumped ahead as quickly as us,” said John on the eve of the tournament.

 

To promote the achievement his brother Stuart posed for the newspapers at Manchester Airport surrounded by 16 BEA trolley dollies, each wearing the football strip of one of the finalists. But when the tournament finally commenced, without any explanation the Soviet Union chose not to wear the kit they had been sent, making them the only Umbro refuseniks at the World Cup.

 

It was at the FA’s headquarters in Lancaster Gate, however, that John clinched the most important agreement for the company. With a bold bid during a meeting with Alf Ramsey and FA secretary Denis Follows in 1965, he managed to snatch the deal to kit out the England team from right under the noses of rivals Bukta, returning the contract to Umbro after an absence of five years.

 

The England contract would remain with Umbro for the next nine years, taking in the era of the lightweight ‘Aztec’ shirts famously made to Alf Ramsey’s specifications for Mexico 70, but by 1974 the deal was lost after an audacious bid from rivals Admiral, one that would reshape the way that sportswear companies would do business.

 

Up until that point professional clubs and national football associations still purchased football strips from companies like Umbro on standard commercial terms. “Umbro never advertised the fact that they were official suppliers to the FA so there was no need for them to pay us a royalty,” FA secretary Ted Croker would recall. “I advised the international committee that we should accept the most advantageous offer.”

Admiral tabled a payment of 15,000 a year or a ten per cent royalty on replica sales, whichever was the greater, insisting in return on a distinctive kit design that would allow the company to maximize sales from replica shirts. The deal was accepted and although it had been Umbro that had invented the replica football market in 1958, when it introduced the Soccerset, Admiral’s move sent shockwaves through the industry. It was perhaps apt that Harold Humphreys, who prided himself on keeping one step ahead of the competition, did not live to see the this new era, having passed away in March 1974, just a couple of months short of the company’s 50th anniversary.

 

The Admiral experience proved a valuable lesson for Umbro and in the Eighties it became the most significant player in the replica market. By 1984 it had regained the England contract in a five-year deal worth 1m to the FA. By this time, however, Umbro was a very different company, the passing of Harold Humphreys having been followed five years later by the sudden death of his son John.

 

The loss of the managing director aged just 49 was a profound shock to the company. Martin Prothero, Umbro’s current Vice President of Football, did not join until three years later, but he recalls how the loss was still felt. “There was this void,” he says. “Everyone still referred to ‘Mr John’ and he was still the shadow that hung over everything that Umbro did. Without a doubt the business went through a period of lacking that firm hand on the tiller.”

 

By the mid Eighties Umbro’s contract with Adidas, that had once proved so profitable for the company, was nearing its conclusion. In many ways the relationship had been built on the personal friendships between the Dassler and Humphreys families, but it failed to survive the death of John. Early signs of discontent had followed the first steps by Adidas into the apparel market in the Seventies, and while Umbro remained contractually restricted from moving into football hardware – boots, balls and shin guards – Adidas relentlessly pressured their partners for a share of the lucrative UK kit market, which Umbro effectively dominated.

 

“It was becoming obvious at that time that we were having increasing issues in our relationship with Adidas,” admits Charles Humphreys, by then Umbro’s Director of International Development. “We were both trying to sign up teams but we were kind of all the same company – yet we weren’t! It was always likely that Humphreys Brothers and Adidas would part ways somewhere down the line.”

 

Freed from the Adidas contract in 1986, Umbro were finally able to put football boots into production. The company expanded out of all recognition in the Eighties, as it chased hard after the global vision that John Humphreys had always imagined for the brand. In an attempt to keep up with the phenomenal demand for the company’s products in the US, caused by the significant growth in ‘soccer’ at grassroots level and by the popular status of Umbro shorts, or ‘Umbros’ as they became known, the company assigned American rights to Stone Manufacturing, who took over Umbro USA in 1981. With Humphreys Brothers Ltd unable to fund the needed global expansion, the following year it entered into a joint venture with Stone to market to the remainder of the world.

 

Growth remained steady in North America as Umbro USA, unencumbered by the huge sums that the mother company was paying for club contracts at home, started to outpace its UK counterpart. With Britain in recession, Stone managed to acquire Umbro for the knockdown price of 2.9m in September 1992, ending an association with the Humphreys family that had lasted 68 years.

 

In the last 17 years Umbro has come a long way. Ownership subsequently passed through the hands of venture capitalists Doughty Hanson & Co, but when Nike took over the company in February 2008 in a deal said to be worth 285m, it set about reinvigorating Umbro, successfully reminding the company of its rich heritage in sports tailoring and the deep debt of gratitude that it owes to its founder Harold Humphreys.

 

Today Harold’s grandson Charles Humphreys is not so certain that the latter-day growth of Umbro would have been possible if the company had stayed in the ownership of the family, as Humphreys Brothers Ltd would just not have had the financial clout to compete in the modern era of global sports brands. But he still takes a certain degree of satisfaction from his family’s achievements. “I’m always proud of seeing the Umbro double diamond in big games wherever they might be played around the world,” he says. “And when Nike took it over I finally thought it was back in good hands.”

 

 

 

Words copyright Chris Hunt 2009