Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  February 16, 2020

Burberry, Basingstoke and Gabardine: The Origins of a Global Brand.

by Chelsey Lewington

Basingstoke is a town which lies in the county of Hampshire, England. To most of the local people, and those outside of it, the town is seen as a place of no importance or investment whatsoever despite the fact that Jane Austen was a frequent visitor here from the nearby village of Steventon (Smallbone, pg. 53). On the other hand Burberry, as you all are probably aware, is a brand which is well known for their revolutionary raincoats and its trendy streetwear which is seen on catwalks and in stores all over the world. What many people are unaware of, however, is that in 1856 a twenty-one year old named Thomas Burberry required a little draper’s shop of his own in Basingstoke and the rest is history (Luffram and Williams, pg.28).

Thomas Burberry was born on 27th August 1835 in Brockham Green, Dorking, Surrey. Once he completed his apprenticeship he acquired his first store in Winchester Street (Smallbone, p.120).  He was not the only one, however, to set up his own business during this time. A J P Taylor suggested in English History 1914-1945 that in the 1900s the top 1% of the population owned two-thirds of the wealth. Whilst a similar disparity of wealth was evident in Basingstoke, the owners of this wealth were the newly established business owners and entrepreneurs (Willoughby, pg. 12).  Whilst Burberry believed in the Victorian values of hard-work and perseverance he did help out the people in the local town, who in turn actually helped him out too. 

The first way was through the invention of ‘Gabardine’. When setting up his own store, Burberry decided to specialize in outerwear. His father was a farmer and Thomas Burberry had been a horseman, fisherman, shooting man and farmer himself which allowed him to understand the requirements these consumers would need in their clothing (Willoughby, pg.12).  In 1868, he decided to set up a factory in New Street with the intention of creating an outer garment that would be cool in summer and warm in the winter. It also had to be very fashionable. His point for inspiration was his doctor who, unfortunately, was never properly identified. After much discussion his doctor preferred the idea of a garment that was resistant to wind and rain which should ideally have some form of ‘natural ventilation’ (Willis Museum Archives). Burberry’s other inspiration was from the local farmers who would visit his shop. During this time local farmers would wear linen smocks whilst they were attending to their flocks (Willoughby, p.12-13). Burberry noticed that the unique surface tension meant that it prevented water penetrating the fabric. He also noticed that the lanolin from the wool provided extra protection to the farmers (Willoughby, p.13).

Through a secret process of using Egyptian cotton, which was then doubly proofed in the yarn before weaving and during it, ‘Gabardine’ was born in 1879 and patented in 1888 (Willoughby, pg. 13-14).  Burberry sold his design in fashionable slip-on raincoats such as the ‘Airylight’, ‘Karoo’ and ‘Tropical’ at his flagship store in Winchester Street (Smallbone, Pg. 51). The store was the local equivalent of Selfridges, as they also provided to the locals boots, house furnishings, china and glass and even an undertaker’s service! (Willoughby, pg. 20). The store also provided employment to hundreds of people working in the town. A Burberry dressmaker would have been awarded seven shillings for the making of one garment from start to finish. In fact, most of the workers were young unmarried women who aspired to work at Burberry’s (Smallbone, pg. 50. Originally sourced from ‘How It All Began – Up the High Street’ – Maurice Baren 1996).  Unmarried women were permitted to live above the store in Winchester Street which in April 1905 almost became too deadly.

A fire had broken out in the evening when Miss Gray, an assistant milliner, was bringing light to the front window with the help of a taper. Some material then caught alight and the fire started to spread. All twenty-five women who lived above the shop floor were safe, however, the fire caused £30,000 worth of damages (Willis Museum Archives and Display). Always resilient and resourceful, Burberry decided to rebuild his shop in London Street which is seen in the photograph as being decorated to celebrate the golden jubilee of George V and the coronation of George VI (Willoughby, pg.16).

What made the Burberry name internationally renowned was the fact his gabardine clothing and textiles were being used on famous expeditions to the Artic. Explorers such as Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton were all wearing windproof Burberry overalls during their expeditions. One of the greatest Artic expeditions of all time, the 1914 trans-Antarctic expedition, had its members kitted out in gabardine clothing which was made by tailoresses in Basingstoke (Willoughby, pg.16).  His designs gained the attention of royalty and that led to Burberry being commissioned by the War Office to design a new uniform for the Army and Navy, inventing what would be dubbed the Trench Coat (Smallbone, pg.49-50).  Before Burberry’s redesign the clothes new recruits were given were red tunics from the Crimean War and old Post Office uniforms which were dubbed ‘Kitchener Blue’ (Samllbone, Pg.30).

At the start of the War things were going well for Burberry. Not only was he designing the wardrobe of Lord Kitchener personally, but he had already established his other store in London’s Haymarket and had new stores opening in New York and Paris. As a result, the 1911 census revealed that Basingstoke had 584 females and 208 male tailors, milliners, clothiers, outfitters and haberdashers in the town (mallbone, p. 53).  In 1915, The Hants and Berks Gazette declared the year as one with “unexampled prosperity”. They believed this occurred because the amount of people flourishing and working in providing munitions for the Government and clothing in factories like Burberry (Smallbone, pg.61).

Despite the fact his business was flourishing during the years of the First World War his conscious was not. Thomas Burberry himself was a Baptist and he believed it was his duty to worship God and to help others (Willoughby, P.17-18). In 1867 he helped to build the Ebenezer Chapel on Wote Street, he established a Temperance café in Market Square and even ran for the town council, only to lose out on his seat by a few votes (Smallbone, pg. 47 and Willoughby, pg.18). The most important act that he did for the town was to buy Goldings Park in 1919. This park was intended to become a memorial for the soldiers who died during WWI, however, the council could not afford the funds at that time. He kept hold of the park until the council could pay him back and in 1923, they did, allowing the park to be forever known as the War Memorial Park (Willoughby, pg.20-21).

Thomas Burberry brought his son Thomas Newman the house known as The Shrubbery whilst he resided at Crossways in Hook. As a keen sportsman all his life he enjoyed travelling to Basingstoke via horseback, until he had a fall one day whilst riding his horse in his seventies (Smallbone, pg. 13 and Willoughby, pg. 17).  He died at his home in Crossways on Easter Sunday, 1926 at the age of 91 (Luffram and Williams, pg. 28).  He is buried at the Holy Ghost Cemetery (the place where a woman was buried alive in 1674).

His younger son Arthur Michael decided to take over the business. The 1920s led to the brand associating itself with the affluent classes and their leisurely pursuits whilst the 1940s led to the brand providing utility gabardine for the civilian. There were eventually no Burberry stores in Basingstoke and the factory had to be evacuated during WWII. Arthur retired in 1951 and sold the brand to Great Universal Stores. In 1966 it became a wholly owned subsidiary (Willoughby, pg. 20-21).

The factory in Basingstoke closed in 1957. The Burberry check, which went from the inner lining in the 20s to the outer in the 1960s, became its iconic trademark instead (Willoughby, pg. 21).  It became a luxury house which did suffer in the early 2000s for its associations with “chav culture”. Despite this setback, the brand has been reinventing itself as a trendy and sustainable brand under the leadership of Riccardo Tisci (Furniss, Jo-Ann, Article).

This brand created a breathable and iconic coat made from a unique textile, it helped men on groundbreaking expeditions and it became a trendy and luxurious streetwear brand. None of this would never have been possible if it was not for one man in a little town called Basingstoke.

1 Furniss, J-A. (2019) ‘Can Riccardo Tisci Propel Burberry Beyond Gabardine?’, The Wall Street Journal, November [online]. Available at: (First Accessed: 15/12/2019)
2 Luffram, J. and Williams, H. (1995) The House in Mary Ann’s Garden Known as The Shrubbery Cliddesden Road, Basingstoke in the County of Hampshire. 1st edn. Basingstoke: The Platinum Printing Company Limited.
3 Smallbone, K. (2014) Basingstoke in the Great War. 1st edn. Basingstoke: Self Published. 
4 Willis Museum Archives and display, The Burberry Collection, (1856-present), Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery Basingstoke. (Accessed 22/01/2020.)
5 Willoughby, R. (2010) ‘The Raincoat Revolution’ in Willoughby, R.  Basingstoke and its Contributions to World Culture. 1st edn. Reading: Self Published.

  • The Staff at Burberry’s Factory, ca.1900-1920, Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery Archives, Photographer Unknown. (Seen 22/1/2020.) With th
  • Burberry Advertisement, featured in a 1980s Burberry Celebration Featurette at the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery Archives. (Seen 22/1/
  • Burberry London Street Store, Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery Archives, ca. 1937, Photographer Unknown. (Seen 22/1/2020.) With thanks to
  • Burberry Coat, ca. 2000s, Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery, Burberry Display, Taken by Author. (24/1/2020.) With tanks to Jenny Stevens.
  • Burberry Coat, ca.1939-1945, Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery, Burberry Display, Take by Author. (24/1/2020.) With thanks to Jenny Steven