Family tailors in Chatham that dressed Charles Dickens set to close

Historic family tailors that dressed Charles Dickens, Lord Kitchener and King Edward VII will shut up shop after 186 years… as retiring owner’s son chooses not to carry on with business

  • Penguins Suits in the former Royal Navy dockyard town of Chatham, Kent, was launched in 1834
  • Owner Gerald Newcomb, now aged 73, is retiring and his son does not want to carry on the business 
  • In its heyday, the business employed 300 people and had its own factory where staff made shirts
  • Charles Dickens was a regular customer and the handwritten orders he penned have been kept
  • In one, he gives instructions that he should not be made to pay for any orders made by his sons 
  • A tailors that sold fine garments for the likes of Charles Dickens, Lord Kitchener and King Edward VII is set to cease trading after 186 years.

    Family-run business Penguins Suits in the former Royal Navy dockyard town of Chatham, Kent, was launched in 1834 as a naval and military outfitters by brothers Frederick and Horatio Newcomb.

    In its heyday, the business employed 300 people and had its own factory where staff made shirts for royalty, including King Edward VII.

    Among the tailor’s other regular customers were legendary Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, First World War general Lord Kitchener and 19th century army officer General Charles Gordon – who was killed after the famous Siege of Khartoum. Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, was also a customer.

    But after 56 years of working for the family business, formerly known as Newcombs Limited, owner Gerald Newcomb, 73, is hanging up his tape measure and retiring.

    Despite Penguin Suits’ rich history, Mr Newcomb’s son Benjamin, 34, who is an architect, has chosen not to carry on the family business.

    The 73-year-old has kept a collection of handwritten notes from Dickens that document the novelist’s orders, as well as his instructions that he should not be made to pay for any orders made by his sons.

    In one, Dickens, who lived in nearby Rochester 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.’

    A tailors that sold fine garments for the likes of Charles Dickens, Lord Kitchener and King Edward VII is set to cease trading after 186 years. Above: Gerald Newcomb inside his shop, Penguins Suits in the former Royal Navy dockyard town of Chatham, Kent

    A tailors that sold fine garments for the likes of Charles Dickens, Lord Kitchener and King Edward VII is set to cease trading after 186 years. Above: Gerald Newcomb inside his shop, Penguins Suits in the former Royal Navy dockyard town of Chatham, Kent

    The business (pictured above in an old photo) was launched in 1834 as a naval and military outfitters by brothers Frederick and Horatio Newcomb. In its heyday, the business employed 300 people and had its own factory where staff made shirts for royalty, including King Edward VII

    The business (pictured above in an old photo) was launched in 1834 as a naval and military outfitters by brothers Frederick and Horatio Newcomb. In its heyday, the business employed 300 people and had its own factory where staff made shirts for royalty, including King Edward VII

    Mr Newcomb said: ‘The shop was opened in 1834 by my ancestors, Fredrick and Horatio Newcomb, as Newcombs Limited, and it’s been continuously trading ever since.

    ‘I started working for the business when I was 17-years-old. I eventually took over the company in 1985 and decided to continue on my own under a different name. That was when I changed the company name to Penguins Suits.

    ‘But I’m getting old now, and I have had enough. My lease is ending soon so I felt like it was the right time to shut up shop. I’m long overdue to retire.’

    Gerald described the tailors as being ‘steeped in history’ – explaining how Dickens even had an account with them during the 1800s.

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

    In the early days, Penguin Suits relied solely on word of mouth, but its reputation saw the company attract business from as far away as India, South Africa and America.

    In its heyday, the business employed 300 people and had its own factory where staff made shirts for royalty, including King Edward VII (pictured above in the early 1900s)

    Legendary Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was also a customer

    First World War general Lord Kitchener bought suits from the firm

    In its heyday, the business employed 300 people and had its own factory where staff made shirts for royalty, including King Edward VII (left). Among the tailor’s other regular customers were legendary Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (centre), and First World War general Lord Kitchener (right)

    Mr Newcomb has kept a collection of handwritten notes from Dickens, who lived in nearby Rochester, that document the novelist's orders, as well as his instructions that he should not be made to pay for any orders made by his sons. In one, Dickens 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'

    Mr Newcomb has kept a collection of handwritten notes from Dickens, who lived in nearby Rochester, that document the novelist’s orders, as well as his instructions that he should not be made to pay for any orders made by his sons. In one, Dickens 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’

    Gerald said: ‘In the 1930s the company used to send stuff all around the world because we had quite a big military connection.

    ‘We’d basically send it to anywhere with red on the map – which was most of the world in the Victorian times.’

    At the height of its success the tailors even had a separate shop catering for ladies – selling lingerie, silk stockings, hats and corsets – and a department which made baby clothes.

    Mr Newcomb, who is the seventh generation Newcomb to run the business, joined the company after leaving school and completing a three-year apprenticeship in London.

    He trained in retail and marketing rather than tailoring because he said there was no money in it.

    The business now operates as a rental company, supplying customers with suits for a range of occasions, including weddings and black tie events.

    They also offer an on-site fitting and adjustment service and hire out shoes, shirts, hats, and accessories.

    A document showing Mr Newcomb's relatives, the brothers Frederick and Horatio Newcomb, who founded the business

    A document showing Mr Newcomb’s relatives, the brothers Frederick and Horatio Newcomb, who founded the business

    One of the shop's original adverts depicted a glamorous woman dressed in a 'Celanesque' quilted satin dressing gowns

    Another poster advertised tailored suits for men

    One of the shop’s original adverts (left) depicted a glamorous woman dressed in a ‘Celanesque’ quilted satin dressing gowns. Another poster advertised tailored suits for men

    Mr Newcomb is seen posing with one of his shop's suits. The business will open its doors for the final time on May 31

    Mr Newcomb is seen posing with one of his shop’s suits. The business will open its doors for the final time on May 31

    Mr Newcomb is pictured outside his shop on Chatham High Street. Whilst the business is still popular, its 73-year-old owner is retiring and his son does not want to take it on

    Mr Newcomb is pictured outside his shop on Chatham High Street. Whilst the business is still popular, its 73-year-old owner is retiring and his son does not want to take it on

    Mr Newcomb added: ‘Once upon a time we had three tailors in the work room, but now we operate as a rental company.

    ‘I can do simple adjustments and things, but I basically run the shop.’

    Mr Newcomb added: ‘Business is still very good, and if I wasn’t getting old I’d probably carry on, but the world is changing.

    ‘The trade itself has changed so much. People tend to opt for more casual clothing now – which isn’t a bad thing – but it doesn’t suit what I want to do.’

    While he is looking forward to using his newfound free time to indulge in his hobbies, which include pottery and wood-turning, Gerald said he will miss the social aspect of the job.

    He added: ‘I will miss our core customers, who have come back to us time and time again – they’ve been lovely.

    ‘And it’s sad that a little bit of history is leaving Medway.

    ‘But I’ve had a very long career and after 56 years in the business this was a long time coming.’

    Penguin Suits will open its doors for the final time on May 31.