Sir Pendrill Varrier-Jones was one of the 20th Century’s greatest men, and his connection to Pendragon, a belt-specialist artisanal brand, and Papworth, a leather-goods maker, is most unusual in our world of menswear.
Despite his respectable peerage, many wouldn’t have heard of Sir Pendrill Varrier-Jones before and rather fittingly, that’s what he would have wanted. A great man in the truest sense, he was humble and utterly selfless, not to mention a visionary. He was better known as ‘Pendragon’ – a riff on his skill as a wordsmith and his strength in character – and the relationship between him and the two latest names added to our arsenal of British brands, Papworth and Pendragon, which is respectively a leather goods maker and a belt-specialist that takes his name, is wonderfully unusual.
Sir Pendrill Varrier-Jones, otherwise known as Pendragon, sitting for his portrait, circa 1920.
Born in Wales in 1883, Varrier-Jones was educated at Cambridge University where he studied tuberculosis, which was the principal chronic infectious disease at the time. Following several medical placements, he came to the understanding that the vicious cycle of patients leaving the hospital recovering from tuberculosis painted a bleak and non-promising existence for them. There was a stigma attached to this illness and you were inadvertently cast to the fringes of society. As an antidote, he realised that if he were to provide them with medical care and paid work, with a crucial ingredient of lots of fresh air, their hope would increase in tandem with their vitality.
Patients and nurses at Papworth Hall, circa 1920.
The first step in this groundbreaking medical experiment came about in 1916 when Varrier-Jones founded The Cambridgeshire Tuberculosis Colony in Bourne, Cambridgeshire. This essentially laid the conclusive foundations that his theory was to be a successful and life-changing one. Two years later in 1918, he purchased nearby Papworth Hall (present-day Royal Papworth Hospital) which came with acres of land for a mere £6,000.
Even in winter, patients were placed outside where they received medical care.
Varrier-Jones’ stage was now set and his colony began with 17 patients (some of whom had recently returned from World War One where there was a frightening surge of infections) and four doctors. Against the odds, this revolutionary form of treatment and recovery started to gain momentum with numbers multiplying quickly. Many lived in wooden cottages dispersed around the grounds and their families joined and lived with them in this colony.
A few huts or cottages that provided plenty of fresh air for patients, circa 1930.
Leather Goods & Royal Warrants
Now, you’d be forgiven for probably wondering how on earth Varrier-Jones and his remarkable story relates to the leather goods brand Papworth and belt-specialist Pendragon. A lot of it stems from one single patient, James Alexander Box, who came to Papworth Hall in 1918 with his skills as an artisan very much intact. He was a saddler to the Royal Field Artillery, and upon arrival became a driving force and example to follow in the manufacturing of trunks and portmanteaus, two areas that Papworth Hall excelled in making.
Crafting leather goods was one of many types of work patients were paid for. Here they are in one of the workshops creating briefcases that Papworth offer today.
Box also made a recommendation that Papworth Industries should make an alliance with his wife’s family, the Charnocks, who owned a respected bag-making business in London. Following successful negotiations, the Charnocks moved to and settled in Papworth and injected more business acumen and skill into this burgeoning side business of Papworth Hall.
HM Queen Elizabeth inspecting a trunk in 1962. On serving the Royal Family, Sidney Charnock once said: “The privilege of making trunks for the Royal Family is without a doubt a great honour, but behind the scene, it is a harassing period, involving many a headache.”
The overarching business of this manufacturing side of Papworth Hall was called Papworth Enterprise, and there were two subdivision companies to make note of, Pendragon Travel Goods, which is recognised by its dragon holding a quill logo which is still used today, and Papworth Travel Goods. In 1924, the Papworth Enterprise was awarded its first Royal Warrant by King George V as his personal trunk-maker and for years to come, several other members of the royal family, including HM The Queen, visited Papworth to see both patients and bespeak their creations for their impending travel plans. Overall the enterprise won three more Royal Warrants in 1931, 1940 and 1952.
A classic 1950s advertisement with showroom addresses in Glasgow and New York.
In the 1930s, Papworth cases were being sold far and wide, even in Saks in New York, but a period of immense pride came with the advent of World War Two. It made bespoke attaché cases from the admiralty and canvas covers for Spitfire planes but what was a crowning achievement was the tens of thousands of kit bags for troops who served at Dunkirk which would become to be known as The Dunkirk Order.
The great Varrier-Jones' obituary at Papworth Hall.
In 1941, Pendrill Varrier-Jones suddenly passed away and the reasons for which aren’t exactly clear but the first few lines of his obituary in the medical journal The Lancet nearly succinctly summarised his legend. It read: “The death of Sir Pendrill Varrier-Jones has deprived the medical profession of one of the most distinguished of its sons, and has removed from the ranks one of the most outstanding pioneers of the anti-tuberculosis campaign.”
A classic 1950s advertisement.
This was, of course, a heavy-hitting blow for everyone at Papworth to deal with, but they dealt with it admirably. They continued the mission to treat patients with tuberculosis (however, the disease was diminishing by this point) and inject more energy into the manufacturing side. It was an exciting time, with air travel increasing demand for light receptacles of various shapes and sizes made from new, man-made materials, such as Dragonhide and Lionhide, that were lighter and stronger.
Russian ballerina Margot Fonteyn with her bespoke Papworth cases, 1951.
As was the case for so many brilliant British brands and makers that achieved tremendous success in the 20th century, many perished and the Papworth Enterprise and its subdivisions were victims of this. Tuberculosis was, as mentioned earlier, thankfully on a downward slope and later the National Health Service bought out Papworth Hall, renaming it Royal Papworth Hospital where today it’s the UK’s leading heart and lung hospital.
Today, Papworth and Pendragon goods are made under the same roof and by the same seven craftspeople with generations of know-how in Cambridge despite being two separate business. Papworth still excels in creating beautiful bags and leather goods that are for the connoisseur that understands true luxury.
Using the finest English bridle hide leather tanned for 14 months by the age-old J & FJ Baker, which is the UK’s only remaining traditional oak bark tannery, items such as attache cases to document cases are all made in a painstakingly slow but careful way. Finished with British-made hardware, these hand-stitched receptacles are more akin to sculpture if anything such is their quality.
Tanners at J & FJ Baker, England's oldest and last remaining traditional oak bark tannery.
While Pendragon has a kind of heritage that many brands today would be most envious of, it’s been reimagined and shaped to be a belt-specialist brand that is exemplary in its steps towards sustainability. For example, Pendragon uses oak bark tanned leather derived from free-roaming and happy livestock and the tanning is entirely natural and there no additional harming pollutants as a byproduct.
The made-to-order Document case made from the finest English bridle leather.
The hardware is produced by Abbey of England, with a Royal Warrant from HM The Queen Pendragon’s buckles are repurposed and recycled scrap brass. Finally, each belt is constructed via saddle-stitching, which signals quality workmanship, as it has to be done by hand. Leather goods that have been saddle stitch can last a lifetime as even if a single stitch becomes loose, it won’t unravel.
In terms of styles, we have a succinct offering of classics suitable to be worn formally with tailoring and casually on weekends, however, the Firefighter belt, as seen above, is the most interesting with its quick-release buckle.
A craftsman sadle-stitching a Pendragon belt to ensure long-lasting quality.
It would be interesting to know what Varrier-Jones would make of Papworth and Pendragon today. He was a humble and selfless gentleman of the highest order who did not take well to praise, and so one could presume that discretion and quality would be characteristic traits he would look for when it comes to leather goods.
Pendragon's unique design Firefighter belt draws inspiration from Victorian-era firefighter's equipment.
Is it acceptable to then assume that he would approve of Papworth and Pendragon today, as each brand is classic in style and thoroughly made? Only he would know but from our position as a champion of ‘British Design’, we think he would, which is why we’re immensely pleased to have both esteemed companies join our arsenal of the best of the best.
Explore Papworth offering, here.
Explore Pendragon offering, here.
Varrier-Jones in the centre of a very early photograph at Papworth Hall, circa 1920.