Stories / October 2019

Grenfell: Man of the Cloth 

This British heritage firm honours the memory of a prominent humanitarian who risked life and limb to care for the meek.

Most companies are named to bring glory to the owner. Not so Grenfell, which takes its moniker from the remarkable man whose needs and deeds inspired the establishment of this British manufacturer of robust cloth and outerwear. 

The origin story of Grenfell, the brand, begins in 1892when Dr. Wilfred Grenfell first landed on the Newfoundland coast of Canada. There, Grenfell acted as a medical missionary, ministering to the physical and spiritual requirements of colonial fishermen and the indigenous Inuit people, all of whom he described as suffering in extreme “poverty, ignorance and semi-starvation”. Though riddled with tuberculosis, smallpox, rickets, anemia, scurvy and diphtheria, many in the scattered community of 30,000 had in fact never seen a doctor before Grenfell’s arrival.  

To alleviate their misery and treat their illsGrenfell not only provided medical care personally, but spearheaded the building of hospitals, schools, workers’ cooperatives, libraries, orphanages, and other essential elements of humanitarian and social infrastructure. He and his small team of medical volunteers would regularly risk life and limb to travel via husky-driven sled to remote locations to provide essential careGrenfell himself narrowly escaping death on countless occasionsFor his selfless works, he was knighted in 1927.  

 A few years earlierthe good doctor had conducted a speaking tour of Britain, in an attempt to raise awareness of the Canadian fishing community’s struggles and drum up funds for further philanthropic activities. Among the numerous basics lacked by the residents of Newfoundland and the Labrador Peninsula, Grenfell explained, was suitable attire to withstand the forbidding climate of this remote wilderness.  

 During a talk in Burnley, Lancashire, Grenfell — who once had to kill and skin three of his dogs, wearing their pelts as coats to survive a night adrift on the ice — discussed the need for a cloth that was both light and strong, as “the wearer’s life might well depend on it. It should be weatherproof, to turn both rain and snow, and windproof to retain the wearer’s warmth. Above all, it must allow the body’s moisture to escape.”  

Fortuitously, in the audience that evening was Walter Haythornthwaite, heir to a family-owned cotton-weaving mill near BurnleySpurred to action, he began developing a tightly spun, super high-density cotton that fulfilled Grenfell’s tricky triple criteria of toughness, impermeability and breathability. After 12 months’ experimentation, Haythornthwaite felt he’d succeeded and sent a sample of the cutting-edge material to Grenfell in Canada.  

Grenfell was delighted with the fabric and immediately put it to work “on the ships, planes, sledges and for motoring,” he wrote in a letter of thanks to Haythornthwaite. “It really has been a boon to us all and I think the public should know of it. They will be grateful,” Grenfell said, agreeing to lend his name to what would soon become renowned as Grenfell Cloth. This miracle material would be used by countless adventurers, including Amelia Earhart and fellow aviatrix Amy Johnson, mountaineer Eric Shiptonand daring speedsters Stirling Moss, Malcolm Campbell and son Donald. 

In the 1940s, just a few years after 75-year-old Sir Wilfred Grenfell died peacefully in his sleep, the company named in his honour branched out from simply milling textiles and started producing its own outerwear. They continue to do so today, under the stewardship of the Azam family. Since acquiring the brand in 2002, the Azams have transformed what was for some time a dormant concern into a thriving purveyor of top quality weather-resistant garments.  

Now produced at a factory in east London, Grenfell’s contemporary range focuses on four key areas: trench and raincoats, field/country coats, overcoats, and casual jackets. Each garment is overseen by an individual craftsperson, responsible for ensuring the quality of its composition and construction — guaranteeing the performance and durability of any Grenfell item you order from The Rake.  

 The great humanitarian Dr. Grenfell himself once said, “The purpose of this world is not to have and hold, but to serve.” In that spirit, please, allow us to gladly satisfy your outerwear requirements.  

Tags

Contributor

Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.