Only Fools and Horses sheepskin brand is back - four years after factory closed
PUBLISHED: 11:05 24 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:21 25 September 2019
When the maker of Del Boy's trademark sheepskin coat shut its Bungay factory shop in 2015 after a dire run of mild winters and harsh trading conditions, it looked as though the beloved brand had been hung up for good.
But now the sixth generation of the Nursey family - which has kept the operation on life support for the last four years - is hoping to turn around its fortunes.
James, 41, and his fiancée, Marcella, are seeing a revival in interest in the brand, which shot to fame after TV show's Only Fool and Horses cockney wide boy Del Boy adopted its jacket. The famous coat also joined the wardrobes of football commentator John Motson, guitarist Eric Clapton, and TV presenter Holly Willoughby.
MORE - Sheepskin manufacturer's survival
The firm was founded by Samuel Nursey in 1846 and at one time made protective leather aprons for farm workers and blacksmiths, along with gloves and other accessories.
It pioneered the sheepskin coat in Britain after a chance order came its way from celebrated war-time leader Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, commander of the British 8th Army towards the end World War II. He asked Nursey's to adapt one of its sheepskin jerkins by adding sleeves so he could wear it as a winter warmer, and a trend was born.
During its 1960s, 1970s and 1980s fashion heyday, the workforce soared, and by the 1980s, it was employing 80 staff, working flat-out and enjoyed a turnover of about £2.5m.
Sadly, the intricacy and high cost of creating the jackets mean that they have been shelved for now, but other items are still being made in Bungay - although on a much smaller scale than when the business was at its height.
Through sheer determination, James, a sports writer, and Marcella, a marketing consultant, have retained a highly-skilled workforce of six which still makes hand-made luxury sheepskin and leather products including gilets, slippers, hats, headbands, bags and gloves. Staff work on a part-time basis, and the premises is now a fifth of the size it once was.
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But the pair moved the business online, convinced there was still a market there, and Marcella - who runs the business on a day-to-day basis - has put huge effort into developing the customer base for the hand-made products. For the first time in years, the business is in profit again.
It has already received a huge boost after TV presenter Helen Skelton wore Nursey's fingerless sheepskin gloves and peaked cap on hit BBC TV show Countryfile, and former I'm A Celebrity contestant Rebekah Vardy featured a pair of its fingerless gloves on her Instagram account.
James's grandfather, Samuel 'Burton' Nursey, died in 2012, aged 93, and Tim, now 69, James' father - who ran the business up until the closure in 2015 - has now retired, passing ownership to James and Marcella.
Nursey's skilled workforce
"We want to try and keep making our sheepskin products for as long as possible because our loyal customers still love them," explained James. "The skilled craftsmen and women making our products have decades of experience and we want to use their fantastic expertise as long as possible."
The internet has opened up new markets, with orders now coming in from France, Germany and America.
"We still sell our much-loved heritage products but have added a range of contemporary designs such as our fingerless gloves which allow you to use your phone without taking them off," said James.
"We feel there is a growing appetite for high-quality handmade British products and very few other companies can claim to have such a prestigious past as ours."