Archive | November, 2016

Bread and butter money

26 Nov


I have been trying to track down photographer Kippa Matthews because I’d like to get permission to use this picture, preferably an original version rather than this one clipped out of a 1993 paper. What I’ve learnt is that all of the photo archivists I have spoken to, at both tabloid and broadsheet papers, are friendly and helpful and interested, but their records are far from complete, especially from the pre-internet years. So far, I have been unable to find out who owns 90% of the press cutting photos I would like to use, including the one of Douglas in his armour on the About page of this blog. If you own any of these photos, please get in touch – I’ve been looking for you.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to get hold of this photo for a slightly esoteric reason. Not because I am interested in Quaddus Ali or gang attacks, but because the photo is one of the last remaining images we have of something that fed our family throughout my teenage years: the quick release buckle. Douglas designed and made thousands and thousands of buckles for the Metropolitan police for several years, and they provided a good source of income whilst he was developing other ideas. But what is so special about this buckle that they needed an inventor to design it?

A normal belt buckle looks something like this:


Anyone who has had to do up a belt with one of these buckles in a hurry will know that it can be quite tricky to get the prong to go through the correct hole in the leather strap and you often have to fiddle with it for a few seconds to get it right. That’s fine for a normal pair of trousers, but not for the other type of belt that the Metropolitan Police regularly use: the equipment belt. The one with the handcuffs and truncheon and radio on it. If you are a police person sitting in an office you don’t necessarily wear all of that gear to do your desk work – it’s heavy and annoying and gets in the way – but if you need to respond to a call you want to be able to put your equipment belt on in a hurry as you’re running out of the door. Previous equipment belts had looked something like this:

35 You’ll have seen that type of clasp before, it’s used on all sorts of things from child seat belts to airplanes. And it’s very quick to get on. However, what the police were finding is that enterprising criminals and other rascals would come up to a police person wearing one of these on the street, reach out and Pop! release the buckle before scampering off, leaving the police person with a belt of heavy and expensive equipment crashing round their ankles. This had to stop!

Douglas made a buckle that looked at first glance a lot like the traditional buckle in shape (you can see them if you look closely at the photograph at the top), however, the buckle was just a front, literally, as it had a hook hidden on the back that fitted into a partner plate on the other side of the belt, meaning that whilst it looked normal, it was actually very quick to put on – you just hooked it together – but much more difficult for someone else to figure out if they were looking at it whilst it was on. He teamed up with a leather specialist to make a leather belt that conformed to the current police standards, which meant that when tested, the belt would be strong enough to pull up a person if they fell over a cliff. I love the idea of police officers whipping off their belts to rescue people in such a fashion, and I wonder if the same standard is still true… Either way, we lived on the profits from these buckles, as well as all the standard dress uniform buckles Douglas also sold to the Met, for years, and they helped to establish a relationship with the police and prison services that made some of Douglas’s other ideas possible.


What does an inventor do with his day?

19 Nov


Every inventor needs a place to do their inventing, and so here is Douglas in his workshop in Ludlow in the mid-1990s. The workshop unit itself was on the ground floor of a converted mill and consisted of three rooms; two of them were essentially garage-type space – concrete floors, no natural light except through the concertina doors – and they contained all his larger machines, often littered with a sprinkling of metal dust and off-cuts. The room in the picture is the ‘studio’ or main office space, also with a concrete floor, but with a couple of old rugs to make it feel a bit warmer. There was no heating except for ancient portable gas heaters and it was often very cold, especially in the little tiny toilet cubicle in one corner. The studio itself was an extension and actual hung over the mill race, meaning you could always hear rushing water and, occasionally, see kingfishers from the window.

Unlike the mad-inventor stereotype lurking in a shed in the middle of the night, Douglas always took his work seriously and treated it like a business and a full time job, in the sense that he arrived every day Monday to Friday at work at about 8.30am and stayed there until 5 or 5.30pm every day. At the time of this photograph he had two or three local women working for him, helping to make things like the Spectangles, as well as belt buckles, jewellery and other items, and one or two local engineeringly-minded men who helped with the rougher end of the metal working and machinery wrangling. Many of the ideas that they worked on often began life as a drawing in a notebook and Douglas took notebooks everywhere, including on holiday, working up thoughts over and over again until they became enough of a whole idea that they could be drawn up properly, and turned into real objects.

Once he had an idea on paper, the process would begin with sourcing materials to make his initial designs. I spent some time doing a summer job for him and my main task involved phoning around suppliers to get a specific size of spring, plastic with certain qualities, or sheet metal of different thicknesses. Even in the 1990s, Douglas could feel the manufacturing industry in the UK collapsing and it was getting harder and harder to source Douglas’s chosen materials, mostly metals and plastics. I spent many boring hours organising his catalogues of products and trying to label them so he could find what he might need and phoning around for new suppliers. The internet changed things later, but at the time, searching could be slow, and you often had to order more of something than you needed in order for a company to deal with you.

Once Douglas had his materials, he needed to work out how to make a tool that would shape them into the pieces he needed. The workshop at that time probably had about 6 hand presses (see below), each of which Douglas could use to cut, shape and punch metal, plastic and fabric into the shapes he needed. Each tool head for the press could take several days to make, including quite a lot of standing at the bench by the window, filing metal (squeak, squeak, squeak) and then adjustments to get the pressure and measurements right.  You can see a pretty good video of how to adjust a manual press here: (press the video button), imagine making endless small adjustments until your item was just so.cstonsideOnce the tool was up and running, the pieces could be made and tested, and, one at a time,  the tool heads could be changed and the next piece made, and then the next. A Spectangle, for example, would need an individual press action to make the hooks on the strings, another action to fix the hook to the string, another to make the clip for the loops, an action to cut out the three layers of the pendants, another action to press them together, an action to shape the pendant loop and then a final action to press that onto the pendant before you could string them together by hand. Each item could take a long time to make. Only when it was completely assembled could you be sure of whether or not it worked, and that was the point at which he could say, yes, or nope, back to the drawing board, and the cycle would start again. Each product often took years to perfect, although more straightforward items like belt buckles could be done more quickly. All of this development work would have to be done before you had sold a single item, so all of the time and materials had to be paid for before you were sure it would work, and that anyone would want it.

So, making was only part of the job. A good section of all those notebooks in the box include pages and pages of notes and phone numbers, like this:


Pages and pages of potential leads, potential sources for materials or services, and, on the right (hard to read), a list of items posted out and to whom. For all the fun/boredom of the drawing, the making, the remaking, the playing with metals, the solving of problems, the main activity I remember Douglas doing for his work was making phone calls. He was a determined and charismatic cold caller, able to navigate his way up company chains to the decision-maker to try to sell his ideas. How he was received at the other end, particularly in the UK, is another story, but for now here he is, in full glamour, the inventor in action. All he needed was one phone call to lead to a sale for all of the time, money and effort of each development to work. But how many phone calls must you make for that to happen?



Hello Douglas!

12 Nov

I’ve been watching The Crown this week, as a gloriously trashy antidote to real news, and it made me go hunting for these:


These are prototype earrings that Douglas made in the 1980s, for a very particular client. They are just practice ones, and as you can see, they are both for the same side – the actual pair would have mirrored each other. I loved them on sight and, quite frankly, snaffled them when I found them in a drawer at Douglas’s workshop. I still wear them, although the hooks are bent and damaged, and they are very flattering. But, who were they made for originally? Here’s a clue:


diana-press-releaseThis is a copy of the press release sent out by the fashion designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel who made Princess Diana’s wedding dress, and as you can see, towards the bottom, a familiar name. Douglas was friendly with the Emanuels at the time, and made a small gold horseshoe that was sewn into the bodice of the dress for good luck, as well as the earrings above, which were part of her going-away outfit. The press release shows the Emanuel drawings of the different elements of the wedding dress:




As part of the design process, Douglas went to the palace to meet Charles and Diana before the wedding. When we asked what they were like many years later, he was brief: Charles? Nice. Diana? Young. He was also fairly dismissive of the final design of the horseshoe; he wanted something different but Diana insisted on the evenly-spaced diamond studs, which he thought were ordinary-looking (about the worst insult Douglas could ever give). However, a royal commission is a royal commission, and he made the horseshoe to her specifications (he later used the remaining Welsh gold in a ring that he gave to my mother), and was allowed freer rein with the earrings, which are much more his style. His favourite story about the whole thing, though, is about an encounter that happened some months later.

He was in Asprey’s, an exclusive jewellers in London, probably trying to drum up business (his principle method of selling his jewellery products was usually to go into shops unannounced and try to talk to a manager, literally taking prototypes out of bag to show them). He was standing in the shop when a group of bodyguards marched in and demanded that everyone make way for an important guest. Douglas, all 5’2″ of him, found himself pressed against the wall with his face practically touching the shoulder of the tall bodyguard in front of him. Douglas took instant offence at the bodyguard’s rudeness and would probably have started to kick up a fuss if the guest had not walked in at that moment: Princess Diana. Being tall, he later explained, she was able to see over the shoulder of the bodyguard and looked straight at Douglas. ‘Hello Douglas!’ she said, recognising him. ‘My, how that bodyguard jumped away from me!’ he chuckled afterwards, always happy when some rude idiot got his comeuppance.

I would love to talk to the Emanuels more about that time, as it would be great to find out more about what other work they did together, how they met or why they thought that Douglas was the man for this job, but, as with so many of the people involved in Douglas’s work, they are hard to get hold of and so far I have only had a polite email brush-off from David’s assistant (Elizabeth’s has not yet replied). Any suggestions welcome!


5 Nov

I must phone Jake and tell him I’ve found some that aren’t pink, I thought this morning, when I unearthed these.  spectangles-nowThese strange creatures are Spectangles, they are the first of Douglas’s inventions that I saw and, whilst many of his other ideas are much more show-boaty, these probably made more money than most of rest of them, although never very much.

The first time I met my future step-father, one of those awkward moments when two people recently together meet each other’s children, was in a car park off an A road somewhere in south Shropshire. Mum and I pulled up and Douglas sprang out of his car, a small, wiry man with shoulder length hair, beard, cheery smile, loud shirt and something round his neck that looked like an unusual necklace. It was in fact a small device to hold your glasses, and Douglas wore one because, as a glasses wearer, it was useful, and the self-promotion didn’t hurt. This would have been in 1990, and at the time Douglas had a contract with Polaroid to make cords for glasses in his small workshop. These are not them below, but you get the idea.

1pc-66cm-sunglasses-neck-cord-strap-eyeglass-glasses-string-drop-proof-lanyard-holder-adjustable_640x640_e19262fd-1006-462e-ad19-9bf12c1a7e9d_largeTraditional glasses cords slide over the arms of your glasses and mean that you can wear the glasses round your neck. Douglas, however, thought that he could do better. With normal cords, the glasses hang badly, clunk around and get in the way, or damaged, and people often just tuck their glasses into the top of their jumper instead (Douglas’s own chosen method). After losing a pair of glasses too many when they fell out of his T-shirt-neck running down some stairs, he got started on a new design, and thus, the Spectangle was born. Using the same hypoallergenic plastic as for the cords, the Spectangle was a pendant with a hole lined with flexible flaps that would hold the arm of your glasses in place, meaning no more accidents. They really worked. Douglas I think wore one almost every day for the rest of his life, and Mum wore one often. By the time I was a teenager he had persuaded the Lakeland catalogue to sell them and I spent many hours in the school holidays working in his workshop with his other staff to cut out and put them together, measuring the cords, clamping the loops and hooks in place, assembling the pendants and pressing them together until they clipped in place before stringing them onto the cords and counting them into bundles. We must have made and sold thousands, and it was with great excitement that I saw my first complete stranger wearing one in the outside world one day. Success at last!

However, fashions change and Lakeland eventually stopped selling them as the arms of glasses got bigger and their customers stopped buying the Spectangle. During leaner times, Mum did her best to sell them locally, on a market stall, and at craft and inventor exhibitions, but eventually we had to admit defeat and the Spectangle was shelved.

Or so I thought. Going through Douglas’s notebooks this year, I found some sketches for newer designs, as well as ideas for expanding the range, including this one from 2009. This one was never made, but I like the fact that he continued to think about the problem, and came up with new ways to solve it.



3 Nov

2016-11-03-15-19-40It seems strange that this is all that is left of my stepfather, who was such a loud and alive person, but here it is, a box of notebooks. I can tell just by looking at it that we don’t have all of them, over the years many of them were lost, damaged, thrown out, abandoned and so this incomplete set is what I have left to work with. It took a few days to go through all of the paper in here, cataloguing each page, working out what was there and what the gaps were. Going through them was a revelation, because, although I had often seen Douglas with a notebook in his hand, I never actually knew what was in them until now. Some of the drawings are damaged and defaced as Douglas, suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s in the later years, cut pages out, drew over drawings and scribbled half-formed sentences over old designs. However, many are intact, and what they show is how Douglas solved problems, played with ideas and worked out how to make his inventions work. He wrote little notes to himself, practiced names, criticised and praised ideas, worked out measurements and drafted and re-drafted shapes. It was clear that he had a tremendous amount of fun doing his work, as well as playing too. Here’s an idea for toilet roll with curved perforations – anyone want to tell me if it would work or not??