Brian Thompson and Derek Rothera: antique and art dealers

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 57 seconds

Everyone has a story. If you love handmade, oak furniture visit the Millinery Works, an historic industrial building on Southgate Road, now used by Brian Thompson and Derek Rothera as a showroom for their Arts & Crafts furniture. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill

Brian Thompson and Derek Rothera at the Millinery Works. (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Camden Passage used to be the place to go for antiques. It’s still a good destination, but what was different about it during its heyday? Both Brian Thompson and Derek Rothera, who had a shop there for 26 years, light-up when they talk about Camden Passage.

“It was at its best when Robert Carrier had his restaurant there. People would come from all over the world. In the ‘70s there’d be John and Yoko. It’s where a young Michael Jackson bought his military jackets. I’d never seen so much jewellery on a man as John Wayne with his fur cape and rings,” says Brian laughing, adding that one shop was also known as a retreat for Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong Jones.

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Millinery Works – Arts & Craft heaven. (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

Derek, who is an accountant, first started selling antiques on a stall in Pierrepoint Arcade back in 1966 selling pieces he’d collected from a lady’s house clearance in Purley. “She had some lovely furniture – you’d open a drawer and inside would be a carriage clock and silver paper knives. I’d also go on  audits to Preston and Manchester and manage to buy from second hand dealers’ shops there.”

Four years later Brian, who came to London from Australia in 1970, and Derek opened a shop in the former builder’s yard owned by John Payton, near Phelps Cottage, even though they both had other jobs. “Patton put a roof on it and offered it for antiques. Derek said Camden Passage was heaven. It was full of style, characters and regularly visited by dealers and a lot of Americans. Initially we sold whatever we could get. A lady who did smalls (small antiques) suggested we sell furniture…” and that’s how the pair – life and business partners – got into English oak furniture. By 1993 their business, The Antique Trader, was too big to carry on in the comparatively small shop, so they started looking for alternative premises

“Islington was gangland when we moved in,” remembers Derek. “Payton owned a lot of property. In Camden Passage, he also had the music shop, toy shop and a shop selling/repairing old sewing machines.”

They’d probably still be in Camden Passage if their rent hadn’t been a problem. “You need a lot of space to sell furniture,” explains Brian. Derek is more to the point. “Rent drove us out. We left in 1996 when the rent was £35,000 a year. The only person who made money was the landlord. Then there was a rent review when the landlord wanted £60,000 a year. He got it by splitting the space into five units at £12,000 each, so all the big shops got cut up.”

Derek Rothera and Brian Thompson at the Millinery Works. (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

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Places Brian Thompson and Derek Rothera like in Islington

Brian Thompson: “Chapel Market is good, and it’s been here a long time. I also like Steve Hatt the fishmonger and the Almeida.”

Derek Rothera: “The Estorick Foundation and the gardens in Duncan Terrace, N1 are where the New River used to be.”

Brian:Frank Stanton was an artist who did a lot of paintings of Islington.”

Derek: “Mr Estorick and his father used to come into the shop we had in Camden Passage. The father and mother bought the best art because they bought from the heart. They had a beautiful collection of pictures and knew so much about art. My firm helped Michael find the building in Canonbury Square which is now the Estorick Collection.”

Brian: “The Estorick is a little gem. Everyone should support it!”

Brian:Akari is a Japanese Restaurant on 196 Essex Road that our Japanese customers often go to after visiting us. We love it.”

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Scenes from back in the day when the Millinery Works made hats. (c) islington faces

Millinery Works
To Islington Faces the Millinery Works is a magical place. From the 19thcentury until the 1960s it was a hugely busy industrial centre employing hundreds of women to make hats – and there are photos from the 1920s to prove this. But hats stopped being essential wear, and according to Brian although the factory moved to Luton it did not really revive, as sadly “by the end they were making Kiss Me Quick hats for Southend on Sea.”

Brian and Derek took a couple of years to convert the factory into a stylish space for selling their furniture. “We had to take out 70 tonnes of steel because the basement had provided an air raid shelter for the local population during WW2” says Derek. “We needed a lot of space,” explains Brian, adding that “we found two false walls. Behind one was a cupboard which obviously the accountant had walled up with all the invoices and samples up to 01 September 1939, just as World War Two started. There were 20 years of records from the Millinery Works! I wonder what happened to make this cupboard be forgotten?” Some of these documents are now in the Islington Museum’s collection, others were given to Justin Smith, milliner who recently moved a few doors along from the Millinery Works and opened J Smith Esq at 97 Southgate Road where he creates his incredible bespoke hats.

Southgate Road is Islington’s border with Hackney – and on the east side is super-desirable De Beauvoir which still has an N1 postcode. Southgate Road has poshed up since its factory days. Even the old pub has been renamed the De Beauvoir Arms (formerly known as the Northgate and the Dog & Dumpling ) and now takes pride in describing itself as a “foodcentric pub with no music or TV”. You can also shop at the De Beauvoir Deli, 98 Southgate Road; dine at the pizza and wine shop, Sweet Thursday (£95) or Bavo (105-107) or get exotic plants from nearby Home, on 25 Englefield Road (aka NI Garden Centre).

The Millinery Works always has a large display of Arts & Crafts furniture on display, but there’s also often an exhibition. Their last show was colourful show of large hand woven ‘Spirit of Place’ wool carpets created by John Allen FRCA which will soon be on tour with shows at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield (2 June-6 August), Alley Palace (10-14 Oct) and Harrogate (22-25 Nov). Islington Faces’ favourites included Wren Churches in the Snow and Hampshire Clump. In fact, beautiful carpets are often featured in The Millinery Works display rooms – their first exhibition was of Afghan rugs owned by Pip Rau, who used to have a shop on Islington Green just off Camden Passage (but now trades from her home, see here). And the next, starting in June, is entitled Arts & Craft, from Gothic reform to the Cotswold School.

Camden Passage may now be more focussed on food and fashion, but the people who first gave it its flair were antique dealers like Brian and Derek. If you want to know more about antiques, arts and craft or  how Islington got its vibe, then go visit the Millinery Works in Southgate Road and get chatting.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola