A Poet In Time - An Interview with an Indy Fan

Published on

I consider myself more than just the Hatter here at HJ, and more than just a skilled craftsperson.  I am and have always been a great lover and owner of hats, and have a keen interest in the history of hats and hatmaking. I am also an Indiana Jones fan. Thus, the history and fame of one particular hat in Herbert Johnson's hall of fame is of particular interest to me. I would like to share a story that many of you fellow fans may find interesting and even familiar...

I have been talking to Mark by email and by phone for several months now about Richard Swales and the impression he and the Indiana Jones Poet has had on him since being a young man in the 1980's. I was drawn in to his story and his passion for all things Indy. Mark told me he had bought countless Herbert Johnson Indy Poets from Swales in both the New Bond St and Old Bond St shop addresses over the years. He bought them for himself and for friends. Some of them he had worn but most of them he kept as collectors items. When I heard that he had half a dozen unworn and un-bashed examples in storage, all trimmed by Richard Swales, I knew I had to come and see them all in person. Mark very kindly agreed. Mark has also very kindly allowed me to share his story and images of his collection with you all.

The Adventure Begins... 

After a 5.5 hour drive across the UK I was tired but terribly excited to have arrived. Now not only did I know I was about to handle some beautifully kept examples of original Indy Poets but I knew that Mark had a very moving story to tell me of his relationship to the hats and to Mr Swales. 

In his correspondence to me Mark lamented the passing of Richard Swales, a man who had made such an impression on Mark. Countless times he had mentioned to me that he missed his friend. I asked him how they first came to meet.

__________________________________________________

Cast your mind back to the days of no mobile phones, no Google, no email. You are sitting in the cinema and you see Indiana Jones step out of the shadows for the first time. That silhouette! An adventure hero comes to life before your eyes. And so begins countless personal adventures to uncover the mysteries of what makes Indy; the hat, jacket, whip, holster and so on. Mark gives me an impressive back story of his journey to discover each piece of gear each by the original makers. It is impressive because there was no internet to help him yet he was as tenacious as a Private Investigator in hunting down all that was Indiana Jones.

__________________________________________________

He tells me of a false start over the hat. This came about after he read an article in 'Starlog' magazine on 'How to dress like a field archaeologist'. The article mentioned Stetson. The Stetson he first acquired was never quite right in his mind but at the time he just wanted the hat. When a friend in the USA mentioned to him that the original maker was actually a UK brand called Herbert Johnson then this changed everything for him. Mark went to the New Bond Street shop and ordered his first two HJ Indy Poets from Richard Swales.

Mark remembers going in to collect his hats. He was wearing his Stetson as he went into the shop. He looked across to the desk and saw two Indy Poets sitting atop their boxes waiting for him. 'It was like seeing two Rolls Royces' Mark reminisces. In those days shelling out £125 and more a pop on a young man's wage was substantial, not to mention the travelling up to London to collect them in person. I am moved by the romance of this shopping experience and the nostalgia. It was right here in the 1980's that Mark started his beautiful collection of Indy Poets, buying two at a time for himself and for fellow fans. Mark remembers his chats with Richard fondly...

 

 Mark with Richard Swales at the New Bond Street London shop in late 1995.

 

'I knew Richard for quite a number of years, and he was true gentleman. I let him know what impact his Indy poet made on me in my formative years, as well as on the film going world. He really did help in creating an icon. His knowledge about old hats helped create the Raiders hat. It was always a pleasure talking to him, or better still going up to Old and New Bond Street to see him. It's not often one meets somebody that has made a big impact on one's life. He would talk to anybody and had no airs or graces...'

I have heard many who were lucky enough to meet Richard say very similar things about how personable and thoughtful he was.  Many Stories included fans with their family members.  Richard seemed to have a very good memory for people and faces and would ask after those family members when next the fan would come into the shop.  I find myself dearly wishing I had met the guy after hearing such lovely stories.

Mark continues...'I was very upset to hear that Richard had passed away. I was hoping to see him again. I have had lots of hats from Richard over the years, even getting them for people abroad. They are all different which is as they were in Raiders so not to spoil continuity. I still have 7 hats made by him, but cannot wear them now due to their rarity.'

 

Marks Last Swales hat   brim trimmings

(1) Pictures of the last hat made for Mark by Mr Swales

(2) Brim Trimmings & labels, Marks hat in the original box, Hat brim trimmed & shaped by Mr Swales

 

Mark passes me the last hat he bought from Richard. It has an older liner in it since Richard advised him to keep swapping the old liner into each new hat he bought for wearing.

'The liner for the hat is one that Richard transferred from hat to hat to keep me from storing them away. He always said they were for wearing and not to be locked away. That liner saw several hats worn to destruction. Hence I cannot now wear it as Richard will never produce another POET.  It is a size 58cm and has a 1.5 inch ribbon in black. The raised ribbon on the aft part of the bow is a period 1930's addition according to Richard.' 

I notice it has the initials 'I.J.' stamped into the leather sweatband. Mark tells me...

'Richard only did this for the film hats and I was privileged that he also did this for mine. The original hats also had a quarter inch trimmed from each side of the standard poet to get the Indy shape, as well as the narrower ribbon fitted. I still have the off cuts with some of my hats.'  

Richard had trimmed the sides from Mark's purchases right in front of him at times. Mark tells me that Richard had thought it odd that anyone would want to keep the trimmings with the hat.

Mark describes the trimming... 'There was no science about it. He just took two slices off the sides and blended with coarse paper.'  When he dressed the hats after trimming he used brown glass paper. From memory about 100 or 120 grade. It never took more than a few seconds to blend them in. He wasn't meticulous about it. This was how the hat was meant to be.’ 

Mark goes on to say that Richard told him the Poet was a winter style of hat, 'It was only available late in the year and it was expected it would only last a season before you would replace it with a brand new Poet the following winter. The hats were disposable and you would expect shrinkage of the felt and rotting of the leather with heavy wear. Richard described the retiring of an old hat as 'Putting it out to grass'. 

‘The Poets were mass formed and sent to the shop where Richard would re-trim the ribbons and trim the brims as necessary per a customer's request. Richard told me that HJ sourced the formed hats from Seville in Spain at one stage as he was displeased with the current quality in the UK.’

Looking at Mark's beautiful hats I notice how different the bow styles all are. The stamped initials all placed differently inside each one. There is a real sense of randomness, character and life to them. They were made to look like a personalised 'one-off' each and every time. Mark reminds me 'The hats should not look perfect. The slices and blending by hand make it look old fashioned and handmade, which was the original intention.'

Mark tells me how precious his collection feels now that Richard has passed away.  'As he is no longer with us I cannot wear these any more. I still have the very first two he did for me, as well as five others. All unworn.'  'They are an endangered species’

Mark remembers his conversations with Richard... 'He told me the Raiders film order cleared out the entire years stock for the Poet, taking into account stunt doubles etc. Richard told me that the Poet was the oldest hat design that they stocked at HJ, which is why it was used as the basis for Indy's hat. Richard said it was a Winter hat. When I first bought mine they did not come into stock until October every year. Apparently one would have a hat for each season. Used for one season and discarded. Next Winter you would buy a new Poet. They were not meant to last years. One heavy season's use would require a new hat. I think I got a max of two years out of a Poet. By then it had shrunk considerably and was starting to rot.'

It is understandable to me as a Hatter that a factory pressed hat would not last as long as a hand blocked bespoke hat. I wonder how many original Indy Poets have survived by not going out on adventures with their owners. Whilst I am a firm believer that hats should be worn and enjoy adventures, I find myself very grateful to be in the company of some that have been well preserved.

Mark continues…'The original Poet was supplied to the Young Indy show without alteration. So no dimensional brim made. The Raiders was meant to have a more rough and ready look.'...

‘All this reminiscing makes me realise how much I miss seeing Richard. I used to write to him and always got a reply. I still have the letters. When I used to see him, I sometimes took him a bottle of Somerset cider brandy which he always appreciated. I also gave him a large picture of Indy from Raiders which he had framed and put up in the shop. He was always cheerful when I saw him.’

 

Indy Portrait

The framed Indy photo given to Mr Swales by Mark which hung in the old shop.

Swales correspondences

Collection of correspondence between Mark & Richard Swales over the years.

 

I have heard the picture mentioned before by fans who - like Mark - went to speak to Richard and buy Indy Poets from him. Mark tells me he likes to think maybe Richard took it with him when he retired. Mark continues to describe his memories of being in the shop. It feels like I am transported back in time with him...

...’The cutting of the brim was the penultimate operation carried out once the ribbon had been changed and lining replaced. The hat was placed onto a table and sliced with the brim flat. I recall it had a padded centre section and looked quite old (a bit like a card playing table). On some of my hats Richard steamed them and put them into a press to crease the front. He said that all the hats for the first film were creased in this press. The very last job was to add the IJ initials. The press was a very old wooden contraption.

It is nice to recollect this from all those years ago as nobody else was that interested. I did enjoy taking some of my American friends to the shop to meet him.’ 

‘I am extremely passionate about Herbert Johnson and the Indy Poet. It has been part of my life since the age of 14.

To actually learn that it was an English hat and then to actually own one - well,  lots of them, was a dream come true. And to actually meet the man responsible was a real privilege. Richard was a real gentleman. I am extremely sad that he had passed away. I would have loved to have seen him again. Once he retired for the second time I lost contact with him.’

 

 Richard Swales HJ 1 Richard Swales HJ 2Richard Swales HJ 3

Images of Marks hat collection demonstrating the many variations in liners, ribbon styles & other details.

 

Thank you Mark for sharing your adventures with me and allowing me to share them on. Thank you for inviting me to see your hats and your letters and to share them with the world.

The Indy hat was born from a Poet, given new character and life by Richard Swales and then made into a famous icon by Harrison Ford and Spielberg. The character of the hat evolves throughout the Raiders movie with every scene, location and crease put in by Mr Ford himself. It is why the hat is so much more than itself. Every fan will have a favourite look and image of what the hat means to them. It has become more than itself and more than how it began. That's what is so great about the hat and the character. You can't pin it down to one look, it's elusive and still very alluring.

___________________________________________________

 

(Update: August 2020)

A Poet In Time - The Journey Continues...

The new team here at Herbert Johnson Hatters are passionate about what we do, about the quality of every material/component we use and about the highly skilled craftsmanship that brings our handcrafted headwear to life.  When it comes to our famous film hats, we know attention to detail, our fully bespoke service and feedback from our fans are key in ensuring that we offer an extensive range of choices which expand over time to meet the requirements of our clients.

 Sometimes, we meet customers with valuable input that have helped us to achieve those huge leaps forward and produce the level of quality and accuracy we make it our mission to strive for.  One such person who has helped us in this journey is Mark and we are delighted to have received a lovely message from him on receiving his two handcrafted Raiders Turn Poets crafted in our new and improved Deep Sable Rabbit fur felt, a newly designed felt which his vintage hats helped us to develop!

The Original Herbert Johnson Poet Hats created at the time of the films have taken on a certain mythical quality whereby decades of speculation, opinion and false information have in some cases overshadowed the facts.  As Indy says himself, we are not searching for 'truth', many will have their own truths, we are on a mission to rediscover the facts!  We are so fortunate to have good friends like Mark who have such a strong direct link to the past and who can help us in our discoveries!

                 Mark Vintage & New HJ Poets   

Top Left Image: Marks vintage Poet (seated bottom the left) with his 2 new HJ Poets in Deep Sable Rabbit.
Top Right Image: Marks Vintage Poet shot from above showing the dimensional brim hand cut by Richard Swales in 1984/85
Bottom Left Image: Our newly designed denser, floppier Deep Sable Rabbit Fur Felt seen here in it's raw hood state.
Bottom Right Image: A comparison shot between the vintage HJ felt and our new Deep Sable felt.

    

Mark wrote the following message to us...                    

RETURN OF A LEGEND

  I have been obsessed with Raiders of the Lost Ark since first seeing it at 14 with my Mum. The whip and the hat struck a chord instantly to the point that when we left the cinema after staying in to watch it a second, time I said “Mum, can I have a whip for my Birthday”?  I did, although it was nothing like the one in the film. Back then, you could pay once and stay in the cinema all day if you wanted to. Heaven! 

  The hat came a bit later (my very first being a Trilby from Dunn & Co). Where do you get a real Indiana Jones Hat?  Obviously from America. An American hat for an American hero. How on earth do you track that down? After some false info from magazines leading to Stetson imitations that were touted as “authentic” ,  a chance viewing of a late night TV show, along with getting in touch with a fan in Arizona, I  discovered that Indy got his hats from England. The name of his preferred hatter “HERBERT JOHNSON”. My dream item was not thousands of miles away, only 140  An impossible dream come true.  It was an incredible experience, to get a real Indy hat from the company that made them for Raiders, and made by the same gentleman that made them for the film. Richard was such a nice man, that it was easy to see how he came up with my favourite hat. It was his work, and nobody else`s.  A hat made from a hat which was called the POET. The oldest style of hat still produced in England. I still have my first 2 hats purchased, and have a collection of 7 (all unworn). Not sure how I accumulated that many, but all being made by Richard they are now a rarity so cannot be worn. I went through a lot of Poets over the years, wearing them until they had shrunk or rotted or both, then retiring them to get another. It was always a pleasure talking to Richard and better still to go up and see him, sometimes taking along an American Indy fan who wanted to meet the man. It really was amazing to  see him  turn the stock hat into the “Indy” .  Changing the wide ribbon to a narrower one, slicing the sides of the brim, and sand papering it  to blend it all back to shape. All the hats the same,  but subtly different.

Well, that ended about 16 years ago. Richard had retired, and the shop all but disappeared, and the Poet they sold was a vastly inferior item to what was previously produced. It was no longer the Rolls Royce of hats.

  I still had 7 that I was not prepared to ruin, so I guessed my hat wearing days were over. After being an HJ customer for many very happy years I thought that was it.

 After getting back in touch with HJ in late 2017, and meeting Michelle in early 2018 I let her borrow my oldest Poet from around 1984/85. I also let her have some brim off cuts taken from another hat which I kept for some reason  (which came in handy for matching the felt many years later). Most of the copy hats I  have seen have been to light in colour when compared to original HJ Poets, and far too rigid (when comparing to how easily the brim collapses during the fight around the Flying Wing and during the Truck Chase In Raiders when Indy is hanging to the front of the Mercedes). Qualities that my original POET had. I also recall how Tom Baker in  Dr.Who (who wore an off the shelf POET) folded the hat up so easily to stuff in a pocket.

 What Michelle has produced for me is, in my opinion are the most accurate and faithful reproductions of the original POET that I have ever seen. They are virtually indistinguishable from my oldest hat, with even the sweat band being the correct colour. The colour of the felt and how it reacts are identical, with the ribbon being totally accurate. 2  beautiful hats that  I am proud to own and have as part of my collection. One of them will be worn, and I intend to order another in the near future. I cannot speak more highly of Michelle and her attention to detail which is amazing. Like a trip to HJ when they were at one of their old addresses. 

  I think you either get the real thing, or you don`t bother. There are plenty of people producing replicas but they are not Herbert Johnson, anything else is just a hat!

Thank you once again Michelle for 2 superb works of art.. The original is back.

     Mark…"

 

 ___________________________________________________

Richard Swales 

In memory of Mr Richard Swales, the former sales manager at Herbert Johnson.  He styled and finished hats for Harrison Ford and countless others as well, having a deep impact on all who met him.  By all accounts, a lovely man who was very generous, welcoming and good friend to many.

Sadly missed but not forgotten.

___________________________________________________

 

Have an Indy or HJ story of your own to share?
Please get in contact via email to workshop@herbert-johnson.co.uk,
we'd love to hear it and add it to our archives!
Many Thanks, Michelle Poyer-Sleeman (Hatting Dept. Manager)
& The HJ Team.

 

_____________________________________________________

 

We still make our famous Indiana Jones Poet Hats today.  Everything is handcrafted bespoke to order from only the finest quality materials by our highly skilled designer and hatter Michelle Poyer-Sleeman at Herbert Johnson Hatters.  Please send any enquiries or bespoke hatting orders to us via email to workshop@herbert-johnson.co.uk.  You can also order our Indy Poets on our websites.

 www.herbert-johnson.co.uk/collections/Indiana-jones-collection

www.swaineadeneybrigg.com/collections/herbert-johnson