Object of the Week : I for Mr Innocenti

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Whilst the Museum is closed and our collections unable to be seen by visitors, we have created a weekly virtual museum with an Object of the Week feature from our collections.

Object of the Week : I for Mr Innocenti

Cambi Hat Factory 73a Shenley Road                                                              Innocenti when young

The Italian family of Cambi began bleaching and dyeing Panama hats in 1908, and thus were one of the earliest employers in Borehamwood.  Mr Innocenti ran the Cambi Panama Hat Bleaching works, and was also the owner of the nearby Central Garage.  The Garage was located next to Hanson’s Tea Rooms and went on selling petrol and servicing cars until the 1980s. Its site is now occupied by Nandos.  The main Cambi factory was in Shenley Road, in what is now the Shopping Park and was situated approximately where Argos stands. But in 1928 Cambi Hats was sold and their building became Keystones Knitting Mills. The entrance was down a lane now called Keystone Passage.

Mr. Cambi in Shenley Road                                                          Innocenti when older

The Cambis also had a factory at the top of Drayton Road. They had developed a system for bleaching the hats white and giving them a unique glossy sheen. After processing the hats were hung on rows of pegs to dry and looked like a miniature forest of giant toadstools. Panama hats are in fact made in Equador, although they are shipped all over the world from the port of Panama, hence the probable origin of their name. In 1908 the Panama Canal was being constructed and as well as the workers on the project, both President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward V11 were photographed wearing them. In consequence they became very popular. In more recent times the list of celebrities wearing these stylish hats is almost endless. Humphrey Bogart, Sean Connery, and Peter O'Toole all wore them. The price range of Panama hats is enormous. You can buy one for as little as £25, but for the very best which are made in the town of Montecristi, you can pay thousands of pounds. It is all down to the weaves per inch. A "superfino" Panama hat can, according to popular rumour, hold water, and when rolled for storage, pass through a wedding ring. So there we have the reason for the hat in the museum exhibits. It is amazing that an Italian family chose Borehamwood to start a business bleaching and dyeing Panama hats that are made in Equador but they did, and it is part of our history.

The Cambi hat in our Museum collection looks more like Casper the Ghost than a real Panama hat. This is because after bleaching and dyeing the hats were sent to Luton, a couple of stops up the Midland railway line, for blocking and finishing.

Apart from the Cambi hat, the Museum collection holds many photographs of the Cambi Factory as well as Central Garage. Here are some for your delight :

Central Garage before the rebuild

Central Garage later

Panama Hats drying in Shenley Road

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