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Shop local: Meet the Forest Gate upholsterer whose firm has already survived a pandemic

PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 November 2020

Mark started out helping in the shop during the school holidays. This year marks his 40th at Robinson's Upholsterers. Picture: Jon King

Mark started out helping in the shop during the school holidays. This year marks his 40th at Robinson's Upholsterers. Picture: Jon King

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For one Forest Gate business this is not the first pandemic it has faced.

Robinsons Upholsterers was established in 1909 by Harry Robinson. Picture: Jon KingRobinsons Upholsterers was established in 1909 by Harry Robinson. Picture: Jon King

Robinsons Upholsterers was established in Katherine Road in 1909 with the family firm serving customers from its Upton Lane shop since the 1940s.

Harry Robinson started the business which has passed down three generations. His great grandson, Mark, is now at the helm.

Harry died in 1922 from influenza at a time when the Spanish flu was raging around the world. In Britain it claimed as many as 250,000 lives.

It was Mark’s grandfather, Charles, who eventually took over after Harry’s brothers stepped in to keep the doors open.

Robinsons Upholsterer owner Mark and fellow upholsterer Nick Gjeci from Rome. Picture: Jon KingRobinsons Upholsterer owner Mark and fellow upholsterer Nick Gjeci from Rome. Picture: Jon King

Robinsons Upholsterers grew, welcoming customers in Barking Road and Upton Lane though Forest Gate’s shop is the only one left now.

Mark started by helping out during the school holidays, learning how to upholster from his father, Cedric. He has been in the trade now for 40 years.

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While some things have changed since 1909, Mark and fellow upholsterer Nick Gjeci from Rome still use traditional techniques and original horse hair filling to do their work.

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But nowadays the chairs and sofas are often padded with fibres from the surface of coconuts and modern foam. The handy staple gun often replaces tacks.

While Harry had a handful of fabrics to offer, the range now goes up to 200 with all sorts of colours, patterns and designs.

One change though is Upton Lane, as Mark explained: “When I first started working, every shop was different. Now there are more take aways and food shops. A lot of people go to Ilford or Stratford. In that way it’s changed.”

But business at the shop, which is stuffed full of foam, fabrics and furniture, has been brisk during the pandemic with people opting for repair rather than spending hundreds on replacements.

When lockdown forces the shop to shut, there is still work going on behind closed doors. Classed as a manufacturer, the business can still operate.

The need for pubs to provide more seating to maintain social distancing inside as well as for GP surgeries and dentists to provide seats with wipeable surfaces has seen a steady demand.

And work still comes in to upholster for boat owners, interior designers and film sets.

Mark remains optimistic Robinsons Upholsterers will still be a presence in this high street for years to come.


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