Vintage Trunks & Chests and the treasures within them

Vintage Trunks & Chests and the treasures within them

Vintage Trunks and Chest are a team with a commitment to the restoration of antique trunks. Just as they uncover unique histories, we thought it would be great to uncover the history of these sellers too. We spoke to Kerry of VTC to discover how she and Simon birthed the company and its sustainability ethos.

Simon and Kerry of Vintage trunks and chests

How did Vintage Trunks and Chests begin?

As a former photographer and lawyer, Simon and I longed for a sustainable alternative to the daily grind of 9-5. When we decided to refurbish our home we found that we both absolutely loved it. We were working with reclaimed materials, getting our hands dirty, learning new skills, being creative and working alongside each other every day; all of which came quite naturally and thankfully resulted in only minor skirmishes! It sparked an idea to set up in business together when we had finished that project but we had no idea what we wanted to do. 

Simon had always loved trunks since seeing his first wardrobe trunk in a local bric-a-brac shop when he was 18. He remembers it was covered in luggage labels and he was fascinated with the history of it and where it had travelled. It was £50 and, being a student at the time, too rich for his blood so unfortunately he didn’t buy it; however he never forgot about it. 

When we were furnishing our home at the end of the refurb project we had to choose very carefully as we have a single storey, narrow barn space – form and function with plenty of storage were our top priorities! Simon had an old steamer trunk of his nan’s that he and his brother and his dad had all used at university so we gave it some TLC and it took up residence in the house as a coffee table.. I guess the rest is history! 

Simon started sourcing and refurbishing trunks as a hobby towards the end of 2011 and began running it as a business in the summer of the following year. Happily, things went from strength to strength and I was able to join him full time at the beginning of 2015.   

Describe a typical day at VTC. What is your restoration process like?

Working from home can definitely be a challenge but we’re both quite efficient and self-motivated so we’ll start the day with coffee and a team talk about where we are with orders, restorations, commissions and general stock before going our separate ways – Simon over to the workshop while I head to the office.

We live at Simon’s family home which is an old farm and Simon converted one of the outbuildings to a workshop when he first came home in 2000. Little did he know he would be using it to run a business from years later! 

Simon personally hand-picks and restores all the trunks and chests. He’s built up a wealth of knowledge and practical ability over the years and works with attention to fine detail – you could say he’s a perfectionist! 

Simon of Vintage trunks and chests
Simon hard at work

It’s important to us to preserve the character and integrity of each piece before moving on to any essential restoration work. Every trunk and chest we produce is worked on in house by ourselves using traditional methods. Simon will refinish the exterior of the item preserving any original text and traditional features, conserve or refinish the interior, repair or replace handles, fix locks and make keys. If we need to replace something or do a repair we are careful to use reclaimed materials where possible or a high quality, craftsman made and locally sourced alternative. Every item is hand finished in numerous coats of wax polish to naturally enhance, revive and protect the original patina.

Simons restoration process
Simons restoration process

As there are only 2 of us to get everything done there’s a huge amount to keep us busy so we are unable to carry a vast range of stock – good things done right take time! We have recently seen a huge increase in demand and as a result have begun taking more commissions and sourcing trunks and chests to order. This is good for us as we can work closely with our customers, ensuring we provide exactly what the client is looking for, and it’s great for buyers as they receive a personalised service and a piece of furniture that perfectly matches their requirements. 

Do you have any favourite pieces that you’ve restored? What was it about the piece you found particularly interesting?

Our favourite work is when we’re restoring something of personal significance to the customer – a bit like BBC’s The Repair Shop! We have completed a commission like this recently and it was extremely interesting and rewarding. We were approached by a client to see whether we could renovate an old military footlocker that had been in the family for years and had sentimental value as it had belonged to her grandfather. Of course we said yes!

We agreed to refinish and repaint the trunk, salvage some of the original text and replace that which was too far gone to be saved, source a trunk to replace the original catch and provide a working lock and key. We worked closely with the client throughout the project in order to complete the restoration to her specifications and she was also able to give us lots of information about the military history so we knew exactly what we were working on and could accurately replace the text that was beyond repair. When the project was completed the client preferred not to see photos of the item as she was very excited to see it in person for the first time even inviting her family over to her house for the big reveal! Needless to say she was overjoyed with the result and so were we.  

As with many vintage items, you unlock some interesting histories behind the items. Have there been any interesting stories you’ve discovered behind any of the trunks or chests?

Yes! When we first acquired the piece I’m thinking of it had been standing out in a field and was locked with something rattling around inside! Simon had a joke with the chap we bought it from. He told him ‘If when you get it open there are diamonds in there I want my share!’ When Simon eventually got the chest open it turned out to be full of shotgun cartridges but the story doesn’t end there! 

This antique chest was a Victorian naval officer’s campaign chest made by Gieve & Sons. It still had both the original brass plaques one to the lid inscribed with the  previous owner’s name ‘R. E. Lubbock R.N.’ (Captain Rupert Everard Lubbock) and a maker’s plate to the front ‘J Gieve & Sons Portsmouth & Devonport’. It was also complete with the original lift out top trays, lockable personal belongings box with key and unique brass fittings to the interior lid for naval equipment including telescope, sword/cutlass and candlestick holders. It really was a beauty!

Gieve & Sons Chest
Gieve & Sons Chest

The forerunner to Gieve & Sons was established in the late 18th century and went on to become the principal uniform outfitters to the British Royal Navy throughout the 19th century. Their trunks were part of the supply to naval officers to keep their dress uniforms and other naval equipment secure. The founder of the company ‘Old Mel’ famously tailored Admiral Lord Nelson’s celebrated uniform which he wore, and in which he died, at Trafalgar. The 200 year old company which supplied generations of British Royalty acquired Hawkes & Co in 1974 to become Gieves & Hawkes of 1 Savile Row, London the oldest and most established independent tailors in the row and supplier to royal houses all over the world not to mention famous public figures. They still produce military and court dress and continue to supply and maintain the uniforms of the Queen’s personal Royal Bodyguard.

As if that wasn’t memorable enough the couple that bought this chest did so as a special gift to themselves for their wedding anniversary. When they contacted us we offered to deliver it in person due to the sheer weight and value of the chest. It turned out that they lived in Portsmouth and the gentleman remembered going into the Gieve & Sons store in Portsmouth when he was a boy! Within a week this beautiful chest was back living in the town where it had originally come from. 

You’ve mentioned before that there are some difficulties with things like transporting goods and packaging that have a negative impact on the environment. Are there any ways that you think could be a better alternative?

We use couriers to ship our items and use a combination of corrugated cardboard, large bubble wrap and shrinkwrap to package our items to ensure they are well protected in transit and arrive at their destination without being damaged. 

Initially we offered a next day delivery service however, in order to cut down on the number of trips the courier makes to our collection address, we now liaise with customers regarding their delivery date to help reduce the number of road miles and the environmental impact of this travel. We continue to use a courier company to deliver to customers’ addresses that works from local depots so these vans are always fully loaded when servicing their individual areas.

The way we package items has changed many times over the years and we have arrived at our current system through a combination of trial and error! However it is definitely not perfect since, although it works as intended to prevent damage, we are forced to use a lot of packaging and unless it is reused by the customer it only gets used once before being recycled. Being mindful of the 3R’s we can’t reduce without the possibility of damage and we don’t currently reuse. All the packaging materials we use are recyclable – the cardboard can go into the kerbside recycling bins and both the bubble wrap and LDPE shrinkwrap can be taken to local carrier bag collection points (usually at supermarkets) – however the responsibility for this lies with the customer. 

Coat rack orders
Coat rack orders made at VTC

What we would ideally like to do is trial a free collection for the return of our packaging so we can reuse it and take the burden of recycling away from the end user, placing the responsibility firmly on our shoulders. We just need to decide on a method of doing this that makes it easy for the customer and we will be looking for feedback on this in the near future. It’s not a perfect situation and there doesn’t appear to be a viable alternative at present but we are mindful of our usage and doing the best we can for now.

In addition we have taken a space in a local antiques centre where we sell a selection of our items and we are also planning to appear at some fayres this year to increase in-person sales and thereby reduce packaging implications and our reliance on couriers.

This year we are also reconsidering our global distribution in an effort to minimise the carbon footprint of our business. Most of our sales have traditionally been made within the UK simply because the size and weight of our items make overseas purchases prohibitive due to high delivery prices. We have only ever sent a small percentage of items overseas and it may be that we decide not to offer this service in future.

We see a lot of trunks and chests being used in interiors today, what are some unconventional ways to use them or that you’ve seen them used?

A few years ago we took a commission from a client who was looking for a bespoke entertainment unit. She didn’t want it to look anything like a normal tv stand and preferred to have everything neatly tidied away and ideally totally invisible. The customer wanted something antique and not in the least bit modern looking, basically presenting us with a puzzle to solve! 

We sourced an old military chest with some original text to the front, refinished the exterior wood leaving a rectangular piece with the original black paint around the text and chopped this piece out to create a drop down front. We fitted it with hinges and a magnetic push release catch so it dropped down to reveal a hidden compartment and we also installed a shelf level with the bottom of the drop down piece to take consoles and digital boxes. We put the chest on castors for ease of movement and cut a neat circular hole in the rear that was hidden from view to feed the wires through.

The customer ended up with an authentic antique military chest thatnot only looked beautiful but functioned perfectly as the entertainment unit she was looking for – needless to say we really enjoyed making it and she was over the moon with her new piece of furniture!

Why do you feel it is important to promote antiques as a green option?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that as a race of people we are rushing headlong towards a point of no return. We all have to take responsibility and dramatically reduce our environmental impact on the planet before it’s too late. One of the most effective ways of doing that from an interiors perspective is to stop buying new – take up the surplus and buy vintage! 

Antique and vintage pieces have a character and warmth that can’t be beaten – they have soul! Most old bits of furniture that have been either thrown away or are sitting rotting sadly in a shed somewhere have great bones. They are well made with a level of craftsmanship you rarely see nowadays and they consist of high quality materials – there’s a reason they have lasted this long already! 

So don’t buy new or ‘on trend’. Instead buy from a seller who has worked tirelessly to breathe new life into the old, restored an item back to its former glory, made it functional again and brought back its original beauty! Go for the best your budget allows and invest in heirloom pieces. Buy what you love, that way it can never go out of style. Mix and match eras for a unique home that reflects your personality. Vintage is perfect for this. Plus there’s no impact on the environment from new production, no new materials have been mined, no trees felled, no parts manufactured or distributed – the only impact is from the restoration which is minimal and if done right and done well the piece will have hundreds of years more to live! 

Do you have any tips for the everyday person looking to be a bit more sustainable/green in their day to day lives?

I think I’ve said enough already so I’ll keep this one simple. Don’t buy new. Before you buy anything at all ask – do I need it, will I use it, where has it come from, who’s made it and what is it made of? Buy locally, independent, ethical or sustainable where possible. Support UK craftsmanship especially heritage skills. Practice the 3Rs. Eat a plant based diet. If you’re lucky enough to have public transport – use it! Otherwise share a vehicle where practicable. Grow your own. Love where you live. And finally – do one thing every day, no matter how small, that makes a difference. After a year you’ll have made a substantial contribution to positive change – go you!

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