Dry cleaner to the stars: The man who works magic on A-list outfits

Meet the dry cleaner to the stars who salvaged Margaret Thatcher’s iconic blue suit, Prince Charles’ wax coats and a fly-stained Royal wedding dress

  • Bradleys was first opened as a garment house in 1832 by Samuel Bradley Senior
  • In 1860 the family-run British business opened the largest fur store in Europe
  • Famous customers include Princess Anne, Lady Clementine Churchill, Brigitte Bardot, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, Lewis Hamilton and George Michael
  • Bradleys is now run from a small dry cleaning store in Milton Keynes… which still attracts famous faces and is restoring some of the nation’s priceless treasures 

When Margaret Thatcher strolled into a London dry cleaners, her iconic blue suit tucked under her arm, she had the air of a strict headmistress… until she introduced herself as Godilocks, Howard Bradley remembers.

Mrs Thatcher, before she became the Iron Lady, was standing in Bradley’s Dry Cleaners in East Finchley, a small, family-run business with a great British history, when she addressed three small children, exclaiming ‘it seems Goldilocks has met the bears’.

Mrs Thatcher was not standing in any old dry cleaning store – and she was not holding any old suit.

The soon-to-be PM was in Bradleys, believed to be the oldest of its kind in Britain, thanks to its almost 200-year history.

Bradleys client list is a who’s-who of famous faces through the ages, beginning with Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, French actress Brigitte Bardot, Prince Charles, the Saudi royal family and even George Michael.

Dry cleaning royal wedding dresses, restoring Prince Charles’ wax coats and painstakingly cleaning Emmeline Pankhurst’s original Suffragette flag are not jobs many would want to be tasked with, but, it is a business the Bradley family knows well.

Bradleys was first opened in 1832 in this London street. The shop was later turned into a branch of Boots

Margaret Thatcher’s iconic blue suits were tended to lovingly by Bradleys. The former PM was a customer when she was an MP in London 

Maureen Baker, top designer to Susan Small, who designed Princess Anne’s wedding dress was a friend of the Bradley family

Princess Anne’s wedding dress was worked on by the Bradley family which has been restoring Royal garments for more than a century

An original Bradley boy: Bernard Bradley pictured in 1902 shortly before the family owned the biggest fur store in Europe

An invoice to the Churchills. Winston Churchill and wife Lady Clementine both visited the Bradleys store and used it to store fur

Eric Bradley in 1939. Eric decided to open up one of the first unit dry cleaners in East Finchley

During the First World War Bradleys was asked to make dress uniforms for the army

Part of Royal wedding dress in restoration at Bradleys. An entire collection of dresses have been brought back from the mouldy brink by the shop

Emmeline Pankhurst’s original Votes for Women flag was given to Bradleys to restore so it can be preserved for the future

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher entrusted Bradleys with her dry cleaning when they owned a store in East Finchley

Speaking from the final outpost of the family’s legendary stores, sole heir to the Bradley business, 57-year-old Howard recalled some of the toughest jobs – and customers – he has ever come up against since he began working in the shop aged seven.

He said: ‘It was in East Finchley of all places that I first started seeing some recognisable faces coming into the shop as customers. East Finchley might not have been the most affluent area but dry cleaning shops were so rare in those early days, and something of a novelty that people travelled to us from far afield.

‘Margaret Thatcher was the local MP for East Finchley and although I only saw her a few times and chatted to her, it was like being up before the headmistress. However she was always polite, friendly, very sharp witted…and a bit scary.’

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Bradleys was an obvious choice for the politician, since it has been trusted with garments belonging to the rich and famous since 1832, when a man named Samuel Bradley (Senior) opened a tailors and garment house. Years later, in 1860, he expanded his empire and opened London’s first fur store. Elite classes across the capital flocked to the firm to have their exotic wears kept safe.

At one point it was rumoured to be storing £500,000 worth of winter furs in its flagship store in Chepstow Place.

By 1912 Bradleys was the largest fur store in Europe and was trusted by the rich and famous across the content.

The business began making clothes at the same time, but, like many other British businesses it was changed by the outbreak of WWI. The business made dress uniforms for the army, and after the conflict continued to store, make and refurbish clothes.

Bradleys dry cleaners: A history

1832: Bradleys opens as a tailors and garment house

1860: Samuel Bradley Senior opens 1 Chepstow Place,the arctic fur store

1896: The business was renamed Bradley and Sons Arctic Fur Store

1906: Samuel senior relinquishes control to sons Samuel Jnr, Bernard and Edward

1912: Financial TImes editorial describes Bradleys as Europe’s biggest and best fur store as the business is rebranded Bradleys.

1920’s: The Guinea Gown – a designer gown for those on a tight budget – was invented by Bernard Bradley.

1920s: Six cars are commissioned to bring customers to and from the store

1930s: The Churchills are big customers and Bradleys undergoes a major Art Deco style refit. Samuel Bradley Junior dies

1939: War breaks out in Europe and Bernard Bradley’s two sons, Victor and Eric, enlist into the RAF

1950: Eric Bradley takes the family business back to what it is best at and gives up Chepstow Place to open dry cleaning stores

2018: The last dry cleaning store of the family empire still runs in Milton Keynes 

During this era the rich would have their entire wardrobes repaired or remade at the end of each ‘season’.

Bradleys grew so popular over the coming decades in the 1920s the business commissioned six cars to offer their clients a bespoke taxi service.

Those clients included Winston Churchill and wife Lady Clementine.

An invoice from February 1937 shows they spent £3.90 in the shop – the equivalent of £264 today for ‘storage of furs’ and cleaning and restoration of a ‘black velvet evening coat’.

Another invoice from 1936 shows the Churchills again used the shop to clean their coats and store furs.

The 1937 invoice is addressed to Winston Churchill’ private residence in Morpeth Mansions, Westminster.

Although Bradleys was a success through the First World War, it was not so lucky in the Second.

The Blitz saw a hat making factory wiped out and Bradleys personnel were killed in the conflict. By the time war ended in 1945, the rich were far less keen to frolic around the city in furs and frugality became more commonplace.

Instead of folding altogether, Bradleys took a different path, taking the family talent for preserving fashion and turning the business into one of the capital’s first dry cleaners.

In the 1950s technological advances resulted in Commercial Dry Cleaning being carried out in a single self-contained machine, rather than huge factories.

Eric Bradley decided to try his luck and open up in East Finchley. In 1968, aged seven, son Howard began to work for him on Saturdays.

It was then he began to meet some of Britain’s most famous faces, still, after all this time, coming to Bradleys.

Bradleys Ltd flagship store was in London. The business took a battering during The Blitz 

A wartime wedding dress was restored by Bradleys – the business which has become famous in Britain since starting in 1832

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia sent items to the dry cleaners. Once a Prince left money in his pocket, and when it was returned, the shop was rewarded with pistachio nuts

He said: ‘It was in East Finchley (of all places) that I first started seeing some recognisable faces coming into the shop as customers. East Finchley might not have been the most affluent area but dry cleaning shops were so rare in those early days, and something of a novelty that people travelled to us from far afield.

One of Lewis Hamilton’s race suits was worked on by the Bradley business

‘Simon Dee was an early customer and I do remember that we also had Dee Dee and Pan’s People too. In real life they were really lovely friendly people.’

Royal families from around the world have also stopped by Bradleys for help. Prince Charles’ wax coats were once restored by the shop, as well as an entire collection of Royal Wedding dresses from the collection at Woburn Abbey, one of which was worn by the Duchess of Bedford – and was covered in fly poo.

‘At first glance the dresses did not look to bad, but close inspection and the reason that we were tasked with cleaning them was lots of tiny black specks on the surface fabric,’ Mr Bradley recalled.

‘Despite the value of the dresses being stratospheric, we did not balk when faced with the job and we treated each speck which we recognised as being fly poo. Yes, flies do poo and they will poo on commoner or royalty alike… needless to say we were successful.’

‘We also did a bit of cleaning on Princess Anne’s wedding dress when she married Mark Philips. Her dress was designed by a dear friend of our family called Maureen Baker (known to close friends as Tozey).’

Who were Bradleys most famous customers?

  • Winston Churchill and Lady Clementine Churchill
  • Princess Anne
  • Prince Charles
  • King Faisal of Saudia Arabia
  • Brigitte Bardot
  • George Michael
  • Ledley King
  • Ian Poulter
  • Dee Dee Wilde (Pan’s People)
  • Ralf Schumacher
  • Lewis Hamilton
  • Aston Martin

Royals from the Saudi Kingdom also descended on the little shop in East Finchley, once even giving the family an exotic reward for handing back the contents of one pocket, untouched.

‘We used to also do the dry cleaning for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who had a very large property in the Bishops Avenue in London,’ Mr Bradley said.

‘We had to deliver cleaning back to his residence once and that was eye-opening. There were Armed Guards and lots of them.

‘One of the Saudi Crown Princes inadvertently left the largest rolled up wad of bank notes that I had ever seen in the pocket of his Italian handmade suit.

‘We immediately phoned the contact for the Royal residence and within the hour their security detail had trooped into our shop and we handed over the “wad”. They thanked us and handed me a packet of pistachio nuts as a reward. That might sound insulting to some, but we never did things like that for reward and pistachio nuts in that era were virtually unheard of in England.’

Dee Dee Wilde one of the Pan’s People dance group was a customer of the family dry cleaning store

And, when sifting through someone’s dirty laundry, the Bradleys did get to know a little about the famous faces they met.

At the height of his fame George Michael was a regular customer. However, his ordinary clothes were ‘neither flamboyant or flashy’ but regular ‘t-Shirt and shorts being the order of the day’.

Others who have entrusted Bradleys include Lewis Hamilton and Ralf Schumacher, which is, surprisingly, a pretty dirty job.

Princess Anne’s royal wedding dress was one of the many royal garments which has been lovingly restored by Bradleys

A Bradleys brochure: The family-run business was booming after the First World War and attracted clients like Winston Churchill and his wife Lady Clementine Churchill

He said: ‘We were asked by a collector if we could possibly clean and restore his winning race suit, clean it, remove all the perspiration odour (and boy does a racing driver perspire) but leave all the handwritten autographs in place. Not an easy ask.’

Ledley King had his wife’s wedding dress heirloomed at the shop and Ian Poulter’s Union Jack trousers were lovingly taken care of.

It is neither a royal garment, a popstar’s polo nor a sports stars sweatsuit which has made it to Mr Bradley’s number one job, though.

The shop was tasked with cleaning and restoring the mildewed, mould ridden, original Votes For Women cloth banner that belonged to Emmeline Pankhurst.

Howard Bradley is the last Bradley in the family to run a dry cleaning store

Bradleys is now believed to be the oldest family dry cleaners in Britain, with the founding family still at the helm.

Howard, now 57, does not have any children to carry on the Bradley business, but is hoping he can make it to the 200 mark and beyond, at their final outpost in Milton Keynes.

Mr Bradley added: ‘People will sometimes ask me if I am scared of cleaning anything and I have to be truthful and say no. I have always relished the chance to work on high value, rare or interesting items and because I am passionate about what I do, as well as upholding a 180-year Bradleys reputation in the textile trade.

‘I make sure that every item is treated in an individual and unique way, that and I feel that the guiding hand of my late father and grandfather are always there too.’


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