Sherlock Holmes and the Ulster Tailor

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Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, by Frederick Dorr Steele 1903 (Source Wikimedia, Public Domain image)

Sherlock Holmes, John McGee & the Ulster

Sherlock Holmes is arguably the smartest fictional detective in literature but what connects him to real life Belfast tailor, John McGee?

Read on to find out more…

John McGee – Early Days

Born in County Antrim in 1816, John Getty McGee came to Belfast with the ambition of starting a high-end tailoring business. He established his High Street shop in 1842 . His attention to detail, good quality material and expert craftsmanship gained him the clientele he desired.

Within a short space of time he acquired the agency of Hyam & Co, for the north of Ireland. This was a London based tailoring business. This deal allowed McGee to use the name “Pantechneteca” as his trademark, appealing to the upper classes with its suggestion of high class products.

John G. McGee shopfront - Belfast Street Directory 1856
John G. McGee High Street shopfront – Belfast Street Directory 1856

McGee’s shop sold a full range of clothing items from ladies dresses to gentlemen’s silk waistcoats. He also stocked riding wear, servants’ liveries and woollen goods.

John G. McGee Belfast Street Directory 1861-62
John G. McGee High Street Belfast Street Directory 1861-62

On 28th April 1840 John married Catherine Moorehead from Dublin. The couple moved to upmarket Holywood, County Down. The couple had a family of 3 boys and 5 girls.

Business Expansion

In 1848, John McGee opened premises in Donegall Place, to which he moved his hat department. For this establishment he employed a professional hatter from London. He advertised a variety of headgear from “the very best satin hat at seven florins and a half” to the patented waterproof Jerry hat “impervious alike to grease and rain and got up in an entirely new style”.

The Ulster

By the 1850’s, McGee was specialising in gentlemen’s overcoats. He saw the need for something durable and weatherproof for travelling but also a coat that was light and comfortable and suitable for ‘town’.

In 1866 John Getty McGee designed the Ulster. This was a close fitting, front buttoned three quarter length overcoat made of hardwearing frieze material. The coat could be single or double breasted, contained numerous pockets and could come with a short cape. The Ulster is characterised by contrasting stitching, cuffs and a long pleat at the back.

The coat was aimed at the professional monied classes. It was priced at 3 and a half guineas or 5 guineas with a Windermere lining.

Ulster overcoat 1903
Ulster overcoat 1903 (Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain image)

Commercial Success

The Ulster became extremely popular and an international success! By the 1870’s a lighter version, the Ulsterette was introduced along with female versions. McGee had to expand his business premises into 26.5 High Street. It was named the ‘Ulster Coat Warehouse’.

The Ladies Ulster - Northern Whig 24 Sep 1877
The Ladies Ulster – Northern Whig 24 Sep 1877

The Ulster coat was advertised in the London newspapers with glowing testimonials.

“These coats have been turned out by the firm in endless numbers, and diverse styles, and to suit every taste and requirement. They have gained universal patronage in America, in India, amid the snows of Russia, in Turkey and indeed in every land where a warm and waterproof wrapper is a desideratum”

1891 newspaper testimonial
John G. McGee - Makers of the Ulster, Belfast Street Directory 1884
John G. McGee Belfast Street Directory 1884

Death of John McGee

John Getty McGee ’inventor’ of the Ulster overcoat died on 8th December 1883. He had been suffering from ill-health for some time.

Advised that sea air was a beneficial tonic for his complaint, he was sailing from New York on the Cunard steamer Servia when he passed away. He was 67 years old.

McGee was regarded as one of Belfast’s most respected citizens and a stalwart of the Church of Ireland

“…a popular and public-spirited man, whose interest in everything tending in any way to forward the happiness and prosperity of his fellow-citizens was genuine and unceasing”

Industries of the North 1890

McGee’s Continued Success

The tailoring business was taken over by John’s son James (1843-1905). It continued to expand and prosper, moving in 1899 to more spacious and affluent premises in Donegall Square West.

The Ulster’s success was world-wide and brought fame to its native city.

“McGee & Co deserves very honourable mention; for the fame of their productions has travelled into every land with the productions themselves, and they have made the name of the province assume a new honour in connection with at least one great speciality of their distinguished house. We refer to the ‘Ulster’ coat, a garment whose popularity grows as the years roll on…”

Industries of the North 1890

The Ulster Coat in Literature

The Ulster also found its way into literature and, subsequently, film.

Conan Doyle had his heroes Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson wrapped in their Ulsters. In fact, the Ulster coat was referred to by name in several Sherlock Holmes stories including ‘A Study in Scarlet‘, ‘The Sign of the Four‘, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia‘, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle‘ and ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes wearing an Ulster
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
(Source Wikimedia, Public Domain image)

Incidentally, the Ulster coat worn by Sherlock Holmes is often confused with an Inverness coat. The coats are similar though the Ulster Coat’s cape is shorter, dropping to mid-back or elbow length to leave the arms free. The Inverness cape is longer, waist length & reaching the wearers cuffs. Many images of Sherlock today show the wrong coat.

Other literary references to the Ulster Coat include:

  • In the classic novel The Lodger (1913) by Marie Belloc-Lowndes, Jack the Ripper is swathed in an Ulster
  • James Joyce describes one of his characters in The Dubliners (1914) as wearing “a long yellow Ulster”

The Ulster Today

Although the cape is long gone, coats in the style of the Ulster are still common, regarded as stylish and still fetch high prices in the shops.

In terms of the Ulster, it appears that John G. McGee’s fashion legacy lives on.

“Historically worn in Victorian times with a cape and usually made from tweed, the Ulster has since become synonymous with high-end fashion, still made from tweed but also luxury cashmere or wool fabrics”

The Tailor Company, Gents Fine Tailoring, 2019

More Information on The Ulster Coat

You can read more information on The Ulster Coat in the journal article below:

The Ulster Coat – Jack McCoy in Irish Arts Review (1984-1987) Vol. 2, No. 4 (Winter, 1985) pp. 18-23 (6 pages). Published By: Irish Arts Review

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