An equal march between Stepney and Mile End tube stations, Silvermans is arguably the largest military retailer in the United Kingdom. It’s definitely the most renowned, with an online business shipping specialist kit to soldiers, collectors and outdoor enthusiasts around the world. The Silvermans catalogue is a more grown up, refined affair than the Argos doorstop; it isn’t full of toys, but an arsenal of real McCoys. So, it was a great privilege to sit down at the counter with Ralph Silverman - who I discover is affectionately and respectfully known around here as Mr. S - and his two sons, Richard and Malcolm.
“It begins in 1896,” Ralph reliably informs me, as he cracks open surely one of East London’s finest independent retail stories:
“My great-great-grandfather bought a great number of boots, but they were all one size; very large and all one foot! Someone must have given them to him. How on earth he did it, I really don’t know, but he sold them to South Africa to the miners.”
Ralph entered the fray of the family business at the age of sixteen, when his father fell ill and was unable to work. He began building the Mile End military empire by selling surplus to other stores, but grew tired of hearing store owner’s tales of hardship and waiting for payment, so decided to cut out the middleman, open his own store and sell direct to the customer:
“In the 1960s, this business and The Beatles became very popular. Things got very expensive and all the young people realised that government surplus was good value. I found that people came to me. I could see that there was something going on. One thing led to another and we expanded.”
Silvermans recently relocated forty metres from their old store on Hartford Street, where they operated for over fifty years, to a vast new storefront opposite Queen Mary University on Mile End Road.
Richard and Malcolm both joined the business at an early age and have helped to oversee the store’s transition from specialist of military surplus, to new ranges of military clothing. Due to government cut backs and a decline in the amount of people enrolling in the forces, good quality surplus became much more scarce. Accordingly, they had to change the focus of the business and concentrate on supplying new kit. Richard fondly recalls his early memories of going to the old store during his school holidays:
“It was during the Falklands War in 1982 and seeing the queues down Hartford Street of soldiers queuing up to buy extra kit, before going off to the Falklands. While they were queuing up, they would mark the wall with their rank and regiment. You can still see some marks on the wall.”
The family business now has a vast warehouse space, stocking everything from motorcycle gear to Swiss army watches. They know their customers and pride themselves on preserving the Silvermans name of excellence. Ralph adds:
“I try to sell good kit. I know the business; I have been in it all my life, so I should know it, shouldn't I? I know that the people who come in like genuine British stuff, not cheap imitations. If you sell good kit, they'll think to themselves, bloody hell, this has lasted me a while, I’ll go back there.”
Behind the storefront lays a vast warehouse space that’s home to a tremendous collection of the older equipment stocked by Silvermans. They recently had to vacate the 40,000sqft tram garage in Mile End, which Ralph had used for storage for twenty-eight years and it took more than a year to move all the stock with a car and trailer. My eyes lit up like signal flares when I was invited through the door and into the day-to-day treasure trove.
We plot a route through the vast network of giant cages, each one filled to the brim with unseen rarities and battle-hardened equipment. Altimeter and Armalite, SAS escape pouches and Sterling mags, gas masks and binoculars, all are stamped with the date they were called up for duty. Fantastic scenes lay resting in the shadows; a pile of tin hats remains still while cammo nets overflow like soapsuds. “Just imagine the people using this,” exclaims Malcolm. There’s Navy issue, inflatable gloves with sealed seams, once worn onboard warships sailing across the Arctic. There are futuristic, high-altitude flying suits worn by Concorde test pilots and fragmentation vests, worn by British troops on patrol in Northern Ireland.
I’d always wanted to go into the Silvermans warehouse and it didn’t disappoint. I can see how, over the years, it’s been such a sought after retreat for collectors looking to complete their collection, designers in search of inspiration and costume buyers working on the latest blockbusters - Silvermans supplied pieces for Star Wars, Alien and James Bond.
“We’ve got tons and tons and tons of it… and tons and add on a few more tons,” adds Richard.
Genuine issue. SAS approved.