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Fifty Golden Years of Billingham - By Gray Levett



Grays of Westminster is a renowned Nikon specialist retailer, founded 35 years ago by Gray Levett. Famous for its customer service, Grays of Westminster is located in London just a few minutes away from Victoria Station, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. This store holds the unique distinction of being the only company ever to have won all three Dealer of the Year awards voted by the readers of Amateur Photographer, Practical Photography and Buying Cameras magazines in the same year. This is on top of many other awards over the years. Grays of Westminster is also the first camera shop in the world to have been granted a Coat of Arms.

We were delighted and honoured when Gray sent us the story of his relationship with Billingham in celebration of our 50 year anniversary. You can find it reproduced below.


Gray Levett, founder of Grays of Westminster, with a Nikon F Camera.
Gray Levett inside his shop, 'Grays of Westminster'.


In the late 1970s I was working at KJP (Keith Johnson Photographic Ltd), a large professional camera dealer at Ramillies House, 1-2, Ramillies Street, just off great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7LN.

The mornings were the busiest period. As soon as our doors were open, a stream of photographic assistants would pour in and head straight for the film department where they would buy large bricks of Kodachrome or Ektachrome 35mm reversal film and photographic printing paper. Some of them then headed towards the rental department while others would migrate to the camera area, the darkroom display or the flash section. These assistants were always knowledgeable about the latest trends. I can even recall a time when some of them would roller-skate into the showroom when that particular mode of getting around became popular!


Gray Levett - Old photo showing him working at KJP (Keith Johnson Photographic Ltd)

Gray Levett during his time working at KJP (Keith Johnson Photographic Ltd).


One day, while I was serving a customer in the camera department, I looked up and heard Mr Martin Billingham introduce himself. He had arrived to speak to Keith Johnson and showed us all the Billingham 550, explaining how it was made and the philosophy behind its manufacture. It was a beautifully designed British product, ingeniously combining long-lasting materials with a number of practical features including essential protection against the elements. But it was quite different from any other camera bag on the market at that time. It looked rather like a fishing bag and Mr Billingham explained that this was how it had actually evolved. A large number of his fishing bags had apparently been purchased in the USA by New York photographers, and this had signalled a decision to create a new range tailored specifically for the photographic market.

Keith Johnson decided to stock the products and within a few short weeks it seemed that every photographer or assistant photographer in London had to have a Billingham bag. Purchasing one was unquestionably a status symbol. It was as if each photographer who owned one had become a member of a rather exclusive club.


The Grays of Westminster Store Front
The Grays of Westminster store front.


The same meticulous attention to detail, the impeccable quality of their old-fashioned craftsmanship and the elegance of their design is still very much in evidence many years later. Even if you see someone walk through the door at Grays of Westminster carrying a Billingham bag today, you know you have come across an individual with a very high appreciation of skilled artistry. They will often wax enthusiastically about the length of time they have owned their Billingham. I love Billingham bags myself and have a number of them in my own collection. Just like a fine wine, they seem to get better with age.

I would like to offer my heartfelt congratulations to the whole team at Billingham Bags on their 50th Anniversary; Billingham is an integral part of the DNA of the British photographic industry. Long may this continue!

Gray Levett
Grays of Westminster


© 2023 Gray Levett


Grays of Westminster Coat of Arms
The Grays of Westminster Coat of Arms.


Grays of Westminster Brass Plaque
The Grays of Westminster brass plaque.


Inside Grays of Westminster
Inside Grays of Westminster.


Billingham bags in Grays of Westminster
Billingham bags inside Grays of Westminster.


Thank you to Gray Levett for sharing his story. You can find his store online here:

The bags pictured were in stock at Grays of Westminster at time of writing. If you are interested in a particular model/colour, we would always advise calling them before travelling to the store.


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