Billingham bags are highly prized by discerning photographers, so we are pleased to make the founders of the company the joint recipients of one of the most prestigious accolades in the AP 2023 awards

Our Lifetime Achievement Award for 2023 goes to the founders of a company that was born 50 years ago this year and has become an iconic name in photography. The story starts in 1973, when newly married young couple Ros and Martin Billingham started a business making fishing bags to help make ends meet.

Working alongside their full-time jobs, they worked in their spare bedroom every spare hour that they had, cutting up canvas and leather pieces by hand, and stitching them using a sewing machine to which Martin applied a foam base to dampen the vibrations to stop their neighbours complaining.

Billingham Hadley One bag

An iconic Hadley One Billingham bag in khaki and chocolate

From fishing bags to f stops
By 1977 Billingham had enough orders to rent a 500 square foot unit employed their first sewing machinist to help. One day, they became intrigued by a repeat customer based in the US, from whom they found out that their waterproof fishing bags were being used as camera bags by photographers in New York. This was their ‘light bulb’ moment.

Within weeks, Martin and Ros, both photographers themselves, had designed the System 1 camera bag that is still being made today, and currently sold as the ‘550’. It’s hard to believe now but soft camera bags just weren’t the thing back in the 70s and 80s, and and Ros and Martin received no interest from any of the camera shops they visited with their new bag. Undeterred, they placed an ad in a magazine and sold them by mail order. They then took a stand at a photographic exhibition at Earls Court where they had an unexpected and fortuitous visitor.

A great British company
Lord Lichfield, the world famous photographer and cousin of The Queen, stopped by to see Martin and Ros and was so impressed that he returned later with photography legends Terence Donovan and David Bailey. Donovan challenged Lichfield that if he could do a certain number of press-ups, he would buy Lichfield a System 1 bag. Lichfield won the bet, Donovan duly bought the bag and handed it over to Lichfield.

The Billingham factory

The Billingham factory combines hand crafting with modern machinery

From then, Billingham camera bags took off and the rest is history. Today, Billingham remains a quintessentially British company, and manufactures in Cradley Heath, West Midlands. It remains a family run business, with their youngest son Harry being co-director of the company. Some of the staff have been with Billingham for decades.

Martin and Ros Billingham

Martin and Ros Billingham at the AP Awards in London

Their bags are sold worldwide, either direct from their website or through one of over 450 retailers across the globe. Fifty years on, Billingham is no longer the only manufacturer of soft camera bags, but it is still regarded as the best. Still made using top quality canvas, leather and brass, a Billingham bag will last you a lifetime.

Jill Furmanovsky's Billingham bag

The battered Billingham bag of top rock photographer, Jill Furmanovsky

Five things you may not know about Billingham bags
• As well as camera bags Billingham offer a range of leisure, laptop and binocular bags, as well as binocular cases.
• Billingham bags are waterproof, as they have a middle layer of butyl rubber that is bonded between the inner and outer materials and this butyl rubber prevents water getting into the bag. This means the bags remain waterproof for their lifetime.
• Billingham bags come with a 5 year manufacturers guarantee and offer a repair service to extend the life of bags after this. Some of the bags we repair are decades old.
• All bags are made with real, top-grain, vegetable tanned leather and solid brass fixings.

Make sure you have a look at the other AP Award winners!

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