Sucks to be him! How Henry the vacuum cleaner became an accidental design icon

·18 min read

In March this year, photos of the government’s glitzy new briefing room, where Boris Johnson’s new media chief was set to host daily press conferences, leaked to the media. The centrepiece of a “presidential” approach to communications, it was already controversial for its cost to taxpayers of £2.6m. With its gaudy blue backdrop, giant union flags and imposing podium, it looked like the stage for a US political or legal TV show: The West Wing with a touch of Judge Judy.

What the briefing room needed was something to suck the pomposity out of it. What it needed, it turned out, was a cameo appearance from a 620-watt anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner. The stocky red and black appliance was barely visible in the wings, stage left, yet instantly recognisable. Turned away from the podium, his chrome wand propped casually against a varnished dado rail, the Henry vacuum cleaner looked almost as if he were rolling his eyes.

The image quickly went viral; there were gags about a “leadership vacuum”. “Can we put Henry in charge?” asked TV presenter Lorraine Kelly. Executives at Numatic International, based in a sprawling complex of giant sheds in Chard, a small town in Somerset, were delighted. “It’s amazing how little of Henry was in that picture, and how many people came through to us and said, ‘Have you seen it? Have you seen it?” says Chris Duncan, founder and sole owner of the firm where a Henry rolls off the production line every 30 seconds.

Downing Street’s new White-House style media briefing room, following criticism that more than £2.6 million had been spent on the renovations. Issue date: Monday March 15, 2021
Where’s Henry? The Downing Street briefing room image that went viral. Photograph: ITV News/PA

Duncan, who invented Henry 40 years ago this summer, is now 82, and worth an estimated £150m. Known as “Mr D” to his 1,000 employees at the factory, he still works full-time at a standing desk that he built himself. He is speaking to me, after months of persuasion, in his first proper interview.

Henry has become an accidental icon of British design and manufacturing. Equally at home in the hands of princes and plumbers (Charles and Diana received one of the first models as a wedding present in 1981), he is also an under-stairs stalwart in millions of ordinary homes. As well as the Downing Street cameos, Henry has been photographed hanging from a rope as abseilers cleaned Westminster Abbey. The week after my visit to Henry HQ, Kathy Burke spotted one while touring a palatial mansion in Money Talks, a Channel 4 series about wealth. “No matter how rich, everyone needs a Henry,” she says.

Henry is the anti-Dyson, rolling over the social codes of the household appliance market with a modesty and humour that escapes the bigger, more expensive brand and its billionaire creator. James Dyson has hoovered up a knighthood and more land than the Queen. He has faced criticism for outsourcing production and offices to Asia while also cheerleading for Brexit. His latest memoir is out this September, while his early vacuum cleaners are venerated in design museums. Henry? Not so much. But if Dyson brought aspiration, innovation and an air of exclusivity to Big Vacuum, Henry, the only mass-produced consumer vacuum cleaner still made in Britain, brought simplicity, reliability – and a cheerful lack of airs. “Bollocks to that!” is Duncan’s reaction when I suggest that he should also write a memoir.

The son of a London policeman, Duncan wears a short-sleeved shirt with open collar; his eyes glint behind gold-rimmed specs. He lives 10 minutes from the Chard HQ. His Porsche has a “Henry” numberplate, but he owns no other homes and eschews yachts and other baubles in favour of a 40-hour week and the company of Ann, his wife of 35 years (he has three sons from a previous marriage). Modesty permeates Numatic. The campus is more Wernham Hogg than Silicon Valley; the firm never advertises Henry and retains no PR agency. Yet it has a turnover of almost £160m and has now made more than 14m Henry vacuums, including a record 32,000 in the week before my visit, thanks to a pandemic-related surge in demand for household appliances.

When Duncan received his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013, Ann was led into the auditorium to witness the honour. “A guy in uniform said, ‘What does your husband do?’” he recalls. “She said, ‘He makes Henry vacuum cleaners.’ He nearly shit himself! He said: ‘When I get home and tell my wife I’ve met Mr Henry, she is going to be so livid she wasn’t here.’ And it’s stupid, but those sorts of stories are worth their weight in gold. We don’t need a publicity machine because it’s self-generating. Every Henry goes out there with a face on it.”

***

I will at this stage admit to a slight Henry obsession. I didn’t think about my girlfriend Jess’s Henry a great deal when I moved in with her 10 years ago, or when he moved with us to a new home after our marriage. It was only after the arrival of our son in 2017 that he began to occupy a bigger place in our family.

Jake, who is nearly four, was one when he first met Henry. It was early one morning, before dawn, and Henry had been left out of the cupboard the night before. Jake wore a striped babygrow and, placing his milk bottle on the wooden floor, crouched to inspect a curious object that was as big as he was. It was the start of a great romance. Jake insisted that Henry be liberated from his dark cupboard; for months, he was the first thing Jake went to in the morning, and the last thing he thought of at night. “I love you,” Jess said above his cot one evening before lights out. “I love Henry,” came the reply.

When Jake discovered my mum had an upstairs Henry and a downstairs Henry, to save on lifting, he was beside himself. For days, the imaginary stories he demands after his book at bedtime were about Granny’s Henrys. They would call out to each other at night, meeting for domestic adventures. In an effort to return Henry to the cupboard, I bought Jake a toy Henry. He could now hug little Henry as he fell asleep, his “trunk” entwined in his fingers.

To find a lid, I took the oil drum round all the shops – then I ordered 5,000 black washing-up bowls

The affair peaked with the onset of the pandemic. In the first lockdown, big Henry became the closest thing Jake had to a friend of his own size. When he accidentally bumped into the vacuum with his mini pushchair, he reached into his toy doctor’s kit for his wooden stethoscope. He began to watch Henry content on YouTube, including earnest reviews by vacuum influencers. His infatuation is not surprising; Henry looks like a giant toy. But the strength of the bond, which rivals only Jake’s love of his stuffed dog, Doggy, got me wondering about Henry’s backstory. I realised I knew nothing about him. I began firing off emails to Numatic, a company I had not even known was British.

***

Back in Somerset, Henry’s creator fills me in on his origin story. Duncan, who was born in 1939, spent much of his childhood in Vienna, where his father had been posted after the war to help build a police force. He moved back to Somerset at 16, got some O-levels and joined the merchant navy. A naval friend then got him a job at Powrmatic, a company in east London that made oil-fired heaters. Duncan, a natural salesman, ended up running the business until he left to launch Numatic in 1969. He had spotted a gap in the market for a sturdy, reliable cleaner to suck soot and muck out of coal- and gas-fired boilers.

The vacuum industry had been growing since the early 1900s, when British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth designed a horse-drawn machine whose long hoses would wind through the doors and windows of posh houses. In a 1906 advert, a hose is coiled on a thick carpet like a benevolent snake, imaginary eyes attached to its steel mouth gazing up at a housemaid. “Friends” is the slogan.

Meanwhile in Ohio, an asthmatic department store cleaner called James Murray Spangler created a handheld vacuum using a fan motor in 1908. When he made one for his cousin Susan, her husband, a leather goods manufacturer named William Hoover, decided to buy the patent. The Hoover was the first successful domestic vacuum cleaner and – in the UK – a trademark that became synonymous with a product category (“hoover” is now in the dictionary as a verb). But it wasn’t until the 50s that the cleaners sucked their way into the homes of the masses. Dyson, a privately educated art student, began developing his first bagless cleaner in the late 70s, eventually shaking up the industry.

Duncan had no interest in the consumer market, nor did he have the money to make parts. He started with a small oil drum. In need of a lid in which to house the motor, he wondered if an upturned washing-up bowl might do the trick. “I took the drum round all the shops until I found a bowl that fitted,” he recalls. “Then I called the company to order 5,000 black washing-up bowls. They said, ‘No, no, you can’t have it in black – that will show the tidemark, it will look terrible.’ I told them I didn’t want them for washing up.” This Henry ancestor now collects dust in a corridor that serves as Numatic’s museum. The oil drum is red, and the black bowl is clamped on top. It has furniture castors for wheels. “The thread on the front today, where you put your hose, is still a two-inch oil drum thread,” Duncan says.

You forgive its foibles because it’s doing a useful job. It's almost like walking a dog

By the mid-70s, after Numatic had found some success, Duncan was on a British stand at a Lisbon trade show. “It was as boring as sin,” he recalls. One evening, Duncan and one of his salesmen idly began to dress up their latest vacuum cleaner, first with a bit of ribbon, then with a union flag badge on what started to look a bit like a hat. They found some chalk and drew a crude smile under the hose outlet, which suddenly looked like a nose, then some eyes. Searching for a nickname that felt suitably British, they settled on Henry. “We put it over in the corner with all the other equipment and the next day people were laughing and pointing,” Duncan says. Back at Numatic, which then had a few dozen employees, Duncan asked his advertising guy to design a proper face for the cleaner. “Henry” remained an in-house nickname; the product still had Numatic printed above its eyes.

At the next trade show, in Bahrain, nurses from the nearby Aramco oil company hospital asked to buy one for the children’s ward, to encourage recovering children to help with the cleaning (a strategy I may attempt at home at some point). “We were getting all these little reports and we thought, there’s something in this,” Duncan says. He increased production and, in 1981, Numatic added the Henry name to the black lid, which had begun to resemble a bowler hat. Duncan was still focused on the commercial market, but Henry was taking off; they heard that office cleaners were talking to Henry as a way to break up the grind of night shifts. “They took him to heart,” Duncan says.

Soon, big retailers started contacting Numatic: customers had seen Henry in schools and on building sites, and his reputation as a hardy friend of the trades had created a word-of-mouth cachet. Some also smelled a deal (Henry today costs a good £100 less than the cheapest Dyson). Henry hit the high street in 1985. Despite attempts by Numatic to discourage use of the word “hoover”, which is banned at company HQ, Henry quickly informally became known by the public as “Henry hoover”, marrying the brands in an alliterative union. Sales are growing at a rate of roughly a million each year, and now include Hettys and Georges, among other siblings, in a range of colours. “We turned an inanimate object into an animate object,” Duncan says.

Andrew Stephen, a professor of marketing from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, is initially stumped when I ask him to assess Henry’s popular appeal. “I think there’s something about the product and branding that draws people to it rather than them getting caught up in what is normal, which is using price as a proxy signal for quality,” Stephen says.

“Timing might be part of it,” says Luke Harmer, an industrial designer and lecturer at Loughborough University. Henry arrived a few years after the first Star Wars film, with its hapless robots, including R2-D2. “I wonder if there was a connection to this product that provides a service and is slightly robotic and you forgive its foibles because it’s doing a useful job.” When Henry topples over, it’s hard to get cross with him. “It’s almost like walking a dog,” Harmer says.

Topples are not the only frustration for Henry owners. He gets caught on corners and has occasionally fallen down the stairs. Cramming his ungainly hose and wand into an overstuffed cupboard can feel like wrestling a snake into a bag. There are also average reviews for performance among the generally positive ones (though he gets the job done in my house).

Jake, meanwhile, is far from alone in his infatuation, presenting Numatic with passive marketing opportunities that suit its modesty – and save millions in advertising. In 2018, a Cardiff University student was forced by the council to cancel a Henry picnic when 37,000 people signed up to attend with their vacuum cleaners. Henry’s appeal has gone global; Numatic increasingly exports its products. Duncan passes me a copy of “Henry in London”, a professionally produced photo book in which Henry tours famous sites. Three young Japanese women flew from Tokyo with a Henry to take the shots.

In 2019, Erik Matich, a five-year-old fan from Illinois who was being treated for leukaemia, flew 4,000 miles to Somerset with the Make-A-Wish charity. It had been his dream to see Henry’s home [Erik is now doing well and is due to complete his treatment this year]. Duncan says dozens of children with autism have made the same trip. “They seem to relate to Henry because he never tells them what to do,” he says. He has tried to work with autism charities, and recently found an illustrator to help create Henry & Hetty books that the charities could sell (they are not for general sale). In Henry & Hetty’s Dragon Adventure, the dust-busting duo are cleaning a zoo when they discover a dragon enclosure. They fly with a dragon to a castle where a wizard has lost his crystal ball – until some more vacuuming uncovers it. It wouldn’t win awards, but when I read the book to Jake that evening, he is rapt.

Henry’s appeal to children has also brought challenges, as I discover during a factory tour with Paul Stevenson, 55, a production manager who has worked at Numatic for more than 30 years. Paul’s wife, Suzanne, and their two grownup children also work at Numatic, which still makes other commercial products, including cleaning trolleys and rotary floor scrubbers. The factory has chugged along despite the pandemic and Brexit-related delays to parts; Duncan, who quietly backed Brexit, is prepared to ride out what he sees as teething problems.

In a series of giant sheds, rich with the smell of hot plastic, 800 workers in hi-vis jackets feed plastic pellets into 47 injection moulding machines to create hundreds of parts, including Henry’s red bucket and black hat. A reeling team adds Henry’s coiled power cord. The cord reel sits on top of the “hat”, transferring power to the motor below via two lightly sprung metal prongs that spin against a greased receptor ring. The motor powers a fan in reverse, drawing air up through the hose and red bucket, to which another team adds a filter and dust bag. In the metal section, steel tubes are fed into a pneumatic bender to create the signature kink in Henry’s wand. It’s quite mesmeric.

Humans far outnumber robots, one of which is employed every 30 seconds to lift an assembled Henry into a box for dispatch. “We do a different job every hour,” says Stevenson, who started out making Henry in around 1990. The Henry line is the busiest in the factory. Elsewhere I meet Paul King, 69, who is about to retire after 50 years at Numatic. Today he’s making attachments for a ride-on floor scrubber. “I worked on Henry years ago but they’re too fast for me on that line these days,” he says after turning down his radio.

Henry’s face used to be printed straight on to the red bucket. But health and safety laws in some international markets forced a change. Despite there being no recorded incidents in 40 years, the face was deemed a danger because it might encourage children to play with a household appliance. New Henrys now have a separate faceplate. In the UK, it is snapped on in the factory. In more fearful markets, consumers may attach it themselves, “at their own risk”.

***

Regulations are not the only headache. As I continued to feed Jake’s Henry habit via the internet, a less wholesome side of his dust cult emerged. There are flame-throwing Henrys, fighting Henrys, X-rated fan fiction and a music video in which a man takes in an abandoned Henry only for it to strangle him while he sleeps. Some take things further. In 2008, one fan was sacked from his job as a builder after being caught in flagrante with a Henry in a works canteen. He claimed that he had been vacuuming his underpants.

“The Russell Howard video is the one that won’t go away,” says Andrew Ernill, Numatic’s head of marketing. He’s referring to a 2010 episode of Russell Howard’s Good News. After riffing on a story about a policeman who had been arrested for stealing a Henry during a drugs bust, the comedian cuts to a video in which Henry snorts a huge line of “cocaine” from a coffee table.

Ernill is keener to talk about Henry’s future, as is Duncan. This year he added Emma McDonagh, Numatic’s first chief technical officer, to the board, as part of wider plans to prepare the company “in case I get hit by a truck”. A veteran poached from IBM, she will help the company grow, and make more Henrys, more sustainably. There are also plans for more automation, and increased local employment. Henry and his siblings now come in various sizes and colours; there is even a cordless model.

Related: Cleaning up: the social media stars making housework cool

Yet Duncan is determined that his vacuum stay true to its roots: it remains a remarkably simple machine. Duncan beams with pride as he tells me almost all of the 75 parts that make up the latest model could be used to repair “Number one”, as he calls the 1981 original; Henrys are made to last – and to be easily repaired – in the landfill age of rapid obsolescence. When my own Henry’s hose popped off his nose a couple of years ago, I trimmed an inch off it and screwed it back in place with a bit of glue.

In the end, Downing Street Henry was surplus to requirements. A month after his cameo, No 10 binned the idea of daily press conferences: the briefing room has been used mainly for the prime minister’s pandemic announcements. Henry has not been seen again. Was his unscheduled appearance to blame for the communications U-turn? “Henry’s work behind the scenes has been greatly appreciated,” is all a government spokesperson will say.

My own Henry spends more time under the stairs these days, but his bond with Jake remains strong. Jake can talk for England now, if not always coherently. When I attempt to interview him, it’s clear he sees nothing unusual in loving a vacuum cleaner. “I love Henry hoover and Hetty hoover because they’re both hoovers,” he tells me. “Because you can hoover with them.

“I just love hoovers,” he goes on, getting a little exasperated. “But, Daddy, I only like hoovers with a name.”

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