Desktop Henry Vacuum Cleaner
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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.
All of the 75 parts that make up the latest model could be used to repair ‘Number one’, the 1981 original Henry. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian Humans far outnumber robots at the factory in Chard, Somerset. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The GuardianJake, 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 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. Freshly moulded and printed Henry faces, ready to be attached. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian 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.
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.