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Rob Degreef: My Billingham Story



Below is the story of Rob Degreef, former Managing Director of our long-time distributor in the Netherlands - Degreef & Partner. That company has now merged with Transcontinenta and Rob is busy with charity work, so we are very grateful to him spending some time sharing his story to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Read that story below.


Rob Degreef with his old Billingham 335.
Rob Degreef with his Billingham 225, gifted to him in the 1980s by Ros & Martin Billingham.


In 1983, when I was 19 years old, I was still living with my parents. My dad had just started up Degreef & Partner, a distribution company for photographic products.

One day he came home from work and he was raving about a new product line which he was allowed to distribute in The Netherlands. A range of high quality camera bags named Billingham. Getting ridiculed by some retailers about the pricing never stopped him enthusiastically selling the products and step-by-step he continued to build the brand.


Jules Degreef, Martin Billingham, Trevor or David at the Billingham Factory.
Jules Degreef (centre left - Rob's father) and Martin Billingham (centre) at the old Billingham factory.


As a 21-year old, I finished my commercial education and it was time for me to think about what I wanted to do with my life. My (American) English was pretty good and I quite fancied going abroad for 6 months or so. I decided to take the plunge, picked up the phone and phoned Martin Billingham and asked him whether by any chance he had a vacancy, or whether he knew of companies that might have a job, any job, for me. It turns out that there was no vacancy yet, but he was about to start looking for another guy in the warehouse, as the current chap, David Cooper, was caught sleeping on the job once too often. David, by the way, would become a good friend of mine.


Martin Billingham at the Billingham factory.
Martin Billingham at the old Billingham factory. 


To cut a long story short, on Sept 9th 1985 I entered the Billingham factory, at Lye Valley Ind Est, Stourbridge. I introduced myself to some of the ladies working there, but much to my surprise they didn’t speak English, but some sort of alien language. “olroight mate, ow bin ya? Where am yow from cock? We’m aving a loff, ai we?” Welcome to the Black Country !


Brief translation for our customers who don't live in the Black Country (the region of England where Billingham bags are made):
Olroight mate, ow bin ya ? = Hello, how are you?
Where am yow from cock ? = Where are you from?
We’m aving a loff, ai we? = You're having a laugh aren't you?


Rob Degreef as a young man at the Billingham factory.
Some of the ladies that Rob worked with at the Billingham factory.


It didn’t take long before I started speaking with this odd Brummie-Dutch accent. I also fitted in nicely in the team. The ladies on the shop floor were very kind for me and occasionally even invited me to their homes for dinner as they knew I was here on my own. But most of all I remember Ros and Martin looking after me. If I had a bad day, Ros would notice immediately and she would make sure I’d be alright. I remember one night the three of us had dinner at their home, we ended up getting fairly drunk and Martin gave me his copy of Motorhead’s Ace of Spades album. I still have and play that.


Newsletter sent to Billingham retailers.
A newsletter sent to our retailers back when Rob worked here.


Rob Degreef at the seaside.
Rob Degreef (left) with some of the people from the factory at the seaside in Blackpool. 


After a few months working in the warehouse I gradually started to get involved in sales. Martin and business partner Trevor realised that my commercial background and the fact that I spoke several languages (including YamYam) might come in handy at dealer shows and international shows like Photokina. So that’s what happened. Sales in the office and shows at Fishwicks and Jessops, Photography at Work and to top it off, 8 days at Photokina in Cologne. I learned a lot and I also had a lot of fun with my buddy Wayne and those crazy ladies in the factory. Legendary trips to Blackpool and Belgium and several parties, including my leaving do where I ended up so drunk that I showed up several hours late on my last day at work. How embarrassing that was.


Rob Degreef on the Billingham stand at a photo exhibition.
Rob Degreef on the Billingham stand at a photo exhibition.


Rob Degreef's Photography at Work 86 Exhibitor Pass.
Rob Degreef's 'Photography at Work 86' Exhibitor Pass.


I really enjoyed those 18 months at Billinghams and wanted to help grow the business further. However, when I mentioned to Martin that I had ambitions as a full-time sales guy, perhaps as a rep, visiting dealers full-time, Martin hesitated and said “you know, if people want our bags, they’ll give us a call”. I then decided it was time to look for something else in the photographic industry. Martin suggested a sales job in a camera store might be something and that is how I ended up working for Tecno Camera’s in London. In the first year at Tecno, almost 50% of my sales commision was earned by selling Billingham to pretty much everyone that came into the store for a bag! A thank you present from Martin and Ros, a 225 Canvas, is still in my possession today.


Rob Degreef with his Billingham 225.
Rob Degreef posing with the Billingham 225 he received from Ros & Martin Billingham.


Rob Degreef's re-enactment of the classic photo with the Billingham 225.Rob Degreef's re-enactment of the classic photo with the Billingham 225.


After 4.5 years working for Tecno, I realised that my original aim of working in England for 6 months had turned out to be 6 years. It was time for me to move back to Netherlands. Not empty handed though, a beautiful Stourbridge girl named Keeley came along with me. We’ve been together for 35 years now, and without Billingham I would never have met her.


Rob Degreef at an exhibition exhibiting Billingham bags.
Rob Degreef at an exhibition exhibiting Billingham bags.


Anyway, Degreef & Partner was still active and had grown since 1983. So I joined my dad’s business as a rep, doing what I liked best, which is selling Billingham bags.


Rob Degreef on a Billingham stand at an exhibition.
Rob Degreef on a Billingham stand at an exhibition.


Our business has grown substantially over the years, things went so well that about 15 years ago I could afford to have my own dream house built. And as we all know, there’s no such thing as coincidence. During the time our house was being built, me and my family were on holiday on a tiny Dutch island and we visited this really old beachcombers’ museum. On a table outside were some items that washed ashore that specific week. I still don’t know why, but I lifted up an old boot on that table and underneath that boot was a brick, covered in seaweed. And that brick, in the year that we were getting our house built (partially thanks to Billingham sales), that brick was engraved with the word Stourbridge ! we asked the owner of the museum whether we could take the brick home. After telling him the reason why he obviously agreed and that brick is now bricked in a prominent wall of our house.


The Stourbridge brick in Rob's House
Close-up of the Stourbridge brick in Rob's House.


The Stourbridge brick in Rob's House.
The Stourbridge brick in Rob's House.


Since early 2022 Billingham is being represented by Transcontinenta in several European countries. After making sure the brand was as well-represented now as it was by my father and myself in Degreef & Partner, I could leave it there in safe hands. This means that for the first time in 28 years, I am no longer commercially involved in the brand. The wonderful memories will remain though and more importantly the friendships we have built up. Martin and Ros from day one, Harry from a very young age (5 or 6, maybe ? ) Mike, Denise and all the other lovely people, too many to mention.


Rob Degreef with several of his co-workers at the pub.
Rob Degreef with several of his co-workers from Billingham at the pub.


Keeley and I would like to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what you have done for us. We congratulate Martin, Ros and Harry with 50 years of Billingham bags. An amazing achievement. I am proud to have been part of it.

Also on behalf of my father Jules,

All the best,


Rob Degreef today at The Photography Show 2022.
Rob Degreef today at The Photography Show 2022. He is now a board member of the charitable trust '2vande52' which aims to help improve education and hygiene in Haripur, Nepal. He is also general manager for



 The bag featured in this article:

Billingham 225 Camera Bag (Khaki Canvas / Tan Leather)

225 Camera Bag



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