Why has the Billingham Thomas escaped my attention until now? Early last month I received a press release announcing a new burgundy version of the Thomas and it set me thinking. These days we all tend to associate Billingham solely with camera bags. Heaven knows I have enough of them. But what about more general luggage, for instance, a combined messenger bag and briefcase?
This is what the Thomas is all about and I contacted the ever-helpful Jenny Hodge of Billingham who promptly sent me one for review. Burgundy, the subject of the recent announcement, isn’t yet available, but I’m not sure this would be my colour in any case. And I have a stock of Billingham creations in khaki and sage. So I suggested an all-black Thomas — black FibreNyte and black leather. Discretion epitomised, I thought to myself.
The jet-black Thomas arrived shortly afterwards and I’ve been using it as a daily carry for the past month.
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As a briefcase or messenger bag, the Thomas is pretty on target in terms of dimensions. It is 31cm high, 41cm long and 9cm deep (12.25 x 16.25 x 3.5in). However, because it lacks the extravagant padding of a dedicated camera bag, such as the Hadley Pro which is perhaps the nearest in size, it can hold more than you might imagine. The camera bags, because of the extra padded interior cell, are more restrictive in what they can hold.
The main compartment of the Thomas has a padded foam strip covering both ends and the bottom of the bag. The sides also feature a similar level of padding. That is enough to protect a camera or computer when the bag is put down suddenly.
Unlike the camera bags we are used to, Thomas offers more storage opportunities for odds and ends. although none of those really small pockets we often see in briefcases. There is a large zippered inside pocket measuring 21x34cm and two open sleeves on the opposite side. Each measures 19cm high by 16cm wide and will accommodate an iPad Mini or Kindle, plus an A5 notepad.
The main compartment has a standard zip closure which is means that you don’t get the same sort of weather protection that is common on the dedicated camera bags, with their waterproof top cover. This something to bear in mind if carrying electronic or camera equipment.
The outside of the bag is equipped with a full-width unzipped rear pocket (37 x 21mm) with a leather press-stud flap to stop things falling out. I suspect it also prevents opportunist thieves from running their hands inside.
The front of the Thomas has two deep “dump” pockets, which will swallow cables, chargers and suchlike. They are similar to the front pockets on a Hadley Pro but deeper. Each measures 14 x 22cm and is big enough for all your bits and pieces.
The two pockets are protected and closed by a full-width flap which is secured by two of Billingham’s familiar leather straps. Unusually, however, two leather loops are attached to the base of the straps and these are intended for carrying an umbrella. While this feature may appeal, to my mind it rather spoils the clean lines of the bag.
The review bag is constructed in waterproofed FibreNyte material (canvas is also available) which is slightly lighter than the canvas. In addition to the handles and straps, high-grade leather is used to protect the bottom of the bag, extending 7 cm upwards at either end to protect the corners.
All the fittings are solid brass with, in the case of the black bag, a chromed finish. Other models feature the more traditional brass finish.
Overall, the nominal capacity of the Thomas is 6.3 litres and the bag weighs 970g (2.14 lb) without the shoulder strap and 1120g (2.47lb) with the strap attached.
Two comfortable leather handles serve for carrying the Thomas when in briefcase mode. However, the bag comes with a detachable 3.8cm-wide canvas shoulders strap, which can be adjusted between 94cm and 164cm. It is equipped with a padded shoulder protector.
I found the bag very easy and convenient to carry in one hand, briefcase-style, or, when the fancy took me, over the shoulder in messenger guise. It is ideal for carrying to work, although that isn’t high on my priorities. My normal requirement is for a bag to accommodate an 11in iPad Pro, a few bits and bobs and a camera.
This Billingham is a very high-quality product which serves primarily as a briefcase or messenger bag. However, many of us will be interested to know how it accommodates cameras. Surprisingly well, actually. While the ultimate protection of the camera bag “bucket” cell isn’t there, the lack of more substantial side padding means that you have slightly more lateral space and flexibility than with, say, the Hadley Pro and certainly more than with the Hadley Small.
The Thomas isn’t marketed as a camera bag, of course (and is not generally available at camera retailers), but it can swallow most smaller cameras, including Leica’s D-Lux 7 or CL. You can even squeeze in an SL or SL2 with lens extending to 25cm. That includes the 24-90 SL but the 90-280mm would be perhaps an optic too far. It also fits an M10 with probably any modern M lens.
It’s not ideal and, of course, it doesn’t offer the same level of protection os a camera bag, but you can squeeze in a lot without causing much bulge. In fact, you’d be pressed to imagine an SL2 inside what looks just like an ordinary briefcase. It is certainly acceptable for occasional use, although don’t expect to fit a laptop or iPad inside at the same time as a long-lensed camera.
For general use, rather than as a means of transporting cameras, the Thomas is pretty much the ideal briefcase. It will swallow most 15in laptops and is also fully compatible with Apple’s new 16in MacBook Pro.
My one criticism of Billingham products, in general, is that they don’t offer much in the way of small organiser pockets to accommodate sundry items such as pens, notebooks or passports and tickets. Admittedly, Thomas has three additional interior sleeves, but nothing for small items. I’m a bit of a nook-and-crannies sort of person and I like nothing better than dedicated slots for small personal items.
This is perhaps excusable in a camera bag but, given the target audience of the Thomas, I would have liked to see a couple of pen loops and some smaller inner sleeves for sundries.
I would also like to see one or more sewn-in D-rings for secure attachment of important items such as keys and wallets. The front dump pockets are so wide that smaller items could easily fall out if you forget to secure the covering flap.
Overall, the Thomas is an exquisitely crafted companion which, for me, offers a refreshing alternative to carrying around an obvious camera bag. It won’t replace your Hadleys or Ones, but it does work as a daily bag and is capable of swallowing a surprising amount of kit, including the odd camera.
Thomas isn’t cheap sort of chappie at £295 (including VAT) but then no bag of this quality is cheap. You can buy fabric or leather briefcases and messenger bags for a less, but not of this quality.
This one will run and run and wear and wear — as we know well from Billingham’s camera products. It will give you service, and a great deal of pleasure in ownership, for many years to come. As with all Billingham bags, it will wear in gradually and absorb your personality.
The Thomas is available in FibreNyte or Canvas and costs £295, including tax, in the UK. It also benefits from a five-year warranty. This particular model belongs to Billingham’s luggage range and, as such, is not generally available in photographic retailers. It is, however, stocked by the Leica Store in Manchester and is also available at Selfridge’s and Harrods’ department stores.