English Shoe-Making History
Joseph Cheaney Factory Assembly Room
Arguably, England’s reputed shoe-making craft established itself in the 13th Century thanks to London’s regulated guild system. This allowed for the regulation and control of the industry at a very early stage in its development.
For instance, it distinguished between the professions of a cobbler and a cordwainer. While the former was a professional shoe repairer, the latter was a craftsman who worked with new leather to make shoes.
Foster & Son Workbench
Interestingly, the term “cordwainer” stems from the Spanish city of Córdoba. The word made its way to England via the Normans and was used to describe people who worked with cordovan leather. However, it soon evolved to describe a high-quality shoemaker.
Additionally, cordwain originally referred to a white goatskin as opposed to horse leather today.
The shoemaker’s guild, the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, received the right to regulate City of London trade in 1272. However, it wasn’t granted a royal charter of incorporation until 1439.
As guilds had the authority to enforce certain professional standards, cobblers were forbidden from working in new leather. Therefore, the shoe-making craft became highly specialised and was reserved for cordwainers.
Northamptonshire & The Shoe-making Boom
Trickers Factory Finishing Shoes
Northamptonshire’s reputed shoe-making heritage started with humble origins as a cottage industry in the Nene Valley.
This quiet county in central England proved to be an ideal location for the industry to flourish. While the River Nene ensured an abundance of fresh water for tanning, oak bark was easy to acquire locally.
Loake Shoemaker Choosing Leather
Furthermore, the country’s geographical location made it the perfect trading hub. As a result, it proved ideal for dispatching the shoes while local cattle markets provided high-quality leather.
By the 1500s, the English had perfected the hand welting technique for constructing shoes and were revered by their foreign neighbours.
However, it was during the industrial revolution that the shoe-making business really blossomed in Northamptonshire and the rest of the United Kingdom.
While the county still prides itself for its hand or bench-crafted shoes today, the introduction of mechanisation gave it the opportunity to grow.
In 1864, the USA had perfected the McKay Blake stitch and Charles Goodyear Jr’s welting machine was introduced five years later. These devices quickly made their way across the Atlantic and greatly benefited the English shoe-making industry.
English Shoe-making In The 20th Century
Joseph Cheaney Factory Closing Room
The industry prospered and peaked just before the First World War. During this period, half of Northampton’s population was employed by either the shoe or leather industries.
Meanwhile, London’s own cordwainer scene blossomed with a plethora of shoe and bootmakers littered throughout the city. In fact, Bespoke Unit founder Paul Anthony’s grandfather was also a bootmaker and owned his own shop.
In both World Wars, many of the large-scale shoemakers were tasked with manufacturing boots for the Allied armed forces.
For instance, Grenson, Barker, and Loake listed above were all enlisted to provide towards the war efforts.
During the Second World War, the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers’ livery hall was destroyed in the London Blitz in 1941.
By the mid-20th Century, the industry began to experience its decline. Consequently, some manufacturing processes would be contracted abroad. Even entire brands would move their operations to other countries to save costs.
Unfortunately, some of these shoe-making firms would suffer as the quality of their products decreased. Not only was their reputation at risk but it also put the entire industry in peril.
Today’s English Shoe-Making Industry
Gaziano Girling Craftsman
Despite the industry having historically experienced a decline during the 20th Century, English shoes have experienced a renaissance. In many respects, Northamptonshire has remained the world’s shoemaking focal point against all the odds.
In fact, demand has risen to such an extent that the industry can’t keep up with the demand. As a result, the industry has developed a new apprenticeship scheme to draw people into the profession.
George Cleverley Adelaide Shoes
Today, the industry employs around 4,000 people throughout the United Kingdom and produces six million pairs of shoes a year of which half are exported. As for Northamptonshire itelf, it hosts 22 shoemakers and the number is growing.
According to Chairman Robert Perkins of the Northamptonshire-based British Footwear Association (BFA), “there’s a resurgence going on and we’re optimistic about the future.”
Sadly, the same can’t be said for London’s shoemaking industry. To our knowledge, only three genuine London shoe-making workshops remain today, which are George Cleverley, John Lobb Ltd, and Foster & Son.
Likewise, few guilds in modern London have the authority to exercise regulation and inspection. In the case of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, it has evolved to become largely a charitable body.
Similarly, it offers members networking opportunities thanks to its close relations with the curriers, leathersellers, saddles, and tallow chandlers guilds.
Why Buy English Shoes?
John Lobb Ltd, London
As you will have read above, England enjoys both a rich and prestigious shoe-making heritage. Despite the obstacles it has faced throughout the 20th Century, it has not only survived by thrived.
Consequently, English shoes have garnered a well-deserved reputation for their quality and craftsmanship. As a result, English shoes are often considered as reliable investments to discerning buyers.
While a few heritage brands moved their operations overseas, the companies that preserved their English manufacturing continue to offer some of the best quality footwear in the world.