The Great English Shoe
The world, it seems, can’t get enough of our English shoes. These traditionally-made, solid-looking footwear styles have been in fashion for the last few years, and they show no sign of falling out of favour any time soon.
Built to last a lifetime, English shoes are designed to be repaired over and over again, and perfectly complement the more refined, tailoring based form of dress that today’s style-conscious gent favours.
To fulfil this worldwide demand, companies such as Church’s and John Lobb are expanding their manufacturing bases in the traditional home of British shoemaking, Northamptonshire. UK Plc is seeing a renaissance in home-grown manufacturing, which can only be a good thing.
Church’s recently announced they were starting work on expanding their St James factory. The two new plots of land will allow the 110,000 square foot factory to add a 130,000 square foot extension, doubling the manufacturing plant, meaning that it will increase its capacity from 250,000 to 300,000 pairs of shoes per year. Church’s already employs 650 people, with another 150 new jobs set to become available after this expansion.
Northamptonshire: The Home Of Shoemaking
The English town of Northampton was once the shoemaking capital of Europe, with 2,000 individual bootmakers working there towards the end of the nineteenth century. The town’s central position and proximity to the eleven rivers running through the county made Northampton an obvious place for cobblers to set up business.
Northampton cricket ground surrounded by houses and shoe-making factories in 1926
Andrew Loake, Managing Director of Loake, says: “There was a leather industry in Northamptonshire long before there was a shoe trade here. Our understanding is that there were plentiful oak forests in the county and oak bark was used for tanning leather. So it was a natural progression for the shoe trade to develop in the same area.”
The subsequent availability of leather and Northampton’s strategic importance led to it becoming a centre of military bootmaking, with demand soaring due to the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
This demand has thankfully returned. Stephen Johnson, Site Director of John Lobb, says: “We established our factory in Oliver Street, Northampton in 1993, but demand has increased dramatically to the point that we are now producing over 30,000 pairs a year – and that means we have had to expand the premises.”
The expansion means John Lobb can take on further staff, which will bring the total workers employed in their Northampton factory to over 100. Production will expand steadily to around 40,000 pairs a year.
A Sign Of Quality: Goodyear Welted Construction
The most famous Northampton technique is the ‘Goodyear welted’ shoe. Invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear, Jr., the Goodyear welted process is the footwear equivalent of the off-side rule: until somebody sits you down and talks you through it, it’s quite hard to understand.
The process involves approximately 75 components and 200 separate operations. On average, the whole process, from start to finish, takes eight weeks to complete. The main benefit of footwear that is made using Goodyear welted construction is that it can be resoled repeatedly, giving the shoe a longer lifespan.
Essentially, the upper part of the shoe is shaped over the last and fastened on by sewing a leather, linen or synthetic strip – known as the ‘welt’ – to the inner and upper sole. The welt forms a cavity which is then filled with a cork material.
The sole is then attached to the welt of the shoe by some combination of stitching along the edge of the welt and sole itself, and a high strength adhesive like contact cement or hide glue.
“Goodyear welted shoes offer a near perfect balance of weather-resistance, durability, breathability and comfort. And of course, when it’s time to repair/resole them, they can easily be dismantled and rebuilt,” says Andrew Loake.
Yet while England may be famous for the Goodyear welted shoe, he adds that there are other construction processes to look out for:
“There are many other constructions, all with different benefits, for example: moccasins can be very light and flexible, but are not so durable or as well-suited to bad weather. Cemented-soled shoes can look very sleek, but will not feel so sturdy when walking on rough ground, will be less water-resistant and harder to repair.
Blake-stitches shoes have the soles stitched directly to the insoles. This means that, as the shoes are flexed, they can start to leak through the stitch holes. In our opinion, welted shoes provide a kind of ‘best of all worlds’ solution.”
British Shoemakers You Should Know
Taught the art of making boots by his mother, Grenson founder William Green produced his first boots at home as a cottage industry up until 1866, when he became a ‘factor’. This essentially meant William went out to get the orders, find the materials and employ craftsmen to fulfil the demand.
The obvious next step for him was to formalise this arrangement and set up a company, which became known as William Green & Son. The original ‘Greens Yard’ factory was the first in the world to use the Goodyear welt construction method for manufacturing gentlemen’s shoes.
‘Green & Son’ soon became Grenson and the current factory, on Queen Street, Rushden, was established in 1895. The company is now owned by shoe designer Tim Little.
Manufacturing: All Grenson shoes are Goodyear welted. From start to finish, they take around three weeks.
Repair Service: The cost of a full refurbishment is £95 in the UK. All repairs take roughly ten to twelve weeks from receipt. They can only be refurbished a maximum of three times.
Famous For: Triple welt textured brogues such as their ‘Archie’ style.
- Grenson Archie Wedged Derby Shoes
- Grenson Archie Classic Leather Brogues
- Grenson Sid Derby Shoes
- Grenson Fred Textured-leather Brogue Boots
- Grenson G-lab Leather Derby Shoes
- Grenson G-lab Suede-trimmed Leather Penny Loafers
- Grenson Sharp Brogue Boots
- Grenson Declan Chelsea Boots
- Grenson Tom Oxford Brogues
Barker has been making shoes in the Northamptonshire village of Earls Barton since 1880. Arthur Barker was a skilled craftsman and natural innovator, whose waterproof peg-sole boots were highly sought after – the pegs would swell when wet and make the sole waterproof.
Unable to satisfy increasing demands, he employed other craftsmen in surrounding villages to fulfil his growing order book. Barker invested in factory premises at the turn of the century, later securing contracts to supply the British army with boots during the First World War.
Manufacturing: In 1986 Barker built a new factory and offices using Northamptonshire local brick and stone. It is one of the finest footwear factories in Europe and occupies a 4.5 acre landscaped site at the centre of the village of Earls Barton.
Good natural light is a prime requirement for leather grading, colour matching and consistently good stitching, so the environment was arranged to provide this, producing 200,000 pairs of hand lasted sewn shoes last year.
Repair Service: The cost to repair stitched welted shoes is £95, this includes the return postage. The cost to repair cemented shoes is £90, which also includes return postage costs. Time for repairs is generally six weeks.
Famous For: Classic finely stitched black ‘Arnold’ Oxford lace-ups.
- Barker Arnold Goodyear Welt Leather Oxford Shoes
- Barker Perth Goodyear Welt Brogue Shoes Black
- Barker Holborn Leather Brogue Oxford Shoes Cherry Calf
- Barker Pimlico Leather Brogue Oxford Shoes Cedar
- Barker Grant Calf Leather Brogue Shoes Cedar
- Barker Newbury Leather Derby Shoes Black
- Barker Perth Brogues
- Barker Pitlochry Lace-ups
- Barker Ramsden Loafers
Still run by the Loake family, Andrew Loake’s great-grandfather, John, opened the first Loake factory with his brothers, Thomas and William, back in 1880. The premium grade Goodyear welted shoes continue to be made in Kettering, England, in the same factory that the three brothers built in 1894.
Manufacturing: Famous for their Goodyear welted shoes, they also offer moccasins, cemented-soled and blake-stitched shoes. Each pair takes around eight weeks to make. Loake estimates they have made over fifty million pairs of Goodyear welted shoes since the company began.
Repair Service: Loake charge £65 per pair, inclusive of return postage within the UK. This covers re-soling on the original last with new soles and heels, fitting new seat socks and re-finishing the upper part of the shoes. The repaired shoes are returned within twenty-one working days of receiving payment.
Famous For: The suede ‘Kempton’ chukka-style boots.
- Loake fearnley Wingtip Brogue Oxford Shoes
- Loake 204 Buckle Trim Leather Monk Shoe
- Loake 205b Plain Toe 5 Eye Lace Gibson Shoe
- Loake Brown Leather Chelsea Boots
- Loake Navy Suede Punched Hole Ankle Boots
- Loake Brown Suede Laced Boots
- Loake Tan Leather Double Buckle Shoes
- Loake Navy Suede Moccasins
- Loake Olive Suede Brogues
Born in 1829 in Cornwall, John Lobb made his way to London as a young man and an apprentice bootmaker. Following a successful period in Australia making boots for the miners of the gold rush, he returned to London to set up his first shop on Regent Street in 1866.
In 1902 the company opened its first store in Paris, which echoed its London success and attracted a broad array of international clients. In 1976, John Lobb was acquired by the French Hermès Group. However, the London bespoke workshop, John Lobb Ltd, remained in the hands of the family, and continues to operate independently from its premises at 9 St James’s Street.
John Lobb’s bespoke shoes are made in Paris. Not to be confused!
Manufacturing: The ready-to-wear collection, made in the Oliver Street factory, Northampton, will soon be producing 40,000 pairs of shoes a year using its 190-step manufacturing process.
Repair Service: Repairs for ‘Prestige’ styles are £240 and ‘Classics’ are £195. It takes twelve weeks for a full resole. Re-heeling is £35.
Famous For: The ‘William’ double monk-straps.
- John Lobb Lopez Leather Penny Loafers
- John Lobb William Leather Monk-strap Shoes
- John Lobb Chesland Suede Chelsea Boots
- John Lobb City Ii Oxford Shoe
- John Lobb Ashill Leather Monk Shoe
- John Lobb Truro Tasselled Loafers
- John Lobb Lopez Leather Penny Loafers
- John Lobb City Ii Leather Oxford Shoes
- John Lobb Livonia Leather Boat Shoes
Thomas Church opened a small factory with his sons and his wife Eliza in Northampton, on 1st May 1873. By the early 1880s the business was expanding so rapidly that William Church had to travel the country to keep up with new orders.
As his hero product, William developed his ‘Adaptable’ shoe, which was in stark contrast to the existing ‘straight’ shoes and available in six widths in every style and material. This shoe won the Gold Medal at the last Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1881. In 1999, Church’s was sold to luxury Italian company Prada.
Manufacturing: Church’s produce 300,000 shoes a year from their Northampton factory, employing nearly 800 people. Construction is Goodyear welted with a choice of leather or rubber soles.
Repair Service: Refurbishment covers complete long sole and heel replacement, with shoes being pulled over original last, new heel sock and pad, new insole if necessary, re-polished and returned in a new box with new shoe bags.
The repairs are currently taking about six weeks and cost £105 per pair, plus postage.
Famous For: Classic black city shoes and the ‘Shanghai’ – a reissue of a 1929 model found in the Church’s archive. Each pair is made by one worker, who spends around 200 hours and goes through 500 construction-stages.
- Churchs Beijing Chelsea Boots
- Churchs Westbury G Monk Shoes
- Churchs Fulbeck Micro Derby Shoes
- Churchs Elveden Leather Penny Loafers
- Churchs Hong Kong Leather Oxford Shoes
- Churchs New York Leather Brogues
- Churchs Sahara Boots
- Churchs Classic Brogues
- Churchs Shanghai Monk Shoes
Joseph Cheaney founded the company and moved to the present site in 1896. In 1903 Joseph’s sons Arthur and Harold joined the company, changing the name to J.Cheaney & Sons. In 1966 Cheaney won the Queen’s Award to industry and was sold to Church and Company.
The Cheaney of England brand was launched in 1967 and this was the first time since its inception that it had marketed shoes under its own name. In 2009 Jonathan and William Church, from the Church’s shoe family (above), bought the company. Their family has been making high quality shoes for five generations and they are fully committed to producing the finest footwear entirely made in England.
Manufacturing: Cheaney received a patent in 1901 after inventing a ‘novel mode of uniting the uppers and inner soles’. Goodyear welted, Cheaney shoes are still cut out and ‘closed’ in Desborough, Northamptonshire as they have been since 1886.
Repair Service: If you return the shoes to the factory yourself, the cost is £85 (£115 for Imperial collection) inclusive of return carriage within mainland UK. The refurbishment process normally takes approximately six working weeks.
Famous For: Fabric brogues. Cheaney has just produced a new collection with Hackett featuring Fox Brothers’ cloth for AW14.
- Cheaney Lace Up Linford Shoes
- Cheaney & Sons Walton Monk Strap Shoes
- Cheaney & Sons Edinburgh Brogues
- Cheaney Moorgate Monk-straps
- Cheaney Shadwell Lace-up Boots
- Cheaney Lime Lace-ups
- Cheaney Princetown – Lace-ups – Beige
- Cheaney Hubert – Slip-ons – Brown
- Cheaney Princetown – Lace-ups – Blue
Shoe Care Tips
Once you’ve bought your British-made shoes, you’ll want to make sure you look after them properly. Here are a few tips:
- Always use a shoe horn when putting on your shoes. This will keep the backs strong and sturdy.
- Look to wear your shoes in dry conditions on the first few occasions – the fine grit picked up by dry leather soles assists water resistance.
- Where possible, give your shoes at least twenty-four hours between wears.
- Try to avoid excessive wetting. Should this occur always let the shoes dry away from sources of direct heat. Newspaper can be used within the shoes to help draw out moisture.
- Invest in quality shoe trees (look out for cedar wood versions) and use when storing your shoes to ensure that there is no loss of shape.
- Before polishing your shoes always wipe them over with a dry cloth to get rid of any surface dirt.
- Your shoes will benefit from a regular application of quality wax polish. This helps to moisturise the leather, keeping it supple and helping to prevent cracking.
Traditional British shoemakers have hundreds of years of experience and have been perfecting their craft and product over this significant period of time. It’s great to finally see these businesses getting the recognition they deserve as the world begins to increase its appetite for their premium selection of footwear. However, these companies and brands now need to seize this opportunity to build something that will outlast the fickleness of fashion.
It’s also important to remember that while these traditional processes are still very time-consuming and labour-intensive, hence the high price tags, the end product is robust and built to last, making them worthwhile investments. After all, a man is always judged by his shoes.
Why not let us know your favourite English shoemaker in the comments section below and the styles you currently have in your collection…