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Built To Last

Over a pint or two in a Northampton pub, shoemakers from Edward Green to Grenson, and six other brands, bare their soles to MR PORTER

“As the saying goes, for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the king was lost, and for want of a king the kingdom was lost,” says Mr Charlie McKenzie, a loyal employee of Crockett & Jones for 44 years. “I believe in quality. And when my work is done, I want to know no one can improve on it.”

In The Charles Bradlaugh – a pub that was once the site of the Church’s factory – eight shoemakers talk animatedly over pints of local brew. From a bespoke whizz at Tricker’s, to the top man at Grenson, we set out to bring together the best in the business – a cobbler super-group equivalent, shall we say, to Mr George Harrison’s The Traveling Wilburys (but with a lot less hair). The atmosphere is so convivial you’d be forgiven for thinking they were old friends, but most have never met. Indeed, these artisans command very different skills, but a few stark values bond them: pride, dedication, good humour and British Goodyear welts.

Introduced in 1869, this robust construction method is held in almost religious esteem by Northamptonshire shoemakers, and is the foundation for everything they believe in. The Midlands town has been the global centre of quality shoes for centuries – aided by hide-tanning water from the River Nene, thick woodland for sole and last making and easy transport routes to London. But in an area once brimming with factories, numbers have dwindled, and some companies have sought cheaper methods abroad. Only one last-maker (the wooden mould for the shoe) remains.

With Alfred Sargent still run by ancestors of the founders, however, there’s a real sense of preservation among these traditional craftsmen. As their companies move subtly with trends, it’s also an industry that stays relevant, and the footwear highly sought after. Whether more traditional or forward thinking, machine or handmade – there is a mutual respect (but that’s not to say there aren’t production-line politics) as they swap tales of inter-company bowling matches and wax lyrical about each other’s talent.

To understand a bit about the painstaking process of shoemaking, in the heart of a kingdom where tradition and quality continues to make proud strides, we gathered craftsmen that represent each stage of the production process. From a poetry-writing edge trimmer to the most experienced shoemaker in the world – read what they had to say below.

Humble and charming in equal measure, Mr McKenzie came to Northampton from Jamaica in 1969 as a 16 year old and started as a tea boy at Crockett & Jones. He has worked mainly in the finishing department ever since, where the edge trimming process (making sure the sole takes the form of the “upper” part of the shoe) takes place.

Have you ever made shoes for anyone famous?

Celebrity isn’t something I gravitate towards, but Prince Charles came to the factory last January. I wondered whether I should tell him I’d been here 44 years. And I thought: no! Keep your tongue!

That’s very modest…

Well I nearly mentioned – I wrote a poem about the Queen in 1977 to commemorate her 25th Jubilee. Many years later, Prince Charles came to see my boys sing in the local choir. I told them to give him the poem. He must have liked it because he passed it on to the Queen, and I got a lovely letter from her thanking me.

Did you know you were going to do this for so long?

When I first started I remember I told the edge trimmer I was doing it to tide me over until college. He looked over the rim of his glasses and said, “You’ll be here for a lot longer than that my boy!” I just laughed – yet here I am today.

You must enjoy it…

I spoke to my boss Nick Jones this morning and I said “I think if you cut my veins you’ll find a little bit of leather dust there from Crockett & Jones.”

Do you have an interesting story about your shoes?

The young lady I met as a prospective wife many years ago was from the Far East. Her father was not best pleased about me marrying her, so I sent a dowry: a pair of Crockett & Jones shoes. That changed everything. I owe the company the gift of my wife. This is where my bread is buttered. I’m treated with respect, and I don’t have to take the cares of the world on my shoulders.

The youngest cobbler we met, Mr McKee is a jack-of-all-trades and master of bespoke. Confident and quick talking – he’s been at Tricker’s for 17 years (“I’m the top man there”) having previously worked for rival Church’s. His dad got him into the trade, and Mr McKee Jr returned the favour, securing him a job as the company’s caretaker. He travels frequently doing demonstrations at trade fairs, and has even appeared on British television plying his trade.

Is traditional shoemaking important?

Definitely. There used to be something like 167 factories in Northampton and now there are only about five. Tricker’s is trying to keep the old way of making shoes alive. A lot of shoe firms have gone abroad. We stitch – it lasts longer.

What would you have done if you weren’t making shoes?

I wanted to be a stuntman. I never thought I’d be handmaking shoes but I love it. You meet all sorts. I’ve got one customer with no toes on his right foot. I’ve made shoes for Jools Holland. During the process, he wrote us a letter saying he could get a car stripped and rebuilt in less time. Well – you’ve got more people working on a car, and it probably won’t last as long.

Well said. Talk a little more about your role…

I handmake all the bespoke footwear. I make the insole with a knife. I get the upper [the top of the shoe], last it onto the last [the wooden moulding block] then I sew the welt in and build up the heels; the skiving [cutting the leather in the “closing” stage] and the toe puff [the stiffener that lines and maintains the shape of the toe box] – all done by hand. I deal with the public who come to the factory shop to get measured. I’ve turned my home garage into a workshop too. I made myself some black and white spats for a wedding recently.

What makes Tricker’s different?

A lot of places don’t do bespoke like us. People like to see shoes being made the traditional way. Also, we have variety with our range. On jodhpur boots we can put in any elastic you want: pink, tartan, orange.

With 27 years’ experience, Mr Neal is a confident “utility man” – overseeing 34 people on the ground floor in the Cheaney factory. He manages production in lasting (creating the shape of the shoe), making (sewing the welt in, putting the sole on) and finishing (making the shoe more attractive and the edges more water resistant) at the company that was established by Mr Joseph Cheaney in 1866.

What’s a typical day?

Turning up, seeing who’s turned up – if people are off sick I have to balance my room.

What sort of characters do you get in the factory?

There are guys that I call the Tom Cruises – we’ve got one in the making room where the heels are put on. He thinks he’s Brad Pitt – reckons he can pull any woman. The toe lasters tell me to get lost all the time, but they enjoy what they do. The closing room [sewing, stiffening, lining and shaping of a clicker’s leather pieces] is mainly women – we get a bit of banter from them. It’s different departments but it’s like a family. It’s a good atmosphere.

How did you get into it?

My mum worked in the shoe trade for 50 years. It’s in my blood. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I didn’t think shoes were important before I went into the trade, but now I look around and I can see what a welted shoe is and who made it. I’m a bit of a weirdo in that respect.

What sets Cheaney apart?

It’s a family-run business that wants to get better. We all do similar things in Northampton but I believe we’ll be the best. We hand last a lot, but we’re mainly machine. We like to keep up with trends in colour ranges and styles. Once it was just brogues and cap-toe Oxfords but now we do about 40 different styles.

Have you made shoes for anyone you respect?

We’ve done shoes for the England football team, the Lions [rugby team], the actor Vinnie Jones. That makes me feel proud.

In the shoe trade for 37 years, Mr Childs works at Alfred Sargent, established in 1899. He began life as a pattern grader (scaling the original pattern up or down) and now operates in the pattern and design room, overseeing the factory as a “problem solver”, alongside a friend he has known since he was five. “He’s more technical, I’m more old-fashioned. We’re like Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”

Is a traditionally made shoe important?

There’s nothing like a Goodyear-welted shoe, and it’s a shame there aren’t more people in England that appreciate it. It’s in my blood. It’s about the foundation and a good last. Goodyear are more robust than Italian shoes – we use heavier leathers.

Do certain characters gravitate to specific roles in the factory?

Closing is one of the main jobs – that’s often done by ladies who have a lot of skill. It’s overlooked. The guys on the factory floor are a little bit noisier. Years ago you’d have the gentleman clickers [choosing and cutting the leather] because they wore shirts and ties. On the other side you had a room called the rough stuff where all the gluing was done.

Are there any politics?

The lasters, welt sewers and edge trimmers are the key people to a good shoe. The welt sewer might blame the laster, and it goes down the line. It still happens a little bit. Years ago the Northampton factories used to make the dress shoes, and we made the boots, so there’s been that little bit of rivalry.

What changes have you seen in the footwear you offer?

When I started in the 1970s we made the solatio, which was the main style of shoe sold to the northern soul scene. The shoes we make now are much higher quality.

What’s your favourite style of shoe?

There is a pair I’d like to forget – the pair I first got married in. But I like classic Oxfords – and any brogues. It’s the guy I am.

In the trade since 1955 and having mastered everything from clicking to design, Mr Botterill is perhaps the most experienced active shoemaker in the world, currently doing consultancy work for Grenson – an innovative company with traditional roots. “I’ve been through the mill, as it were. I’ve won design awards and I’m proud to be in this role now – it helps to get paid.”

What makes Grenson stand out as a shoe brand?

We do two types of footwear – traditional and an updated younger man’s range. We do things other traditional factories don’t do. It works – we’re very busy.

What’s your role?

I put right things that go wrong – from delivery to production targets. I’ve been working with Tim Little – the boss at Grenson – for 15 years. I also help a lot of students in the local college. Everyone wants to do design, but first you need to understand the wood and leather process like I did. Unfortunately, most young people are looking for clean office jobs these days.

You must have seen a lot of change?

Styles don’t really change, but it’s a matter of tweaking things a little, and we work closely with our customers to bring them something different - MR PORTER for instance. But some of the handwork has gone out of it, with press cutting as opposed to hand cutting for example. The old machines wouldn’t meet health and safety regulations.

How does that balance with preserving tradition?

I’m a traditionalist and I want to make sure we’re maintaining quality. There are things that have been cut out though. People think they can get things made cheaper elsewhere but once you lose that skill you never get it back.

What makes a quality pair of shoes?

You must buy top-grade materials – French calf, German calf, suede. Oak bark tanning on the soles. Goodyear welts. I have some handmade plain brown Derbies. Nicely cut by me, and a friend of mine did the hand lasting in his garden shed.

Holding his latest creation as evidence, Mr Ludlow is a detail-obsessed bespoke shoe expert. With 35 years’ experience, he is now at a company excelling in handmade shoes. “My title sounds grand,” he says, “but in the end I’m a shoemaker. I get to do lasting, welt sewing, stitching and scouring in the finishing room.”

How did you get into this?

I was never good at school. I started down the road at 15 in a little bespoke factory – Woodford Gubbins, which has gone now. I worked there for 10 years making shoes right through the process – which probably doesn’t happen now.

What makes Gaziano & Girling stand out?

We’ve got a lot of people with old craft skills. Other factories have done away with many of them – we call it taking shortcuts. We always try to bring handmade back. I love the craft side of G & G. We only do about 80 to 90 pairs a week, but some of these guys do thousands. We’re more specialist.

What’s the atmosphere like in a factory?

It’s a craft-based industry so there are problems that arise. There’s a lot of pride. A closer will have a lot of passion in their stitching. Let’s say something goes wrong, people will say it was someone else’s fault. You always get squabbles. That’s just the passion coming out.

What do you like most about your job?

The best compliment is when I see shoes that have acquired dents and scuffs, and a customer has applied polish. We get them back to repair and you can see they’re really loved.

Employed by Church’s for 44 years, Mr Ellingham followed two brothers and three sisters into the trade, and started on the factory floor to learn the various shoemaking processes. He now works in quality control to ensure the highest standards of manufacture.

What makes a quality pair of shoes?

A pair of our shoes typically takes eight weeks going through more than 300 different processes. Every pair is checked for quality after every process before leaving the department and moving on to the next operative.

Have you ever seen a famous person wearing shoes you’ve made?

I have been involved in the production of shoes worn by Elton John and James Bond [Mr Daniel Craig]. We have also had a visit from HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Do you have a favourite pair of shoes?

My favourite shoes are brogues. On the day of my wedding I wore a black pair. In 1976 they were as in fashion as they are now.

Why is Northamptonshire the shoe-making capital of the world?

Without going into a history lesson, leather is a by-product and given the close proximity of Northampton to London, cattle were fattened and killed in the county before the meat was taken there. As a result there was a lot of excess leather which helped shoe making. The skills were developed and perfected over centuries and a pool of very high-skilled craftsmen were retained.

How have processes changed since your brand’s inception?

There has been some slight process changes over the centuries, and new machinery, however the manufacturing process is still predominately done by hand. We still value the craftsmanship of each of our workers who take many years to learn and perfect their skills.

Mr Murphy has spent 28 years with Edward Green – a traditional shoemaker established in 1890. He began at 16 bottom filling (filling in the void under the insole), before moving into the lasting room. He now oversees production and solves problems in the factory.

Have you ever found your role monotonous?

Not really – if you do it well and you repeat a job, it can be satisfying and you’re congratulated for it. That’s the culture at Edward Green. Back in the 1980s we did about 30 shoes a day. Because I was good at it I had time left over and could learn other things.

Why work for Edward Green?

We see ourselves at the top of the machine-made market – a cross between workshop and production. We want people with an inbuilt eye for detail, which we foster. Our attention is always on the shoe, however. We handpick people who can carry this on, both technically and aesthetically. I’m proud that I have worked on top-drawer shoes – they’ve had time and attention lavished on them, every detail has been honed.

Has anything changed over time?

It’s evolved. There’s the odd machine from 50 years ago we still use which are extremely well built. But some machines we have now might have replaced 10 of the old ones. There are more than 200 major operations involved now, and at each point there’s a discussion about the quality standard.

Are shoes important?

They’re an important thing for men – they set off everything else. I’m not much of a style guru so I don’t have much opportunity to show mine off. But I’ve got a pair of lace ups that I made and they’re like slippers – so comfortable. People comment on them, which makes me proud. I keep promising to make my dad a pair but haven’t got round to it yet.

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