The Cobblers of Spitalfields
“When I left school at sixteen, I told the careers officer I didn’t want an office job, I wanted to do something creative, so he set up appointments for me with a shoe repairer and a watch repairer,” Gary Parsons, the proprietor of Shoe Key in the Liverpool St Arcade, told me last week.“The interview with the shoe repairer was on a Friday and I started work on the Monday, so I never went to the other interview,” he explained with the alacrity of one who now describes himself not as a shoe repairer but “the shoe repairer.”
Shoe repairmen have long been my heroes, the last craftsmen on the high street – where you can still walk into a workshop, inhale the intoxicating fragrance of glue and watch them work their magic on your worn out shoes. Even better than new shoes, there is something endearing about old shoes beautifully repaired. And so, in the heartfelt belief that – although it is commonplace – the modest art of shoe repair should not be underestimated, I persuaded Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie to accompany me on a sentimental pilgrimage to pay homage to some of my favourite East End cobblers.
When the crash happened in the City, news crews descended upon Gary at Shoe Key in Liverpool St to learn the true state of affairs from the authority. They wanted to know if city gents were getting more repairs rather than buying new shoes, or if the crisis was so deep that they could not even afford to mend the holes in their soles. Yet Gary dismissed such scaremongering, taking the global banking crisis in his stride. “There was a slump in the winter of 2008, but since July 2009 business has been steady,” he informed me with a phlegmatic understatement that his City clients would appreciate.
Seventeen years ago, Gary built this narrow bar at the entrance to the Liverpool St Arcade where he and his colleague Mike Holding work fifty-four hours a week, mending shoes with all the flamboyant theatrics of cocktail waiters. They felt the blast of the Aldgate bomb here in 2005 and each winter they suffer the snow landing upon their backs, so three weeks ago they hung up a new tarpaulin to afford themselves some shelter from the future whims of fortune.
Round the corner from Shoe Key, I visited Dave Williams, a gentleman with time for everyone, comfortable in his enclosed booth in Liverpool St directly opposite the station. Dave told me he was the third generation in his trade,“My grandfather Henry Alexander and my father Norman were both saddlers and harness makers, my father he’s a Freeman of the City of London now. They were from an Irish immigrant family in Stepney. In those days, if people had trouble with their boots they took them along to the harness maker and gradually the trade in repairs took over. My training was at my father’s knee. I left school at sixteen and I have been doing this twenty-seven years. I think this trade is pretty much recession proof. It’s always been a good trade and I do very well thankyou.” In contrast to Gary at Shoe Key, Dave was full of self-deprecatory humour. Passing bags of shoes over to a couple of girls, “That’s two satisfied customers this year!” he declared to me with a cheeky smirk, the ceaseless repartee of a man who is sole trader and star turn in his own personal shoe repair theatre.
Over in Camomile St, at the base of the tall Heron Tower, Kiri and George, the energetic double act at Michael’s Shoe Care, enjoy the privilege of having a door on their neat little shop, where everything is arranged with exquisite precision. The additional service at Michael’s Shoe Care is the engraving of trophies, cups, plaques and statuettes which – as George explained to me enthusiastically – are in big demand now that corporate life has become increasingly about hitting targets and setting employees in competition against each other. George, who has been here twenty years, leaned across with eyes gleaming in anticipation and confided his hopes to me, “A lot of places closed down round here recently and thousands of people were moved out, but the new build opposite will be complete next year with a lot of new office space to rent. It’s just a question of waiting and more people will come to us.” I glanced up at the gleaming tower above, and thought of all the engraved trophies that are going to be required to reward all the corporate striving upon its forty-seven floors. Yet in spite of the pathos of this bizarre appropriation of sports day trophies, I was happy in the knowledge that Kiri & George will be secure in their jobs for years to come.
Up at Well Heeled in Bethnal Green, Ken Hines – a veteran of forty-seven years of shoe repair – had a different angle which he delighted to outline.“I was going to be a blacksmith but there was no work in it, so I did shoe repair instead. I like doing it, I’ve always enjoyed doing it. My father was a docker and my family were all butchers in Wapping, my brother still has the butchers down the street. When I started here twenty-seven years ago, there were four shoe repairs in Bethnal Green now I am the only one. We don’t want to modernise. We don’t want to go modern, we’re not a heel bar. We’re going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There’s a lot of people bringing vintage shoes and we can take them apart and put them back together again. There’s nothing we can’t do to a pair of shoes here.”
Ken invited me into his workshop, crowded with magnificent well-oiled old machines, prized hand tools and shelves piled with dusty bags of shoes that no-one ever collected.“This stitching machine is over a hundred years old, we use it more than ever.” he said placing a hand affectionately on the trusty device. “Soles should always be stitched on. You buy a pair of shoes and the soles aren’t stitched on, they’re no good.” he declared, pulling huge sheets of leather from a shelf to demonstrate that every sole is cut by hand here. While Ken stands sentinel over the traditions of the trade, training up an apprentice at the old shop in Bethnal Green, his enterprising son Paul has opened four more branches of Well Heeled in shopping centres. But such ambition is of little interest to Ken,“There’s a lot of knowledge you pick up, being around older men,” he informed me, getting lost in tender reminiscence as he lifted his cherished shoe repair hammer,“This was given to me by an old boy thirty five years ago. It was over eighty years old then and I still use it every day.”
Our final destination was Shoe Care at the top of Mare St in Hackney where John Veitch, a magnanimous Scotsman, welcomed us. “I done it since I left school.” he revealed proudly, speaking as he worked, hammering resolutely upon a sole,“I saw one of the boys doing it and I thought,’That’s the thing for me!’ and I’m still happy in it twenty-four years later. It’s the challenge I like, it’s something different every day. Stiletto heels are our bread and butter, the cracks in the pavements have been good for us. And the recession has been helping too, we get a lot more quality shoes in for repair when in the past people would just throw them away.”
At the end of our pilgrimage we had worn out plenty of shoe leather, yet it had been more than worth it to encounter all these celebrated cobblers, and be party to some of the unique insights into human life and society which shoe repair brings. It is a profession that affords opportunity for contemplation as well as the engaged observation of humanity, which may explain why each cobbler I met was both a poet and a showman to a different degree. I admired them all for their independence of spirit and ingenious talent, devoted to the mundane yet essential task of putting us back on our feet when we come unstuck and our soles wear thin.
Opposite Liverpool St Station
David Williams at Liverpool St Shoe Repair, third generation from a family of saddlers.
In the Arcade, Liverpool St Station, with the new tarpaulin fitted ready for the Winter.
Gary at Shoe Key, “Time wounds all heels.”
Mike Harding at Shoe Key.
Michael’s Shoe Care in Camomile St sells trophies given as rewards for hitting corporate targets.
George at Michael’s Shoe Care, Camomile St
Kiri & George are a mean shoe repair team. “It’s total football,“ says Kiri.
At Shoe Care in Hackney, “We got a lot more quality shoes in for repair these days.”
John Veitch of Shoe Care
Ken Hines at Well Heeled in Bethnal Green
Old Charlie’s hammer, “It was eighty years old when he gave it to me thirty five years ago.” said Ken.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie