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At Grenson’s Shoe Factory

October 19, 2011
by the gentle author

Starting in 1866, a shoe factor by the name of William Green came regularly from Northamptonshire up to the City of London to get orders and then take them back to Rushden where, in 1874, he opened his first factory as William Green & Son, founding the company we know today as Grenson.

Now that Grenson have opened two shops in Spitalfields, I set out to follow William Green’s footsteps back to where it all started. In his time – and until quite recently – Northamptonshire was renowned as the centre of the British shoe industry. Yet although those days are gone, the red brick Grenson factory, turreted at one end, still stands majestic among the little terraced streets at the heart of Rushden, just as it did when William Green opened it in 1895.

The appealingly named Roger Tuffnail, pattern cutter, was my guide -“My grandparents were blacksmiths,” he explained by way of introducing himself,“and I always understood the surname originated from that.” I could not help admiring Roger’s venerable brogues, cut from his own patterns. “Because I work in a shoe factory, I do not polish my shoes,” he confessed with a blush and a shy smile in response to my compliment. In fact, Roger is a key employee at the Grenson factory where he has worked since 1981.“I cut the patterns that make the uppers of the shoe, creating the style from a drawing,” he explained.

“I just naturally do it,” Roger added –  just in case I should get an inkling how skillful he is – opening an old ledger full of drawings of shoes as he cast his mind back, “I was seventeen when I joined the shoe trade – in the clicking department.” Minutes later, we stood in the clicking department where foreman Robert Taylor – who knows a trick or two with a knife – revealed that this name derives from the sound the blade makes when you pull it out from thick leather, once you have finished cutting round the patterns.

Here at the centre of the old factory, intoxicated by the smell of new leather, I took a moment to appreciate this extraordinary industrial structure, designed to admit Northern light from rows of windows in the roof, creating an interior space almost ecclesiastical in its luminosity. Ancient photographs, ledgers, racks for time cards and most importantly old machines – well-maintained and working as well as ever – attest to more than century of shoemaking within these walls.

Nearby, a bevy of local ladies manned sewing machines and other cunning devices, joining pieces of the uppers together and punching those wonderful patterns that characterise the brogues which are a speciality here. This is known as the closing department. On the floor below, these uppers are moulded around the last and attached to the sole using the famous Goodyear Welting process. Sewing a strip of leather around the upper to join it to the sole makes it more waterproof and permits the option of removing the entire sole in years to come which means the shoe can be refurbished almost endlessly. This takes place in the lasting and making department. Once the heel is attached, the “making” of the shoe is complete and then after careful finishing, trimming, stamping, waxing and buffing, it arrives in the boot room where Sharon Morris fits the laces and Mavis Glen gives it a good polish. The whole process has taken three weeks to make as beautiful a pair of shoes as you could wish, in the traditional manner.

Yet this magnificent factory is not, as you might assume, some arcane endeavour quietly fading into obsolescence, like so many of the other Northamptonshire shoe factories that have gone forever. Instead, Grenson is enjoying a renaissance. Breaking his customary reserve, Roger turned positively declamatory to assure me “The future is very good for us.”

Today, he works very closely with new proprietor Tim Little to create shoes he describes as “traditional footwear with a little bit of a twist – a livelier look,” and the result has been that Grenson shoes have become popular with a whole new generation of younger customers, alongside those who have always bought their classic English styles.

“We were the first to bring out platform shoes for men in the seventies,” Roger reminded me, just in case I had assumed he was complete fogey. In fact, the current evolution of Grenson has been achieved through more subtle means, retaining the integrity of Roger’s classic shoe patterns while introducing different colours and soles to make them contemporary.

From his modest office on the top floor, Tim Little is evangelical to uphold the Grenson tradition and make it relevant in the twenty-first century. “There’d be no point, if I didn’t love English shoes and the way they have evolved,” he confided to me, committed to keep William Green’s business alive in Rushden, and to be selling shoes in London where his predecessor took orders a hundred and fifty years ago.

Rachel Brice has been here ten years and Jane Norman thirty-two years.

Lainie Alcock has been here fourteen years.

Robert Taylor, Clicking Room Foreman, has worked at Grenson since 1969.

Peter Neagle in the lasting room.

Dave Alcock ( Lainey’s husband) has worked here thirteen years.

Sharon Morris and Mavis Glen in the boot room.

Roger Tuffnail, pattern cutter

Roger shows an old Grenson pattern book.

Archive photographs copyright © Grenson

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Chiswick Flo permalink
    October 19, 2011

    My gt-gt grandfather was a boot laster… from Northampton. Took me an age to find out what a “last” actually was! Thanks for another interesting article.

  2. Chris Dyson permalink*
    October 19, 2011

    fascinating i have a pair i have worn for severla years and they just get better with age and thye feel beautiful to where thank you long may the company proper and all who sail in her!

  3. Marci permalink
    October 19, 2011

    Thank the Lord for people who produce real things.

  4. October 23, 2011

    Thanks for sharing these great photos from the Grenson factory, superb content as always.

  5. Anthony Vrsalovich permalink
    October 19, 2012

    Simply the finest quality shoe on the market today.

    My first purchase was love at first sight so I brought four pair – I still have three that I wear on a regular basis – a few years ago I bought a further four – The craftmanship that goes into the product is second to none. The original four! They all still ooze quality. When they are due for new sole and heels – my cobbler – and I do mean that in the term of a “craftsman” gives the product the respect and attention befitting the shoe.

    I dress well, and I can tell you that I have more compliments directed at my Grensons than I do my suits.

    A Grenson “Lifer”

  6. Den lancs permalink
    March 10, 2013

    Great article. It’s companies like grenson that remind e this fine country of ours can still be at the forefront of quality and design. I’ve had grensons since I was a kid. My Italian parents insisted on the finest English brogues for school, even in there’s whenever one else was wearing bay city roller platform boots!!

    They’ve been with me ever since and my sons also wear grensons. There’s something about the way they make you feel not only when you wear them, but also when you take them out the box when new!

    All the best to the fine workforce at grensons, you do the country proud

  7. ROD WARNER permalink
    November 17, 2013

    GREAT PICTURES

  8. aline johnson permalink
    December 3, 2016

    Could you recommend retail sale outlets for Grenson Ladies shoes please?

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