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East End Cobblers

May 10, 2016
by the gentle author

“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.“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.

Twenty-two 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 every autumn they hang 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.

On the other side of Liverpool St Station, at the foot of the Broadgate Building, 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 as rewards by corporate customers focussed upon hitting targets and setting employees in competition against each other. George, who has been here more than twenty years, leaned across with eyes gleaming in anticipation and confided his hopes to me, “Many places closed down round here recently and thousands of people were moved out, but the new builds will bring a lot of extra office space to rent. It’s just a question of waiting and more people will come to us.” I glanced up at the gleaming monoliths and thought of all the engraved trophies that will be required to reward all the corporate striving within. 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 fifty-two 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

Gary at Shoe Key, “Time wounds all heels.”

Mike Harding at Shoe Key

Michael’s Shoe Care sells trophies given as rewards for hitting corporate targets

George at Michael’s Shoe Care

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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Phyllis permalink
    May 10, 2016

    I *love* getting my shoes repaired. God bless these artisans!

  2. May 10, 2016

    Good to see that there are still people left able to repair shoes and leather etc, they seem to be a rare breed these days. Valerie

  3. May 10, 2016

    What a great piece!

    Lovely looking chaps the lots of them – great photos.

    And Gary’s bonus joke :)

  4. Malcolm permalink
    May 10, 2016

    Interesting story, as always.
    There used to be loads of cobblers in Eat London (excuse the double entendre) who were real craftsmen. There was a very wonderful man who had a tiny shop in Limehouse, on the bend where West India Dock road met West Ferry Road. He was a real master of his trade and made shoes as well as repairing them. My Dad bought a pair of Oxfords from him that lasted decades. Beautiful leather. Sadly, like many artisans and craftsmen, the age of cheap disposable rubbish has seen their demise.
    That’s Shoe Business (groan) in Leather Lane is my repairers of choice. They can repair shoes that others would throw in the bin. There’s nothing these blokes can’t do, and they’re cheaper than the Liverpool Street shoe bar. Also noteworthy is Hoxton Shoe Repairs in Hoxton Street.

  5. Linda Granfield permalink
    May 10, 2016

    Thank you for this article. My great-grandfather was a boot-maker in 19th century Bromley. How I wish I had his shoe hammer. Amazing work these repairers do.

  6. Cham Freedman permalink
    May 10, 2016

    In the 1880′s there was a considerable influx of Jews to the East End from Russia and Poland.
    Many of them were cobblers. My great-grandfather Jacob Freedman from Poland arrived in London about 1882. He was a slipper maker. He lived initially in a basement in the now extinct and unsavoury Dorset Steeet in Spilalfields, there my grandfather was born in 1886. In the late 1880′s the shoe trade was becoming mechanised and many cobblers were out of work.
    So Jacob Freedman left his family in London and went to the USA where he lived in Brooklyn. Once established he sent for his family. But before they were able to join him they received a death certificate in December 1890. He had perished from the after affects of a fire in the Brooklyn tenament. So the family stayed in London where my father John Ronald Freedman was born in 1910. In 1921 the family emigrated to Australia.

  7. Linda permalink
    May 10, 2016

    About 20 years ago I worked in a gallery at Bankside and used to have my shoes mended by a lovely guy who worked from a little unit at the side of a hairdressers along the way; I believe the hair salon was run by his daughter and her husband – it eventually became a Starbucks years after I left. In the 80s I lived at Hornchurch in Essex and some young guys on the High St would do ladies heels for the bargain price of a pound, their shop went like a fair all day!

    It’s nice to see cobblers are still able to earn a living. In my own home town in Scotland I think we are down to about 2 now, and a dry cleaning chain that sends them away for you.

    At the moment I’m lucky enough to live in Switzerland where there seems to be a shoe mender on every second street, so people here obviously still value a something decent on their feet :)

  8. May 10, 2016

    Thank you for capturing this trade with such insight & affection. Great pictures Sarah.

  9. Linda Brownlee permalink
    May 10, 2016

    Oh you can smell the glue just looking at the photos! I always get a cheery bit of banter from all the shoe repair guys I’ve ever come across – and agree one hundred percent it’s so reassuring to know you’re getting another winter out of your favourite boots – the ones that know the shape of your feet and fit nice and snug around your aching feet! We had a great wee shoe repair hut near the station in Bishopbriggs Glasgow with paper bags of repaired shoes waiting for collection stacked up on the counter.
    I can remember my Mum’s friend telling her what a shock it was to discover that the Umbrella repair man couldn’t repair her collapsible umbrellas it was meant to be disposable!! What was the world coming to!

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