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At Grenson’s Shoe Factory

July 28, 2022
by the gentle author

“In the flesh, The Gentle Author is an even better storyteller, a magician of social history, who not only brings the past alive but reanimates the present.” Thank you to Patrick Barkham for his wonderful review of my tours in the August issue of The Oldie.

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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.

Since Grenson have a shop in Spitalfields nowadays, 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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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Wendy permalink
    July 28, 2022

    It has been wonderful reading the history of Grenson’s. They certainly do make beautiful shoes – one day I’ll own a pair, or two.

  2. Annie S permalink
    July 28, 2022

    It’s great to see that handmade shoes are still being produced in the UK.
    My paternal grandmother’s family were originally bootmakers in Northamptonshire.

  3. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 28, 2022

    My great-grandfather was a boot-maker in Bromley (then Kent) and I’ve been fascinated by shoe construction ever since learning that. (Shoe-shopping? Not very interested.)
    A flat piece of leather becomes a shapely piece of workmanship and sculpture.
    Pure magic!

  4. Avril Towell permalink
    July 28, 2022

    How nice to see this factory is still thriving. After leaving Shoreditch in 1955 because the smog was slowly killing my grandad, we moved to Northamptonshire when there were shoe factories in every village and town. Many suffered from cheap imported shoes which they couldn’t compete with and so I gradually saw many close forever. Thank you for this good news story.

  5. July 28, 2022

    Great to see such a well established business continuing to thrive.

  6. Ann V permalink
    July 29, 2022

    My great-great-grandfather was a boot and shoemaker in Suffolk. I too would love a pair of handmade shoes. Maybe one day!

  7. Cherub permalink
    July 29, 2022

    I love the last photo of the neon Grenson sign. There’s something futuristic about it.

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