If a company has been making handmade quality shoes in the same British factory since 1896 you would expect to know their name. Yet Cheaney is probably one of the best British companies you have never heard of.
It was in 1896 that Joseph Cheaney founded his shoe company and moved to the small Northamptonshire town of Desborough to set up a new factory. Northampton has a proud history of shoe making stretching back to the 15th century. The tradition of the cordwainers or shoe making in the region is a result of the availability of high quality leather in the area.
The regions shoe makers were major suppliers of boots to the army and by 1841 there were as many as 2,000 shoe makers in the city, many working on individual elements of the manufacturing process in their homes or small out-house workshops called ‘shops’.
In the mid 19th century the move to manufacturing was in full swing with large scale mechanisation. This resulted in the majority of the manufacturing process being moved into factories. Interestingly, some specialist parts of the process, including sewing together hides for some shoes, is still carried out by home workers to this day.
The Cheaney factory in Desborough, Northamptonshire, has been on the same site since 1896. The firm has a proud history of innovation, having patented a new method of attaching the sole to the upper in 1901, and Cheaney has always manufactured all elements of its shoes in the UK. Cheaney emerged again five years ago as a company in its own right from the umbrella of Church & Company when cousins Jonathan and William Church led a management buy-out.
Twice a winner of the Queen’s award for industry, the joint Managing Director William Church, whose family has been making shoes in Northamptonshire for five generations, told me when I visited the factory, that the export market for quality British shoes is flourishing and the company is currently going through a period of steady growth.
Rapid growth isn’t something easy to achieve in a business as complex as hand making shoes. Many of the workers in the factory are third or fourth generation in the business. The factory has seven different sections which are sub-divided into one hundred and sixty different processes which turn the hides of the finest quality calf leather into a pair of shoes which will last tens of years if cherished.
Four years ago the company was producing 1,000 pairs of shoes per week. With an increase of 30 per cent in the workforce, the weekly output has increased to between 1,500 and 1,600 pairs.
Production starts in the cutting room. European leather is used for the uppers because it comes from young beasts and is fine and supple. The patterns for the individual panels of the shoe are still cut out by hand. Highly-skilled workers using razor sharp knives cut around the shapes, which are trimmed with brass. The cutters work quickly with the knives clicking as they cut, giving this stage the traditional name of ticking.
Sole leather still comes from tanneries in the UK, each has its own secret recipe, but the main constituent is British Oak bark. The leather stays in the tanning pits for up to a year to achieve the resilience required for hardwearing soles.
The next stage of the process is closing; highly skilled machinists take the individual panels of the uppers of the shoes and stitch them together with great care.
These ‘skeleton shoes’ are then hung in a large humid room to make the leather supple and workable for the next stage which is called ‘lasting’. The upper is pulled over a foot-shaped last to give the shoe its shape. After a period of days on the last, the welt and sole are attached in the stage called ‘making’ which includes adding a small slither of beech wood at the point the sole and the heel join to maintain the shoe’s flexibility.
The penultimate stage is finishing. In this process the extraneous leather is carefully removed from the sole before the final stage where the sole is ‘branded’. The final polishing and burnishing is applied and the shoes are bagged and boxed ready to be despatched.
Beautiful handmade shoes like this are an investment carefully ‘walked in’ to get the feet and the shoes acclimatised to each other and they will last for many years. William explained to me that it was best to get used to the shoes around the house for a few days and then on short walks outside, initially on a dry day to allow the sole to roughen. Above all, it is essential to avoid soaking the shoes early in their life and particularly in winter avoid salt spread during frosty weather.
William particularly recommends a good pair of shoe trees; the cedar will remove any moisture from shoes after a busy day and help them to maintain their shape.
After years of hard wear the soles of your fine friends may become thin. The factory will completely refurbish your shoes, stripping them back to the uppers and replacing the whole sole using the original last. This process take a few weeks and currently costs around £90 but your patience will be rewarded with an almost as-good-as new pair of shoes.
In addition to building a significant presence as a name in the shoe world, the Desborough factory has long been the first call for many specialist retailers seeking high quality shoes to differentiate their brands and to identify them as clearly British in export markets as only a pair of fine hand-made shoes can. Companies such as Marks & Spencer, Superdry, Barbour and Paul Smith have beaten a path to their door, in many cases dual branding their shoes with Cheaney.
As part of the emergence of the revitalised Cheaney the company has opened four retail stores in London, in the Piccadilly Arcade, Lime street, Bow Lane and Spitalfield.
Their export market also goes from strength to strength and based on carefully planned expansion it is clear that Cheaney is joining a march of genuine British quality manufacturing into the rest of the world.
Photographs by Nic Wing and courtesy of Joseph Cheaney & sons