Sole Boot Makers
William Lennon: The only surviving British boot makers and an overlooked national icon
Article and photography by Sam Clark
Tucked away down a narrow side street, the only side street of a small village nestled among the hills of the Peak District country side, is an unassuming, modest door in a windowless rough stone wall. Venture behind this aged door mapped with the contours of decades of paint layers, walk down some rickety wooden stairs and your nostrils are filled with the smell of leather, old machines and hard toil. This is where William Lennon have been crafting boots that have protected feet from the most rugged of conditions for over 120 years. It’s a magical passage back to a living, working part of our history. Visiting William Lennon I felt the same tingling excitement that I had after my first scuba dive: as with seeing what lies beneath the waves, I’m privileged to have had a glimpse of what lives in the buildings peppered over our green and pleasant land.
This, dear reader, is really as far as my heart would like to take you now: partly because I want to keep this precious time capsule tightly closed, and partly because, if you want to put your feet in history, then this is a path I urge you to walk, smell, feel and experience for yourself. If you’re still with me, I’m delighted to report that William Lennon are alive and kicking and still very much with us too. The ancient sewing machines still clatter and spin furiously, ‘closing’ leather sections around the antique lasts. The company is still family owned, now run by the fourth generation. Their great grandfather, William Lennon – one of four orphans, having been sent to Manchester to learn the art of boot-making – started his own company in 1899 and in 1904 he moved production from his front room to the premises they still work in today.
The boots William Lennon started producing were tough, uncompromising work-wear, designed to protect the feet of the workers in the local quarries, lead mines and shepherds. And this is essentially what they are still producing, although they have swapped the feet of the industrial revolution for those that tread the pavements of London and Tokyo as well as the Peak District hills. The leather sections are still stamped out with the original shaped knives, which are ‘closed’ around the original lasts. A horseshoe protected heel and hob-nail grip are optional extras. It’s hard to spot anything that has changed since the turn of the century – 1900 not 2000. Nothing is computerised: everything is done by eye.
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Pat Helliwell, now the noble side of 70, has been with the company for over 50 years. Whilst I watch in wide-eyed wonder, she picks up sections of leather upper and gives them a couple of hefty whacks with her palm. The leather now lies flat, seemingly from submission. Pat then feeds the thick leather through a sewing machine faster than my eye can keep up with, turning it as she goes to produce a perfect arch of stitches.
In one corner stands the prized and rather ominous looking brass screwing machine, believed to be the only one left in the world. It fires lengths of twisted brass wire into the sole, screwing the layers together. When I say it fires into the sole, I mean ‘soul’. When this big, dark, brooding machine is proudly brought to life in front of me the whole building shakes and is filled with thunderous noise as it shoots out wire like an old machine gun, trying its hardest to snatch a stray finger or two as the soles are turned perilously through its jaws, giving the ring of snipped brass wire ends around the sole which is unique to William Lennon.
The range has not altered much over the years, if at all. You can still choose a Shepherd’s Boot, the fronts of which curve up, eager to be let out onto the hills. Then there’s the Tug-of war boot. Really. The laced area is cut wider than usual so they can be pulled tighter to avoid the boot rolling around the foot mid-tug. A discovery of lasts tucked away in the factory turned up the original pairs used to fashion the B5, the boot issued to the British Army in World War One. These have been faithfully reincarnated using the original patterns. They have no toe reinforcement so are much lighter than other boot styles, presumably to facilitate long marches and swift dashes over enemy lines.
In-keeping with the original specifications they are made with brown leather which the troops then polished black. The leather is assembled ‘inside-out’. This is thought to be because the most waterproof face of the leather is the smooth side and orientating this inside was an attempt to keep the sodden body of the leather away from the foot when it was worn for weeks at a time trudging through fields and waterlogged trenches. The B5 and other William Lennon boots have quietly found fame in films and TV, most recently Downton Abbey.
Now, if you want to get your hands – or feet – on a pair of these footwear leviathans – the Lancaster bomber of boots, more British than a 1948, Mk1 Land Rover – you can’t just pop down and leisurely browse through a boutique. The hand-crafted process is labour intensive and therefore produces only 15 – 20 pairs a week, which are made to order. When I ask to try a pair of the surprisingly comfy Shepherd’s Boots there was a flurry in the workshop and a pair, half finished, were found in my size.
Libs Slattery, great granddaughter of Mr William Lennon, who very generously took me through the factory, suggests that if you don’t know what size you need then stand on a piece of paper and draw around your foot. Send this plan to Libs and she will find the last size for you. There is not a classical bespoke service but you do get to decide from a range of finishes and sole finishes, resulting in an exclusively personal shoe made for you that will have layers of history lovingly stitched throughout.
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