CLOTHES - Part Three

For the past two weeks, our series on clothing has concentrated very much on the ladies; what they wore, where they bought their clothes, and the way in which costumes ad hats were hand-made by the dressmakers and milliners.

But no outfit is complete without something suitable in which to put one's best foot forward, and nobody would find a good pair of boots more important than a working Lakeland farmer or shepherd. So this week we go from head right down to toe, and consider what went to make a decent pair of boots or shoes.

There is just one boot and shoe maker left in the Ambleside area today, but seventy years ago, there were five in Ambleside, two in Grasmere, one in Langdale and another two in Coniston to answer the demands of the public. They worked twelve hour days or longer:

"Well, it isn't an easy job, and you had to work hard at it and keep at it to make a job at all. We shoemakers always died poor...poor, but happy! The shoemaker was always a popular figure in a village."

With a long apprenticeship, low wages and such stiff competition from so many, its surprising that any youngsters at all were attracted to shoe-making. But it gave a lad a chance eventually to be his own boss, self-employed, in a trade with a constant demand for his products - though the better the boot, the longer it lasted, and the poorer the shoemaker!

"When I came back from the First War, I'd only done two years' training to be a shoemaker, so I thought, well, I don't know what to do, I'd better go back to the shoe making, and they offered me 3/6d a week. I was 21 years old, I went to Jonathan Stables of Ambleside and I finished my time off there for the next three years.

"From there I started up on my own in Little Langdale, there was no one else there, and I made farmers' boots, I used to make them for every village, and everybody in the village excepting Anthony Chapman (the Huntsman for the Coniston Foxhounds); I never made Anthony any."

Leather for making the boots came from Workington:

"He was a real chap from Workington, the tanneries was brought up from father to son the same as what we were in those days, and that leather was tanned with the oak bark in a pit for seven years. It was wonderful leather, we used only the best. And you see, that's why its so deceptive, is buying boots. You can see a pair that's so-and-so, and another pair that costs so-and-so, but if you've put the right stuff into a leather hide and into a pair of boots, you've got to charge for it because its so expensive."

It would have taken an apprentice shoe-maker seven weeks' wages to buy himself a pair of the boots he was making. Although his wages were only 3/6d a week, a pair of boots cost fifty shillings, or #2.50p. And whereas a saddler would use a needle to stitch leather, a shoe-maker relied on something else:

"I've still got one or two of the old things around, and I've even got the pig bristles that we used to use as needles, you see, which was not the same as a saddler. He used needles, but we used to use pigs bristle, or wild boar brush, as they called it. They were thick, pigs bristles, and it was the easiest and best way instead of using needles when you were doing a hundred yards of stitching in a pair of hand-made boots. A hundred yards!

"We used hemp for the thread. It was number three for the fine stitching of the uppers, and number ten for the soles and welts. We had everything, tricounis and alpine nails for the climbers, but for the ordinary farmer we had nails and big serrated bills, and steel toes and steel heels, both hand-made by the blacksmith."

Boots had to be waterproof right from the time they were bought - no amount of Dubbin rubbed in later would make a leaky boot waterproof, though it would mellow the new leather:

"There's nothing beats a good Dubbin, but a lot of people used goose grease; that was better than any Dubbin for them, was goose grease. They didn't mind the smell."

Some boots lasted longer than others depending on the wear they were exposed to. A farmer might only need a new pair every few years; but one Staveley farmer only kept his boots for two seasons - or a total of two thousand, six hundred miles on foot:

"He walked with a big black Clydesdale stallion, and together they covered a hundred miles a week during the season, and he said the boots had lasted two seasons, or 2,600 miles!"

But the new boots had to be worn in with perseverance, and one pair were temporarily discarded for a while on their first wearing:

"The farmer told me, 'The first time I put them on, I'd to take them off, because they were laming me feet that much, and I finished the day in me stockinged feet!'"

Eventually climbers came from all over England to buy a pair of hand-made boots from Little Langdale. A boot and shoe manufacturer from Newark tried several times to entice the shoe-maker to leave the valley and go to live and work in Nottinghamshire:

"I said I was too happy living in the country and making no money at all!"

Customers were very demanding in their requirements:

"I can remember making a pair of boots for a young doctor from Liverpool. He said, Can you make a pair of boots to turn water? I said, I hope so, I'll try hard. Anyway he came along and got them and he said, 'They won't turn water.' I said, I don't know why they shouldn't, I'd be disappointed. 'Well,' he said, 'If I'd a river there and want to cross it, I just walk across it.' He was going over the shoe top! That's how we used to get them."

Falling standards in the quality of leather forced the shoe-maker into changing his job eventually.

"Now there's only half the cow's hide which is guaranteed to be any good at all anyway - a cow's hide is stripped right down the back and you have its belly, legs and shoulders. That's more or less rubbish, that's how you get your cheap shoes, instead of the high class ones.

"I retired from boot-making because I was so disgusted, after the War, that there was such a lot of rubbish turned out. I daren't put some of the leather into a pair at all because it would have given me a bad name. So that was that."