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Brogue Traders: My Experience Buying Traditional Handmade English Shoes

I have fond memories of polishing my Dad’s English handmade brogues when I was a boy. They were of a beautiful tan grain leather with a Goodyear welted leather sole. We had an old tin box that we kept under the sink that contained various tins of polish and brushes for applying and shining shoes. I have kept the muscle memory of the process of polishing I went through from start to finish.

Loake Chester brogues

Special Shoes

Shoes were a big deal for me when I was young. I was born with exceptionally flat feet and consequently had to wear “special shoes” throughout infants’ school to try and encourage the growth of arches in my feet as I developed. They came in one sober style and two colours; black and brown.

I remember the day Mam took me to see the specialist at Bishop Auckland General Hospital who told me I no longer had to wear those shoes. I still had no arches. I guess they couldn’t do anything about my duck feet, but I was so happy. Mam took me down the town to Robinson’s and bought me a pair of Clarks Commandos.

Fast forward forty years. I now wear arch supporting insoles, which can pose a challenge when buying shoes. However, I wanted to treat myself to some of my Dad’s shoes for my fiftieth birthday. I can’t remember the maker, but I could see them in my mind’s eye.

Sole Searching

Now if you have made an assumption I know all about shoes, think again. I certainly know a bit more since I successfully completed my shoe quest four years ago. Back then, I didn’t know my last from my insole. I naively thought I could set off down Anytown high street and bring back home a pair of English handmade shoes. How I laugh now, expecting Clarks brogues to be still made in England. It came back to me quickly that this sceptred isle has outsourced the shit out of just about everything. In Hartlepool we are blessed with the likes of Wynsors and Shoe Zone, the latter being perhaps the most uninspiring shop name in the history of retailing.

There are no independent shoe sellers here. It’s all chains selling mass-produced footwear. That northern retailer of quality shoes Charles Clinkard left town some time ago. Back inland in my home town, the two quality shoe shops Robinson’s and McIntyre are also long gone. Where to turn? I had no intention of buying such an important purchase online. I wanted a traditional retail service with my traditional shoes. I wanted to slip into a pair in a shop, stride around in them and listen to the advice of an expert salesperson.

Patina on leather sole
Patina of leather soles: every wearing recorded

Made in England?

Then I remembered the shoe shop in Durham covered market, near the butcher’s stall that does lovely pork sausages. So one afternoon on my lunch break I visited Anderson’s and tried on a few pairs of brogues. I splashed the cash and came away with a pair made by Grenson. When I got home I tried them on again and had a thorough inspection of them. I wasn’t quite happy. The stitching where the sole joins the upper had imperfections. Now you make think that a bit picky, but I had paid over £200 for these shoes, and for that kind of money I expect handmade shoes to have nigh on perfect stitching. Something else was bothering me too. The nice box that the shoes were presented in read “Grenson England” on the front. I was troubled by two missing word – “made in”.

After a session of internet digging I discovered that the Grenson Stanley brogue was made in India. So let’s get this straight now. I have nothing against India or their shoe manufacturing, but I wanted to buy shoes made in England. I felt somewhat misled by the “Grenson England” branding and coupled with the imperfection I had found I took them back. Anderson’s were obliging with my return, as I hadn’t worn the shoes outside and scuffed the leather soles. I exchanged them for a pair of Loake Chester from their 1880 range which are proudly described as “Premium country brogue shoe, made in England. Chester features premium burnished tan calf leather uppers and a double leather welted sole”. I am delighted with them.

Loake

In fact, the whole Loake website is highly informative and transparent. They make it quite clear which of their ranges are made in England (Loake 1880, 1880 Legacy and 1880 Export Grade) and which are made elsewhere.

Four years on from my purchase, it is still hard to tell from their website which Grenson shoes are English made and which are not. After flitting around the site I stumbled upon the ‘Collections Guide‘ page, which is acccessed via a link almost hidden away on the FAQs page, itself accessed by a link in the footer. I believe their G:ZERO and G:ONE collections are made in England, but it just says “Made entirely in the Grenson factory from ‘skin to box’”. Am I just a middle aged pedant tosser, but what’s wrong with saying “Made entirely in the Grenson factory in Northamptonshire, England from ‘skin to box’”? If they are, say the are! Such beautiful footwear deserves a little more clarity in description.

Loake Chester
Loake Chester with churchyard mud

The Beauty of Classy Shoes

So what can a pair of handmade quality shoes do for you apart from making your wallet lighter? Well, when I wear mine I feel great because they look great. I actually feel like I walk taller and straighter. They are a foundation for confidence. I like how they feel on hard ground and the clack they make with each step. I like the thickness and strength of the leather, the creases that develop and how over time the shoes are trained to your gait and instep; like a self-portrait of your feet. I also feel proud to be wearing quality shoes made in England. And of course, there’s that connection to my Dad.

Tan brogues go exceptionally well with dark suit trousers; a deep blue trouser best of all I would say. They also look good with blue jeans, regardless of shade of blue. I would avoid wearing them with skinny jeans though, unless you want to look like Desperate Dan in his best shoes. In fact, just avoid skinny jeans. Always.

Top of Loake Chester
Dark blue and tan: complementery colours

Good and Bad News

English shoemaking is in better shape than it has been for years, party due to new interest in the UK, but mostly due to a growing export market; the rich appeal of heritage, beautiful design, the highest quality of leather and craftsmanship has helped English shoemakers become global brands. These venerable names that hung on during leaner years are now benefiting from not outsourcing or using a canny blend of made here and made elsewhere, depending on the depth of your pockets.

Unfortunately though, for my one remaining nearby retailer of fine English shoes, Anderson’s of Durham, it’s all over; another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic and bloody out of town malls.

Northampton is the Centre of English Shoemaking

ShoemakerWhere Made
CrownNorthampton
Dr MartensNorthampton
Church’sNorthampton
Edward GreenNorthampton
GrensonNorthampton
John LobbNorthampton
Joseph Cheaney & SonsNorthampton
Loake ShoemakersNorthampton
NPS SolovairNorthampton
Tricker’sNorthampton
10 Northampton Shoemakers with Website Links

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Originally a blog about photography, I write about vintage cameras, the environment, clothes and anything else I feel moved to type about.

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