I was awarded an Arts Council-funded Sole2Soul commission, 2014.
Sole2Soul is funded by Arts Council England and commissioned by Leicester County Council. It is one of six project commissions for an umbrella project entitled ‘Click, Connect, Curate Create’. In the future, it is likely that these six projects will be replicated to serve multiple museums and collections.
The Sole2Soul project is creating new digital assets for the Falkner Boot and Shoe exhibit at Harborough Museum in Market Harborough. These include new creative writing (flash fiction, twitter fiction and poetry), photography and podcasts. The project is designed to increase Harborough Museum’s visitor numbers and to attract more online traffic to the Museum
I spent a really enjoyable afternoon at the newly opened Market Harborough Museum. It’s a great building with excellent facilities and the museum has many unusual exhibitions.
The William Falkner Boot and Shoe exhibit is perhaps the highlight, showing off artefacts taken when the original store closed in 1986 after over 150 years of footwear manufacturing in the town. The Museum assistants were very helpful and took me to the archives and there I found a letter from William Falkner to his young friend Percy and it is this letter that I have used to try to describe in the first person; the life of a shoe maker. I have italicised various unusual words and you may wish to discover what they mean by either visiting the exhibition, which would be best, or researching on the internet.
It’s all fascinating stuff and gives us a real insight into a lost world.
William Falkner: Shoemaker of Market Harborough
Tell you what, I were a dunce at school,
but has to be said I were nobody’s fool.
Reading and English they made me no sense
I swear that me teacher she said I were dense.
Sums and parsing just passed me by
I’d spend all me time looking out at the sky.
Grandad were a cobbler, a shoemaker grand,
me own Dad he followed to try out his hand.
I followed him too as I didn’t know better
But found that me bench fit like a cosy old sweater.
The smell of the leather, invaded me nostrils
Surrounded by butts, bends and yes, bellies.
Dad made me learn parts as we cut them outside
outsoles and insoles, middleclass from each hide
and welts and lifts with split lifts we’d hew.
Top pieces and stiffners, waist pieces to sew.
All we could find from the dark leather storechest.
Picking out warble fly as goods it did infest,
destroying the hide with its burrowing greed
a nasty foul job that no one did need.
Me Dad, were a craftsman, a cobbler rare,
Learnt from his own Dad, a partnership fair.
He made his own patterns, by hand with good eye,
cutting the upper to hand close them I’d try.
Fitting carved wooden lasts for all kinds of footwear
to prepare the finery in which we took such care
high boot, dainty slipper, fine shoe or simple clog
he took pride in his efforts, hard work he’d not dodge.
‘Fine works from fine leather’ were his maxim for life.
We were all in the business, even his wife.
Our walls are displayed with hundreds of lasts
From children’s to men’s, all sizes held fast.
Mellowed old beech or rich aged hornbeam
Lasts polished with use, the wood it would gleam.
Racks for the specials, for feet that were strange
So many designs we had such a range
for toes with great bunions or club foot so rare
everyone different, for all shapes were there.
Hand crafted, hand made, a work to admire
Dads’ shoes always coveted, a work to desire.
So many files for our customers contrary
On yards of stout paper all contours a rarity
took all into account, all shapes and the sizes.
All drawn on brown paper by cobblers wisest.
Malformed or hammer toe, each to their own
lark heeled or flat footed, a masterpiece drawn.
Hand made, hand crafted, a work of true art
me Dad were so proud, and it helped make my part
in serving up this majesty, a dream job come true
to stitch and to sew, to produce something new.
Aye, the queen of shoes, or the king of boots,
as we sat at our bench we produced the goods.
No two the same as we hand sewed and did tack
with our rasps and our nippers for tools we’d not lack.
Sharp scrapers and longstick our kit with queer names,
but all for one purpose as we ruled our domain.
Down on the floor was the toe and heel clincher
a fine bit of kit to rivet all boots much tighter.
Blacksmith made it will last forever and ever
Long after I’m gone and my son takes this over.
Long counters, large drawers with goods so diverse
shoe trees, boxed silk and threads for machines
skeins of barbours, linen, hemp, flax and eyelets
a right Aladdins cave of treasures and prizes.
Hooks and webbing, odd bits of fine leather
a myriad of quarters and backstraps we’d measure.
Patterns of toe caps, some fancy, some plain,
Galoshes and vamps, just too many to name.
Clamps for hand closing and slate used for skiving
So many quaint labels and none worth forgetting.
I’d watch me dad as he handled the leather
His finger and thumb appraising the texture.
The smell in the air, a scent like from heaven
From kid skins and glace, moroccos and roan.
All light skins we’d have to hang up so high
then make into shoes that turned everyones’ eye.
He loved it so much, its variety, the rare,
the ‘feel of it, smell of it,’ he’d say with such care
He’d repeat those sweet words and they stuck in me head
I say them still now, it so often is said.
Me Dad loved the feel of the leather and hide
For me it were the smell, as it hung at the side
Grain skins for waterproofs and crup which was rare
Goat skin and light skins for linings in there.
Everything diverse, rich flavours so resident
By touch or by essence each hide it were different.
As was each shoe or fine slipper we’d sewn.
I learnt from the beginning, but sometimes I’d moan.
Mistakes I would make and get a clip round me head
But I’d have it no other way, as it set me in good stead.
Dad would show me, each had his own special intention,
the whys and the wherefores he would show and did mention.
The knife it was shaped so, and sharpened this way
as was soaking the hides unchanged to this day.
The hammering on lap iron me grandpas ‘Old Humphrey’
had been in the family well over a century.
To fashion it this way to close up the fibres
to make the shoe bed and increase them in fairness.
He worked only his way the right way for him,
and would work until satisfied, until it was ‘frem’
‘Frem’ was his word, a word that meant fine
I picked up the habit and continued to shine.
Long work I loved, to work hard and be careful,
but sewing the boots was a chore, long and painful
as sewing the welt with heavy thread would me tire
fingers and arms ached and my head would perspire
keeping close watch on spacing, size and position.
Thigh boots for sailors, for shooters, or parson,
dainty slippers for ladies at Christmas so fine
we made everything for feet that you could imagine.
Positioned in Harborough was just perfect for us
our farmers would visit on the Market Day bus
with shoes for repair or new orders repeat.
And fox hunters would bring in their requests repleat
of London shoe makers so we found their designs
and remodelled anew and learnt their ideas.
We also gained much from such customers varied
Which held us in good stead as sometimes we worried.
Hard work, but fine work, fine works from fine leather
I live by it now, William Falkner, cobbler forever.