A visit to the William Lennon & Co. boot factory in Stoney Middleton

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HebTroCo makes their Moto and Chukka boots at William Lennon & Co in Stoney Middleton, Hope Valley, Derbyshire and I found myself there by their invitation on an overcast Wednesday in March. This is the first in a series of articles about the background and makers of the HebTroCo products.

Stoney Middleton. It’s such a typically British name. Not uniquely so though, as driving around the countryside of Merrie Olde England you’ll come across any number of quirkily named small places, enough to bring forth chucklesome merriment at fairly regular intervals. Stoney Middleton though, you can almost taste it’s utterly Britishness. And looking at photos only established the impression of a place where time had stopped going forward, just looping around a certain point where the world was in black and white, people walked a little faster, where everyone enjoyed their cuppas and biscuits, the Austin Seven was a sporty car and George Formby was the absolute top of the pops. It’s where William Lennon decided to establish his footwear factory in 1899.

And to be fair, from the right angle, with a little cropping, it’s could still be just like that. Heck, most of the buildings have been here at least 120 years. The toll booth by the main road has been a fish and chip shop since 1926. If it wasn’t for the modern cars and a few modern additions. Unless you turn around 180 degrees, that is, in which case you’re slapped back into 2018 and the local caravan sales outlet. Ah, well. Let’s see if we can find the boot factory instead. And while it’s a very small village, finding the oldest surviving heavy boot factory in the UK does require a little sleuthing.

Could this be the destination I seek?

Could this be the destination I seek?

 

Stoney Middleton though was once where most of Britains safety boots were made though, starting out some 120 years ago. Not one huge factory, mind you, it’s as if everyone in the village decided they wanted to start their own factory. So there are no large factory buildings around. The pub is probably one of the largest, and it’s a quite standard sized pub. I was navigating by Google, as per usual, so I knew I was pretty much within 15 steps from my destination. Yet the cast iron gates to the factory eluded me. Instead, I noticed a very subtle and small sign on a green door, a door that didn’t actually look like it was used much at all.

The William Lennon & Co (Footwear Manufacturers) Limited in Stoney Middleton, Hope Valley, Derbyshire.

The William Lennon & Co (Footwear Manufacturers) Limited in Stoney Middleton, Hope Valley, Derbyshire.

 

Enter the William Lennon & Co boot factory

Opening the door doesn’t lead you into a visitors centre or extravagant display of the proud history of William Lennon Boots either. It’s more like entering into a storage shed and did nothing at all to affirm my sense of having come to the right place at all. All very odd, quirky odd. Persistence pays though, as by opening the next door, I stepped into the bustling admin HQ of the factory, which while it did consist of three desks, only counted Libs when I was there. Libs is the great grand-daughter of William Lennon, the founder, so we’re talking proper family lineage here, and Libs also has detail and expert knowledge of all that goes on in the factory.

We’ve already established that the factory is not very large. It has Tardis-like properties though, appearing to be very much larger on the inside than the outside should allow for. Wandering around inside I’m also struck my what some may describe as authentic features, indicating that this is a factory that is still running very much as it always has run. I did crack wise about hearing a rumour that half of the original staff were still working there, but I think it fell on deaf ears. It’s a fairly noisy workplace. Lots of machines everywhere, of the really good old sort. Cast iron, grease nipples and very fit for purpose.

At the start of the show and tell, we were looking at one of the machines that attach the soles to the boots, by screwing a brass thread through the sole. “One of our three from when the factory started in 1899, and there are four left worldwide.”, says Libs. Now, I’d done a little research before arriving and had read that there were five left, so feeling a little smug I mentioned this discrepancy in the worldwide stock of brass-screwing machines. “There was one in Dorset, but a roof fell on it”. Ah.

The boot-making process

It’s quite remarkable to wander around the factory though, observing the processes. There aren’t very many people working there, less than 10, and everyone has very specific tasks. The chap cutting the leather for the uppers is totally dedicated to selecting the best parts of the leather for the specific purposes. The high point of the back has the thickest leather, hence used for the uppers, further down the sides the leather is thinner and more supply, hence better for the parts that flex more. Probably not something most people think about, but a real live craft that takes years of experience to be good at. And each part for each size has a separate cookie-cutter style template that goes into the hydraulic press to cut out the pieces.

Once the pieces have been cut, the process of sewing them together starts. Not rocket science, but a certain sequence, patiently and exactingly performed. Thankfully there is variation in the types of footwear made these days, it’s not only an endless stream of black leather safety boots. William Lennon took over the tooling for a range of classic cycling shoes that have proved popular, and I’m here today to see the production of the two styles of boots made for HebTroCo, champions of locally made quality goods. In this case, a roughout chukka boot and a model directed more to enthusiasts of vintage motorcycles.

I think if there was one word that would describe William Lennon’s boots, it’s rugged. Hang on, let me modify that a little. RUGGED. That’s more like it. The leather uppers are solid enough, made to last, no messing about, but it’s the soles that really bring it home. Especially the triple leather soles. Three layers of thick leather held together by brass screws. And sometimes add a rubber sole for extra grip. Though traditionally that triple leather sole can be enough. And of course, the sole can be replaced easily by returning the boots to the factory.

Dedicated owners of William Lennon footwear enjoy being able to return the boots for refurbishment and a fresh sole.

Dedicated owners of William Lennon footwear enjoy being able to return the boots for refurbishment and a fresh sole.

It’s no secret I have a deep fascination for old machinery. The immense quality of construction, the clever and innovative workings, and the total lack of digital trickery. Watching the machine that welds the rubber soles to safety boots was great. 6 boots at a time, different fittings for each size and a shaped piece of flat rubber sole for each boot. Whoosh! The machine closes around the shanks, welds the rubber sole to the boot and shapes the ridges of the sole. All in one operation.

And while there are machines everywhere. Or almost everywhere, there are also racks of boot parts and finished footwear filling up the factory floors. And people. It’s clear that while there are clever machines to help make boots, it’s also a case of having competent and qualified people to operate them. Be it cutting or sewing the uppers, drawing the leather over the lasts, welding rubber soles, finishing the edges of the leather soles, or giving the boots that final finish before being shipped off into the world. And around the world, they go. While there are certainly boots that are more modern, lighter, more comfortable, they’re not made behind a green door in a stone building in Stoney Middleton, and for many of us, that’s reason enough to make them incredibly desirable.

At the end of the day, William Lennon & Co proves that it’s a viable business proposition to make boots in the UK. They’re large enough to finish on average 60 pairs a week, made from start to finish in their own factory, without recourse to having sub-assemblies put together in low-cost countries. Just plain, honest bootmaking.

Oh, remember how I said there was no factory museum or visitors centre? There is. A quite tiny little room just up a creaky staircase from the admin HQ holds a quite exquisite selection of past heroes. Like the company itself, quietly and not bragging, impressive though by just being there.

Thanks to Libs of William Lennon & Co and Ed of HebTroCo for a splendid day out!

For the HebTroCo boots look here and for the William Lennon range look here.

 

Ed Oxley of HebTroCo working with Libs to find the perfect leather for a new boot version.

Ed Oxley of HebTroCo working with Libs to find the perfect leather for a new boot version.

 

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8 Comments

  • Roland Novak 07/04/2018 at 09:50

    Such a great story! Love the description of the bootmaking process and their surroundings! Great!

    Reply
    • nick 07/04/2018 at 10:01

      Thanks, Roland. It was a great place to visit, such heritage, craftmanship amd great boots!

      Reply
  • Libs 07/04/2018 at 10:43

    Hi Nick, what a fabulous write up thank you. We are glad you enjoyed your visit to our factory, and look forward to more Hebtro Co tales. Regards, Libs

    Reply
  • Lizzie 07/04/2018 at 10:53

    Funnily enough my husband and I were recently in this area, and I noticed the name Stoney Middleton on signposts, because here in Oxfordshire we also have – Middleton Stoney. Fascinating to read of this boot factory – wish I’d known about it when we were up there!

    Reply
  • Steve Birkin 07/04/2018 at 13:34

    What a factory saw drew Pritchard there , lovely people and top craftsmanship. Drew fell in love with the place

    Reply
  • Adam Hughes 07/04/2018 at 15:50

    What a gem of a place! I will definitely be buying a pair of boots from them no matter the cost. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  • Magnus Holm 12/04/2018 at 22:13

    Thanks for another interesting article.

    Funnily enough, I have just discovered William Lennon, and am contemplating buying a pair of the 107F in Zug grain leather. This article definitely didn’t make me want them any less…

    Reply
    • nick 16/04/2018 at 10:03

      It definitely is another case of once you know the background, the product becomes irresistible!

      Reply

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