David Parkin puts the boot into business

ONE of the greatest pleasures of being a business journalist is unearthing hidden gems.

Finding companies who aren’t very well known and telling their story still gives me a massive buzz.

They have not necessarily hidden their light under a bushel as just got on with the job and and not had the time or the inclination to shout about what they do.

That was certainly what I found when I was introduced to Chris Wilson and Tom Forbes.

Both have spent their whole lives in the leather and footwear industry and run fourth generation family businesses.

Together they run The Boot Repair Company and from a workshop on an industrial estate near Elland Road they are responsible for the repair of boots for the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, including the Household Cavalry’s riding boots and jackboots and the boots worn by the Brigade of Guards.

It is a great story and I couldn’t quite believe it had never been told.

Which was why I thought it worth pitching to Yorkshire Post features editor Chris Bond.

My feature on The Boot Repair Company was published in last weekend’s Yorkshire Post Magazine.

Trooping the Colour may have been cancelled for a second year in a row but the Leeds-based business is busy repairing up to 5,000 pairs of boots a year for the British armed forces.

All the jackboots worn by the Household Cavalry – The Life Guards and The Blues and Royals – are repaired in Leeds by the company’s highly skilled craftsmen, stitching and welting each boot by hand.

When I visited the firm’s workshop it took two hands to lift up just one of the jackboots.

Chris explained that their solidity meant that if a horse fell on the rider, he could still pull his leg out.

They are similar to the boots worn by the British cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo and are tough enough to resist being slashed with a sword.

Chris and Tom’s passion for their business is clear to see, but not surprising.

From the age of five Tom was trained in shoe making and repairs by his grandfather Tommy Craggs, a local Leeds character who ran well known Craggs Shoe Repairs which was started by his father, also called Tom, in 1933.

The business built a reputation for quality craftsmanship in all aspects of shoe repairs and Tommy Craggs repaired everything from boots and shoes to saddles and suitcases.

From the first shop in Camp Road, Hyde Park, Craggs grew to have six shops including the flagship branch opposite Leeds Town Hall that did repairs and sold shoes and leather goods.

I remember buying shoes from that shop when it was open and have always had my shoes repaired at Craggs, but never knew its heritage until I met Tom earlier this year.

The firm now operates three shops in Alwoodley, Moortown and Wetherby and 88-year-old Tommy Craggs, now retired is “still as strong as an ox!” says his grandson.

Chris Wilson’s family connections in the footwear business go back even further.

His great grandfather Matthew Wilson set up a “leather factors and grindery merchants” in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1890.

By the time Matthew’s son Albert joined the business in the early 1920s Matthew H Wilson and Son was rapidly becoming one of the leading suppliers to the boot and shoe making and repairing trades in the north of England.

As was the tradition, Albert’s eldest son Ronald took over the running of the business and so his youngest son Eric – Chris’s father –  bought a shoe repair wholesale business in Stoke-on-Trent called Charles Birch.

“But his wife wouldn’t move to Stoke so he ran it from his garage in Leeds!” Chris told me.

One of its first customers was Craggs Shoe Repairs and the firm grew rapidly in its new home, supplying most of the cobblers and shoe repairers around the UK as they diversified into key-cutting, watch repairs and batteries and engraving.

Eric eventually took over the old family business Matthew H Wilson and Son in 1987.

Charles Birch is now the largest supplier of shoe components in Europe with customers including Timpson, which has 1,000 shops in the UK.

Charles Birch and Craggs Shoe Repairs together launched The Boot Repair Company 10 years ago when Tom Forbes’ father Gerald won the contract from the Ministry of Defence to repair boots for the British armed forces.

And they are now working in Civvy Street with another great historic name from the British shoe industry.

Galahad Clark is the seventh generation of the famous footwear dynasty Clarks.

But he has trodden his own path and has created a business selling ‘barefoot shoes’.

Vivobarefoot makes shoes, trainers and walking boots that are wider, thinner and more flexible than traditional footwear and he says gives its wearers the benefits of walking naturally.

With his focus very much on health and sustainability, Galahad Clark has launched Revivo, a programme in which Vivobarefoot shoe owners are encouraged to send back their old shoes in return for a discount on a new pair and then the old pair are revived, reconditioned and resold.

All of the returned shoes arrive at The Boot Repair Company in Leeds where they are restored before being resold on the Revivo website.

I told Tom and Chris that I was as impressed with Galahad’s name as his business, which is doing over £30m of sales a year.

“His father was called Lancelot,” Tom told me.

Well if you are named Lancelot then of course you are going to call your son Galahad.

Chris thinks that more and more shoe manufacturers will start to take this sustainable approach to their products and the company has recently won all the work to repair boots and waxed jackets made by Irish luxury footwear and clothing brand Dubarry.

And not content with repairing boots and shoes, Chris and Tom are now focused on making them too.

They are currently in the midst of launching a bespoke riding boot business.

Their business is a hidden gem, but hopefully not for too much longer.

:::

VIS-A-VIS my comments last week about the final episode of Line of Duty.

I told you so.

:::

I POPPED into a quiet Leeds city centre yesterday and parked in the Victoria Gate multi-storey car park.

When I returned to my car I walked through the ground floor of the John Lewis store and, wearing my mask, waited behind a couple for an elevator.

As they boarded the lift, the man turned around and held out a hand at face level, like a policeman halting traffic.

“One family only in the lift,” he stated with intent.

“Is it?” I asked, slightly surprised.

“Yes, that is the rule, it is on all the signs,” he replied as his wife nodded behind him.

I left them to enjoy their lift journey and simply waited for another one to arrive while spending the time vainly searching for any signs that vindicated his approach.

When I had first parked in the car park I held the lift as I saw a couple walking from their car towards it as I entered.

According to my new pal who we will call Elevator Warrior, I must have broken the rules because I shared a lift journey with another family.

But I’m not convinced they are the rules.

Look, I’m all for doing the right thing and following the guidelines we are given to stop the spread of Covid-19.

I get annoyed when I see someone brazenly wandering around in a shop without a mask.

But with rules easing as the number of cases of the virus fall, some people are going to need to relax a bit more.

Or not go shopping in John Lewis.

As I walked to my car, I reflected on the brief experience with Elevator Warrior.

Should I have challenged him?

I don’t think so but he didn’t half annoy me.

What did I think of him?

Well, it reminded me of that scene from the Peter Kay classic comedy series Phoenix Nights featuring psychic Clinton Baptiste.

“I’m getting the word..”

Have a great weekend.

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