I have visited quite a few factories that produce Goodyear welted shoes, and although it’s often nice places, it always strikes me that they are relatively small factories, much smaller than many might think. In the Crockett & Jones factory in Northampton, on the other hand, I’m almost overwhelmed by the large, well-trimmed production.
Northampton is a typical town for the English East Midlands region. The area is the birthplace of the industrial era. Both the world’s first modern factory, the Cromford Mill, which was launched in 1771, as well as the world’s oldest still active factory, John Smedley’s textile factory Lea Mills, who saw the light of day 13 years later, are found in the region. But time ran away from British production, most were moved to the east, new factory buildings are relatively few, and the old ancient buildings with different “… & Sons” business names on the brick walls often are empty or have been converted into office spaces. There is obviously exceptions – Crockett & Jones is a brilliant one.
To head into this large building is like taking the cliff into a time capsule. Up a narrow staircase to a minimal reception, and there behind a corridor with an office space that looks more or less exactly as it did 100 years ago. Thick, dark brown wooden beams and coiled window glass. It’s just the modern coffee machine and the computers that are apparent when you look into the offices that shed a light on whch century it really is. The feeling is similar in the factory showroom, where the shelves are fully packed with shoes, a pair of them with old models from the early 1900’s (read more about their amazing showcase shoes in this post). Here I meet James Fox, Digital Manager at Crockett & Jones.
“It’s even messier than normal here right now, usually all shoes are on shelves at least, but there has been a shortage of space. We are making more new models than we are removing”, he says.
Crockett & Jones has had a strong development in recent decades. Ever since the late 19th century, they have been a major player in Northampton, but were mainly associated with making Private Label shoes for other brands. In the 1960-70’s, the company had lost its direction, the shoes they sold looked cheap and many were also imported from Italy. In 1979, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. The hire to one of the founders, Jonathan Jones, who joined the company a couple of years earlier, took over the helm, and made a major reorganization of the entire business.
“He looked at Church’s who had very successfully reinvented themselves, with a large British production of honorable, classic men’s shoes under their own name. “If they can do that, we can do it too” Jonathan thought”, James Fox explains.
Crockett & Jones went on the same journey. They developed shoes under their own label which looks pretty much as they do today (several lasts and models from this period are still used), in really good full grain calf leather, mostly black at this time. They produced exclusive catalogs and began to build their own brand. Over time, they also dared to look outside England, towards for example France, and be influenced by slightly more elegant shapes and some more progressive models, in a working scale. The rest is, as it’s often called, history. Today, C&J is one of the strongest brands in the world when it comes to classic men’s shoes, with a very good reputation. For many years the demand for their products has been greater than the production capacity. A pleasant problem, so to speak, which they have been careful not to try to make a quick fix of, instead they’ve worked slowly but steadily with restructuring and better planning of the factory area, as well as careful recruitment of younger people which they make sure get the right education .
This is also evident when James and I take a tour of the five-story factory. From the last storage room two floors below ground level, up in the elevator to the leather storage and then through the closing room to the manufacturing department and finally the finish. It is structured and neat, and everywhere I see young people mixed up with old women and men who look like they could do their job asleep if they needed. And as mentioned, it is big. Over 400 people currently work at the company, 300 of them on the factory floor. Only in the closing room, a part of the production that takes much longer time than many believe, there are 90 people.
“At the same time, you should not be historyless. When the factory was at it’s largest state, over 1,000 people worked here”, says James Fox, pointing out a window to the back:
“The factory workers lived just in the vicinity, and in all these sheds you see in the backyards out there women sat and worked as freelancers for us. And then we were not one of five Northampton factories, we were one of say 50 in town, and in the region there were many, many more.”
The place where you might best get an understanding of the company’s history as well as its present is the last storage room. Here, over 40,000 pairs of lasts are gathered, both old and new ones, and the weight is so massive that it’s only on the bottom of the basement floors that they can be stored, otherwise the entire floor would probably have collapsed. Walking here in the corridors is a fascinating experience. Some boxes of old wooden last full of nail holes on the underside are mixed with the latest deliveries from the state-of-the-art last factory Springyard, like last 376 which is specially designed for unlined loafers and was launched a a year ago or so. However, the shape of them can be confusingly similar, although it differs with 100 years between their development. It’s when you succeed in taking your heritage into modern times, making it relevant for consumers today, then you can succeed as well as Crockett & Jones has.