I have shoemakers in my ancestry through the 15th to 19th century. Sometimes they are described as cordwainers, sometimes shoemakers. So what is the difference, and where would you have gone to buy your shoes if you were a Georgian Londoner – from a cordwainer, a shoemaker or a cobbler?
(Greetings, by the way, if you have Hurst ancestors in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire or Oxfordshire we are probably cousins!)
The term cordwainer, according to the Honourable Cordwainer’s Company’s website, “is an Anglicization of the French word cordonnier, which means shoemaker, introduced into the English language after the Norman invasion in 1066. The word was derived from the city of Cordoba in the south of Spain… Moorish Cordoba was celebrated in the early Middle Ages for silversmithing and the production of cordouan leather, called “cordwain” in England… Crusaders brought home much plunder and loot, including the finest leather the English shoemakers had seen. Gradually cordouan, or cordovan leather became the material most in demand for the finest footwear in all of Europe.”
Shoemakers who chose to call themselves cordwainers were implying that they used only the finest materials, and therefore produced only the finest footwear. Cobblers, on the other hand, were not working with new leather. They were repairing shoes, or “cobbling together” new shoes from old.
This trade card was produced by “The Friendly Institution of Cordwainers of Leeds” in 1802. The reference to “the Sons of Crispin” is to St Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers.
If you were a Georgian in London looking for footwear you had a choice ranging from the finest made-to measure products of a high-end cordwainer to the reworked product of the cobbler on the corner – or even simply second-hand from a market stall.
These exquisite blue satin shoes are in the Museum of London and date from the 1760s. The label inside reads ‘Fras Poole, Woman’s Shoemaker in the Old Change, near Cheapside London’. They show the high level of craftsmanship required for top-end footwear – and the range of craftspeople who would have been employed. Much simpler, and closer to Jane Austen’s day, are these delicate pink silk-satin ankle boots with their thin soles and fragile silk laces in my collection (below). They had absolutely no internal support for the sole of the foot.
For the well-to-do, shoes were purchased from a shop which might display the products of one maker, or several. The trade card at the top of this post shows a fashionable lady being served. In the background are display cabinets containing a range of styles. As the card says, “Large Assortment of Ladies fashionable Shoes always on Sale.” For such a tiny scrap of cardboard the detail is considerable. The lady is seated with a mat in front of her to protect her unshod feet (or the new shoes?). She is being served by a man – the norm in high-class retail establishments – and he is carrying shoes over his arm in a way that shows that pairs were tied together. The assistant is smartly dressed, but wearing a long apron, which makes me wonder whether he would kneel down for the lady to place her foot on his knee.
This is certainly the case lower down the social scale. The print below shows a shoe shop which appears to be selling only products made on the premises – both men’s and women’s boots and shoes. One lady has her foot on the knee of the salesman while her friend, wearing a riding habit, tries on a boot. In this much less refined setting a passerby ogles the ladies.
At the end of the 18th century small change was scarce and many businesses produced copper tokens which took the place of low denomination coins. I have two from shoemakers. One is for Carter of Jermyn Street. Dated 1792 it shows an elegant lady’s shoe with heel. The other is for Guests Patent Boots & Shoes of No.9, Surry Street, Blackfriars Road (1795) and shows a lady’s slipper, a man’s shoe and a boot.
Fashionable gentlemen took great pride in their boots and perhaps the most famous of all the London bootmakers was George Hoby whose shop was at the top of St James’s Street. Hoby was arrogant, and far from subservient to his aristocratic patrons, but he died a very rich man, famous for producing the iconic Wellington Boot to the duke’s special requirements.
This billhead is from an account sent by Hoby to Major Crowder (who, incidentally, was the officer who intercepted the coach carrying Napoleon’s secret codes in the Peninsula). The billhead shows the royal coat of arms and names Hoby’s royal patrons. It also includes a do it yourself guide for measuring for boots – presumably this was for the convenience of officers serving abroad, or country gentlemen.
To see a range of men’s footwear across the classes, this print by Thomas Edgerton from the ‘Bores’ series of 1828 is ideal. The gentleman has been interrupted as he pulls on his boots after breakfast. A beadle accompanies an aggrieved father who is complaining about the seduction of his daughter by the valet. These boots are elegant items in very soft leather with the spurs already attached, and they are pulled on using special boot-pullers and loops in the top of the boot. The gentleman’s backless bedroom slippers are by his chair. His valet wears black pumps with natty striped stockings, contrasting to the solid and old-fashioned respectability of the beadle’s buckled shoes. Finally the father wears practical riding boots with tan tops.
At the lower end of the market, shoemakers would produce a range of sizes and the customer would come in and buy ‘off the peg.’ For made to measure shoes a wooden last would be made to the customer’s exact measurements, kept in store and modified by cutting away wood, or adding leather patches, as the foot shape changed over time. To see a last-maker in action you can go into Lobb’s in St James’s Street. Although established a little later than the Regency they still produce hand-made shoes in the traditional manner and their display cases have some fascinating old examples.
I was in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, recently and visited the shoemaker’s shop there. The photo is of him working to produce the everyday leather shoes that the re-enactors use on the site. These are sturdy, off the peg styles, and are very similar to the shoes and boots illustrated by W H Pyne in his “Rustic Figures”, a series of sketches to guide amateur artists.
27 responses to “Cordwainer, Shoemaker, Cobbler? Where would Georgian Londoners Buy Their Shoes?”
What a super post Louise, its not something I’ve thought about a lot. My ancestors were ropemakers (prior to that Huguenot silk weavers) and blacksmiths. Its a shame these days we have little contact with how things are made but lovely to have a glimpse in this post especially with the gorgeous illustrations.
Thank you for this very informative post. I was thinking that it must have been more difficult to find ready-made shoes to fit before standard sizing, but then I remembered how not so long ago one would have one’s feet measured by a skilled assistant if one visited almost any shoe shop. Presumably that is what happened then, too.
At the top end you would have had your own personal last created. Below that level shoemakers produced a standard range of sizes , according to the guy I chatted to at Colonial Williamsburg. Not as many as we have now, but definitely a range to choose from. But there was definitely an element of beating the shoe in to fit your feet – it was into the 19thc before cheaper shoes were made without a left or right bias and you just wore it into shape.
Absolutely brilliant post. Wonderful to understand about the difference between cordwainers and shoemakers, and the origin of the former word. Fascinating and so useful. Wonderful illustrations! Love it.
What a very interesting read Louise. My ancestors where “Cordwainers” in Godalminga, Surrey in the 1700-1800 and it was great reading exactly what their profession was all about. Thank you
my ancesters were cordwainers in Tadley Hampshire
Mine were Herts/Bucks/Oxfordshire. It’s a fascinating trade
I have shoemaker/ cordwainer ancestors from St Martins-in-the-Field, London from the 1700’s, early 1800’s. One was a Journeyman Cordwainer who settled in Suffolk, married and had his family there. Amazing profession.
I also have cordwainer ancestors from St Martins in the Field. Have you come across any Dalleys in this trade?
I haven’t, I’m afraid. Good luck with your research
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I used a cordwainer as a secondary character in my Book Six. Your great post inspired me. Sent book to publisher yesterday.
Glad it was helpful! Good luck with the book
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Hi great info, was doing family tree on ancestry and thought the same. My grandmother’s mother was Mary B Hurst. Love to hear from you as not aware of most of my relatives.
Very interesting and informative read.Thank you for explaining the difference between the 2 words.
Thank you for the wonderful information, I am just about to publish a family history and this information was very useful as my ancestors were shoemakers, cordwainers in the 18th & 19th centuries in Surrey.
Thanks, Lois. There’s a nice little book by June Swann ‘Shoemaking’ published by Shire. It is still available – certainly on Amazon. My shoemakers/cordwainers were 18th/19thc in Bucks & Herts
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Fantastic post – I make shoes and it’s always fascinating seeing the history of this trade. Would it be possible to get more images of the silk boots? They look so gorgeous and trying to figure out the shape from the side and front. I assume they lace up from the side?
Hi Monica – glad it was useful. I’m on holiday in Canada but can take some more pictures for you when I get back in a couple of weeks. If you contact me via my website http://www.louiseallenregency.com contact form that will give me your email if that would work for you
all the best
Great, thank you Louise!
Thank you for this fascinating description. Could you give me some information about “cordwainers” who are listed in the early nineteenth century in a regional area of Britain (Stavleley in Derbyshire)
I’m afraid I can’t help, Chris.I know quite a lot about ‘mine’ – Bucks/Herts – but not about any other parts of the country. Have you tried the county record office/archives service? Good luck with the hunt.
One of my ancestors, Joseph Michael Hynes, was apparently apprenticed to a cordwainer on Bunhill Pond, close to Moorfields Cathedral and the Opthalmic Hospital in London in the early 1800s. Anyone come across his name or a shoemaking establishment in that area in their research? I have checked with the Cordwainers Guild but they have no record of him.
Have you buy chance came to surname Charles Muncey in any of London shoe makers that live in 1700 early 1800.
Can’t find much about him apart from his profession. I would be greatfull for any hints. If you want to contact me email on email@example.com