I’m often asked by guests about the best place to buy mens’ suits and accessories – and shoes frequently come at the top of their wish list. London has a long history of shoemaking and to this day companies like John Lobb, established in 1866, still, construct bespoke shoes and boots in a family-run West End workshop. Lobb is something of a rarity in these days of fast fashion however. In Soho’s Kingly Street, footwear manufacturers made field boots (tougher versions of classic English riding boots) for officers during WW1. Today the street is more famous for its pubs, clubs and eateries. But there is quality footwear out there if you know where to look.
Like Lobb, Joseph Cheaney and Sons is another family-owned business. It’s been making quality shoes since 1886 in Northampton – the home of British shoemaking. Cheaney’s flagship store in Covent Garden is in the former Rawthmell’s coffee house where fashionable gentlemen met in the 18th century. Cheaney makes shoes to cut a dash in the boardroom. It also has a range of robust and military-inspired country boots.
Altogether more gothic, is the footwear on offer at Child of the Jago in Shaftesbury Avenue. The brand is the brainchild of Joe Corré, son of punk priestess Vivienne Westwood and the late pop svengali and Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren. Many of Corré’s exuberant clothes are made in London – just up the road in Clerkenwell. His footwear is created in partnership with classic shoemakers, like Trickers.
At the Guards Museum, just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, are the boots worn by Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis. The urbane Irish guardsman was a WW2 general serving in North Africa. He was one of the victors during the El-Alamein campaign when the tide of the war began gradually turning in the allies’ favour.
There’s a fine statue of Alexander outside the museum, resplendent in his US flying jacket and English riding boots. Alexander died in 1969 and, befitting his status, his funeral was held in Windsor Castle’s St George’s Chapel. The boots displayed in the Guard’s Museum, however, relate to Alexander’s service in World War One. They were new in June 1914 but almost worn out by November of the same year, having seen continuous action in the trenches.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest on May 29 1953. The heroic mountaineers became the first people to stand on the roof of the world. This was a great boost to post-war British pride, just days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. The boots that took Hillary to the summit were made by James Taylor and Son, which has been plying its trade in Marylebone’s Paddington Street for over 150 years. Shortly before the record-breaking ascent, the shoemakers posted the bespoke footwear to Kathmandu … however, the parcel broke open and the right boot was lost. A replacement was speedily dispatched to Nepal. Hillary made the summit and made history. Months later the missing footwear was found and returned to London. James Taylor and Son remains one of the UK’s few remaining bespoke shoemakers. The famously unused Hillary boot (whole cut, with a hob-nail sole and a double-stitched welt) has pride of place in its window to this day.
Antony Robbins (aka Mr Londoner) is a London Blue Badge guide and a former director at the Museum of London.