In the late 1800’s, most villages around the limestone quarrying area of Derbyshire had ‘cobblers’ as there was a high demand for heavy duty work boots for the quarries and lead mines. Most were ‘cottage industry’ boot makers and repairers working in their own front rooms in Stoney Middleton and Eyam doing absolutely everything by hand.
William Anthony Lennon, born 1873 in Manchester, was orphaned when he was just 14 years old and was sent to the village of Stoney Middleton to work as an apprentice with cobbler Joseph Heginbotham.
Once confident of his trade, William left the Heginbotham business and formed ‘Mason Bros & Lennon’ with Joseph & Garfield Mason repairing and eventually making new boots.
In 1904, they bought the Old Corn Mill where the company still operates to this day. The partnership continued up until the time of WWI when it was dissolved and William made the decision to form ‘W A Lennon’.
Surviving through WWI, the company was then threatened by the 2 year strike of 1918 when many employees of boot companies went on strike in the villages. This is the only time we are aware of (up until 2020!) that the factory was closed for a significant period. For 6 months in 1918 William was forced to halt production, struggling for a workforce as they were either lost to the strike or helping with war efforts.
Electricity arrived into the village in 1933, meaning that more modern machinery could be installed to help speed up the production process. The Ruston paraffin engine that had been used previously in the factory was donated to the Northampton Museum of Shoe-making.
William Lennon had 9 children in total with his wife Charlotte Goddard, and before his death in 1940, formed ‘William Lennon & Co’ alongside 4 of his sons, Percy, Arnold, Sydney, Ebeneezer and their sister Lillian. The company still operates under this name as it remains the family business.
During WWII, the boot industry struggled to keep up with demand as many of the younger workers were called away to work in the munition factories in nearby villages such as Bamford. The four brothers worked long hours well into the night using heavy duty machinery that didn’t have any safety devices installed – both brothers Sid & Eb losing the end of one of their fingers as they got trapped in these mercilous machines!
The 1950’s saw William Lennon & Co make a bold change in direction. Legislation regulating the production of safety footwear meant demand for hand-made leather soled boots fell away as they could no longer be worn in industrial environments. New materials were now available to meet the requirements of the BS1870 licence regulations, resulting in the traditional machines in the factory being left unused and left dormant for the next 40/45 years…
Arnold’s son, William Leslie Lennon ( Les) , joined the company in 1966 to work alongside his father and uncles. Percy left when the brothers fell out, and Eb & Sid retired once they were convinced that Arnold and William could run the business without them.
Arnold continued working well beyond retirement age, and until the day he passed away, leaving the company to the 3rd generation Les Lennon.
New machines installed in the ’60’s meant a total change in production methods. Large quantities could be produced in quick succession – the closest William Lennon ever came to being a ‘production line’ factory.
600 pairs of safety boots were produced every week, which sounds a lot but it was still the UK’s smallest safety boot manufacturer.
It also saw the 4th generation of family join the business. William’s great grand-daughter Libs and great grand-son Dan, who currently run the company.
William Lennon became one of the only 2 remaining companies in the UK to make safety footwear using the vulcanising method as sourcing components became increasingly difficult due to most having to be delivered from overseas. The only other remaining company unfortunately closed its doors in 2010 and now William Lennon & Co is the only UK boot manufacturer with the capability to produce vulcanised soles. We are also the only remaining factory in the UK producing the external steel toe-cap Engineman’s boots!
The last 20 years have seen a big move back towards traditional ‘retro’ footwear and products that are entirely ‘Made in England’. Japanese markets were the trend setters and were quickly followed by the UK, Scandinavia, Australia and the US. Customers realised that a hand-made English product was produced to a high standard and ‘built to last’ compared to cheaper Eastern imports.
This meant that here in the factory, the machines that laid dormant since the 50’s were cleaned, repaired, re-tuned and fired back up.
There are over 200 individual processes involved in making any one pair of William Lennon boots and all these are done in hand in the factory using the original machinery. No single process sees the boot leave an operatives hand unlike the robotic automated machines used in modern factories.
Our most significant difference to other boot producers is the unique method we use to attach the soles to the boot uppers. Our brass wire screwing machines are 3 of only 4 left in the world that we know of. The 4th is in New Zealand.
It is an old traditional method, stronger than the Goodyear welted construction and much more appropriate for our traditional boots.
We have now largely gone back to the roots of the company and whilst we still produce our ‘Ruff-Lander’ range of safety boots, the focus is on our traditional leather boots. Built using the same methods that the William Lennon learnt over 120 years ago.
To come full circle in our history, we now produce to quote “the most authentic WWI replica B5 boot”.
The B5 boots came about after a chat with a local who belonged to a re-enactment society that was fed up with uncomfortable attempts at replica boots from overseas.
Here in the factory, the original 2181 square toe lasts and knives used during the war to repair the boots, had been stored for over 80 years. We dug them out & cleaned them off
The rough-out leather hides were sourced from a family run tannery in Chesterfield and a prototype B5 was produced. The reaction to our replica B5’s was overwhelming and led to us including them permanently in our product range. In recent years, they have been featured on Downton Abbey and were tried by Matt Baker on Countryfile.
New additions to the ‘Re-enactment’ styles are both the WWII Ammunition boots, and our version of the Canadian Mark V combat boot.
Our ability to work to create a boot to a certain specification, fine tuning and tweaking our standard styles to create a boot for an individual or for a company brand has meant that William Lennon boots are now sold worldwide, and long may this continue….