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Eaton Bray Shoemakers

This piece is taken from a document drawn up by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service staff for a lecture or exhibition on Eaton Bray.

In 1773 William Tompkins, a cordwainer of Eaton Bray died leaving “my tools used in business of a cordwainer” to his two sons Daniel and Thomas. Cordwainers were shoemakers and derived their name from cordwain, which was a type of Spanish leather from which shoes were once made. As was common among families of craftsmen, Daniel and Thomas followed their father in his business. We know that Daniel was mentioned as a shoemaker in 1782, and when Thomas made his will in 1816 he was a cordwainer.

The Tompkins family were not the only family in the village to be connected with shoemaking. William Turpin was a cordwainer in Moor End where he lived in a copyhold cottage in the late eighteenth century. Both he and his son, another William and another cordwainer, held property in Eaton Bray and Totternhoe. The son died in 1808.

It seems that the trade of shoemaking was never lucrative enough to provide a living for a family and so the shoemakers all had second occupations. With most of them this consisted of farming and a small amount of land and perhaps keeping a few animals. Richard Cooke left his cottage with buildings, barns, orchard, outhouses and gardens at Moor End to his wife in 1705, and John Puddifoot in 1706 left his cottage and various with the closes and parcel of pasture ground adjoining. These were probably where his cow and pigs were kept. Some cordwainers seem to have had quite large holdings in the common fields which were divided into strips until the enclosure in 1860. In 1748 John Carter held strips in Orleing Field, west Field, Horsamill Field, Edlesborough Hill Field and Warehill.

One well-to-do cordwainer was John Fountain in whose house was to be found “my large oval table, one chest with drawers” besides beds and bedding and at least one pewter dish in 1780. He must have been a man of standing in the village, for he held the office of overseer of the poor in 1757. It was probably his son, another John Fountain who combined the job of cordwainer with being the innkeeper at the Chequers and apparently very profitably. Most of his property was left to his son John in 1816, but certain items were for his widow, Mary. The house was comfortable and well furnished for Mary was to have all her wearing apparel, “my best bedstead”, the furniture, sheets, household and table linen, “the clock with the case standing in my parlour” and 315 worth of other household goods; “but she may not choose my clock with the base standing upstairs nor my chest standing in my bedchamber” as these were for his son.

Presumably most of the shoes made by the cordwainers were for everyday use by the villagers. We know that they made and mended shoes for the poor, and were paid for their work by the parish. There was probably little profit in such work. John Fountain senior sent in a bill for only four shillings in 1787 when eight pence was charged for mending a pair of shoes, whereas a pair of new “high shoes” cost five shillings. Not all footwear can have been Thomas expensive, for in 1779 the Eaton Bray overseers paid only five shillings and tenpence for a frock and a pair of shoes for a pauper.

Most people had best shoes too. In 1818 Thomas Carter of Eaton Bray went to Totternhoe to but a pair of shoes from Daniel Billingham, a shoemaker there. Thomas returned with the shoes to the house of Ann Quick, where he was a lodger. Not long afterwards Ann’s son Job Quick came home and he and Thomas had to share a bed. Before going to bed on Saturday Thomas cleaned his “pair of nearly new shoes … and set them a little way from the fireplace ready for Sunday morning” and Job remarked that they were “ready for starting”. Next day Job got up at 5 a.m. Thomas lay in bed and heard the shoes being moved. “He knew they were his shoes because he heard the settling of the tips on the floor” and Job’s shoes did not have tips. Thomas rushed downstairs but was too late to catch the thief. Later on both he and the shoes were found and Daniel Billingham was able to identify the shoes, saying that “He generally puts three rows of nails down the middle of the sole but he recollects that when he nailed Thomas Carter’s shoes he had no more nails by him, and that he only put one two of nails down the middle of the sole”.