Cheaney Heritage - Made in England Since 1886

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Shoemaking tradition in Northamptonshire

Northamptonshire  is renowned as the home of quality English shoemaking, and it is interesting to explore what prompted this industry to develop in the first place. The popular theory is that in the 1600s there was ample availability of materials for tanning leather. This, so the story goes, coupled with the need to re-shod the armies about to fight the Battle of Naseby, spawned the nascent shoe industry. It’s a nice folk tale, but the reality is more prosaic. There were no factories in the 17th century, and it was around 200 years later that the oldest shoe families began to become more organised, which led to the establishment of manufactories. So it was with Cheaney.

Joseph Cheaney had been the factory manager of B. Riley, but in 1886 established J. Cheaney, Boot & Shoemakers in a small premises in Station Road, Desborough. At the time, many people were engaged in the making of shoes, but rather than carrying out the whole operation, they would specialise in a part of the process. This would typically be done in outhouses, known as shops, at the bottom of their gardens. At each stage of the making process, the shoe would move to a different ‘shop’ until the end product would go a collection point for distribution, which was facilitated by the burgeoning road and rail network. Before this, a local shoemaker would only supply customers in his immediate vicinity.

There were about seven shoe factories in Desborough at this time, and in 1890, Arthur Cheaney joined his father’s company. In 1896, the business moved to the site it still occupies today in a purpose built factory to house all aspects of shoemaking, from the cutting out of the leather (clicking) to the final polishing. Although some manufacturers now outsource the initial production of the uppers to the Far East, Cheaney shoes are still cut out and ‘closed’ in Desborough, Northamptonshire as they have been since 1886.

Joseph Cheaney

Joseph Cheaney was a prominent local character, being a local councillor and also had involvement in the Church. He was interested in the welfare of local children, and it appears that he used to keep them supplied with oranges.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Harold Cheaney joined his father and brother in the business, which led to the company name changing to J. Cheaney & Sons in 1903. It became a limited company in 1920, with a paid up share capital of £40,000, which was substantial for the time.

There are a couple of amusing anecdotes concerning the independent nature of the workforce in the early part of the 20th century. Desborough shoemakers took a lively interest in the local hunt and requested permission to go and watch the spectacle. This was refused, but the workforce went anyway, thus finishing production for the day! On another occasion, a sales representative for a last manufacturer came to demonstrate a more efficient way of handling lasts (the three dimensional form on which shoes are made). The workforce took exception to having their working practices criticised and promptly threw the salesman in the local duck pond, thus incurring each of them a £5 fine for their trouble! At that time Cheaney had a 54 hour working week spread over five and a half days.

War Years

The factory was kept very busy in the First World War, producing about 2500 pairs per week of stitched and screwed boots and shoes. Building on this success, the company continued to flourish, even through the lean post-war years and the global depression of the 1930s. Production was modernised, whilst retaining the same handcrafting methods and the distribution base was broadened to include the major conurbations of the United Kingdom. Very few shoes were exported at this time.
Joseph Humphrey (usually known as “Dick”) Cheaney, the grandson of the founder, joined the company in 1930 where he stayed until his retirement in 1981, except for a period in the Second World War when he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

After the war, “Dick” Cheaney saw that it was vital to expand the company’s distribution into export markets, not only for the business but also for the United Kingdom, which desperately needed to earn foreign currency. He was also committed to continuing his father’s and grandfather’s policy of maintaining high quality standards in terms of manufacture and materials. This contributed to Cheaney’s growing reputation as a shoemaker. In the post war years up to the early part of the 1960s, the company did not produce under its own brand but made shoes for major retail groups in the USA and the UK that were then sold under their names. Whilst this enabled Cheaney to grow the business to a point, “Dick” Cheaney realised that in order to secure the future of the company, he needed to have an alliance with an organisation that had retail outlets in the UK and an established export market.

Queen’s Award to IndustryIn 1966

Cheaney won the Queen’s Award to Industry for export achievement and was also sold to Church & Company plc. The Cheaney of England brand was launched in 1967 and this was the first time since its inception that it had marketed shoes under its own name. In 1971, Cheaney again won the coveted Queens Award to Industry for Export. Overseas sales continued to grow until the adverse effect of the inflationary pressures of the 1970s, which affected Cheaney along with many other British exporters. In fact, by the dawn of the 1980s, many Northamptonshire shoe companies had ceased trading.

Even in this very challenging environment, Cheaney continued to prosper at home, assisted by the introduction of an in-stock system of branded footwear. It was this that enabled the company to sell to independent retailers and promoted the brand to a growing number of discerning buyers. By the mid-1980s, Cheaney’s export business had recovered well and, by the approach of the new millennium, had a very healthy order book in terms of both its own branded product and also the footwear made for other retailers. In early 2002, Cheaney opened its flagship store in London, which helped raise the awareness of the brand.

Jonathan and William Church (Church's Shoes)

In August, 2009, cousins Jonathan and William Church conducted a management buy-out of Cheaney from Church & Co (by then a wholly owned subsidiary of Prada). They now own and operate the company and are committed to continuing the production of high quality shoes entirely made in Northamptonshire, from the cutting out of the leather to the final polishing,  just as it was in 1886.

Buying Guide

In terms of its heritage & brand, you cannot really go wrong with a genuine pair of Cheaney's providing that they're authentic either brand new or used. The key point here is that that they need to have been well looked after and that repairs / refurbishment should have  been carried out by Cheaneys own factory as in addition to fully understanding the construction of the shoe, they're also able to re-last the shoe on its original last ensuring that the integrity of shoe remains as originally designed, I would personally avoid shoes presented as Cheaney or indeed any other brand if they appear to have been 'bodged' (stick on soles, cheap glued heals, etc) as whilst wearable in the short term, as time goes by, they will unfortunately be near impossible to maintain as typically a lot of the shoes substance is often removed by high street chain, 'jack of all trades' shoe repairers in order to facilitate the fitting of Chinese, mass produced products that all but destroy the spirit and integrity of the shoe so be careful and choose wisely as there are certain brands that command very high prices both when purchasing brand new and also when presented as high quality, worn examples, so choose carefully and do your research and take time to look at feedback and perhaps engage the seller in conversation, you will very quickly be able to identify passionate, Knowledgeable sellers as opposed to someone out to make a quick sale without really understanding what they're selling in terms of fitting, size, construction etc. 

The below represent brands that make up my own personal top 10,  but please note this list does not encompass all, and there will always be different views / opinions on this subject so please do not be upset with me if I do not mention your particular favourite!!,  the key point here is really to find a brand who's spirit and ethos means something that really resonates with your own personal values and choice of style.

Jeffery West
Joseph Cheaney
Sanders & Sanders Ltd
Alfred Sargent
Grenson / Tim Little (owner of Grenson)
Crockett & Jones

One common trait that all of the above share is that, genuine, authentic, well looked after examples will carry high residual values throughout their lifetime and you can expect to pay accordingly when purchasing either brand new or used examples, that said, when you take delivery of a brand-new pair of modern, classics in the making or a well looked after vintage example exuding character & charm its worth every single penny in my view and certainly in that of most of my fellow enthusiasts (that's certainly the united front that we present when justifying the expense to our doubting partners, friends or family!!!)

If you're looking, may I wish you the very best of luck in your search for a wonderful pair of hand-made, English shoes, that will hopefully be with you for a lifetime & don't forget your Shoetrees, Shoe Horn, Quality wax polish, Horsehair Brushes and to stay away from those puddles & Sponge Wax Polish Applicators!!!

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