Monday, 28 November 2011

The William Lennon Factory, Stoney Middleton

Thirty years ago there were three shoe manufacturers in this beautiful village in the Peak District. Now there's just William Lennon and company. They were well worth the four hour trip up North. 

As anyone who's seen them will attest, William Lennon boots have a rugged beauty all their own (I'm wearing mine now, and I make a hell of a lot of noise running up and down the stairs). Several of the world's boot manufacturers market themselves as workwear brands: William Lennon do precious little marketing, but they're workwear good and proper, and in the last decades they've focused on mill workers, farmers and foundry workers. Lovingly crafted, they embody a distinctly British aesthetic: what used to be call Sit Up And Beg, un-styled, functional, quirky and timeless, like a Morris Minor or Land Rover SWB.

Most people here will be familiar with traditional British boot or shoe construction, like the Goodyear or military-style Veldtschoen. William Lennon offer something completely different, a unique construction which goes back to an old German style of boot, made with wooden pegs. Walking around the factory is like a history lesson – one that invokes dozens of names of defunct brands, as the world turns to cheap Chinese or Indian-made footwear. While the company – overseen by Les Lennon, grandson of the founder, and directors Dan Walker and Libs Slattery - is busy, you sense it's a constant struggle sourcing supplies. In the past their rough-out leathers came from Hull; now it comes from Switzerland. Zug grain used to come from the Bridge of Weir Tannery – now it comes from Horween in Chicago, as does nearly all of the waxy, chrome-tanned leather used for the uppers, which previously came from the Fitzroy Tannery in Australia. Sole leather is vegetable tanned, and still comes from a company in Northampton. Commando soles, a staple of British footwear, came from Itshide – a historic company, which apparently went through several owners in the last decade before moving to Bulawayo and ceasing trading. So now Lennon have sourced replacements from Viberg and Corinium. At the same time, this constant change represents an opportunity: Lennon picked up many new customers when they returned to making Shepherds' boots after the last major manufacturer, Tebbutt and Hall, ceased trading.

The company was founded by William Lennon, an orphan from Manchester, who moved to the area as an apprentice to Higginbothams, one of three boots manufacturers in Stoney Middleton. He set up his own company in 1899, with the Mason brothers, manufacturing and repairing; William moved into the present building, an old corn mill, in 1904, buying it in 1926. The factory was powered by paraffin until electricity came to the village in 1933, and throughout the firm's history it's specialised in miners' and industrial boots. 


Most of the machinery is over 100 years old. This is a Rapid Standard Brass Screw machine, made by British United Shoe Machinery in Leicester. This design, which evolved from the old wooden peg designs, appeared around 1905, and is the key to Lennon's distinctive construction. The machine clamps the leather sole to the leather outsole, and puts a threaded brass screw all the way through, sandwiching the upper in between and making a watertight seal – the construction, say Lennon, is stronger than the Goodyear welt for industrial boots. The world population of these machines numbers five; two here, one in Cornwall, one in Australia and one in New Zealand.

The boot comes out like this. Interesting to see Blake construction has such a rich heritage; I've always associated it with trendy Italian-made shoes that you can't get resoled (readers here might sense echoes of an old grudge, apologies, I'm a metal rat). You won't have a problem with these - Lennon will resole them for you. And as you will see later, their boots start coming into their own at a time when most boots are heading for landfill.

After the boot is put together, the Hercules Levelling Machine smooths off all the burrs. 
Here Les Lennon demonstrates a third machine, acquired relatively recently, which makes the heels. Lennon's own version had worn out - this machine came from Rice's, who made football boots, most notably for Derby and England centre forward Steve Bloomer. Les bought this machine, which had been rebuilt by Fred Hawkes Engineering, after Rice's owners retired, and acquired a scrapbook-full of memorabilia devoted to the footballer, who is still the object of almost religious devotion in Derby. 

We didn't discuss this machine; perhaps it's not unusual enough, I presume it's used to sew the uppers. 

Lennon director Dan Walker with one of the older, maple lasts

Lennon Lasts

Lennon use just three styles of lasts; the 88 Shepherds last, the WWII Army Last, and the 2181, or B5 WW1 Service Boot last.

The 88 Shepherds last has a distinctive upturned toe – favoured by farmers and hill-walkers. The Hill boots have a beautiful, heavy configuration, where the laces extend to the toe and eliminate the flex point at the tab. These are boots made for serious wear. 

Les Lennon with the Hill Boot. 
... and the last itself. 

But as you can see, the last is also the basis for the Hill shoes which, but for the upturned toe, are quite trim. This is lovely zug grain, from Horween, and looks just as fine quality as that used by Tricker's.  Note that what looks like a quarter brogue toe cap is actually a kind of quarter brogue strip. Neat!

More hill boots. Not so much evocative of a Morris Minor - maybe a Churchill Tank or Victorian Steamroller is a more appropriate stylistic comparison. 

The WWII or Army Last is used in several designs; in a black pebble grain, it is used for Ammo Boots, popular with WWII army re-enactors. And it also forms the basis of Lennon Derby boots. I own a pair of these; they have attracted more compliments from people on the street than any other boots I've owned. From the side, they look solid; from above, especially looking down on them, they look very chunky indeed. But at the factory I discovered that after 18 months of hard wear, the toe reinforcement softens and they assume a subtly different shape. It can be possible to order the boots without toe reinforcement, and again the shape is slightly sleeker – although this can only be done with thicker leather, or else the toe will collapse and look like a slipper!

The last itself. Below, you'll see an example without toe reinforcement, plus a worn-in example, which look less chunky. Les proclaims that the toe protection on the basic Derby is excellent, nearly as good as a steel toe cap!

This worn-in example is back at the factory for resoling. Note how much more compact the toe looks than the new example, simply because the toe reinforcement has flexed or worn in with wear. Being a Blake construction, the sole on all these boots is fairly trim around the upper.

The 2181 Last, & the B5 WWI boot. 

A very distinctive, but compact shape. The lasts, by the way, were all made in Northampton, many of them by Whitton's.

There are many more details of Lennon's fascinating history to be discussed; but I think this will do for now. I'm looking forward to seeing my own Lennon Derbys wear in - for these are the epitome of shoes that look better with wear. I'm encouraged to see the factory looking busy; the company is at something of a crossroads, I feel, still producing cheaper boots with vulcanised soles for workers, while slowly expanding production of what they call the niche, retro products. I can't think of many boots that are as evocative, and if it takes urban hipsters to make them prosper, then bring 'em on, I say...

Thanks very much to Libs, Dan and Les for their hospitality. You can buy directly from William Lennon; their website is at


  1. Great article as always Paul, very interesting read and good to be able to see the different lasts. The heritage of the brand itself and even the machines themselves are really something to behold. Thank you for sharing all the pictures and making the trip.

    PS: The first picture is amazing. Looks like a scene straight out of the 1800's. Fantastic.

  2. I have a pair of their Derby Boots, which are excellent quality, and represent fantastic value for money.

    They're pretty big though. Think I could have sized down (at the minute they look like miniature bulldozers on my feet).

    Still, at the price they cost it won't break the bank to get another pair, so maybe I will.

    Nice blog post, by the way.

    1. Love the pictures etc thanks

      I would like to buy their 78 tug of war boots ( derby ) from the pictures they look sleakish but they are realy " miniature bulldozers" ?


  3. Great post mate!
    Thanks for the fantastic photos and making the long trip there :)

  4. Nice landscape photo. Interesting report.

  5. Thanks Paul, as well as enjoying your Bowie Book I read this blog and after visiting the factory twice I took the plunge and bought a pair of the derby boots. They're great (if outrageously stiff soled) and the service from Lennons was great - they arrived in time and they've sent me extra laces as I snapped one. Great blog, great boots.

  6. I have some commando-soled zug-grain field boots by Lennon's - quite indestructible and, unexpectedly (for me), far more comfortable than the rather high-tech (and much more expensive) German walking boots that they replaced.
    Incidentally, were there many staff working, when you took the photographs? The place looks a little quiet...

  7. Great article, makes me want to visit the place. I have had the Hill boots now for 5 years and they're fantastic. I wear them for everything so i got the vibram sole and they're
    Still solid as a rock. They look better with age too. Getting a pair of derby boots for my wedding. The customer service is fantastic.

  8. I've been fortunate enough to pop in to the factory and find what I was after 'off the shelf', cancelled orders maybe. Not once but twice. I've now got a pair of field boots in the most beautiful thick waxy dark brown leather, and more recently a pair of hill shoes in the zug leather as pictured above. They're beauties, and very well made.

    When I was last in, there were 5 people working there- 2 downstairs, 2 upstairs (including Dan), and a lovely lady in the office. They seemed busy, and there were piles of shoes lying about ready for the off.

  9. I reckon the 78 Tug Of War Boots are the best ones in terms of value although I like the look of the 268's more

    look at the curved sole, I'm curious to know if the sole shape has an effect on comfort though.

  10. Fascinating article. Sadly couldn't afford the Lennon B5s so bought from SoF which are themselves nice boots. Maybe in a year or two I'll be able to afford the Lennons.