‘I started at Crockett & Jones in November 1969 and I fell into the company, so to speak. As a teenager, I wanted to be a Church Minister – I thought that was my calling. But, I also needed a job to see me through the summer and I’d been all round Northampton looking for work.
One Friday afternoon I climbed the 1935 stairs to the Crockett & Jones office on Perry Street, and was greeted by a stern looking woman with her arms folded. “We haven’t got a job here for you,” was all she said. So, I went back to the youth employment officer and he wrote a letter, gave it to me, and told me, “take this to Crockett & Jones”. I’ve no idea what he wrote, but I showed it to the lady and she took it straight to the foreman. He came out to the factory to meet with me, looked me up and down and said ‘would you like to start on Monday?’ So that was that.
At the time I only planned on staying at Crockett & Jones for a year, until enrolment reopened for college. Funnily enough, I remember saying that to one of the Edge Trimmers who trained me, a gentleman called Tom Ward, and he looked over the rim of his glasses at me and said ‘you’ll be here for a lot longer than one year my lad’. How right he was.
The factory was a very different place in the early ‘70s. The sense of community was very strong – it still is today – but even more so then. The radio was always on and people would sing along. I used to think of lots of the more experienced men as father or uncle figures, and I remember one lady, Nelly Morris, used to greet me every morning with a ‘how are you my love?’ and a friendly wink. She became a wonderful friend, and when she left C&J to move to Norwich, we used to write to each other like pen pals.
There was also a lovely man called Ernest in the making room, who’d bring vegetables in from his garden to share. When we had our tea break, the foreman also used to collect up fruit from everyone and cut it all up, and people would dip in and share together. There was even a Crockett & Jones cricket club, which was great fun in the summer, we used to play other factories as a team. Things like that have made my time at the company really special.
As well as the camaraderie, there were practical jokes too. Percy Jones, who was the director in the 1970s, used to come in at around 9:30AM in the mornings, when we all started our shifts at 7AM. I remember a young trainee called Simon who was a bit of a joker, and one morning he walked over to the lift and accosted this well dressed gentleman: ‘here mate, what time do you call this? You come and go as though you own the place, we start at 7 'ere!’ Mr Percy just stared at him dead-straight and said ‘I do own the place dear boy’. Simon came back and told all of us what he’d done, and the foreman told him, ‘that is Mr Jones!’ He turned white as a ghost. That kept us all laughing for a long time.
As a youngster, I’d carry a big urn around the factory, and it was a part of my job to serve the tea to everyone on the shop floor. On one occasion, I was a little bit too heavy handed and went to pour my mentor, Billy Butcher, a cup at the end of my rounds, but we’d run out. He didn’t like that, I was sent away with a ‘you stupid boy!’ and a flea in my ear. Mr Butcher was served first thereafter.
Despite the tea incident, he was a very kind man and showed a lot of faith in me. When I first started edge trimming – which is the job I still do today – I made a lot of blunders. It’s one of the hardest parts of the shoemaking process, and trainees often scuff the uppers or misshape the soles. If I damaged a pair, Mr Butcher would just say ‘not to worry lad, we’ll start again, you just keep learning’. I still pass on the lessons he taught me to my young trainees now; I want to be a Billy Butcher, so that when I’m gone I’ll be talked about and thought of, and live on in the skills passed down to a new generation of shoemakers.
Of course, there have been ups and downs along the way. In 1976, I thought my time at the factory was up. We were making several pairs for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and some flies were buzzing around my station. I tried to swot them away, and I knocked two ink wells all over the newly finished shoes. Can you imagine? Everybody from the top-level management to our youngest apprentices wanted these shoes to be just right, and I wrote them off in one fowl swoop. That was a horrible moment.
Speaking of kindness, my mentor Billy taught me that whatever you’re doing, however difficult, you can always overcome the challenges that life throws at you. That’s something I try to instil that in my trainees and my children today. When I first started at Crockett & Jones, I used to joke that ‘it’s only one pair of shoes’ but the foreman would tell me ‘son, there’s no such thing as “only”.’ He’s right, every pair of shoes is going to become someone’s – and they have to be the best pair we can make.
Sometimes people think if you’re not working in a collar and tie, bowler hat and briefcase then you’re not worth the time of day, but I can proudly say that I have five children and each of them has done well for themselves. They have all qualified from university and studied hard, and are established in the world. I’m thankful to this company for supporting me and my family, and blessed that I work for a well-run family business.
I will always, always be a Crockett & Jones boy.’