Mr William Shepherd – Master boot and shoe maker – learned his craft in Rochdale, Lancashire, during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Following the closure of the Rochdale Shoe Company, he formed a co-operative factory with fellow workers. Rochdale was the home of the co-operative movement, and by forming the co-operative, William Shepherd and his fellow workers were following in the footsteps of the Rochdale Pioneers – the founding fathers of the co-operative movement.
The co-operative was a success – the workers referred to each other as brothers and sisters – however, times were harsh – they had started their venture during the most difficult of economic times, and eventually the co-operative had to close.
William Shepherd was determined to carry forward his tradition of boot and shoe making, so, undaunted, he started again. It was not easy, but very slowly, his business became established. He embraced the new boot and shoe making techniques and was one of the first to use the new generation of machinery and materials that began to emerge during the late 40’s and early 50’s.
By 1960 the Rochdale factory was doing well, and William Shepherd’s love of the Dales drew him to the other side of the Pennines, where he opened a second boot factory on the Gallowfields, overlooking Richmond, a market town that clusters around the old Norman castle keep, as it stands sentinel above the river, at the gateway to Swaledale.
Gallowfields is on a hill overlooking the town, and is flanked on either side by Westfields and Eastfields, with a history that dates back to Anglo Saxon times.
During the early 1900’s, and up until the late 40’s, the Gallowfields had been used as an army camp, and William Shepherd’s second factory started life in some of the disused military buildings that remained after the camp closed. They were cold, and draughty and damp – but the views were good… and so bootmaking came to Richmond.
The new factory was a success, and by the early 1970’s it was producing 25,000 pairs of shoes each week and employed 320 people. However, harsh economic times are never very far away – and towards the end of the 1970’s the wheel of fortune was about to turn again.
The first ‘Thatcher’ recession hit industry like a sledgehammer… All over the country manufacturers were putting up the ‘closing down’ signs… A new generation was emerging, and the future for them was financial services, information technology, or retail. Those that stayed in manufacturing started to transfer their skills to low cost factories on the other side of the world…
But the Richmond factory remained where it was, and survived. However, the surpluses built up in the good years – assets put away for bad times – were seriously depleted. So when, at the end of the 1980’s, the second recession hit manufacturing again (the Lawson boom and bust recession), the Richmond and Rochdale factories did not have the resources to survive.
So on a sad day, at the end of 1989, the Richmond factory closed its doors for the last time. The receivers were called in and everything was put up for auction – machinery, the building, old materials, tooling… a lifetime of skills went ‘under the hammer’.
However life went on, and bootmaking began again – the skills and tradition refused to die, and Alt-Berg was started… using redundancy money… making walking boots in an old, ex-WWI building, with damp, and mould running down the walls – only 100yds away from the old shoe factory. The workforce was a small group of only 5 people – and most had worked at the old shoe factory since leaving school.
The first 5 years were a continual struggle, with an ever increasing overdraft, and the ancient machines Alt-Berg had assembled – a disparate set of machines that other factories didn’t want – were obsolete, and it was impossible to get spare parts.
Slowly, but surely, new machines were acquired and the orders for Alt-Berg boots started to build up. Demand steadily increased, based on ‘word of mouth’ – there was no money for fancy advertising campaigns.
By the year 2000, the demand for Alt-Berg boots had increased, and Alt-Berg started to use a second factory to cope with demand – at first they worked with Orton’s of Earl Shilton in Leicester – but that factory, which had seen three generations of the Orton family, closed in 2002, and Alt-Berg started a second factory in the Treviso area of Italy, where bootmaking is still a thriving industry, and components, materials and skills are readily available.
Mike Sheehan, the owner, and founder of Alt-Berg says that the Italian manufacturing around Treviso reminds him of how it used to be, when he first started working with William Shepherd in 1969… In Italy, he is back amongst a community of bootmakers.
Mike spends one week each month at the Alt-Berg factory in Italy. When he went there eight years ago, there were only 3 people working in the factory – now there are 40. The remaining three weeks of the month, Mike works in the Alt-Berg Richmond (Yorkshire) factory – 20 people work there, and they still make all the specialist boots in Richmond.
Mike Sheehan is the owner of Alt-Berg, and he has been making boots for over 40 years. He was taught by the Shepherd family of Rochdale – and carries forward the heritage that started over 80 years ago, in a small co-operative in Rochdale.
Today Alt-Berg make some of the best boots in Europe. Their boots are a testament to skills and knowledge built up over many years.
There is a saying, that before you move forwards, you must first look back… our history gives us our bearings. We may raise our eyes to distant horizons, but our feet remain on ground where history happened… and we walk in the footsteps of those who went before us…
“In the early days of Alt-Berg, things were very bleak, and we had some days when we had no money, no orders, and the machines kept breaking down… I didn’t know if we could last another week… But I was taught – by a good man, who had survived the dark days of the 30’s depression – and he would say… ‘when times are bad, just concentrate on making good boots… there’ll always be someone who wants a pair of good boots…’ and that’s what we did, and that’s what we still do…”
Alt-Berg Senior Bootmaker
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