First Ordinances 1272
The Cordwainers were granted their First Ordinances in 1272, shortly before the death of King Henry III. The Ordinances gave the Cordwainers the right to trade in shoes within the City of London, using the finest quality goatskin leather from Cordoba in Spain. The Ordinances are quite clear that Cordwainers could make shoes from the best leather, while cobblers and others could only work in lower grade leather.
A 15th century Cordwainer pulling a last from a shoe
A pair of poulaines sits on the work bench, a style periodically regulated by law. The 1465 ‘Act concerning piked shoes’ stated ‘That no Cordwainer or Cobbler . . .make any Shoes, Galoshes, or Huseaus, with any Pyke or Poleyn, that should pass the Length of two Inches’.
(Picture courtesy Nuremberg Twelve Brothers Foundation.)
In 1439 the Cordwainers were granted their first charter by Henry VI, which enabled them to ‘hold take and acquire and possess to themselves and their successors for ever in fee and perpetuity lands, tenements, rents and other possessions . . . the power to search and try black and red tanned leather used in his art, and new shoes and boots within the city and a two mile radius beyond’.
John Fisher’s Bequest
In 1547, John Fisher left the Cordwainers a significant bequest: property in Fleet Street opposite the Church of St Dunstan’s in the West. Falcon Court is still owned by the Cordwainers and every year Fisher, the Company’s first benefactor, is commemorated at Company church services.
Grant of Arms by Elizabeth I
In 1579 College of Arms confirmed the use of the Company’s badge – a gold chevron between three goats’ heads – as its coat of arms. The Cordwainers’ traditional motto is Corio et Arte – Leather and Art.
Shoes for the New World
Cordwainer Captain John Smith (1580-1631) led the 1607 expedition to colonise Virginia and wrote about his exploits in his General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Islands. He thanked the Cordwainers for ‘the continual use I have had of your labours’. Good, sturdy shoes were essential to the colonists in America, and although thousands were sent out, many went astray: ‘for want of shoes among the oyster banks we tore our hats and clothes and those being worn we tied barks of tree about our feet. . .’
Richard Minge Bequest
In 1596 two Cordwainers were fined: ‘Richard Minge and Matthew Goodgame for late coming on Court day and for not coming in their cloaks’. Minge appears to have made good, however, and when he died in 1622, he left a considerable amount of property on the south bank of the Thames to the Cordwainers. He is fondly remembered as one of the Company’s ‘Worthy Benefactors’ at services every year in April and in July on Oath Day.
Great Fire of London
According to the 16th century antiquarian John Stow, in 1577 the Cordwainers built ‘a fair and new Hall for themselves’, their second, on Distaff Lane. Sadly, along with the halls of 53 livery companies, it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The Clerk and Master rescued as many of the Company treasures and records as they could carry, but much of the silver had to be sold shortly afterwards to fund rebuilding. The Company Seal depicting the Cordwainer arms, is one of the few items to have survived from this period.
From medieval times, Cordwainers traded in the City of London in an area bounded by Cheapside and the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral – Cordwainer Ward, as shown on this 1755 map. They are the only livery company to have a ward of the City named after them.
Shoes and Taxes
By the mid-18th century London shoemakers had earned an international reputation. In 1766 Cordwainer John Hose (Master in 1760) addressed Parliament alongside Benjamin Franklin to warn about the catastrophic effects of the Stamp Act on shoe exports to the American colonies. Hose employed 300 staff and the effects of the War of Independence ultimately crushed his family’s business.
(Picture courtesy Daughters of the American Revolution Museum.)
Shoemaking in the City
William Chamberlain, Master in 1769, traded from his shop just outside Cordwainer Ward in Cheapside and many of his beautiful shoes were exported to the North American colonies where they were sought-after luxury items. Among his descendants were the politicians Joseph, Austen and Neville Chamberlain.
(Picture courtesy www.shoe-icons.com.)
The end of the 18th century marked a high point for London Cordwainers and their prosperity was mirrored by that of the Company, which constructed its fourth hall in 1790 at a cost of £3,410. This silver scale model was given to the Company in 1929 by Edgar Scamell in memory of his father Past Master George Scamell.
John Came Bequest
The Company’s most generous benefactor was Cordwainer John Came, an unassuming man who made significant anonymous donations during his lifetime. In his will, he bequeathed his considerable fortune to the Cordwainers for the benefit of visually- and hearing-impaired people, a bequest that it is still honoured today.
(Detail of the John Came window in Holy Sepulchre Church.)
Samuel Peal, inventor of water-proof leather (patented in 1791), was admitted to the Cordwainers in 1802. Peal & Co. produced bespoke footwear, such as these Edwardian Balmoral leather boots, until the business closed in 1965. Twelve members of the Peal family have been Masters of the Company.
(Picture courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection API)
Right of Search Abolished
in 1824, an act of parliament spelled the end for the jurisdiction of most livery companies, who no longer had the right to inspect the work of craftsmen and thus impose quality control on finished products. With the development of Isaac Singer’s sewing machine in the same period, the craft of shoemaking began to be mechanised and these two events loosened the Cordwainers’ grip on the manufacture of footwear. (Pictured is an early 20th century industrial Singer sewing machine adapted for sewing leather.)
In 1828 Dr William Marsden (Master Cordwainer in 1849) founded the first free hospital in Britain, the institution that became the Royal Free Hospital. He followed this in 1851 with the foundation of the Free Cancer Hospital, known today as the Royal Marsden Hospital. The Cordwainers are proud of their longstanding links to the Royal Free, which they support with bequests to this day.
Leather Trades School
Tools from the leather Trades School. Founded by the Leathersellers, Cordwainers and the Boot and Shoe Manufacturers’ Association, the Leather Trades School in Hackney became Cordwainers Technical College in 1913. The BA Cordwainers Footwear and Accessories courses at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts are the direct descendant of this institution.
(Photo courtesy VAMS/London College of Fashion.)
Loss of the Hall
On 10 May 1941, at the height of the London Blitz in World War II, Cordwainers Hall on Cannon Street went up in flames, a victim of the firestorms generated by German bombing. The hall was not rebuilt and today all that remains is a plaque in St Paul’s Churchyard to mark the location.
(Photo courtesy East London History.)
Opened by the Princess Royal in 1997, Cordwainers Court, which is administered by the Cordwainers Educational Trust, provides affordable student accommodation in Hackney. The Trust also provides bursaries, scholarships, grants and awards for footwear students.
Cordwainer Lord Mayors
There have been three Cordwainer Lord Mayors: Sir Charles Wakefield in 1915, Sir William Coxen in 1939 and, most recently, Sir Roger Gifford in 2012.
Cordwainers Footwear Awards
Established in 2014, the Cordwainers Footwear Awards are open to footwear students at the three British universities that offer footwear design courses. Judged by leading members of the footwear industry and offering outstanding mentoring opportunities as well as financial prizes, the awards have launched the careers of young designers. Past winners have gone on to great things: their shoes have been worn by celebrities such as Lady Gaga; they have secured jobs with the best names in footwear design such as Jimmy Choo; and they have established their own businesses.