The story behind the Leeds business that repairs boots for the British Armed Forces

An unassuming building on an industrial estate near Leeds United’s Elland Road home might seem a world away from the pomp and ceremony of Trooping the Colour before the Queen.

But when all the Queen’s horses and soldiers next march out on Horse Guards Parade to celebrate the monarch’s official birthday they will have the skills of an historic family-owned Yorkshire company to thank for helping them put their best feet forward.

The Boot Repair Company is responsible for the repair of boots for the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, including the Household Cavalry’s riding boots and jackboots and those worn by the Brigade of Guards. That is up to 5,000 pairs of boots a year that need repairing.

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Despite the cancellation of Trooping of the Colour next month for a second year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the firm has enjoyed a busy start to 2021 as the army prepares for ceremonial duties to return.

Directors Chris Wilson, Tom Forbes and Gerald Forbes with boots from the Household Cavalry at the workshop in Leeds.  (Bruce Rollinson).
Directors Chris Wilson, Tom Forbes and Gerald Forbes with boots from the Household Cavalry at the workshop in Leeds. (Bruce Rollinson).

All the jackboots worn by the Household Cavalry - The Life Guards and The Blues and Royals - are repaired in Leeds by the company’s highly skilled craftsmen, stitching and welting each boot by hand.

“I have been in this trade all my life and the skill level is incredible,” says Chris Wilson, who runs The Boot Repair Company alongside his business partner Tom Forbes. “You can’t get these boots on a machine like you can a normal pair of shoes,” he says.

To illustrate the point he lifts one of the boots up using both hands. “They are solid boots that are very heavy. So if a horse fell on you, you could pull your leg out. And they were hard enough to take a sword, the same type of boots the cavalry wore in the Battle of Waterloo.”

Though the business has a base down in Essex its main boot repair work is done at a workshop here in Yorkshire.

Work on a boot at The Boot Repair Company in Leeds, a fourth generation company. (Bruce Rollinson).

Both Chris and Tom have spent their whole lives in the leather and footwear industry.

From the age of five Tom was trained in shoe making and repairs by his grandfather Tommy Craggs, a local Leeds character who ran well known Craggs Shoe Repairs which was started by his father, also called Tom, in 1933.

The business built a reputation for quality craftsmanship in all aspects of shoe repairs and Tommy Craggs repaired everything from boots and shoes to saddles and suitcases.

From the first shop in Camp Road, Hyde Park, Craggs grew to have six shops including the flagship branch opposite Leeds Town Hall that did repairs and sold shoes and leather goods.

The Trooping the Colour parade at Horse Guards Parade. (PA wire).

The firm now operates three shops in Alwoodley, Moortown and Wetherby and 88-year-old Tommy Craggs, though now retired, is “still as strong as an ox” says his grandson.

Chris Wilson’s family connections in the footwear business go back even further. His great grandfather Matthew Wilson set up a “leather factors and grindery merchants” in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1890.

By the time Matthew’s son Albert joined the business in the early 1920s, Matthew H Wilson and Son was rapidly becoming one of the leading suppliers to the boot and shoe making and repairing trades in the north of England.

As was the tradition, Albert’s eldest son Ronald took over the running of the business and so his youngest son Eric – Chris’s father – bought a shoe repair wholesale business in Stoke-on-Trent called Charles Birch.

“But his wife wouldn’t move to Stoke so he ran it from his garage in Leeds,” laughs Chris.

One of Eric’s first customers was Craggs Shoe Repairs and his firm grew rapidly in its new home, supplying most of the cobblers and shoe repairers around the UK as they diversified into key-cutting, watch repairs and batteries and engraving.

Eric eventually took over the old family business Matthew H Wilson and Son in 1987.

So these two historic family-owned shoe repair businesses were well known to each other when Tom Forbes’ father Gerald, who had married Tommy Craggs’ daughter Maria and was running Craggs Shoe Repairs, heard that the Ministry of Defence were looking for a new boot repair supplier a decade ago.

“We won the tender, then the reality kicked in,” remembers Tom. “We probably didn’t realise how much work was involved. We were collecting the boots on Monday and had to return them the following Tuesday, often working 24 hours to complete all the work in time.”

Gerald approached Chris Wilson at Charles Birch which was by then the largest supplier of shoe components in Europe with customers including Timpson, which has 1,000 outlets in the UK.

They formed The Boot Repair Company, opened a workshop at Charles Birch just off Gelderd Road in Leeds and took on several cobblers to tackle the steady stream of guardsmen’s boots and cavalry jackboots that needed to be carefully repaired and restored.

The shoe repairing skills and knowledge of The Boot Repair Company has also seen it undertake a major project with a scion of the British footwear dynasty, Clarks.

Rather than follow the same route as the global business which bears his family’s name, seventh generation cobbler Galahad Clark has focused on ‘barefoot shoes’.

He founded Vivobarefoot, a shoemaker that makes shoes, trainers and walking boots that are wider, thinner and more flexible than traditional footwear and he says gives its wearers the benefits of walking naturally.

With his focus very much on health and sustainability, Galahad Clark has launched Revivo, a programme in which Vivobarefoot shoe owners are encouraged to send back their old shoes in return for a discount on a new pair and then the old pair are revived, reconditioned and resold.

All of the returned shoes arrive at The Boot Repair Company in Leeds where they are restored before being resold on the Revivo website.

Chris Wilson believes that more and more shoe manufacturers will start to take this sustainable approach to their products.

“Galahad is five years ahead with what he is doing, everything is eco-driven,” he says. “He is now renting out walking boots,” adds Tom.

When I mention Galahad’s distinctive name, Tom says matter-of-factly: “His father was called Lancelot.”

A staggering 24 billion pairs of shoes are produced each year worldwide with more than 90 per cent ending up in landfill.

“Many modern shoes are only worn for 12 months but they are made of petrochemical materials which can last 1,000 years after they are thrown away,” says Chris. “A lot of people use the green message but Galahad and Vivo are the real deal.

“His ‘barefoot shoes’ are all about natural movement, alignment and posture and that makes sense when you think about it because heels were invented for use in stirrups when riding horses.”

The Boot Repair Company believes other shoe manufacturers will embrace a sustainable approach.

That view has already been borne out with the Yorkshire firm recently winning all the work to repair boots and waxed jackets made by Irish luxury footwear and clothing brand Dubarry.

As well as the work with the Ministry of Defence and Revivo, Chris and Tom are also working on a new venture – a bespoke riding boot business.

They are an energetic and engaging pairing and are clearly excited about the future. “Tom has all these ideas and I have the stress and lose my hair!” laughs Chris.