Inside the workshop of one of Yorkshire’s last remaining bespoke shoemakers

Shoemaker Dan Nelson pictured in his workshop. Picture by Simon Hulme.
Shoemaker Dan Nelson pictured in his workshop. Picture by Simon Hulme.
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Dan Nelson, one of the last remaining cobblers and bespoke shoemakers, lets Tony Greenbank inside his workshop where he keeps the artisan craft alive.

There was a time, not all that long ago when folk glanced at each other’s feet as they passed by in the street. Seeing how well the other chap was shod gave a clue as to how they were really faring – even though they might have told you all was fine, there was nothing like a shoe sole held on by a rubber band to give the game away.

Dan Nelson remembers it well. He also knows that when trainers became the favourite choice of footwear, the custom passed into folklore. “Sporting a pair of good shoes still gives the right impression,” says the 55 year old, one of Yorkshire’s last cobblers and shoemakers.“Being well shod, that’s the thing. I mean, folk spend their life either in their shoes or in bed.”

He looks surprising youthful as he stands at his Settle shop counter in his long black apron. As one of a breed that is almost extinct in Britain today, he is a hand-made bespoke shoemaker in an age of mass-produced shoes and boots.

Dan comes from seven generations of shoemakers dating from 1752 (two in Cononley, then five in Settle): great, great grandfather; great grandfather; grandfather; father and now Daniel himself – known by all as Dan. The hand-made shoes he makes on his shoemaker’s last strapped down to the top of his thigh while he sits on a bench can cost hundreds of pounds.

Paring the leather with a razor-sharp knife, tapping nails into boot soles with a hammer or stitching with needle and thread, he likes “a good chunter” as he works on one or other of the 100 different operations that go into making a shoe.

As an example of the quality of his work, I marvel how he stitches with linen threads. These he rubs with beeswax, pine resin and tallow.

Tapered and fitted with a pig’s bristle at either end, the thread penetrates the smallest hole. As he pulls it through the friction so caused melts the wax and seals the hole, to make it watertight.

“I started work at the age of 13-14,” he says. “If I wanted pocket money then I was sat down to knock hobnails into boots. It helped my father, Jim Nelson, who had arthritis in his knuckles from the lifetime of hammering he had to do.

“There was then at least another shoe repairer in Settle as there usually was in most towns and villages. When Dad began work his father had another workshop at Hellifield.”

He would spend two days at the latter and four days a week at Settle, cycling backwards and forwards between the two. In post-war Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Cobbler Mr Fawcett, who had a shop in Dent, visited Horton twice a week.

“Boom time for Settle was during the 1860s and 70s when navvies were building the Settle-Carlisle Railway,” says Dan. “We had five “seat-men” working, who just sat on their seats and stitched boots, like an assembly line.

“On the day when navvies on the Settle-Carlisle Railway were paid Nelson family members would walk up the line with sacks full of clogs and boots to sell. Only when the line progressed further north beyond Ribblehead Viaduct did this become impractical.

“To make a pair of shoes or boots, first of all I draw and measure the customer’s feet, noting down every imperfection from bunions to flat feet.

“Then I make a paper pattern for the shoes’ uppers. Pattern cutting incidentally involves formulas and maths, something I was terrible at while attending Settle High School (now Settle College).

“My teachers would be amazed to see me now,” he adds. “There is no room for error when shoe making. Everything has to be dead-on.”

The “clicking” stage is such a stage – cutting out the shoe uppers from leather or canvas or whatever other material might have been chosen.

“‘Closing’ the upper then follows. Basically it’s stitching the parts together. And next? ‘Lasting’ is the operation where the upper is stretched over the shoe-last and the insole together.”

With just a few more steps to go...

“Namely, stitching the welt, insole and upper together. Then sticking the sole on and attaching the heel.”

Final steps are to finish the edges and polish the leather so the customer can try the shoes on. “They usually fit, but can be be stretched if not.”

The absolute bottom line with shoe making, he gives me to understand, is that the end product is essentially comfortable and a joy to step into.

Dan explains the shoe-last is basically a wooden model of the foot, and is based on the paper pattern for guidance.

He cuts it with an axe, finishing with an adze for shaping.

Also, shoe leather – be it Nubuck, suede, patent leather, glacé kid, mock croc, full grain Italian or any one of the many more varieties available – stretches in different ways.

This has to be assessed: like a thick heavy hide is going to stretch less than a soft one.

He did not start stitching uppers and sewing soles until he was 16. Then an experienced shoemaker would stitch round the toe – the tricky part.

“Practise and practise again is the thing,” he says. “It takes five years to get up to speed and be profitable. It took me a day to stitch my first welt. But you need to do it in at the most an hour. If you want to be in the money.”

Capable of also crafting Tudor shoes, Roman sandals, Yorkshire clogs, he favours creating footwear that medieval yeomen wore when fighting in battles of yore.

For that is his other passion: taking part while re-enacting battles fought on English soil – like the Battle of Towton which took place on Palm Sunday in 1461 near Tadcaster in North Yorkshire.

Towton village, it transpires, saw biggest and perhaps the bloodiest English battle with nearly 30,000 soldiers slain on the road from Tadcaster to Ferrybridge during a blizzard.

“Aye,” says Dan shaking his head. “Cousin against cousin, north versus south. The War of the Roses Federation group stages it yearly.”

Though the Towton event will give 2018 a miss.

It is just as well his suit of armour gives vital protection. As do the medieval riding boots he makes which reach the top of his thighs.

He has absorbed many a lusty blow raining down on his person from weapons like bill-hooks, gleves (a knife blade on the end of a pole), halberds and swords.

Here he mentions the Palm Sunday Archers, an enthusiastic group who meet once a month at Tadcaster’s Crooked Billet pub.

They are part of the Towton Battlefield Society, aiming to preserve the skills of the traditional longbow archers.

Dan doesn’t have a visor so he raises his arm up in front of his eyes. Because the mock arrows are blunted with a disc in front and they have big flights they lose energy quickly.

“They leave a bruise the size of a pound coin,” he says. “Partipants who sadly pass away tend not to be struck down by weapons so much as they suffer from heart attacks.”

“King Henry!” go the cries as swords clash and the wounded scream for all their worth. Everywhere lie bodies of the fallen.

Is it right that boots of slaughtered opponents are taken by the victors? “Only those made by Nelson’s”, says Dan deadpan as he shows me out into Duke Street.

Further details can be obtained by calling Dan Nelson on 01729 823523.