Joseph Cheaney established the company in 1886, and in 1896, along with his son Arthur, they moved to the site which the factory occupies today.
During the first 80 years of business, the factory made shoes exclusively for some of the finest retailers around the world, branded to their individual company requirements.
Joseph Humfrey Cheaney, the founder’s grandson who worked for the company for 51 years, realised that the company’s future lay in building up its own Cheaney brand for its home and export markets. In 1964, determined to see the legacy built up by the family continue, the decision was taken to sell the business to Church’s English Shoes. The Cheaney brand then became available to retailers all over the world, backed by a comprehensive stock service from the Desborough factory.
In 1966 Cheaney won the Queen's Award for Industry and in 2016, the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.
In 2009 Jonathan and William Church bought the company. Their family has been making fine shoes for five generations and they are fully committed to producing the finest footwear entirely made in England.
The image shows Cheaney's Northamptonshire factory circa 1900 (same factory as today)
Northamptonshire is renowned as the home of quality English shoemaking, and it is interesting to explore what prompted this industry to develop in the first place. The popular theory is that in the 1600s there was ample availability of materials for tanning leather. This, so the story goes, coupled with the need to re-shod the armies about to fight the Battle of Naseby, spawned the nascent shoe industry. It’s a nice folk tale, but the reality is more prosaic.
There were no factories in the 17th century, and it was around 200 years later that the oldest shoe families began to become more organised, which led to the establishment of manufactories. So it was with Cheaney. Joseph Cheaney had been the factory manager of B. Riley, but in 1886 established J. Cheaney, Boot & Shoemakers in a small premises in Station Road, Desborough. At the time, many people were engaged in the making of shoes, but rather than carrying out the whole operation, they would specialise in a part of the process. This would typically be done in outhouses, known as shops, at the bottom of their gardens. At each stage of the making process, the shoe would move to a different ‘shop’ until the end product would go a collection point for distribution, which was facilitated by the burgeoning road and rail network. Before this, a local shoemaker would only supply customers in his immediate vicinity.
There were about seven shoe factories in Desborough at this time, and in 1890, Arthur Cheaney joined his father’s company. In 1896, the business moved to the site it still occupies today in a purpose built factory to house all aspects of shoemaking, from the cutting out of the leather (clicking) to the final polishing. Although some manufacturers now outsource the initial production of the uppers to the Far East, Cheaney shoes are still cut out and ‘closed’ in Desborough, Northamptonshire as they have been since 1886.
Joseph Cheaney was a prominent local character, being a local councillor and also had involvement in the Church. He was interested in the welfare of local children, and it appears that he used to keep them supplied with oranges.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Harold Cheaney joined his father and brother in the business, which led to the company name changing to J. Cheaney & Sons in 1903. It became a limited company in 1920, with a paid up share capital of £40,000, which was substantial for the time.
There are a couple of amusing anecdotes concerning the independent nature of the workforce in the early part of the 20th century. Desborough shoemakers took a lively interest in the local hunt and requested permission to go and watch the spectacle. This was refused, but the workforce went anyway, thus finishing production for the day! On another occasion, a sales representative for a last manufacturer came to demonstrate a more efficient way of handling lasts (the three dimensional form on which shoes are made). The workforce took exception to having their working practices criticised and promptly threw the salesman in the local duck pond, thus incurring each of them a £5 fine for their trouble! At that time Cheaney had a 54 hour working week spread over five and a half days.
The factory was kept very busy in the First World War, producing about 2500 pairs per week of stitched and screwed boots and shoes. Building on this success, the company continued to flourish, even through the lean post-war years and the global depression of the 1930s. Production was modernised, whilst retaining the same handcrafting methods and the distribution base was broadened to include the major conurbations of the United Kingdom. Very few shoes were exported at this time.
Joseph Humphrey (usually known as “Dick”) Cheaney, the grandson of the founder, joined the company in 1930 where he stayed until his retirement in 1981, except for a period in the Second World War when he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.
After the war, “Dick” Cheaney saw that it was vital to expand the company’s distribution into export markets, not only for the business but also for the United Kingdom, which desperately needed to earn foreign currency. He was also committed to continuing his father’s and grandfather’s policy of maintaining high quality standards in terms of manufacture and materials. This contributed to Cheaney’s growing reputation as a shoemaker. In the post war years up to the early part of the 1960s, the company did not produce under its own brand but made shoes for major retail groups in the USA and the UK that were then sold under their names. Whilst this enabled Cheaney to grow the business to a point, “Dick” Cheaney realised that in order to secure the future of the company, he needed to have an alliance with an organisation that had retail outlets in the UK and an established export market.
In 1966, Cheaney won the Queen’s Award to Industry for export achievement and was also sold to Church & Company plc.
The Cheaney of England brand was launched in 1967 and this was the first time since its inception that it had marketed shoes under its own name. In 1971, Cheaney again won the coveted Queens Award to Industry for Export. Overseas sales continued to grow until the adverse effect of the inflationary pressures of the 1970s, which affected Cheaney along with many other British exporters. In fact, by the dawn of the 1980s, many Northamptonshire shoe companies had ceased trading.
Even in this very challenging environment, Cheaney continued to prosper at home, assisted by the introduction of an instock system of branded footwear. It was this that enabled the company to sell to independent retailers and promoted the brand to a growing number of discerning buyers. By the mid-1980s, Cheaney’s export business had recovered well and, by the approach of the new millennium, had a very healthy order book in terms of both its own branded product and also the footwear made for other retailers.
In early 2002, Cheaney opened its flagship store in London, which helped raise the awareness of the brand.
In August, 2009, cousins Jonathan and William Church conducted a management buy-out of Cheaney from Church & Co (by then a wholly owned subsidiary of Prada). They now own and operate the company and are committed to continuing the production of high quality shoes entirely made in Northamptonshire, from the cutting out of the leather to the final polishing, just as it was in 1886.