A statue of a cordwainer can be found in Watling Street at the Queen Victoria Street end, beside the wall of St. Mary Aldermary Church. A cordwainer is basically a shoemaker. The word derived from the Spanish town of Córdoba in Andalusia where high quality leather was produced. It was originally made from the skin of Musoli goats which was tawed with alum after a secret method only known to the Moors. The Crusaders brought the fine leather back to England and it became the material of choice for the best quality footwear.
In February 2002, this statue was unveiled by Alderman Sir Brian Jenkins, president of the Cordwainer Club. Not, by the way, in Watling Street, but in the courtyard of St Mary Le Bow Church where it stood for a couple of years before being moved to its present location. The statue was a joint initiative by the City of London Corporation and the Ward of Cordwainer Club to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ward Club.
The cordwainer statue was made by Alma Boyes who signed her name on the statue’s right hip (see photo below).She is a sculptor who was awarded a British Council scholarship in 1979 and worked with William Tymym on life-size bronzes of animals for zoos. She teaches ceramics at the University of Brighton since 1982. Her website can be found here. The cordwainer was cast by the Morris Singer foundry; you can just see their mark under Alma Boyes’s name. On their website they proclaim that “Morris Singer’s origins date back to 1848 and is recognised worldwide as the oldest fine art foundry in the world, where traditional values meet contemporary craftsmanship with quality and excellence throughout.”
The panel on the front of the statue explaining what the statue is about is still there, but the one on the side is missing. You can still see it on the picture of the statue in the courtyard of Bow Church and London Remembers has transcribed both the plaques. The missing panel contained the names of the contributors to the statue.
Cordwainer Ward is one of the smaller City wards and was traditionally the area were the shoemakers and leather workers lived and worked. James Elmes in his Topographical Dictionary of London and its Environs (1831) describes it as extending “from Walbrook eastward along Watling-street, to Red-Lion-court westward, and its principal streets are Bow Lane, Queen-street, Budge-row, Little St. Thomas Apostle, Pancras Lane, Size Lane, Basing Lane and a part of Watling-street”. For a clear modern map of the Ward see the post by Hidden London. The Ward was divided into eight precincts and served by three churches: St. Mary-le-Bow, St. Mary Aldermary and St. Antholin’s. The latter church was demolished in 1875 to make way for Queen Victoria Street; the parish was joined to that of St. Mary Aldermary.
The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers dates back at least to 1272 – there is a written document from that year – but perhaps it is even older. They obtained their Royal Charter in 1439 from Henry IV which gave them the right to own property and a hall. Although guilds started as organisations to control the trade and protect the rights of their members, many lost much of that focus over the centuries, especially after the Industrial Revolution, and the emphasis is now very much on charitable work and education. The Cordwainers provide scholarships, bursaries and prizes, and they promote the shoe industry in general.
Over the centuries, the Company has had five – not six as the blue plaque suggests – Halls in Great Distaff Lane. The lane was absorbed into Cannon Street when that street was extended and widened in 1853-4 and all that is now left of the site of the halls is a plaque in St. Paul’s Churchyard to mark the spot. The earliest Cordwainers’ Hall is recorded in 1440, so right after they obtained their Charter. It was rebuilt in 1577, destroyed in the Great Fire, rebuilt again in 1670, in 1788 and in 1910. After this last building was destroyed in the Blitz, it was decided not to rebuild yet again, but to move in with the Clothworkers in Dunster Court, Mincing Lane.
Cobblers and cordwainers, although both dealing in shoes were two distinct occupations. To put it simply, cordwainers made new shoes, cobblers repaired shoes. This is a gross oversimplification, but I am sure, you get the point. In 1395, the cobblers brought a suit against the cordwainers because they felt threatened by them and the age of the leather used was from then on to be the distinction. Cobblers were forbidden to make new shoes with new leather and cordwainers were forbidden to repair shoes.(1) The cobblers got round the injunction by salvaging old leather and making ‘new’ shoes out of that. In the sixteenth century, the two Companies merged and henceforth, both cobblers and cordwainers were members of the Cordwainers’ Company. Over the centuries, the distinction blurred even more, not least because shoe shops no longer all make or repair shoes, but the two terms still persist and if you wants your shoes repaired, you still go to a cobbler.
(1) M. Pelner Cosman and L.G. Jones, Handbook to Life in the Medieval World (2008), p. 195. Also see: W.M. Stern, “Control vs.freedom in leather production from the early seventeenth to the early nineteenth century” in The Guildhall Miscellany, II (1968), p. 438-42.