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Chesham has a long history of shoe and bootmaking. In a directory of 1792 boot making was described as the second most important industry of Chesham. By the 18th century there were two main tanneries, one owned by William Mead in Water Lane next to a bark mill and the other in the High Street near the entrance to Sainsbury’s. This was owned by Patrick Hepburn. The three main elements required by a tannery were hides, water and tannin (from tree bark). All of these were readily available.
Most shoe and bootmakers worked from their own homes. The 1851 census found 291 male shoemakers and 85 women shoe binders. By the 19th century heavy boots worn by working men were being produced of leather, with steel toe caps and hob nails. Late in the century as industrialisation came in, several factories were built with modern machinery installed, mostly in the developing area of Newtown. However, there was the large John Hayes & Son factory built in Waterside, now the Bagnall Centre. Now, instead of the boot being made by one craftsman, the work was divided between several workers each making a part of the boot. Several thousand boots were being made each week, mainly for the London market.
In the 20th century the trade began to decline as Chesham continued to specialise in heavy working men’s boots whilst the fashion changed to lighter shoes. Giffard Newton & Sons which began in Church Street in 1854 and later moved to Townsend Road was the last survivor of the town’s long history. It closed in 2005.