Bacon, beans and fried egg, cooked on the camping stove overlooking a lake, is the perfect way to start the day. We are in Northamptonshire, the heart of the world-renowned English shoemaking region, to meet Paul Sargent from Alfred Sargent shoes, a fourth generation shoemaker. Alfred Sargent has been synonymous with quality English shoemaking since 1899. We met Paul at the company’s premises in Rushden, Northamptonshire, a spot it has occupied for over 100 years.
We follow an external green ‘office’ sign up a few stairs and ring the bell. Moments later the black door swings open and Paul greets us. He takes us straight into the factory and walks us through the journey of the shoe, from design patterns to the fully-assembled shoe. The first room we head into has cutting patterns of the different shoes and layers of leather hide stacked on shelving units. Through some double doors, we are in the large factory space.
Single storey, open plan and full of activity, different noises ring out from the different machines, with highly skilled craftsmen cutting, assembling, shaping and hand printing the famous Alfred Sargent shoe, step-by-step, technique after technique. Paul says, “making shoes is an art assisted by the machine. Everyone here is highly skilled at what they do.” He talks us through each stage with a detail that only a lifetime of shoe making can allow, sharing with us Northampton’s past, the factory’s shoe making history and a process that hasn’t changed that much over the years.
Alfred Sargent started the business with his two sons Frank and Harry, back in 1899. Frank, Paul’s grandfather, was in charge of selling, while Harry was the technician because he had trained at Rolls Royce. The factory was geared up to export to America but, with the onset of the Second World War, all of the factories were commandeered to make army boots, so each factory had to change production and product. After the war, Paul’s father took over the business and it wasn’t until 1964, after studying at college, that Paul came into the family business. He learned quickly saying, “I worked in every department, so I could use all the machinery and fully understand the process.” Paul now oversees all the output, ensuring high standards are always met. The team he has around him has years of experience. Paul says, “most of these people have been here a long time, some are second and third generation. They either stay here six months or go out in a box. Shoe making’s in the blood in this area.”
This group of master craftsmen, under the watchful eye of Paul Sargent, continues to produce and hand finish shoes using the same techniques as generations of Sargent's have done for over a century. Paul says, “for me it’s a passion. I believe you have to enjoy what you do, but the real satisfaction comes from a customer who puts on a shoe and is really happy with the fit and the feel.” This dedication, focus and years of experience means that whatever shoe you choose from the Alfred Sargent collection, you can ensure quality craftsmanship from heel to toe.