Meet the small Norwich shoemaker cushioning the feet of film stars and royals
PUBLISHED: 10:57 31 August 2018 | UPDATED: 14:40 31 August 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
The last of Norwich’s shoemaking giants may be closing its doors – but a small city manufacturer is keeping the tradition alive.
Bowhill and Elliott makes a range of embroidered slippers in a factory hidden behind its London Street shop, with its seven-strong team producing around 6,000 pairs a year.
Two-thirds of its hand-lasted – or moulded – slippers are sold through high-end retailers such as Crockett and Jones while the rest are made to order, with pairs worn by US and French presidents, British royalty and film stars.
It designs bespoke embroidery for customers, from personal monograms to animals.
The company is also one of the last remaining producers of turn shoes, brought to Norwich from the Netherlands by the Strangers in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Although turn shoes only make up a small proportion of the business – around 500 pairs are made a year – the different manufacturing process requires the whole factory to be re-configured, meaning their production is condensed into just a few weeks of the year.
Norwich shoemaker Van Dal is closing its diminished factory in the city for the last time this week as it sends the final 15% of its production overseas.
Roger Jury, Bowhill and Elliott managing director, said its factory was an intentionally well-kept secret so as not to detract from the firm’s retail offering in its shop, which stocks brands including Loake and Tricker’s.
“My philosophy has been to keep this secret, but we are doing more on Instagram with the slippers and we are finding that is helping with our international business,” he said.
Mr Jury feels the balance of power is shifting from retailers to manufacturers, particularly smaller specialists. Over the past 20 years the proportion of Bowhill and Elliott’s £750,000 turnover contributed by its manufacturing operations has doubled.
He said: “With the internet people can see these products and find out where they were made, so they can buy them for their own stores or for themselves.”
He thinks the company’s manufacturing process will stay traditional. “With shoemaking there are so many operations to go into it that people do not appreciate. A lot of the work you cannot mechanise. If you are working to a small scale you do not want to take the hand craft out of it,” he said. “For many buyers the provenance of a product is as important to them as the product itself. That is why small pockets of manufacturers are thriving in Britain.”
The history of Bowhill and Elliott
Bowhill and Elliott has been selling shoes on London Street for 144 years.
Founder Obadiah Bowhill bought the business from Wright and Co in 1874, and it passed to his son and son-in-law, Thomas Baines Elliott, at the end of the 19th century.
Managing director Roger Jury is the fifth generation of the Elliott family to have worked in the business.
Until purchasing a shoe manufacturer which specialised in turn shoes in the 1960s, Bowhill and Elliott made bespoke shoes from a factory in London Street.
It began making embroidered slippers in the 1970s, which have grown to represent around 90% of its business.
It also had a team of shoe repairers based at its London Street premises.