A Little History of Cherington and Stourton, Warwickshire
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Based on material from the website of the Honourable Company of Cordwainers

Cordwainers - An Ancient Calling

The term "Cordwainer" (usually pronounced "cordner") is an anglicization of the French word cordonnier, introduced into our language after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The word itself is derived from the city of Cordoba, in the south of Spain, a stronghold of the mighty Omeyyad Kalifs until its fall in the 12th century. Moorish Cordoba was celebrated for two staple trades in the early Middle Ages, silversmithing and the production of cordouan (cordovan) leather, called "cordwain" in England.

Originally made from the skin of the Musoli goat, then found in Corsica, Sardinia, and elsewhere, this leather was "tawed" with alum after a method supposedly known only to the Moors. English Crusaders brought home much plunder and loot, including the finest leather the English shoemakers had ever seen. Gradually cordouan, or cordovan leather became the material most in demand for the finest footwear in all of Europe.

The English term cordwainer , meaning shoemaker, first appears in 1100. By the late 13th century a distinction grew in England between Cordwainers. proper, called alutari, who used only alum "tawed" cordwain, and another class of shoemakers called basanarii, who employed an inferior "tanned" sheepskin which was prohibited for footwear apart from long boots.

Since this period the term cordouan, or cordovan leather, has been applied to several varieties of leather. Today cordovan leather is a"vegetable tanned" horse "shell," and like the Medieval cordwain is used only for the highest quality shoes.

Since the Middle Ages the title of Cordwainer has been selected by the shoemakers themselves, and used rather loosely; however, generally it always refers to a certain class of shoe and boot-makers. The first English guild of shoemakers who called themselves "Cordwainers" was founded at Oxford in 1131.

"Cordwainers" was also the choice of the London shoemakers, who had organized a guild before 1160, and the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers has likewise used this title since receiving their first Ordinances in 1272.

First Cordwainers in America

The first "Cordwainers," or shoemakers, to arrive in America went to Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in this continent established in 1607. Captain John Smith, an alleged Cordwainer himself, was first among the leaders of the settlement, perhaps the earliest outpost of the British Empire. Captain Smith's historic adventure of settlement was, in part, supported by profits made in the English shoe trade.

Shoemakers, tanners, and other tradesmen had arrived in Jamestown by 1610, and the Secretary of Virginia had recorded the flourishing shoe and leather trades there as early as 1616. The first shoemaker to arrive in America whose name has been preserved was Christopher Nelme, who had sailed from Bristol, England and arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Nearly one year later, when the first Pilgrim settlers landed in Massachusetts, they relied upon the colony in Virginia for several vital commodities and when the first shoemakers arrived there, in 1629, it is likely that they survived in part on Virginia leather until their own tanners were established. Throughout the late seventeenth century, Virginian exported her leather to New England, initially supplying the shoe trade which boomed there after the 1760s.

Cordwainers and Cobblers

One distinction preserved by Cordwainers since the earliest times is, that a Cordwainer works only with new leather, where a Cobbler works with old. Cobblers have always been repairers, frequentl prohibited by law from actually making shoes.Even going so far as to collect worn-out footwear, cut it apart, and remanufacture cheap shoes entirely form salvaged leather, Cobblers have contended with Cordwainers since at least the Middle Ages. In 16th century London the Cordwainers solved their conflicts with the Cobblers of that city by placing them under the powerful authority of the Cordwainer's guild, thus merging with them.

Whenever shoemakers have organized, they have shown a clear preference for the title "Cordwainer," conscious of the distinguished history and tradition it conveys. Today's Cordwainer is no exception. The current generation of boot and shoemakers includes a growing number of self-employed tradesmen and women, who having largely adopted early hand-sewn techniques supplemented by only a few simple machines out of economic necessity, continue to practice the traditional skills established centuries ago. In the face of declining domestic footwear production every year, it can be easily said that the true future of this trade lies in its past, and is being insured by the skilled hands of these modern Cordwainers.