At the age of fourteen Bill Bird had a foot problem that was making walking more and more difficult. The pain and discomfort of this condition not only led him to a career as a top bespoke orthopaedic shoemaker in the UK but to a starring role in a video teaching programme about his work, aimed at a worldwide audience.
Now aged 68 and a leading light in his profession, Bill recently attended the launch of the programme at a special showing to an invited audience of British and international footwear specialists at a gala dinner in London.
Bill’s wide-ranging skills and knowledge were amassed over more than 40 years as a shoemaker and last-maker in London’s West End and through his own thriving small business and workshop near Moreton in Marsh.
The filming was done at his workshop following an idea from Cotswold philanthropist Richard Paice and produced by Herefordshire based filmmakers, Artisan Media.
The series of 23 teaching videos – the result of 250 production hours – are now available worldwide on their own YouTube channel. As Bill’s legacy to all aspiring specialist shoemakers, they are also completely free of charge.
Apprentice shoemaker George Paish has walked away with a prestigious accolade just five months after joining Bill Bird Shoes in Blockley with no previous footwear experience.
The 26-year-old trainee from Moreton in Marsh was named the winner of the 2019 David Xavier Student Bespoke Shoemaking Award at the Independent Shoemakers’ Conference in Harrogate at the weekend (Feb 22-24). This is the second year running that the award has been scooped by a budding shoemaker from Bill Bird Shoes!
Not only were his leather Derby boots with suede and zip detailing the first pair he had ever made but this born and bred Moreton apprentice beat off stiff competition from two international graduates from the prestigious London College of Fashion and two entrants with Master’s Degrees in Footwear Design.
“I am delighted to have won as I really didn’t expect to. I chose the design as I wanted to create something different and eye catching that made people want to pick them up and look more closely,” said George.
“As the boots were made to my measurements I was able to experience the whole shoemaking process from both a client and maker’s perspective, which was a valuable learning experience and gave me an appreciation for the work we do.
“Having worked in a mixture of industries previously, from healthcare to a brief stint in joinery, it’s helped me realise I always wanted to work in an environment that allows me to be creative, practical and problem solving. Luckily I get to do all of these in the workshop every day!”
The award, in memory of Midlands’ shoemaker David Xavier, challenged budding shoemakers to make footwear to accommodate a medical condition. George’s boots accommodated high arches, rear foot equinus (where the upward bending motion of the ankle joint is limited), as well as a wide foot and high sitting toes.
Bill Bird Shoes has taken delivery of 60 pairs of beech spokes from Italy for making our hand carved bespoke orthopaedic lasts. This is the first time we have done this – most of our lasts have been made from beech planks from Germany.
The reason we decided to change is because a spoke is a log split into four. This makes it a much more efficient use of the wood and they are also cut from much younger trees.
“The way the last is cut from the spoke, the bark is parallel to the bottom of the last,” explains Bill Bird.
“There is much less tangential shrinkage along the width of the last than radial shrinkage in the height of the last. This means that the lasts are much more stable in shape and size over long periods of time.
“The final reason we decide to change is that the lasts can be made from one piece of wood, whereas with the planked wood they need to be glued up from two pieces. Again, this makes for a stronger last.”
“I am now walking around 8 miles a day, so it’s no wonder Ben is complaining,” said Victor.
“Previously I’d had some NHS orthotic shoes made but they just weren’t comfortable. I found Bill Bird Shoes in an internet search and I was pleased to find they were only two hours away from us in Corsham, Wiltshire.
“I had my first pair in August and picked up my second pair today (23.1.19). They have had a commando sole fitted to ensure I don’t wear them out!”
Bill Bird said he was delighted to craft the fell boots for Victor that allow him to walk with confidence and in comfort – and hopes he hasn’t upset Ben too much!
Bill Bird Shoes has taken delivery of three machines that will help improve results, achieve greater precision and provide greater safety for our bespoke shoemakers.
The shoemakers in Gloucestershire solve fitting and walking difficulties for people across the UK by handcrafting made-to-measure footwear. The team was offered a state-of-the-art Italian skiving machine for upper leathers free of charge – the only problem was that it was at the German School of Orthopaedic Shoemaking in Dusseldorf!
This did not deter Bill Bird shoemaker Chris and his dad Mick, who drove the 22-hour round trip to pick up the machine and return it to our workshop in the Cotswolds. And very grateful we are too.
Extra safety, greater confidence
The second machine we bought from our dear friend and fellow shoemaker, David Xavier, who died in 2016. It is a German-made combination leather trimmer and skiver that allows us to trim heavy soles, among other things.
A drill press completes the list and this allows us to achieve really accurate drilling, which is especially useful when adding heels or making lasts, the wooden blocks around which shoes are made.
Previously we would have carried out the tasks by hand with hand drills and knives and there was the danger we would cut the leather uppers – or ourselves – if we slipped. These big, heavy, solid machines can be relied upon to steady the work and give even the least experienced of us the confidence to do an excellent job every time.
Buying a pair of handmade shoes or boots is an investment. You can double the life of your made-to-measure footwear by buying a bespoke shoe or boot tree.
Hand crafted by the bespoke orthopaedic shoemakers at Bill Bird Shoes in the Cotswolds, the shoe tree replicates your last – the wooden blocks around which your shoes are made.
The shoe tree is easy to get into and out of your shoes. Every time the shoe tree is placed back into your shoe it reforms it, taking it back to its original shape. This helps avoid creases forming over the vamp, the front of the shoe or boot, keeping them smooth and new-looking.
Shoe trees from Bill Bird Shoes cost between £120 – £140 and boot trees start at £300 and are made from either beech wood or aromatic cedar.
If you would like to find out more about the handmade shoe and boot trees from Bill Bird Shoes in the Midlands, please get in touch. You can email or call us on 01386 700855 and we look forward to hearing from you.
Bill, Russell and Emily have plenty of experience of planning and hosting the much-anticipated annual event and were happy to share their tips. This is the first time Tony and Jane, from T Slinger Footwear, have hosted the event – and they have lots of great ideas up their sleeves!
The conference, taking place on February 22nd – 24th at the Old Swan Hotel, is set to attract shoemakers from across the world, including Lisa Sorrell, America’s finest cowboy bootmaker and Swedish bespoke shoemaker, Carina Eneroth.
The event will include lots of different topics, talks and workshops about shoes and feet and we are very much looking forward to attending.
We are so proud to announce that Chris Thorne of Bill Bird Shoes in Gloucestershire scooped the David Xavier Award at the 20th Independent Shoemakers Conference in Eastbourne recently – with his first ever pair of shoes.
The annual award, in memory of Midlands’ shoemaker and dear friend David Xavier, challenged budding shoemakers to make footwear to accommodate a medical condition.
Chris previously worked as an upholsterer in the vintage car industry for many years before joining Bill Bird Shoes. Although Chris has been making lasts here for a few years now, his winning entry, a pair of dark tan Derby brogues, the first pair of shoes he had ever made by himself.
Chris also produced an eye-catching portfolio describing the process he went through including his many mistakes and learnings along the way. He was presented with a silver trophy, £300 cash and £300 in leather vouchers.
Adele Williamson, an apprentice bespoke shoemaker at Tricker’s of Northampton, was named runner up. Adele’s entry was a pair of very elegant zip up the inside ankle boots to her own design.
Adele graduated with a BA from DMU in Footwear Design and Illustration in 2016 before being taken on by Tricker’s, which has been producing distinctive and carefully crafted shoes and boots since 1829. The contest attracted six entries and was a close run thing between the two of them.
Voting was made by the 80 delegates of the conference rather than by a panel. Each delegate had a little wooden last shape to tuck into a brown envelope next to the contestant’s entry.
Today is the 30th anniversary of taking up the lease of Unit 49 – wow! That’s a lot of water under the bridge!
The first pair of Bill Bird Shoes was made in the attic of 5 Bovill Road, London SE23 1HB as early as 1984.
I moved with my family to Mickleton, Gloucestershire, in September 1986. Henry was 10 months old, Camilla was 4 1/2 and Thomas was 7 1/2.
I worked in the back of Andy’s Blockley Cobbler shop in Blockley village from November 1986 until about June 1987. I used the north half of Unit 31 in Northwick Business Centre around the corner from Apt Design and Development after that.
I mostly commuted to London 4 days a week, sleeping overnight in Peen’s workshop in The Elephant and Castle area of SE London. Lobb’s owned Peens and I still worked for them at the time. I occasionally made lasts and shoes for the proto-business during that period.
Derek Smith and I started to build a workshop in the north half of Unit 31 in the summer of 1987.
When the opportunity of Unit 49 came up, we jumped at it and left Unit 31 gradually over the next couple of months.
I still commuted and worked for Lobb’s until May 9th 1988 when Mr Eric Lobb found out about Bill Bird Shoes and banished me. That’s when the business became a full time enterprise. Thank you Mr Eric. Without you doing that, it all may have just remained a part time hobby!
I started going to Freeman Tonkin, 34 Chiltern Street, across the street from Grey Flannel in spring 1987 for one day a week. They were a specialist shoe shop for people with fitting and walking difficulties and I did the bespoke work for those they could not fit off the shelf. That kicked off our client list big time!
I think the designated birthday of Bill Bird Shoes should be set as March 3rd 1987 to reflect the development of the business before Unit 49, especially as that’s about the time we set up on Chiltern Street. So… Happy 31st, Bill Bird Shoes!
Gloucestershire-based Bill Bird Shoes recently appeared in The Bulletin, a national magazine published by the British Polio Fellowship. Following its publication, we were really pleased to receive an email from one of its readers praising the work our skilled, bespoke shoemakers carry out.
I read the article on the Cordwainer in the New Year edition and was pleased to note that reference was made to Bill Bird Shoes. This is because that after my left ankle was rearranged in a car crash in 1990 I have used the services of Bill and his brilliant team to make all my boots.
Bill and his team have worked brilliantly with me over the years in producing not just the normal black leather boots but Desert Boots, Hiking Boots of both medium and high ankle support, a pair of tan boots that look like moccasins and the most comfortable pair of slippers that I can wear around the house safely without having to use my ankle support.
You are always met with open arms and tea or coffee, plus they have a resident cat and, if Russell has some of his menagerie with him that day, some very friendly dogs.
It is always a pleasure to visit Bill and his team in the knowledge that you will always get what you need from people who listen to what you need and produce fantastic footwear.