If you ever happen to be visiting London, and find yourself in the neighbourhood of St Paul’s Cathedral, take a little stroll down Watling Street, one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares, dating back to Roman times, and you’ll soon come to this beautiful bronze statue of a cordwainer.
A cordwainer, as any history-minded boot-lover should know, is an old-fashioned term for a maker of fine shoes and boots – as opposed to a cobbler, who repairs them. The term cordwainer originally derived from the Spanish town of Córdoba, which was the source of much of Europe’s finest leathers during the Middle Ages.
The type of soft, supple leather they used at the time came from Musoli goats and was ‘tawed’ by a secret process, using alum, that was supposedly known only to the Moors. When the Crusaders discovered how nice a fine pair of boots could be when they were off on their adventures in the East, they brought back not only boots, and the leather, but the demand as well and soon Córdoba, with its rich Moorish heritage was supplying its high quality leather throughout Europe.
The town became so closely linked with the best in leatherworking and bootmaking traditions that its name ultimately formed the root of the old English word for bootmaker – via a circuitous linguistic route from the Spanish term for Córdoban leather ‘Corduan’, to the French ‘Cordue’ (fine leather) and ‘Cordonnier’ (leather worker) to the English ‘Cordwain’ and ‘Cordwainer’
The earliest use of the term dates to around 1100 and may have come across the channel courtesy of the Norman Invasion. The first Cordwainer’s Guild appears in Oxford in 1131. In London, the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers – the guild to which the city’s bootmakers belonged – dates back at least as far as 1272, and possibly further. The company was given its Royal Charter in 1439 by King Henry IV, which allowed them to own property and have their own guild hall in London.
The original hall, built the following year on Distaff Lane, near St Paul’s churchyard, is long gone, having been destroyed and rebuilt five times over the centuries 1577, 1670 (after the Great Fire of London), 1788 and 1910. After it was destroyed in the Blitz in WWII, the Cordwainers decided not to rebuild again but share premises with the Clothworkers’ guild in Dunster Court.
The part of London where cordwainers and leatherworkers traditionally practiced their craft became known as the Ward of Cordwainer. It ancient streets lie within easy hearing of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church, the traditional definition of the ‘cockney’ part of London.
In fact, the statue of the Cordwainer – sculpted in 2002 by Alma Boyes, and cast by the historic Morris Singer foundry – originally sat in front of the church of St Mary-le-Bow, until it was moved just around the corner to its present location on Watling Street.