Much-loved shoemakers Ducker and Son, whose customers have included Rowan Atkinson, JRR Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, is to close permanently.
71-year old Bob Avery and his wife Isobel, who have made the shoes and run the shop together since 2006, said that they had tried but failed to find someone to take on the business for over five years. Bob said, 'The skills [for making these shoes] just don't seem to be there any more.' He added that he hoped to be out of the shop well before Christmas, and perhaps by the end of November.
A limited company was formed for the shop following the deaths of Ducker and his wife in 1947
Duckers was always something of a fixture in Oxford, and a glorious window shopping experience even for students who might not be able to afford a pair of shoes for £2-300. For all that, they were by the end a bargain compared to the soaring cost of rival shoes sold in London.
Frequent sales, stylish canvas bags and a terrific range of women's shoes transformed the business in recent years, but at the heart of everything was the Oxford Brogue, as much a part of the myth and lore of the University as Brideshead Revisited, with the implied overtones of well-heeled gentlemen, literally in this case, an easy transition between town and country and the sort of fashion-impervious style beloved of dons stretching back right across the 20th century.
So iconic did Duckers' become that at its apogee the shoes were featured in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, worn by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who played businessman Paul Marshall. The shoes in question were a pair of full tan brogues with a white buckskin front, and Duckers was name checked as well as it has been in more than one McEwan novel. For years a resident of North Oxford, McEwan was also an enthusiastic patron of Duckers'.The Turl Street shop was immortalised in the 2007 film Atonement
One could say that the closure of a shop is as commonplace as the opening of another, the retail environment being what it is these days with turbulent competitive forces such as the internet, and in Oxford the coming competition of the new Westgate shopping Centre. But where Duckers is concerned there is a whole history, a workshop and set of work practices, artistry and above all a complete set of patented and treasured lasts. Some of the lasts date from Edwardian times and are all but unique. Of the latter, Mr Avery says he will not give them away, since they are the ‘Intellectual Property’ that have stood behind the business for over a century.
The leather-bound book of customers that has always sat at the back of the store includes names to conjure with such as World War One air ace Baron von Richthofen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Bowes-Lyon (The late queen-mother's family) and several Maharajahs. More lately, they have included Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent, comedian Rowan Atkinson,Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and Forumla One boss Eddie Jordan.
When Mr Ducker arrived in Oxford with his boot-making tools in 1898 he joined at least 20 other shoemakers in the city. His company outlived every single one of them and was, until 2016, the last man standing and one of very few traditional hand-sewn shoemakers outside the West End of London (invariably with their factories in Northampton, it should be noted).
There has been a widespread revival of traditional British shoe making in recent years, triggered by Italian fashion house Prada’s takeover of Church’s in the 1990s. In that sense we have to remain hopeful that a third party will yet take on some aspect of the Ducker’s brand or heritage.
Dr Richard Lofthouse is the editor of Oxford Today
Images: Richard Lofthouse