Much-loved shoemakers Ducker and Son, whose customers have included Rowan Atkinson, JRR Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, is to close permanently.

DuckerDucker & Son was founded by Edward Ducker in 1898 
 
By Richard Lofthouse
What a shock. One of the great retail fixtures of central Oxford is closing this month. Ducker & Son, familiar as Duckers', the shoe shop in Turl Street that first opened its doors in 1898, has had a closing down 'all stock must go' sign in its store window since September.
 
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.
Ducker & SonA limited company was formed for the shop following the deaths of Ducker and his wife in 1947 
 
Avery declined to comment about the business conditions, noting only that he had reached an age when he hoped to have some retirement, having worked in the business for years prior to taking on the management ten years ago.
 
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'.Ducker & Son was founded by Edward Ducker in 1898The 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

Comments

By Don Rudalevige
on

The closing of the Taj Mahal in the Turl represented a change in the culture, but the closing of Ducker's is even more symbolic of the passing of an age. We are doomed to wallow in nostalgia, while chains and mass-marketing take over our society. Perhaps that is sour grapes, but not all change is for the better! (Just look at Brexit and the AmericanPresidency!)

By Lawrence Stanton
on

Bought shoes there the first time when I was a student in the 1970s. The loss of these special shops leaves a gapping hole (similar to the loss of the beautiful shops in Bath).

By Neil Anderson
on

This is extremely disappointing and depressing news for those of us who appreciate well made footwear. Bob and Isobel have supplied me with great shoes (and socks - what wonderful socks!) for the past twenty odd years. Their shop will be sorely missed.

By Ed Parker
on

Thinking about change: Is there both loss and gain? In my 80 years of life I have witnessed radical change in many areas. From my point of view we frequently gain much with the new changes, but then there is also often major loss. We have tended in the first world to become a global village, but we have often lost the personal skills of daily interface. Community suffers often in the so-called digital age. Modular construction in electronics, for example, means that many technicians have become black box operators knowing the connections needed and the power supply required, but having lost most of the finer detail. In this world we will eventually find that with automation not many of us will be needed to do the tasks - how we spend our leisure time will become more and more critical. Change of course is the only constant!

By Martin Hickey
on

Try Shoe Zone

By ANTHONY SPEAIGHT
on

Soon after I arrived at Lincoln College in 1967 I went to Ducker's shop. Having arranged to buy a pair of shoes (which given my limited means cannot have been particularly expensive) and given my name, the gentleman who served me, said, "I recall an earlier customer of your name". He promptly got down a large leather bound book and found the name of my uncle, who went down over forty years earlier in 1925. He added, "He does not owe us anything." What a lovely shop!

By David Morris
on

I agree that the shoes are wonderful, but a reading of the attitude, particularly politeness, of the vendors, as chronicled by many potential purchasers of shoes on a number of sites online might explain the 'business conditions' about which Avery refused to comment.

By David S. Katz
on

This is too sad. I bought my first pair of Duckers in the early 1970s. I have a very clear memory of the old man explaining to me that shoes should not be too big, and that he "didn't have time" to tie the laces in crosses, but they should be straight across. Those shoes lasted for many years, and were replaced in good time. I should have listened to his advice to always buy two of everything you like.

By Dan
on

They have absolutely brilliant socks. I shall miss them.

By David Clarke
on

Got married in a pair of Duckers' black Monks shoes in 1976! Still got them.

By Anna Chisman
on

This comment is not about Duckers, sad though its closing may be. It's about the demise of the Taj Majal: I had not known that it had closed and am shocked to the core. The Taj was almost the only place we could afford to go to in the sixties, if we didn't want to eat in college. More than that, it educated us about wild and wonderful food beyond the roast beef and boiled cabbage that had been our lot at school.

By Alexander Wagner
on

This is so sad. I have a pair of their shoes that local shoemakers could not fix. I was hoping to send them in, and now I see this sad news. I hope they have a wonderful retirement.

By John Boyce
on

Have just read about Duckers. My father would have been horrified at the news: he ran the Rowell jewellery business in High Street for many years after WW2. He did not live long enough to see that close down and move to its present tiny location in Turl Street.
Regards,
John Boyce
Sydney Australia

By Francis Bown
on

This is sad news. But, fortunately, fine shoemakers can still be found in London - including George Cleverley & Co., where the finest bespoke shoes in the world can be obtained. (See: www.bownsbespoke.com for reviews.)

By Saul Hillel Benjamin
on

For Ducker & Sons, At Autumn’s End

With gratitude, though mournfully now without brogue

Months of waiting: then everyone
Clamoring down the hill
To the orchards for its meats.
Winter long, rooted
Snug in bed with books

Up to our armpits, we plotted
Summer’s populations:
The musty peach, the sex
Of pears; the sorbs and apples.
Amulets for our mouths to dream.

Differences are what count.
I can tell by the actual thump
Whether it’s an apple
Or a sorb that’s hit the path
Or the soft or hard ground.

Apples recite: delicious, sweet.
Sorbs are blunt.
Some of us need ladders,
But others have only
To reach for what they need.

Lowest branches deliver up
Their goods with least objection.
But even topmost fruits fall down
To mumble from our wooden crates.
Delicious bitter, delicious red.

What was it like that first October
Standing, somehow reverent,
At the door of fabled Ducker’s
Where steadfast generations savored
What their pockets couldn’t provide?

I remember imagined pleasure
That coins I’d still not mastered
Might if boldly saved someday earn
An appointment to be measured
By the skilled hands of a craftsman.

That purchased day is lost; but others came:
Hardly a day walking down the Trull
Past lovely Lincoln on my right
To the Taj on my hungry left,
Returning in fallen light to admire.

Falling light tempts the mind to war:
In search of what we might become
We strip the summer down to seed,
And lug our thievings up the hill.
We steal what we already own.

Saul Hillel Benjamin, BNC

By Lev Sviridov
on

It is establishments and shop keepers that make for the Oxford experience. Having worked with Bob and Isobel, Oxford is losing a proud tradition and a great piece of it's history. I will treasure the memories and am sorry for the future generation of Oxonians who will not see such an institution.

By Laurie
on

I couldn't afford a pair of Ducker's shoes as an undergraduate in 1978 but now I regret not splashing out in later life.

By Michael Nedden
on

Anna Chisman: Re Taj Mahal: I recall that in the early 60s this Indian restaurant, favored owing to its affordable menu and an escape from insipid boiled brussels sprouts and frozen lamb cutlets, was also from time to time questioned by the authorities on the crates of canine and feline food in tins found on their shelves, as reported by the local press,. After being closed down for a while the place would reopen to resume business as usual. Believe it or not...

By Robert
on

What dreadful, mournful news. Ducker & Sons is a true icon, not just of Oxford the city but also of the experience of being a student at Oxford. I couldn't afford the shoes when I was a student (though oh how I aspired) but the shop was always there, we always looked and I never lost an opportunity to admire the shoes. I am sure that my first in PPE was a direct result of the aspirational motivation to own a pair. To Ducker & Sons, we must raise a glass.

By Olivia
on

Ducker's was part of growing up in Oxford for me. My father was a fellow at Exeter, just down the road, and used to take me into Ducker's to get his shoes repaired. The leathery smell and old-fashioned feel of the little shop is something I have always remembered and associate with my father.

By Richard
on

So sad to hear of the business closing; this was a true classic of a shoe shop. I first bought a pair of shoes there in 2012 but have since bough 3 more pairs. It's true that they are not cheap but they do represent good value for money as the quality in unsurpassed. The quality of service from Bob & Isobel was always superb; keen to give expert advise rather than just make a sale.

I hope Bob and Isobel have a long and happy retirement; it is well deserved!

Thank you both.

By Graeme Fife
on

We lament for the passing of Ducker
Whose shoes are a byword for pukka,
For even a clod
When in Duckers shod
Is a god of footwear, not a sucker.

By Margaret (Queen...
on

Graeme - Love it! How about weighting the last line like this:-
"Is of footwear a god, not a sucker."

By James Steadman
on

I read these posts because I had a pair of Duckers golf shoes when I was up in the late 1950's, but was surprised to see John Boyce's post mentioning Rowell's (now moved to Turl Street, he says). At an auction of the contents of the kitchen at 21 Merton Street in 1961 I bought the wall clock,which had the words "Rowell Oxford" on the face. I still have it, although it hasn't gone for years; maybe I could get it fixed there.

By Nick Vanston
on

I bought my first pair of Ducker shoes in the 1960s. I thought that they were remarkably good value for money. The then proprietor said that he could not see how he was going to be able to continue in business because of the costs. When I went back several years later to replace them, I saw that the shoe prices had risen substantially, even allowing for inflation, but they were still competitively priced.

By Hugh Dolan
on

A shop that will be sadly missed. I could not afford a pair when I was up; but just before my departure to Bosnia as a soldier I bought a pair of high top brogues. Still have them twenty years on.

By Louisa Dugan
on

Would have loved a pair of handmade shoes as these. Wonder if the ship is still sailing, perhaps I could still have time to purchase of the remaining stock. Such a sad loss - values shifting to quickly toward a disposable mindset, forgetting the sturdiness and soundness of a good shoe.

By Clive Wilkinson
on

So sad to loose this wonderful shoe shop. I have been a customer since 1973 and still have an accumulation of over a dozen pairs of Duckers shoes in alternating daily use. What will also be missed is the fantastic repair service, which has kept those of my remaining shoes dating back well over 20 years in almost "like new" condition. Collecting a pair of my repaired shoes from the shop has always been an added pleasure because it is like buying a new pair which fit perfectly and immediately like a glove. I wish Bob and Isobel well on their retirement. They brought a new and innovative life into quality footwear at affordable prices.

By Geoff Wood
on

If you have ever worn a pair of these wonderful shoes, you will know what a loss this closure is. I have 6 pairs in my wardrobe, bought over 20 plus years. They are just so comfortable and they shrug off the wear and tear of every day, especially if you rotate them. All the value is in the materials and the making, rather than in the marketing. Maybe there is someone out there who can make the business work.

By Ramya Perera
on

I used wear shoes hand made, growing up in Sri Lanka, to match with my share and dresses.
I fboticed no matter how your cloths look fab, if shoes does not look fab, quality always show the
Pride and your dignity, good shoes when walking give a sound which is like a suprano .
My husband used wear in 1957v someone taken never found, I was very sad that all quality items
and old fashion business disappearing and cheap stuff we pay for very limited time.

By Matthew McKaig
on

What sad news...I bought shoes from Duckers in the 80s. I was sold a particularly fine pair of deerskin (I was informed) shoes by an elderly gentleman who I presumed was 'old Mr Ducker' (evidently not the case as I now discover, but certainly a descendent of the founder) He had served the Red Baron - before the First World War, also, later on, Evelyn Waugh - the latter using rooms above the shop for carousing and drinking...he had other stories, but above all I will remember him for his charm and knowledge of what was a good pair of shoes. The closure of this shop is genuine loss to Oxford.

By CLIFF NEWPORT
on

All my adult life I would halt and press my nose to the window of Ducker and Son. Finally at the age of sixty my daughter bought me a shoe and sent me to the shop to buy the other. I have this beautiful pair of Oxford Brogues , Ox blood red, gorgeous. People without fail comment on my shoes.... Nice shoes they say... Thank you . They are from Duckers of the Turl I proudly reply. Ten years on they are my pride and joy. Bob showed us the basement full of lasts and spoke of past customers . A memorable experience, more than just a purchase . I am so sad at the passing . Bob is a gentle man and his wife so sweet. Farewell . Farewell.

By Jennifer Bryan-Brown
on

This sad news had passed me by until the item on BBC's Inside Out programme this evening. (I obviously haven't been paying sufficient attention to Oxford Today ...!) The fascinating report didn't mention the ladies' shoes. I bought several pairs at Duckers when an undergraduate at BNC -- helpfully so nearby! -- in the late 1970s. The closure of the shop is so sad, though not surprising in this day and age. What an indictment of the times that the proprietors had tried unsuccessfully for five years to sell the business as a going concern. Another case of change and decay ...

By Trevor Coppock
on

That shop has been associated with footwear for a very long time indeed. In the 1860's it was in the hands of local man Samuel Woodward and his wife Jane (from Dagenham). They employed 6 men and two boys in the shop according to the 1861 census. Sam and Jane's son Harry Samuel (b 1855) married one of my not too distant relatives, Louisa Taylor. Harry and Louisa continued to run the business until around the late 1890's. In the 1901 census Harry is listed as a retired boot maker.

By Stephen Maynard
on

I remember standing, like one of the "steadfast generations" in SHB's poem, "somehow reverent" gazing at the display in Ducker's window when I was up in the early eighties. As I remember, you could not quite see the precise colour of the shoes because the window was covered on the inside by a film of some sort of protective cellophane. I remember, too, leafing avariciously through the catalogue, which came in the form of a booklet of postcards weighing the relative merits of aniline leather over box-calf.
The first pair of Ducker's that I owned were those delectable Bull's Blood Oxfords for which I paid £65 (!!!!) and before I emigrated to Canada I bought a full suite of shoes from Duckers -- Penny Loafers, Brogues, Suede Boots, and another pair of Oxfords -- which, with occasional resoles, lasted me a good twenty years.
The loss of such a venerable institution adds another reason to neither want or need to go back to an Oxford that is perhaps now better visited only in memory.

By Nicholas Money
on

I own and love numerous pairs of shoes purchased from Ducker and Son over the last 10+ years. Spending my youth in Oxford as town not gown, the costly shoes were pure aspiration. Living my adulthood in the United States, transatlantic trips to the UK provided frequent opportunities to purchase the shoes that I had seen through the misted Turl Street window on rainy days in the 1970s. The fit is (has been) extraordinary and I have met fans of the business by chance through idle conversations in my international travels. The closure of the business is sad; indeed, methinks is like another fall of man.

By Barry Shanley
on

While a student in Oxford in 1969 and 1970 I bought a pair of "farmer boots"...a grainy boot I really loved. Very unique. A couple of years ago I emailed Duckers and they still made them. I didn't pull the trigger then and now...after just learning this tragic news of their closing...I am shocked and very, very sad. Duckers was a huge part of my Oxford experience. I also was fitted for and bought a suit from the official tailor of the Prince of Wales in his small shop on High Street, which I still have...despite it no longer fitting me. Sad news. But thank you Ducker and Sons.

By Kristian Andenæs
on

I remember my father's Oxford brogues, both black and brown, bought at Ducker when we stayed in Oxford shortly after the war. They lasted for a number of years, and my mother never forgot to mention that they had been far too expensive on the wage of a young research fellow. Fifty years later, in 1995, I went together with my family as a visiting scholar to stay in Oxford. The result was, among other things, black and brown brogues as well as ankle boots, and later supplemented by new ankle boots. It is very sad that Ducker & Son is now history, but I am happy to have Ducker shoes that will last for my lifetime!

By Michael Arnold
on

I went into Duckers in 1970 shortly after coming up. A polite gentleman measured my feet and said,"Ah, you would be a South African. We had one of your fellow countrymen in the other day. I have exactly one pair of shoes in the shop that will fit you."

And they did. And they lasted for nearly 30 years.

How sad that Duckers is no more.

By T N Durlu
on

During my Oxford years (early 70's) I used to watch Duckers windows but could not afford.In recent years I could order and buy their exceptional products but they closed down!Such a bad chance.Anyway I am sure my Duckers shoes will be going with me until the last!

By Barry Shanley
on

Bought a pair of "Farmers' Boots"...a deep, deep burgundy, heavily-grained boot as a student from America in 1969-1970. It kills me to say I lost track of what became of them. I loved those boots and am forever mad at myself. I remembered how they write down every person who ever bought anything from them...and a year before they closed I emailed from the U.S. asking if they were still available. They had my size and that I bought the boots all written down... SOMEONE RESURRECT THIS SPECIAL PLACE...PLEASE!

By aftab
on

Honestly that saddens me a lot. I am from Finland and I will be moving to Oxfordshire soon. I wanted to throw away all my shoes and wear those made by an English craftsman. People like me just love things which radiate the culture, traditions and legacy.

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