Famous names feature in the ledgers of shoemakers Ducker & Son which are about to be offered for sale by Oxford auction house Mallams, writes Richard Lofthouse.
By Richard Lofthouse
An order for rugby boots by the young JRR Tolkien is among the historic records held by iconic Oxford shoemaker Ducker & Son that go up for auction on Sunday (8 February).
The Oxford Authors Sale includes 11 leather-bound ledgers detailing the clients of the bespoke shoemaker — and home of the Oxford Brogue — that had traded in central Oxford since 1898.
The Turl Street store, one of very few traditional hand-sewn shoemakers outside the West End of London, closed just before Christmas. Owners Bob and Isobel Avery, who live locally in Marston, were unable to find someone to take on the business.
When Oxford Today broke the story on 16 November, it resulted in what Bob Avery described as an ‘outpouring of grief’. Some readers recalled shoes worn and cherished for decades, while others wrote poetry and limericks to mark what felt like a momentous closure. National newspapers picked up the story and the BBC screened a documentary about the business on the regional, Southern Inside Out show broadcast on 23 January.
Visitors to Duckers’, stepping into an interior that had remained almost unchanged since the Edwardian era, will be familiar with the 12in by 9in leather-bound volumes displayed on shelves at the back of the store. Numbered 4 to 15 (the first three volumes have long been missing) they cover the period from 1910 to 1958, an era when it was still possible to ‘tell a gentleman by his shoes’. Beautiful copperplate writing details the names, addresses and sartorial style of thousands of customers, both ‘town and gown’.
They range from little-known Oxford academics and wealthy undergraduates with a taste in bespoke footwear to local luminaries such Tolkien, Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh and publisher Sir Basil Blackwell (who insisted his shoes were always rubber-soled).
First World War flying ace Baron von Richthofen, European aristocratic families and several maharajahs also shopped at Duckers. More recent patrons have included Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent, comedian Rowan Atkinson, former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and Formula One boss Eddie Jordan.
Tolkien’s first order at the start of Michaelmas term 1913 is for a pair of black rugby boots for 14s 6d, a pair of porpoise laces for 8d, and a pair of ordinary laces for 2d. He was then an undergraduate at Exeter College, just up the street from Duckers’. The year had been a landmark one for Tolkien: he had changed his course from the Classics to English literature and, on the turn of his 21st birthday, had proposed to his childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt. Standing (above) in his pale jersey in the middle of the beefy athletes of Exeter College’s Rugby and Boat Clubs in 1914, Tolkien looks rather small; but he said that what he lacked in weight, he made up by extra ferocity.
A later page shows two orders by Tolkien in the 1950s, when he was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and shoe prices had risen considerably: he bought three pairs for around £6 apiece. Fortunately his professorial income was supplemented by royalties from The Hobbit and, by the time of the last order, The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954–5.
Mallams senior director Benjamin Lloyd, who has worked as an auctioneer in Oxford since 1970, described the archive as ‘a unique social history of the city and its environs from the early to the mid-20th century’. He expects local institutional interest in the ledgers, which are estimated to fetch a hammer price in the region of £4,000 to £6,000.
It was previously mooted that the volumes were to be donated to the Bodleian Library, but the Averys and the library failed to come to an agreement. It is still hoped that a patron will buy the volumes at auction and donate them to the Bodleian — surely their natural resting place, given that they are full of University members spanning most of the 20th century.
Other fixtures and fittings from Ducker & Son will form part of a future sale.
For further information contact Mallams department specialist Mary Lloyd (01865 241358; firstname.lastname@example.org).
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Dr Richard Lofthouse is the editor of Oxford Today.
Main ledger images courtesy of Mallams. Photo of Exeter College rugby and boat clubs in 1914 courtesy of Exeter College: © Exeter College, Oxford. Shopfront photo and preview ledger image by Richard Lofthouse.