An auction saw all the extant leather volumes of customer names from Oxford shoe shop Ducker & Son saved for Oxford and posterity, says Richard Lofthouse.
By Richard Lofthouse
Oxford Today has followed this story from beginning to end, and while the end is not what any Oxonian shoe lover wanted — the closure of Oxford’s most famous shoe shop just before Christmas — the silver lining is that the Bodleian Library has secured the eleven leather-bound ledgers that sat on a high shelf at the back of Ducker & Son, detailing all the customers who bought shoes between 1910 and 1958.
Many famous names feature in the ledgers, which were offered for sale by Oxford auction house Mallams on 8 February. While the three earliest volumes covering 1898 to 1910 were lost a long time ago, numbers 4–15, measuring 12 x 9 inches each, have been saved for posterity. Number 4, covering the period just before and during the First World War, is particularly noteworthy — and poignant.
JRR Tolkien’s first order at the start of Michaelmas term 1913 is redolent of pre-war certainties. Then an undergraduate at Exeter College, just up the street from Duckers’, he bought a pair of black rugby boots for 14s 6d, a pair of porpoise laces for 8d, and a pair of ordinary laces for 2d. The year had been a turning point for Tolkien, in which he had changed his course from the Classics to English and proposed to his childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt. Tolkien looks undersized (above) in his pale jersey in the middle of the strapping lads of Exeter College’s Rugby and Boat Clubs in 1914; but he claimed he made up for his smaller size by extra ferocity. He was still ordering shoes at Duckers’ in the 1950s, when he was Merton Professor of English Language.
But the Duckers’ ledgers speak eloquently of how, when the First World War broke out, everything changed. The shoe makers went into overdrive making special-order boots for newly commissioned officers, and if you flick through the pages of this ledger, there are huge numbers of orders for boots for customers whose names are never seen again. It does not take much imagination to guess why, and the silence is poignant.
The Turl Street store, one of very few traditional makers of hand-sewn shoes 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 waseditor Richard Lofthouse who initially suggested to the Averys that the ledgers belonged in the Bodleian, but winning them at auction is entirely down to the generosity of the Friends of the Bodleian.
Elaine Bible, speaking on behalf of the Bodleian, said: ‘The ledgers were seen as a valuable addition to the Libraries collections given their connection with the history of the University and many prominent literary figures whose papers are already held at the Bodleian. The Libraries hold the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts and drawings in the world and are currently supporting Oxford University Press in its production of the first-ever complete works of Evelyn Waugh, by providing access to important editions of his books.’
Dr Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, said: ‘We are delighted that we have been able to save this fascinating piece of Oxford history and to keep the Duckers ledgers in the city where they have been for more than a century. Clothes make the man, as someone once said, and people will have fun looking at the buying habits of some familiar names, as well as taking a serious look into a sustained historical record of social and business history in Oxford.’
Another notable entry in one of the ledgers includes a pair of lamb’s wool slippers purchased by former prime minister HH Asquith — whose papers the Bodleian also holds — in the final years of his political career. Entries related to Duckers’ women customers include boot repairs commissioned by Lady Ottoline Morrell, the English aristocrat who was an influential patron of the arts and of philosopher–novelist Aldous Huxley.
Reader David Potter probably spoke for many when he commented in response to one of Oxford Today’s reports: ‘How sad that Duckers’ has closed. I think the Bodleian should certainly buy the ledgers. Why has a funding campaign not been organised? I am sure like many former customers I would donate a few quid. I remember when I went down owing about £25 I signed a standing order for £1 a month to pay off the bill. Some three years later I went into the shop. Mr Ducker came out from the back room and said, “Mr Potter, you are in credit.” He was plainly horrified!’
This request has been met, but via the established mechanism of the Friends of the Bodleian. The library confirms that it will soon put the ledgers on display to the public. They have now been catalogued and are available for scholars to consult. In addition to acquiring the ledgers, the Bodleian has archived the Duckers’ website as part of its web archive, ensuring it will be available for scholars to consult in perpetuity.
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Dr Richard Lofthouse is the editor of Oxford Today.
Ledger image courtesy of Mallams. Photo of Exeter College rugby and boat clubs in 1914 courtesy of Exeter College: © Exeter College, Oxford. Shop photos by Richard Lofthouse.