THE BEGINNING OF ALTBERG (1989)
After the Old Richmond Shoe Factory closed in 1989 nobody thought there was any future in working in a factory or making things with your hands anymore.
During the previous 12 years, all the across the country, craft based manufacturing hard been almost wiped out.
The future was in the service industries - but making boots and shoes was all I knew - so that’s when Altberg started.
The sewing machinists, (closers) - Altberg Christmas 1990
Group outside the old factory - Altberg Summer 1991
I decided to make hiking boots - at that time most of the outdoor boots were made in Italy or Germany where they paid themselves the same wages as the UK. So I thought it might be a more level playing field.
The first five years were the worst, and even today, I have no idea how we managed to keep going - No orders - No money - No materials - even the credit card was ‘maxed out’. Gradually things began to get a little bit better - in addition to the hiking boots we started making technical boots for police & military and that helped a lot.
We couldn’t afford a salesperson, so we had to rely on ‘ word-of-mouth’ - and we continue in the same way today. We still don’t have a salesperson.
By 1999 we had managed to pay off all of the debts that had piled up during our first five years - then in 2001 we received a large contract order for our peacekeeper police boots. At that time we were making 150prs and the opening order was for 5000 pairs.
At Earl Shilton outside of Leicester was a factory, (Ortons), that had capacity - I’d known them for many years, they were a really good factory and had been making footwear for over 120 years - so in 2001 I duplicated all of my lasts and tooling for the peacekeeper boot in their factory and I began working there every other week. In 2003 Ortons were forced to close - as the older operators retired they couldn’t find anyone to replace them.
The Ortons factory, Earl Shilton, Leicestershire circa 1980
I began looking for another factory in England, but there was very little remaining - When I first started making footwear in 1969, there were over 400 boot & shoe factories in the UK - by 2004 - There was nothing left - Technical boot-making, (of the type I make), had been wiped out.
Altberg Bootmakers Richmond, 2016 - 'The survivors'
In Italy and Germany, craft based manufacturing and remained strong, but by 2004, even they, were beginning to move production to lower cost countries in Eastern Europe. There was a factory I knew of in Italy, and in 2004, I began to make the ‘peacekeeper boot’ for the larger contracts there.
Eventually we started to win other contracts and we increased sales of our outdoor boots to retailers - so I began to build up capacity at the Italy factory. This has enabled me to keep the Richmond factory as a specialist boot-making workshop. I still make most of our motorcycle boots in the Richmond factory, as well as making smaller quantities of our technical boots and being able to offer a specialist boot, making service to people who need it.
Since 2004 I have worked one week each month in the Italy Factory and the rest of the time I work in our factory in Richmond.
I still remain optimistic that one day younger people in the UK will turn again to craft based manufacturing – and discover the satisfaction of making things with your hands.
Mike Sheehan, Founder and Senior Bootmaker - Altberg, 2023