Charlie Lewis Carlow

Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Charlie Lewis

Shoe-maker of 24 Dublin Street, Carlow.

Shoe-maker Charlie still sticking to his last...

By Charlie Keegan

Charlie Lewis can remember the time when there was a dozen shoe-makers in Carlow town. Today, this old and proud craft has declined to such a degree that Charlie's shop at 24 Dublin Street is the town's last shoe making business.

A third generation shoe-maker, Charlie is a member of an old Carlow family — he traced the family ancestry to 1815 through the baptismal registry at St. Mary's Church.

The Lewis business was established in 1857 by Robert Lewis Charlie's grandfather. He carried on a shoe-making concern at Potato Market before moving to Dublin Street.

Shoe-maker Charlie Lewis at work.
Shoe-maker Charlie Lewis at work on the stitching machine in his Dublin Street, Carlow, shop which has been a family concern since the middle of the last century.      
Photo: Courtesy of The Irish Times.

Eleven when father died

Charlie attended the Church of Ireland school in Barrack Street (where the IT&GWU headquarters are today) and was only 11 when his father, also Charles, died in 1930. His mother, Elizabeth (formerly a member of the Whittaker family from Old Leighlin who subsequently lived in Graiguecullen) was keen that he would carry on the shoe-making trade into the third generation.

"I went to school for four years after my father died," he says, "and, at the beginning, I was not totally committed to being a shoemaker. But I got to like the trade and am now totally happy at my work."

Charlie learned his trade from a shoe-maker who had worked with his father and continued on after Mr. Lewis senior's death. His name was Maurice Moloney and he was a native of County Kerry.

Charlie recalls that his father did a good trade in making shoes. He made hunting boots which involved very intricate work and was very time-consuming.

"He used to cut out his own uppers but I never did — I bought the uppers."

Jobs such as the making of hunting boots would be done strictly to order and would cost the client about £20, the equivalent of over £200 today.

Charlie Lewis regards shoe-making as a way of life rather than a way of making a living.

"People are always coming in and out of the shop for a chat," he says. "Some sit down and wait while I do their shoes. There is a nice, homely atmosphere and you get to know a lot of people. Apart from being customers, these people have become my friends."

War time rationing

The business thrived to such an extent that in the late 1930’s there three men working in the shoe-maker’s shop. But then came the war years when leather was rationed and raw materials hard to come by. Vital small tools of the trade such as rivets, tindles and hemp were hard to get.

When he was serving his time to the trade Charlie had to make a complete shoe. He did the work piecemeal, going back to it between the repair work which was the central core of the business.

What he made was a welted shoe which involved a leather rim being put on the upper to which the sole was attached. This was hand-stitched and involved very intricate work.

With the slip sole shoe the upper was either tacked or braced in.

"The last pair of shoes I made, about two years ago, I used the bracing method."

Charlie often burns the midnight oil, and has done all his life. The work was slow and painstaking.

Pointing to five rows of shoes, Charlie told me he could pick out the shoes of any customer who called.

"I put the name on the shoes when they come in for repair but, after repairing them, I know them without looking at the name."

Charlie recalls that Governey's Boot Factory in Carlow manufactured great shoes — sturdy, long-lasting shoes and "the wear was in them."

In the old days shoes could be bought for 15 shillings (75 new pence) and 23 shillings for "a really good pair."

"As far as I can recall it was a half-crown (12½ pence) for putting soles and heels on ladies shoes and six shillings for men’s."

Charlie's brother Robert (now deceased) worked in the business at one stage but never liked it and became a plumber. And Charlie's own son, Robert, also did not take to the trade.

Nowadays, shoes can be stuck on the spot but Charlie Lewis says that in his younger days it was "a novelty" to see a tin of solution.

Years ago all the shoes were stitched. Then came the switch away from leather to rubber and plastic. Charlie had to adjust to these changes.

"I was used to leather and found it strange working with rubber," he says. He had "a terrible time" getting used to plastic.

The late Charles Lewis pictured in 1920 outside the shoe-maker's shop in Dublin Street, Carlow, established by his father, Robert Lewis.
At the sign of the bootmaker Lewis's, Dublin Street, Carlow - the oldest shop of its kind, where the trade is still carried on by Charlie Lewis. Once every street in Graigue and Carlow had a shoemakers shop.

Source: The Nationalist Centenary Supplement 1883-1983

 £300 would buy a house

Charlie bought a finishing machine in 1964 which still serves him well while he works on a German-made stitching machine. The finishing machine cost him £300 -at-the time but in ‘64 that kind of money would buy a house."

 If he was to live his life all over again would he still choose shoe-making?

“I always had an inclination towards office work,” he says. “But my mother felt that by staying here in the business I would be a help to her and it would be keeping the shoe-making tradition going. The business was maintained and that was important to me.”

Charlie Lewis says at the moment he is not ready for retirement but today he “chooses his work.”

“As I see it, I am fit to work and am happy to be working,” says this cheerful and skilled craftsman, whose little shop is one of the last reminders of the Carlow of yesterday.

Source: The Nationalist Sept 30th 1988 from the Nolan collection of newspaper cuttings provided by Michael Purcell..

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