Booming shoe business started by “clever clogs”

Clever Clogs - Sheehan and Co.
Clever Clogs - Sheehan and Co.
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A man who escaped the Irish potato famine for a better life on Wearside founded a business that would last almost 100 years, a new book reveals.

John Sheehan crafted clogs for generations of Sunderland folk - including Vaux and Villa workers, as well as Fenwick’s Brewery staff and the Jewish community.

Vaux Brewery in around 1927 - when many of the workers wore clogs made by the Sheehan family.

Vaux Brewery in around 1927 - when many of the workers wore clogs made by the Sheehan family.

Now his hard work, and that of his sons and grandchildren, has been highlighted in the book Sunderland At Work and Play Volume Five, by historian Alan Brett.

“Many employees of the town’s breweries and laundries favoured clogs and, while some firms sold ready-made ones, John made all his own,” said Alan.

John, son of labourer Maurice Sheehan and his wife Bridget, was born in County Cork, in 1844 - just a year before blight caused the Great Irish Potato Famine.

So desperate was the situation that his family left for England to seek a better life, settling first in Cornwall - where four of John’s siblings were born.

But John eventually made his way to Sunderland in the 1860s, via London and Middlesbrough, arriving with his wife Bridget and setting up home in Church Street.

“John’s set up his business in the Old Market, and his five children were born here. He was also one of the original members of St Patrick’s Church,” said Alan.

Clogs - known for their hard-wearing, yet comfortable qualities - were huge sellers during the industrial revolution, with John making thousands each year.

Indeed, such was quality of John’s shoes, that his goods were frequently targeted by thieves - as revealed in old copies of the Sunderland Echo.

“A girl was cautioned after stealing clogs in 1887, while a man was given 14 days hard labour after making off with boots from John’s stall in 1891,” said Alan.

John’s eldest son, William Henry, served an apprenticeship under his father before setting up his own shoe-making firm in Southwick Road in 1890.

He was assisted by his wife Mary and, as the business thrived, so the couple moved from Hood Street to a new home in Cooper Street, Roker.

“The second eldest Sheehan son, John Patrick, also served his time with his father before opening a shop in High Street East,” said Alan.

“But he remained close to home, sharing a house with his widowed father at 26 Church Street in 1911 - along with his wife, six children, a brother and sister.”

By the early 20th century business was booming and, in 1912, John Patrick employed ‘more men than anyone in the trade in Sunderland’ - according to his adverts.

In addition, he held the town’s “largest stock of hand-made boots” and, he boasted, “no factory rubbish” was kept in stock - only quality items.

Both the ebrothers went into local politics, with John Patrick representing Sunderland Ward in 1919 - switching from Independent to Labour after his victory.

When some questioned how a businessman could have socialist principles, he stated: “The majority of workers are in an unfortunate position and need help.”

In the same year, John Patrick also became Sunderland’s first Catholic magistrate - his appointment being “greatly appreciated” by the local Catholic community.

William Henry then followed his brother on to Sunderland Council, when he was elected to Colliery Ward in 1923. He later became an Alderman for Bishopwearmouth.

“John Patrick was still making clogs in 1942, when he was approaching 70 years of age, by which time he was the last clog maker in the town,” said Alan.

“But, just a few years later, Breeda Sheehan – the third generation of clog makers – was forced out of business in August 1959 due to falling demand for clogs.”

l More details on the Sheehan family, and much more, can be found in Sunderland At Work & Play Volume Five, by Alan Brett. The book is published by Black Cat Publications at £9.99. Look out for more stories from the book in Wearside Echoes soon.