Long-serving Sunderland cobbler retires after 50 years of keeping Mackems well heeled

A city cobblers is hanging up their lasts after keeping Sunderland in shoes for more than 50 years.

John and Jean Hibbert have dedicated their lives to their Wear U Well While U Wait cobblers, which is one of the longest-running businesses in the city centre.

Aside from the pandemic, they’ve repaired shoes and cut keys day in and day out, but after 51 years in the trade they’re taking a well-earned retirement.

Cobbler John, 74, from Ryhope opened his shop on August 23, 1971 after he began learning his trade at the age of just 15 working at Lennards shoe repair shop near the train station, before working at the Co-Op in Silksworth where he met Jean whom he married in 1967.

J.W. Hibbert cobblers husband and wife owners John and Jean Hibbert celebrate 50 years in business.

At the height of his career, John kept the once heavily industrialised town in sturdy footwear, repairing the boots of shipyard workers and miners.

Over the decades, as the city’s industry declined, his trade was more in office shoes and women’s heels, repairing tens of thousands of shoes over the years, many for four generations of Sunderland families.

But as he entered a new financial year, he felt the time was right to repair his final pair of soles.

Aside from the prices, little has changed at his shop since the 1970s and many of his tools have served him for decades, with his knife block the same one he’s used since he was 15.

J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business with co-owner John Hibbert on the tools.

He’s become well-known in the city, often waving to his many customers as they pass the shopfront window, and although he admits it will be strange not to be in the shop six days a week, he says he’s looking forward to retiring, with the last day of trading being Saturday, September 3.

"My financial year ends in August and I didn’t want another one, I felt the time was right for a clean break,” he said.

John was just 23 when he opened the shop. Speaking about his longevity in the trade, the great-grandfather said: “I don’t rip people off, if a pair of shoes aren’t worth repairing I tell them so and people appreciate that honesty.

“When we took on the business a lot of our customers were older and we’re now serving their grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’ve always ran the business on trust and honesty."

J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business with co-owner John Hibbert on the tools.

The past couple of years navigating the pandemic have been particularly difficult for the independent business, with more people working from home leading to less office workers needing shoe repairs and the rise in electronic keys leading to less key cutting demand.

He added: “The time is right to retire, but I’d have to miss it really. It will be strange not pacing this floor when it’s quiet. We’ve told many of our customers and a lot are asking where to go for their shoes now as they’re so used to coming here.”

John and Jean, 72, have four children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren – but John says he’s not planning on any DIY shoe repairs at home as he gets to enjoy his retirement at last.

J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business.
J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business.
J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business with co-owner John Hibbert using his knife sharpening stick which he has since he was 15 years old.
J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business.
J.W. Hibbert cobblers celebrate 50 years in business.