We talk to Colne Valley Museum about clogs, clog making and how a chance discovery led to a living museum preserving a dying tradition
From sparking clogs of Lowry paintings to the vicious sport of clog fighting, the history and lore of the humble pair of clogs seems intrinsic with working class life in the mill towns, mining villages and steel communities of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain.
Pull a pair of these doughtily made objects on today and you are walking in the footsteps of the men, women and children who bore the brunt of the industrial revolution.
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Clog wearing had its zenith during the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, when British workers needed cheap and hard-wearing footwear to protect them from the rigours of the long working day at the factory, mine or other place of work. But by the mid twentieth century the practice of wearing them had dwindled.
Today, barring the occasional revival in Swedish style clogs or artisan clogs made for the enthusiast, the clog is very much a thing of the past. Or is it?
At Colne Valley Museum in the village of Golcar, near Huddersfield, you will find one of the best places to find out more about this vanishing tradition.
Established in 1971 in a row of weavers cottages originally dating from 1845, the museum’s recreated rooms hum with working hand looms, spinning wheels, cottage wheels and one of only three working Spinning Jennys in the country. It’s not a museum in the conventional sense – there are few display cases with labels – it’s more of a living museum filled with volunteers who are on hand to demonstrate weaving and represent life in the weavers cottage – before such things were swept away by the coming of the mills in the mid nineteenth century.
Amidst this fascinating time-capsule of recreated rooms and looms is a reconstructed clog maker’s shop and what might be termed a nationally important collection of clogs and clog making equipment.
“The wood shavings were still on the floor, the tools were still on the bench”
This unusual collection came to the museum when they took a call from someone who was renovating an old shop – Allen Parkin’s clog shop – in the neighbouring village of Slaithwaite.
“Allen Parkin had gone back home one day feeling unwell in the late 1960s and unfortunately died,” explains museum trustee, Anne Lord. “The shop had then been boarded up and left for several years until new owners went in and started renovating the premises.”
“When we went down there, we discovered that he had obviously just put down his tools and gone home, so it was like the Marie Celeste. The wood shavings were still on the floor, the tools were still on the bench, clogs were there, boots and shoes – and it was all going to be put in the tip!”
Museum volunteers quickly rallied a fleet of cars and a trailer and transported as much as they could to the museum. Luckily they had an empty loom chamber, and they kitted it out as an Edwardian clog shop to fit in with a set of original Edwardian gas lights recovered from the old shop.
“There were also stock knives which cut out the wooden soles by hand – after 1910 they were machine made – so that’s why we pitched it there,” adds Anne.
However, the establishment of the clog shop had started something that seemed to have its own momentum.
“One of our volunteers, Howard Banford, realised that all of these clog maker’s shops were closing down and would never re-open,” explains Anne, “so as they were closing down he was going round Yorkshire collecting their stuff. And now we have an awful lot of stuff.”
This large collection of clog-related “stuff” now includes an archive and oral history collection and artefacts like the long bench that came from Slaithwaite, complete with great dips worn away by a person working in a particular space, together with other smaller work benches, tools, nail holders, lamps, kettles, several sets of the large stock knives and all the tools of the clog maker’s trade.
They have also amassed “box upon box” of toe pieces, heels, clasps and all the little metal bits that go on clogs.
“The Colne Valley clogs are clasp clogs as opposed to lace ups so we have masses of clasps,” says Anne. “A clog maker would have a cupboard-full of these of different sizes and shapes and sorts – and as our volunteers have been round collecting these things, we just got more and more. If we were clog making for 200 years we wouldn’t use them up.”
One person to benefit from this vast collection of clasps is the resident clog maker at the National Museum of Wales at St Fagans. “He nearly bit my hand off,” says Anne, “because you can’t get clasps anymore. We got rid of half of our collection and we still have a cupboard full.”
“Clog fighting – a popular but illegal sport that involved kicking your opponent viciously in the shins”
And just like at St Fagans, making clogs in the traditional way is very much part of the experience at Colne Valley Museum, where current resident clog maker, Martin Bath, hand carves the wooden soles and fashions the leather as it was done in the day.
But as well as newly-crafted clogs, the museum also boasts a collection of ‘historic’ clogs of various types and ages.
“They were used by miners and famers and dockers and fishermen – they were working boots,” says Anne. “The sole has a cast and often you can tell the type of work the person did by the shape of the clog – if it was a housemaid you had a different-shaped clog because she did a lot of work on her knees.
“A miner’s clog is different because a lot of the time they sat on their haunches (or their hunkers) so they had like a duck toe, which is a squared-off but narrow, or for steel workers there is a flap to protect the foot from molten metal through eyelets.”
If a clog has a very narrow toe it might have been used for ‘poising’ – clog fighting – a popular but brutal (and illegal) sport in the Colne Valley as well as other areas such as mining villages – that involved kicking your opponent viciously in the shins.
“The irons they put on the soles could easily be replaced, so they lasted,” adds Anne of these seemingly indestructible forms of footwear. “They were handed on and on. We must have well over a hundred pairs that people have just given us – they have been passed down in the family, and here they are. They are still wearable and they have lasted a long, long time.”
So clogs, it seems, are still alive and kicking in the Colne Valley, thanks to a volunteer-run museum with a passion for reminding us of the way people lived and worked – and what they once wore on their feet.
Colne Valley Museum
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Colne Valley Museum is housed in a row of weavers cottage of the mid 19C. The museum depicts the cottage textile industry and the social history of the area.