How Clarks is celebrating 6 generations of family business heritage
26th January 2018
It’s rather a sedate market town, Street, with its grey stone houses and bustling outlet village. But it is also home to an internationally recognised shoe company. And tucked around the back of the retail village in the Somerset town is a large Grade II listed manor house called the Grange, which contains a wonderland of strange and exotic artefacts.
Thousands of shoppers pass the black railings of the Grange every day, with no idea what the building contains. Pulling up in my car even I was not entirely sure what was inside, despite signing up as a trustee of the Alfred Gillett Trust, the charitable body which cares for the heritage materials associated with C&J Clark, the global shoemaking company.
Clarks is still a family-owned company, and as a member of the family I knew the bones of the matter: that the Trust was set up in 2002 to care for the heritage collections of C&J Clark and the Clark family. I knew that the Trust had built a state-of-the-art archive and museum store for the collections, and that in the immediate future we were looking to set up a museum to showcase those collections to the public. But I only had a vague idea of what that collection contained. I was about to find out.
In a large room at the front of the Grange stands a large brown cabinet, bristling with buttons like a Victorian time machine. This is Eureka, the Latin Verse machine, designed by John Clark in the early 19th century, and one of the world’s first computers. A poet himself, Clark programmed the machine to produce random lines of Latin hexameter verse printed on slips of paper when you pull the lever.
John Clark spent 15 years building the machine and later made his fortune by putting it on display in Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Now it is the subject of scrutiny by computing experts – the University of Exeter helped restore it and used it to help teach their students about programming, producing a Perspex replica. There is a photograph of John Clark on the wall behind it, all unbuttoned white shirt and tousled hair. More Lord Byron than buttoned up Quaker.
‘Oh yes,’ my cousin Charles says, ‘people used to say, “There goes John Clark with his fornicating flies,” because he wore new-styled button flies rather than two flaps.’ I would rather have liked to meet John Clark, I think.
In the studio the photographer is taking high quality images of every shoe in the archive – more than 25,000 of them, including examples from every year but three since the company started in 1825 – for a digitisation project.
There are impossibly tiny Chinese slippers brought back by an early 20th century Clark and green canvas shoes with no sole and strange cables crisscrossing the upper. ‘It’s a flying shoe from the 1930s,’ the photographer says, ‘the pilot would plug the shoes into their aircraft and they would heat up and stop the feet freezing.’
In the custom-built archive shoes and documents (protected by temperature and moisture controls) are housed in racks that move in their tracks with the turn of a wheel. At the far end are banks of narrow drawers. ‘What’s in there?’ I ask. It turns out to be advertising and point of sale materials, old photographs and other ephemera.
I open a drawer. Gorgeous pinks and purples in a stylish 1960s whirl. I open another drawer. There is a photograph of men wearing large fur hats in front of what could be the Kremlin. We study it for a moment, ‘I think that’s Daniel,’ says Charles. What were these Clarks doing in Russia in the 1970s?
The archive is also open to researchers into subjects from Quaker work practices to shoe design in the early 20th century.
Leaving the archive building we walk through a collection of shoe making machinery, piles of shoe boxes and other items I cannot quite identify, into the barn at the end of the site. Here, it turns out, is where the fossils live.
It is another idiosyncrasy of our collection that we own an internationally significant geology collection. Eighteen large ichthyosaur fossils, and one plesiosaur fossil, accumulated in the late 19th century, are imbedded in the Lias stone of the Street area, and rival collections at the Natural History Museum. The Trust is named for Alfred Gillett, a Clark cousin who spent time and effort excavating large fossils from local quarries.
Tour over I drive home buzzing, hopped up on history. Already exhibitions of the ichthyosaur fossils have attracted huge interest across the South West and beyond. It is an indicator of how positive the planned museum will be in educating and entertaining the public about the growth and development of shoemaking in Somerset, and in raising the profile of the brand in a positive, organic way.
And if along the way, it garners pride and cohesion within the family about their heritage, so much the better.
If you'd like to find out more about harnessing the legacy of your family business and how this can help your journey to long lasting success, join us in London on 8th February. Geordie Willis (Berry Bros. & Rudd), through an informal conversation with branding expert Simon Cotterrell (Interbrand London), will share the fascinating story of Berry Bros. & Rudd’s 319-year-old brand and their recent ‘brand archeology’ exercise.