W. J. French & Son is one of the oldest shoe making businesses in the country and is now over 200 years old. Francis French started as an apprentice shoemaker in 1794 and in 1803 became a master shoemaker and began his business from his house in Kingsland Place, Southampton. He later, after several moves, relocated to Charlotte Place, until his death in 1867.
His son William (2nd generation) at the age of 24 carried on the successful business working from several other addresses such as Hanover Buildings near Paradise Row, Above Bar and in 1848, to Manchester Street. It was not until 1890, that the family moved to the premises at 40 Bedford Place and in 1964, the adjoining properties were bought to extend the store as we know it today.
BESPOKE SHOE MAKING
William George French (3rd generation), started his business life making and altering the smart button boots of the period. As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe, breaking in a pair of shoes was not easy. So William, who insisted that shoes must fit both feet even when the feet are odd, developed many of the techniques now used for altering one or both shoes.
It was about 1880, when the first practical ready made shoes were coming from Norwich and Northampton. William (3rd generation) refused to alter his bespoke methods of shoemaking and as a result his son, William (4th generation) opened the shop in Bedford Place, to handle the ready made shoe trade. The introduction from America of Gold Cross multiple fitting shoes and the bespoke service offered by the workshop blended new products with old skills which helped pioneer the way forward to establish Frenchs as one of the few shoe-fitting specialists in the United Kingdom and which helped to start a revolution in shoe buying. The workshop is still onsite today, backing a fitting stock which is seldom seen elsewhere.
W. J French & Son are recognised as a centre of excellence for shoe fitting and pride themselves on providing a huge range of men's, ladies and children's stock for customers to choose from, supplied by many of the world's leading manufacturers. Many of the team who work at the shop have been with the company for over 20 years and have Society of Shoe fitter qualifications.
The company is now in the hands of the 8th generation of the French family and was named Independent Family Footwear Retailer of the Year in the national Footwear Industry Awards in Birmingham on February 2017.
More recently in 2019, W. J French & Son was awarded independent footwear retailer of the year at the Drapers Footwear Awards. Judges at the Drapers Footwear Awards also praised them for their great combination of tradition, history and the way it embraces the community.
The company is located in Bedford Place and specialises in quality shoe-fitting and repair for adults and children and for those with ‘problem’ feet, such as narrow or wide feet.
“We have regular customers who understand how important it is to have shoes that are not only fashionable but also well fitting