Mechanisation virtually wiped out the profession of the shoemaker, and thus the phenomenon of the ‘learned cobbler’.’ By the late 1850s the closing machine, which took over the skilled task of sewing the sole to the upper shoe, had become widespread. Anti-machine shoemakers demonstrated and struck work in Stafford, Nottingham and Kendal in 1858-1859.2 The loss of the traditional ‘gentle craft’, conducted jovially by the wizened sons of Crispin, the Roman patron saint of shoemakers persecuted for his Christianity under Diocletian, was felt deeply in communities that coalesced around the cobbler’s shop. The Baptist minister and hymn-writer, William Edward Winks (1842-1926), wrote a book entitled The Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers (1882). Due to the use of machinery in the shoemaking process, ‘the old-fashioned Shoemaker, with his leathern apron and hands redolent of wax, has almost disappeared’. Furthermore,
There can be no doubt that the Cobbler, sitting at his stall and working with awl and hammer and last, will never again be the conspicuous figure in social life that he was wont to be in times gone by.3
Winks’ title echoes Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men, as had the 1768 biography of a classically trained beggar we met previously (p. 104): ‘Both in ancient times and modern’, Winks explains,
in the Old World and in the New, a rare interest has been felt in Shoemakers, as a class, on account of their remarkable intelligence and the large number of eminent men who have risen from their ranks.4
He knew that Plato’s Socrates used shoemaker exempla frequently, leading Callicles to protest, ‘By the gods! You simply don’t let up on your continualtalk of shoemakers and cleaners, cooks and doctors, as if our discussion were about them!’ (Gorgias 491a). Callicles’ objection to shoemakers is because they work for their living and are not leisure-class. But Xenophon informs us that Socrates would debate with teenaged aristocratic youths, who avoided the rowdy market-place, in leather-works just outside it (Memorabilia I V.2.1). Simon the Shoemaker was a significant Socratic disciple who composed no fewer than 33 ‘leathern’ dialogues (Diogenes Laertius 11.122), supposedly written from notes he had made on shoe-leather.’ His house and a cup inscribed with his name have been excavated and are indeed just beyond the agora bound-ary-stone.6 Another shoemaker, Philiscus, listened attentively to Aristotle’s Protrepticus when Crates of Thebes, the teacher of the Stoic Zeno, read it out to him.7
Pre-mechanical shoemaking was a sedentary trade, neither exhausting nor noisy. Its practitioners, who were often open-minded Nonconformists, could listen or converse while they worked, just as Philiscus could listen to Crates. Apprentices and errand boys were sometimes charged with reading journals aloud; poems could be memorised, recited or composed. Cobblers were proverbially good conversationalists and often considered to be the village’s sages; where several worked together in an urban garret, ideas and information could be discussed. Cobblers’ customers came from every social class, made wide-ranging conversations and helped produce the stereotype of the British cobbler as a working-class radical intellectual,8 even if in practice some, such as William Gifford, embraced conservative politics.