Still based in Bolton, the original town where Norman Walsh set up Walsh trainers after leaving Reebok, John Chapman along with his brother and son develop new and revive old trainer designs to an increasing global customer base.
On to Bolton to see Jason and his father Jon Crompton who, with his brother Dennis, now own Norman Walsh UK, the only 100% British made and owned sports shoe company.
He took us into the factory, past a wall of trainer casts, a row of workers on Singer sewing machines and large cutting equipment punching out the various shapes needed for the perfect Norman Walsh trainer. Before we were taken to see the production of the trainer, Jason gave us a quick history of this inspirational company. He told us that Bolton was in fact the birthplace of the running shoe. This iconic shoe was invented by J.W Foster and Sons in 1898. Norman Walsh actually served his apprenticeship here after leaving school in 1945 at the age of fourteen. The Fosters soon recognised Normans skills and he started to make their ‘elite athletes’ shoes. He eventually became a master craftsman making shoes for the 1948 British Olympic team, Roger Bannister and later on Sir Chris Bonnington.
J.W Foster and Sons became ‘Reebok’ in 1958 and a few years later in 1961 Norman left the firm to set up on his own company, Norman Walsh UK, operating from the back of his parent’s terraced house, where he made shoes for rugby, football, mountain climbing and cross country. In the early 70’s he started to produce running shoes for the marathon boom and many of these shoes are still being produced to the same design and following the same traditional techniques today
After a lifetime in the trade Norman retired in 1996, selling the business to the Crompton family. All members of the family had grown up wearing Walsh trainers, buying them direct from the factory and getting to know Norman at the same time. They fell in love with the idea of owning the business and kept asking him if he wanted to sell. Norman was noncommittal at first. Then one day out of the blue, as Jon was buying yet another pair of training shoes, Norman quoted a figure to Jon and said, ‘That’s it. No negotiation. No messing about. Take it or I close the factory.” Jon says, “We tried to bring him down in price. No good. We agreed to pay the full ‘wack’ and Norman was pleased to sell to us. He was a bit of a cheeky so and so though because he said to us….’any chance of paying in cash?’ “ We laughed, and shook hands and we were on our way. Brilliant.”
Norman gladly acted as a consultant to the brothers for many years but sadly passed away last year. His legacy though lives on! The brothers have been studying Norman’s back catalogue and slowly releasing some of his original designs, working closely with traditional suppliers to re-open old sole moulds and buying large quantities of suede from the same tannery in Scotland. As a result, many of the shoes being produced today are exactly the same as they were 40 years ago. On the day we were there we were lucky enough to see some of the original designs. There was a beautiful lime green running shoe from the 70’s and the original track spikes he produced at Foster and Sons shortly after the second world war. We were also treated to a sneak preview of the latest styles for autumn/winter 2015. You would definitely be hard pushed to buy only one pair from this collection.
The demand for Norman Walsh shoes continue to rise, selling far beyond the UK to countries including America, Japan, Russia, Korea and they are now opening up a market in Chile! It is exciting times for this Bolton based family company, and it is easy to see why more and more people are appreciating what Norman Walsh UK are producing. As well as carefully sourcing the right materials, the factory still hand make every shoe. Every cut, every stitch is carefully watched over by the highly trained staff, taking the process from pieces of fabric and rubber to the fully assembled trainers, producing high quality, cutting edge products with a fantastic heritage that can be worn by everyone.