Charles Ager Shoes Ltd

150th Anniversary booklet published in 1990

Early Days

Life was hard for farmers in the early nineteenth century, by the late 1820s poverty to the point of near starvation had county families looking for other ways of making money. Charles and Walter, the Ager sons, who were tired of their miserable existence in the Northamptonshire village of Irthlingborough, decided to try life in Coventry.

In March, when the rough roads and lanes were passable they set off, carrying their few clothes and food for the journey. Twice they begged lifts from friendly carters, but covered most of the 45 miles on foot, resting in barns and keeping their eyes open for foot-pads.

After several weary days and uncomfortable nights they saw smoke hanging over their still-distant goal. Coventry’s three great spires pierced the sky-line; foot and horse traffic increased and soon they were striding into the city through an arched gateway in its breached wall. Charles, whose clever hands had made him the family cobbler since boyhood, was taken on by a bootmaker named Piggot, with premises in High Street.W alter had different ideas and sought other work but Charles quickly took to the craft of a ‘snob’ with skill and enthusiasm. Among the staff employed by Mr. Piggot was Mary Nightingale, daughter of a Warwickshire yeoman farming at Corley Hall. Charles admired her for a while then proposed. They were married in 1838. In 1840 they opened a small shop in West Orchard; the carefully painted sign-board read “CHARLES AGERS”, thus founding a family business which spanned a century and a half.

The shop was well-sited near the market and several public houses. Many of the 20,000 population patronised the area on market day when at least one drunk was imprisoned in the nearby stocks. Charles’ reputation grew and before long carriages, traps and carts were decanting customers anxious to sample his exceptional Craftsmanship. Ponies and horses were hitched outside and little serving maids hurried in bringing their masters’ boots for repair. The young couple were soon able to buy larger premises in Market Street itself; Charles completed the parchment purchase-deed with a careful cross. The neighbours were leading Coventry traders of the day. Mr. Barber sold them leather direct, so avoiding transport costs, there was a basket maker to the carriage trade and a dyer whose drying frames often held cloth of Coventry’s exclusive colour TRUE BLUE which has passed into the English language.

Business Boomed

The much bigger shop at 6 Smithford Street came next. The city’s main hotel, the King’s Head adjoined and not far away was Coventry’s most recent development, the railway station. The line passed within a mile of the shop and, almost incredible to modern residents-there are now more than 300,000 of them – cattle grazed in the field between. Several craftmen worked long hours behind the shop, everything was done by hand and there was a Spring-time rush when Coventry children traditionally had new outfits for the Great Combined Sunday Schools procession. Just before Whitsun when the Royal Chartered Great Fair was held in muddy Pool Meadow pressure on repairs burgeoned; soling and heeling of men’s boots cost 4/-(20p) and women’s heels 2.1/2d (1p).

 

Mary and Charles had three offspring and in 1880 Mary Ann, the eldest, married John Hobson, a Coventry engineer. The couple were highly ambitious and emigrated to Australia. Four years later Mary Ann returned to a much-changed city; a widow, with three children. There was a new fire station, steam trams vyied with the horse-drawn’buses and a positive fever of bicycling. Men and daring women flooded the town, leaving their cycles parked in solid lines down the gutters of hilly Smithford Street, so stranding shoppers on either road or pavement. The trade in sturdy boots was augmented by sales of lighter-weight cycling footwear; hard winters of the period called for skating boots and the variety of goods offered in the shop was greater than ever before. The business not only supported the family but Mary’s eldest, Charles John was able to save sufficient for his marriage to Annie Trickett. His grand-parents had retired, his mother was ageing and he was presently managing the shop with the help of five lady assistants.

The USA was currently far ahead of Britain in both shoe-styling and retailing; Charles John was very progressive and gleaned ideas from specially imported American trade papers. His electric cash-register, which had a different drawer for each assistant’s takings, was one of the first outside London. The outsize machine was in the centre of the shop and was a great attraction for curious customers.
Coventry’s long lasting production of motor-cars had begun, with fewer horses in the streets lighter footwear was in vogue and coloured leathers were coming into use. Charles and Annie lived at Berkswell, a few miles outside the city. They had a daughter, Edna, and two sons, John and Ivan. The former, always known as Jack, still takes a keen interest in the business but Ivan died in 1981. Jack joined the firm when he left school at 16 and vividly recalls” in those days shopping was a social event. Mother spent a lot of time chatting with customers and seeing they were comfortably seated. She dealt with the wages, which right up to the 1920s were only 35/-(£1.75) for the most senior assistant. My father often spoke of the difficulties of trading in the 1914-18 war and the out-cry when, due to shortage of men, women began to drive the trams which clanked down narrow Smithford Street. In our school days the shop was second home to us boys. 

After morning lessons we hurried from Henry V1 school to Smithford Street had lunch with our parents behind the shop, then when school had finished for the day waited there until it was time to take the train home. We loved watching the three black-aproned cobblers; their bench was littered with tools, pins and rivets. It was fascinating to see them transfer rivets from mouth-to-hammer-shoe. Everything on the bench jumped as they hammered at the lasts.” Between the wars the shop stayed open until seven each evening, extending to eight on Friday and nine on Saturday. In 1922 the sales floor was extended by taking in the former workshop. At that time most of the customers expected their purchases to be delivered, even though prices were ridiculously low with ladies shoes costing from 16/11d (84p). The errand boy took out the parcels on his basket-fronted bicycle; he also collected repairs, polished the windows, attended to the blinds and made himself generally useful. His cycle cost around £5 and at that time an eight-bedroom house could be had for £250, while the local building society was proudly announcing a reserve of £12,000.

Charles Ager’s forward thinking made his shop one of the first to have name-printed bags and his ultra-modern X-ray machine caused quite an interest; Clarks, Churchs and Lotus were the names on crates delivered by horse-drawn railway drays right up until the late 1930s. Ivan had followed Jack into the business in 1927 and Agers, which was by now known as the most up-market shoe retailer in the city, kept the family happily busy until, on a sunny afternoon in 1939, a great explosion shook the city centre, rattling and cracking windows in Smithford Street. It was the country’s first IRA atrocity and left five people dead with more than fifty injured. The shock had barely subsided when War was declared. At first Coventrians were little affected but in June 1940 a German bomb demolished the first of countless houses. The citizens treated it somewhat light-heartedly with ‘buses on the route passing the damage doing brisk trade with sightseers.

The War Years

The business had early lost Jack to the RAF and he was away on service on the 14th November 1940 when the entire city centre was virtually destroyed. At dawn only a few stark girders of Ager’s shop still stood; of its content the carefully sand-bagged safe alone remained. The intense heat welded all the silver coins into one lump and bank notes crumbled at a touch. 

The business stood to loose more than £2,000 in outstanding accounts and in spite of a newspaper appeal for payment only three customers responded.

Within weeks Charles and Annie had enterprisingly taken over an empty shop in nearby Corporation Street; they fitted a temporary front with protected windows that had customers peering through small apertures and opened under a ‘Business as usual’ sign.

Shocked citizens who had lost their homes and clothes in the ‘blitz’ and the many air-raids which followed, needed new shoes; footwear was on a sellers’ market and for a while it was more difficult to get stock than move it. Before long the new shop had a further problem; an incendiary bomb dropped through the roof leaving still-visible burns in the upper stock rooms.

In May 1943 Jack brought home the fiancée he had met in the Air Force, they were married from his parents’ home and a year later their daughter, Gail, was born. With the Armistice in ’45 Jack was able to rejoin Ivan, whose poor health had kept him at home, in helping to run the business. Its prosperity steadily increased and when Charles and Annie retired the brothers were left to fight off competition from new shops in the re-developing city. International interest in the already famous new cathedral helped, as did refurbishment of the shop’s interior and a second up-to-date front. Agers was THE shoe retailer of Coventry, its name synonymous with quality stock and personal attention.

Fashion shoes were increasingly arriving from abroad and an upsurge of horse-riding meant displays of elegant boots in an echo of those made by the first Charles Ager. Caring parents were regular customers for the Clark’s children’s’ shoes which have remained a speciality until there is currently a turn-over of some 15,000 pairs annually. Gail, who often helped her uncle and the busy assistants, celebrated her marriage to David Hart in 1964. He was a young man already well versed in salesmanship and in October 1966 he joined the family business. His experience motivated him to introduce many successful innovations to the Corporation Street premises. The whole family took part in running the business until Jack’s gradual retirement in 1980. 1981 saw a major refurbishment of the shop and this promoted a large improvement in the company’s trading. Clarks had been in an important supplier to the business for many years; consequently a second shop which opened at Talisman Square, Kenilworth in 1987 was a franchise where that firm’s shoes are sold exclusively.

The Future

Gail kept busy with administrative activities of both shops, while David takes care of the buying and day to day running. Speaking of current condition he says: “Trading is entirely different now, we have to cope with fierce competition from the city’s many multiple stores. Customers demand ever-greater choice which means that we have to carry very extensive stocks. Fittings, too, are becoming more complicated; for instance in the past Clarks made only B, C and D fittings but a few years ago they introduced G fittings and more recently H fitting has become available . We are very pleased to see children’s’ feet being spared the trial of ‘breaking-in’ new shoes. Today they can skip of in immediate comfort. All our staff are trained shoe fitters with many years of experience, especially in fitting children’s; footwear and because of this we are the largest retailers of Clarks children’s’ shoes in the Midlands. It is our policy to provide the public with the highest possible standard of service and choice, so offering a superior range of footwear not generally available in modern shopping precincts.” As to the foreseeable future of Charles Ager? That will be in the hands of Christopher Ager Hart who joined his parents in 1989 as the sixth generation of the footwear dynasty. He is already involved with the latest venture-the new Charles Ager branch opened in Swadlincote, Burton-on-Trent in May this year, and is standing-by to look after whatever future developments may come in the years ahead as surely as they have over the past hundred and fifty years CHARLES AGER.