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One Family's Cobbled History

Christian Rhodes at R.Rhodes & Son

Published on 1st September 2019

As Christian Rhodes stitches a pair of riding boots, he is continuing a long family tradition.

It is 100 years since his great grandfather, Raymond Henry Rhodes, established R.Rhodes and Son in Billingshurst. Cobbling skills have been passed down from father to son ever since, with Raymond Cecil passing on the business to Geoffrey. Sadly, he lost his fight against cancer earlier this year. Now, the business is headed by his son, Christian, the fourth generation of Rhodes to take charge.

Growing up, Christian worked in the shop after school, slowly learning the trade from his father. But without the workload for two full-time members of staff, he went to college to learn another trade. His father had always said, “Don’t work for any fool but yourself”, so Christian founded his own locksmith business, Rhodes to Security. However, following Geoffrey’s untimely death, he stepped in to ensure that the Rhodes name remained on the High Street.

“I knew I would lose dad at some point, but didn’t expect it to be so soon,” he says. “I thought I would have more time with him and that he could teach me what I needed to know. When he died, it was a case of  keeping it going and to a certain degree I’ve had to find my own way.”

“Every day, somebody comes in and asks to see my dad, as everyone knew him as he’d been in the shop since 1982. People don’t visit the cobblers very often, perhaps only once every year or two, so you tell them that he’s not with us anymore and it knocks you back every time. We have some people who have been customers of ours for a long time. Some tell me that I’m the spitting image of my grandfather. A couple even remember my great-grandfather, which is remarkable!”


The shop was first started by Michael Rhodes in Shipley, but it was his son, Raymond Henry, who moved the business to Billingshurst at the end of the First World War. He made and repaired shoes and boots at his home, a cottage opposite St Mary’s Church, Billingshurst. As soon as he was old enough, his son, Raymond Cecil, would ride a specially adapted delivery bicycle, visiting customers around the village and surrounding areas to deliver and collect footwear.

The success of the business necessitated the opening of the shop in 1934, with new sewing and sanding machines installed to move with the times. In the early years, the Rhodes’ bought full hides which were soaked until they were ready to be cut for the making and repair of boots and shoes. 

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Raymond Henry Rhodes volunteered to be a member of the village’s Air Raid Precautions (ARP) team, patrolling the streets and farms to identify lights or fires which may alert enemy planes and identify where bombs had fallen. His son, Raymond Cecil, tried to enlist in the army, but was barred admission as cobblers were essential to the war effort. As a result, father and son worked tirelessly to repair and make hundreds of army boots. Henry Cecil also became the leading officer of the Billingshurst Fire Brigade and a collection of helmets still adorn the back room of the cobblers’ shop.

Geoffrey learned the trade too, but went to the City and trained as an accountant, before eventually being lured back to the family business. 

“I think it was the freedom to work for himself that brought him back,” says Christian. “He endured some tough times here but managed to survive several recessions. He always said that the business wouldn’t have made it if the mortgage hadn’t been paid off long ago. If we had rent fees, R.Rhodes and Sons would have closed years ago. It’s the rates that make the difference.”


To this day, R. Rhodes and Son is committed to traditional craftsmanship. Christian said: “Over this past year, I have spent a lot of time learning how to use the machines, as they can be deadly if you get them wrong. I’ve heard horror stories about people stitching their own hand! But we are a traditional repairer and still don't use a machine for compressing soles. We soak leather for several days before replacing them as it’s better for the longevity of the shoe and provides added comfort too. That means we can't turn around a pair of shoes on the same day as some of the franchise cobblers can. We need a week to repair them, so we can do the job properly.” 

“We do a lot of leather and zip repairs on bags and riding boots too. With the loss of traditional cobblers, fewer people are doing proper stitching work, so we do particularly well with the equine community as work needs to be precise.”

“We do see shoes that look in a bad way, but if you love a pair, it’s worth spending a bit of money to maintain them. Also, high quality footwear will gradually evolve to the shape of your feet and it can be very difficult to replace these for some people. So, it’s better to maintain them for a long period of time. The older generation clean and polish shoes to keep them alive. But younger people buy shoes that are not as well made and harder to repair, as they use cheaper materials. This means it’s not cost-effective.”

“There is supposedly a surge amongst the younger generation considering the environment and reducing the fashion industry’s impact. Having shoes repaired is a way of doing that and yet most still buy cheap shoes that don't last. With regular customers, I try and gently persuade them to spend more on shoes. Spending £300 on a pair is very hard, but it’s cost effective in the long run and better for the environment too. Once you have broken in a good pair of shoes, they fit like a glove and are comfortable, so you never regret it.” 


Over the course of time, R. Rhodes and Son has become isolated on the High Street. While shops have opened around Jengers Mead, the closure of the banks has had a detrimental impact on Billingshurst, particularly those located at the southern end.The throwaway culture of modern fashion coupled with the growth of chain outlets like Timpson, a regular sight in town centres, has made it hard for independents to survive. But Christian hopes that the Rhodes name can survive long into the future.

“I’m getting to the point where I feel I'm working at a standard that my dad would be proud of, balancing the cobblers with my locksmith business by only opening the shop in the morning.” 

“I’m lucky to have help, especially from Joan West, who was a good friend of my dad’s and has been coming here for 20 years, so she has vast experience.”“Before dad passed away, he said I could do whatever I wanted with the business, as it was my time. Certainly, I don’t want to lose the shop, as it’s my family's history and heritage, passed down through the generations. Now it’s my job to look after it.” 



Visit R.Rhodes & Son112 High Street, Billingshurst, RH14 9QS

Tel: (01403) 782313

Open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am - 1pm. http://rrhodesandson.co.uk