Quest for Information on a Shoemaker’s Last

As a placement student I have had a chance to experience a brilliant range of aspects of heritage and curatorial work. One thing which has consistently impressed me is simply the unfolding of the history of objects through research. 
I particularly like researching very mundane objects because often they have the most intriguing and familiar stories to tell.
In line with the upcoming Fairy Tales & Fantasy exhibition I was to work on the Elves and the Shoemaker story, which involved getting hands on with an enormous plethora of shoemaking tools and equipment. It was a fairly rusty, dirty iron shoe last, buried amongst many other nondescript lasts and other shoemaking equipment which grabbed my attention. 
This last however was branded in enormous letters: LION. After a clean-up I investigated where this giant hunk of rusty metal came from and what life it had had.
Lion Foundry shoe last
Lion Foundry shoe last

From Glasgow with love

To find anything at all from the word LION was of course going to be a struggle, but after a while, estimations of manufacturing dates and variation of the name I discovered THE LION IRON FOUNDRY. The Lion Iron Foundry was established in 1880 at Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, by the firm of Jackson, Brown & Hudson. 

The foundry went from strength to strength, employing one twentieth of the population of the Burgh of Kirkintilloch by 1910 but its earlier works in the late 1800s were less impressive, manufacturing railings, gates and other largely mundane items, most likely when our unassuming last was created. Into the twentieth century The Lion Foundry began to take on more ambitious projects such as bandstands, tram and bus shelters. Developing a fine reputation, from 1900-1914 the foundry was involved in large constructional ironwork projects in cities all over the UK.

The Surprise
County Arcade, Leeds, decorated for the Royal Visit 1908
County Arcade, Leeds, decorated for the Royal Visit 1908

On further investigation, quite poignantly on the final day of my placement, I discovered that the Lion Iron Foundry, with its humble beginnings in the wilds of Scotland had a very impressive Leeds link! The Lion Foundry supplied and erected the highly ornamental roof trusses, domes and balcony railings of the incredibly beautiful and ornate Leeds County Arcade. 

As reported in the Kirkintilloch Herald of 29 November 1899: ‘A BIG ORDER – We are gratified to learn that the Lion Foundry Company have been successful in securing a large English order that will ensure a briskness in certain departments for months to come. It is an arcade for Leeds, in which ornamental castings will play a large part.’ To my utter surprise, my rusty old shoe last had led me to uncover a hidden history!

So on the very last day of my exciting and fulfilling placement with Abbey House Museum the faith in my rusty old iron last had paid off. This hunk of Glaswegian metal, sat on the desk in front of me had a story! A fantastic and very surprising link to a significant part of Leeds heritage. 

Even the most unremarkable of items, lost in the sea of an extraordinary collection, are truly worth exploring.

By Holly Roberts, Work Placement student from Lincoln University 

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