WONERSH
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HISTORY SOCIETY

GEORGE WILLIAM BRETT - SHOEMAKER

(1882-1966) George Brett was born in 1882 in one of the three cottages which now form The Old House in The Street. He was the seventh generation of his family to live in Wonersh and like his father and grandfather he became a shoemaker. His grandmother, not wanting to be left out, did the fine stitching of the shoe uppers. The Old House George described his home as a rambling old cottage and remembered ‘how we children enjoyed swinging from the bedroom rafters on our homemade trapezes’. When he lived in The Old House cottages they were below street level with steps down. John Sudbury had them rebuilt and made into one house, at the same time lifting the floor by 22 inches which by all accounts caused a bit of a stir. Part of the house was then turned into an ‘Institute’ for the village in the winter - billiards in the ‘big’ room and cards and refreshments in the upstairs rooms. Unfortunately, in the summer the men were working until 6 o’clock and then had their gardens to look after so the Institute closed, the furniture was moved out, Mrs Sudbury put in house furniture and it was let. The Importance of Boots Amongst George’s customers were the men at Chilworth Gunpowder Works for whom he made special boots. In the worst explosion recorded at Chilworth six men were killed and all because of a hob nailed boot - a man slipped and the spark created by his hob nailed boots ignited the powder in a powder tram and this first explosion set off a second explosion in the corning house. The subsequent inquest was held at the Percy Arms pub. George was interviewed by various History Society members between 1958 and 1973. By the time George made boots for the mill workers, no metal at all could be used because of the danger of sparks so soles were fixed with wooden plugs, a square plug being driven into a round hole. This held the sole very firmly and was completely waterproof because as soon as the peg became damp it would swell and bind even tighter. Pegs were also more secure and longer lasting than stitches. The holes for the pegs had to be bored with an awl and if an awl broke, the whole boot had to be completely taken to pieces to make sure no metal had been left in. Trams pushed by hand were used for carrying trays of powder from one part of the mill to an other. The men pushing them wore boots with brass nails. Brass doesn’t give off a spark but even so, these boots were worn outdoors only. If a tram man had to go into the mill he slipped on ‘shooshers’, large metal-less overshoes which always stood at the mill entrance and in these he shuffled to wherever he had to go. The Pope’s Shoes As well as making shoes and boots, George repaired and supplied shoes to the Seminary. On the Seminary staff was an Italian, Dr Banfi, who taught Latin and was a friend of Pope Pius XI. The Italian shoes worn by the Pope were made of silk or velvet and soon wore out because of the friction of his robes so he wrote to Dr Banfi requesting leather shoes from England. Dr Banfi gave George a sample shoe, some specially tanned scarlet morocco leather and gold cloth for the heels and asked him to make the shoes. A Miss Burrill embroidered them with gold braid around the edges, a gold cross on the toes and fastenings of gold acorns. The sample shoes sent by the Pope are kept in the Seminary.