By Robert Chapman
Chapmans Shoes was founded by James Chapman, a boot-maker from Farringdon, near Alton in Hampshire in the mid 19th century. In 1849 his son, James Wheeler Chapman, was born and soon after the shop was moved to London’s Oxford Street. The younger James married Lucy Townsend in 1871 and moved the business to Hampton Wick in Surrey, just over the river from Kingston upon Thames where their first three children, Arthur, Ernest and Annie were born. In 1881 the business moved again, this time to Camberley in Surrey to provide boots and shoes for the officers at The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Within a couple of years two more daughters, Nellie and Emily, were born, but by then, sadly, Arthur had died. The family lived above the shop on the corner of the London Road and what is now Lower Charles Street, nearly opposite the entrance to the “Sandhurst” college, tucked between the Catholic Presbytery and the Aspen Tree public house. Sadly, James Chapman spent more time under the influence of the pub than he did of his religious neighbours the other side and he died an early death in 1891 at the age of 43. Lucy Chapman, of necessity, took over and ran the business.
Lucy moved the business and the family home to Bagshot in the 1890s. She helped to keep the wolf from the door by taking in three lodgers, one of whom, Frederick George Harvey, was a boot-maker working in the shop, whilst the other two worked on the railway. By 1901, Ernest, now 24 and the only surviving son, was learning the shoe trade and working in the business with his mother, as was his sister Nellie. At the time one of the customers was Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, who was then resident at Bagshot Park until his death in 1942. Ernest married Edith Higgs in 1908 - she was the daughter of a builder who had moved to Bagshot from Portland in Dorset some years before. In the First World War Ernest enlisted in the army, and was away in France for the birth of his only son Leon Ernest Chapman in 1915. Sadly, he was also away at war when his wife Edith died suddenly in June 1918, only a few months before the end of the war. His mother, Lucy Chapman, kept the shop running throughout the first war, and for a while Leon was brought up by his maternal grandparents in Church Road, rather than above the shop on the Square.
After Ernest returned from the army he took over the business from his mother, now 70, remarried and brought up Leon. After school at Bagshot and Farnham Grammer School Leon too progressed into the business in the 1930s and gradually took over from his father Ernest until war struck again. When Leon enlisted in the RAF Bomber Command Ernest, now 63, once again took over the reigns and ran the Bagshot shop for the duration of the war, but not without the help from his mostly Suffolk-airfield-based-son through what today we would call “remote management”!
When the war ended in 1945 Leon Chapman re-joined civilian life and realised the future of the footwear trade was changing. Throughout the 1930s he had begun to move the business away from boot & shoe manufacturing and became a retailer (‘shop-keeper’ in his words), specialising in wider fitting footwear and offering a personal service, and a shoe repairer. In the 1950’s a Camberley shop was re-opened, first in York Town and later in the High Street, and over the next forty years Chapmans Shoe Shops were trading at various times at Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and even Sussex, including branches at Guildford, Sunningdale, Wallingford, Alton, Wokingham, Littlehampton, Woking, Basingstoke and Reading as well as Bagshot and Camberley.
Leon Chapman died suddenly in 1996, at the age of 80, still actively at the helm of what by then had become a substantial business with five shops and over 40 staff. Only two days previously he had been working full time and, as normal, had been seen ‘flying’ between his shops in his brown Rover Metro car. The business was carried on by his widow, Dorothy, herself 80, and two sons, Robert and Timothy, until 2004 when the increasing trend of shopping through out-of-town stores and the internet, and the move away from traditional High Street shopping, meant that the difficult decision had to be taken to close the shoe shops.
Ten years later it was felt that the public were becoming increasingly frustrated with the impersonal methods of shopping that the big stores and the web were providing. So, in 2014,10 years after closing, and 165 years after originally opening, Chapmans Shoes opened once again for trade in Reading.
In 2018 the Reading shop closed and Chapmans Shoes re-located to Minehead, Somerset, where it remains today.