Seventy-nine is an age when most senior citizens settle for a peaceful existence pottering about the garden with the occasional game of bowls. But this is not the life for two Rushden shoemakers, Jack and Bill Denton.They arrive at the Rectory Road factory of DB shoes every morning, prepared for a day of stitch-marking shoe leather in a first-floor room.
At first this might appear to be the simple story of two elderly brothers who prefer to keep up their livelihood rather than retreat from itbut for one fact.
Jack and Bill Denton founded this booming Rushden shoe firm half a century ago. This year it celebrates 50 years in the shoe trade.
And the Denton twins have no intention of ever giving up their contribution to the firm's production. "I think to retire is one of the biggest mistakes you can make," said Jack. He and his brother, Bill, are both now managing directors of the firm, and are consulted on all policy matters by Jack's two sons, John, aged 42, and Hugh, 39. Together with company secretary Mr. George Eason they have now taken the day-to-day running of the business.
As managing directors, Jack and Bill find today's shoe trade a lot different from their younger days. "My sons do things that frighten me. We used to look at every penny but now they spend thousands without batting an eyelid,'' said Jack.
When I was first introduced to Jack and Bill Denton I was, needless to say, amazed to find two managing directors laboriously marking shoe leather to be taken to the women's department. Jack was dressed in a casual brown jumper and his brother in the traditional shoemaker's white smocknot exactly the clean-cut blue suits that one comes to expect of managing directors.
They sat either side of a large table with leather cut-outs stacked around them. But as I spoke to them, I realised they could not be happier.
A young employee came into the room and Jack chatted to him, calling him by his first name. "I know a lot of the workers on the shop floor by their first names, especially the older ones," he said. I was told that people visited their room for a short chat. And it is this friendly atmosphere dominating the factory that has helped to make DB shoes such a success. "One woman came up to me recently and said she had never been happier in her life,'' said Jack.
And, as they made their marks on the various pieces of leather, the Denton twins gave me a potted history of DB shoes.
Jack and Bill formed "Denbros," now DB Shoes, in 1920. It was their grandfather, Benjamin, who formed the original firm of B. Denton, which was at first concerned solely with the British Army boot.
"In those days no shoes were made in the factory. They were all made in shops or in peoples back gardens. The wives did the closing and the men did the finishing," said Jack. He and Bill left Wellingborough School at the age of 16 to serve an apprenticeship with their father's firm. "My father used to take me to the factory once a week to watch old chaps stitching shoes by hand," said Jack.
The twins' father, George, was a leading light in Rushden. "He was an energetic little man with fingers in every pie," said Bill. "He owned the factory, a grocery, a garage and all sorts of other things."
In 1920 they decided to branch out on their own because B. Denton did not hold enough opportunity for them.
"When we came back from the war there were two elder brothers still in the business and there just wasn't, enough scope for us," said Jack.
And so the Denton twins formed Denbros under a gentleman's agreement with B. Denton that they would not compete with them. In the firm's early days in Irchester High Street they made shoes for boys and youths, until they found it more profitable to make men's shoes. B. Denton continued to do municipal work under contract. The two Denton brothers began with six men working for them. They produced about 250 pairs of shoes every week, two and a half per cent of today's total of 10,000.
Then came the Depression and really hard work. "In those days it was a question of sinking or swimming," said Jack.
They ploughed all their savings into the firm and every penny of profit went back into production. They took, on more workers as they took on more orders. They now have over 120 people working at the factory in Rectory Road, Rushden, where they have been since 1934.
"We worked hard and we hoped, but I don't think we ever expected to reach the stage where we produced 10,000 pairs a week”, Jack said.
The two brothers came from a sporting family with 11 children and never intended to make a livelihood out of shoemaking.
"I didn't particularly want to be a shoemaker. I always wanted to be a cricketer," said Jack. "But you couldn't make a living out of cricket."
However, the twins combined the best of both worlds and, as well as succeeding in the shoemaking field, they were also a success on the cricket field. For a number of seasons they opened the Northamptonshire innings together. Jack scored two centuries in the county championship and his brother was, for some time, record-holder with the highest innings for Northamptonshire230 against Essex.
Jack's sons are also sporting enthusiasts. Hugh is a keen golfer with a handicap of five.
Their DB factory now has up-to-date British and Continental equipment that helps to make it one of the most modern in the country.
During the past six years the factory has been completely re-planned for better productivity. An adjoining factory they bought recently will give them an extra 15,000 square feet of floor space and this will help them to produce an expected 15,000 pairs of shoes per week in the near future.
Hugh and John Denton are not satisfied with keeping up with the restthey want to keep ahead of them.