June 17th 1912
To visit the works and shop of Horace Batten the Bootmaker Ltd is a fascinating and remarkable experience. Meeting the man himself and hearing his life story and that of the business is even more so. Horace Batten, will be a 102 in June and yet he has the incredible ability to remember in detail so much of what has happened over the years, he makes a mockery of most of us who are half his age!
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Horace Batten, the fifth generation of Boot makers, was born on the 17th June 1912 at Long Buckby in Northamptonshire, just a stone’s throw from Ravensthorpe where he and the business have been based for many years. From his early days he remembers the ethic of hard work being drummed into him. As well as the family owning and running the boot making business in Northampton, they also raised a large number of ducks and geese on their farm at Long Buckby, so there was never a day when there was nothing to do. Mr Batten certainly found this out, for being the only child there were no siblings with whom to share the daily responsibilities. It is interesting to note, the Batten family originated from Ilminster in Somerset where they were making boots and shoes at the time of the Civil War. In 1800 a Mr William Batten moved to Gloucester and then onto Hackney in London’s East End where he continued to develop the business. However, whilst in Gloucester surprisingly one of the family deviated and became Chief Constable of the county. Then in 1910 they made their move to Northamptonshire and have been there ever since.
Horace’s early memories are of an era long gone but never to be forgotten. Near their works in St Michael’s Road Northampton there was a very large ammunition factory. Towards the end of the First War he vividly remembers lorries being loaded with six inch shells which were being taken away to be filled with gun powder. Life at this time was extremely hard as it was everywhere and it did not get any easier for a considerable number of years. The Batten family decided that they were not going to go under so some serious innovation was required. Horace’s father, despite being a very hard worker was not a good businessman, so in 1931 whilst the country was still continuing to suffer the worst effects of the depression, the young nineteen year old joined the company. The demand for hunting boots was still there but more was desperately needed to galvanise the business. The decision to get out there and promote the fact that many hunting boots that were made at this time didn’t last but Batten boots did. So with a hundred pounds that he had been left by a relative, he bought an Austin Seven and set of around the hunt kennels of England. He always thought of himself as a bit of a rebel but he wasn’t frightened of hard work and this approach of producing a high quality boot and making people aware of the fact, saved the day for future generations. I was fascinated to learn that his hunting boots were always made from a particular, special leather from Devon and still are to this day. The leather is dressed on the flesh side and not the skin side, the reason for this being so you can bone the scratches out.
Mr Batten’s memories of his kennel visits are as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. As he remembers huntsmen of the time were Gods and woe betide you if you happened to get on the wrong side of them! On one occasion he arrived at the South Notts Kennels to find that all the staff, huntsman included had walked out! However, there were many happy memories of visits to Badminton, Brent Pelham, Barnby Moor, Chipping Norton etc where orders were taken and boots were made for the country’s masters and hunt staff. He has particular fond memories of the Champion family, with Bob, Nimrod and Jack all coming from a long line of hunt servants.
Life away from visiting hunt kennels also had its amusements. Horace tells of one occasion when he was attending a service in what was the old Coventry Cathedral and the Bishop started ranting on about secularism. He got so fed up with it that he left his pew, took his Bible and laid it on the floor in front of the pulpit, called him a clown and walked out! He decided afterwards that he ought to go back to his own vicar and admit to him his transgressions. Happily he took it very well and just laughed it off!
In 1939 Mr Batten married Barbara who helped and supported him for many years in the business as well as being a wonderful housewife and mother. Their son Tim was born in 1945 and he now runs the Business with his daughter Emma. Barbara was
very artistic and a real go getter; as well as helping to run Chelsea Flower Show, she started the National Association of Flower Arrangers. Also, of course the Second World War came in 1939 but Horace did not take part in active service as he was needed to make boots. He was the only man in the country who knew how to make Sea Boots so production of these took priority and he was kept very busy especially as a whole year’s supply had been bombed. Stout footwear was badly needed for the girls who were keeping farming going and Lady Reading, head of the Land Army, put in a request for Batten Boots to supply something suitable. Mr Batten had his own motto, if he could, he would and sure enough, he did! He made some solid, hard wearing ladies boots which replaced the “bloody silly shoes they were expected to wear”! One of his sad memories of the war was when he turned up at the Cheshire Kennels just at the desperate time they were putting a lot of the hounds down as they had to reduce the number kept at that time to the minimum. This certainly left its mark on him, as it did many others who were in Hunt Service at the time. It is amazing really to think that hunting managed to continue even in a limited form throughout the War, not only to keep on top of the fox population but to be there for those returning from the ravages of intensive fighting in Europe and the Far East.
After the War hunting became more popular with an ever increasing demand for proper quality hunting boots. Mr Batten’s comments are interesting as they come from a man who has never hunted on a horse, but sees it as something more than a sport. To him it plays a very strong and active role in the countryside as well as keeping a healthy and well balanced fox population. These are wise words which certain politicians should listen to.
Horace tells me that boot making has kept his family together and that the business of boot making has rubbed off naturally on him. It is the hallmark of the Batten family. I am sure this is absolutely true and coming from the fourth generation of a family who have hunted hounds I can certainly empathise with that remark. Since 1931 he has travelled the length and breadth of the country. During those years he has met all types of masters and huntsmen, the vast majority of them he would describe as “Good Chaps” although one or two left a lot to be desired, he told me! Hunting he believes has tremendous support but he fears for the wellbeing of the fox, as everybody nowadays seems to have a gun! How right he is!
Whilst we were winding up our intriguing conversation I suggested that it might be an idea if we could possibly take a few photos of the Boss in his workshop. Quick as a flash he started to lift himself out of his armchair saying to Tim “Come on then, anything for business”! Close on fifteen hundred words do not suffice when writing an article about such a character. It is only the very beginning. Thanks must go to you Mr Batten for giving me the opportunity of at least going this far. It has been a real privilege and something I will never forget.
As an aside to this article Horace told me a little story about his father which may interest you the reader. At 12 o’clock one autumn morning in 1908, he sent a postcard from Long Buckby to his intended in London saying that he would pick her up at seven thirty that evening. That postcard was delivered to the London address at 4.30 that afternoon! How long would it take that very same letter in 2014 I ask myself!?