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Stepping back to the future after Wolverhampton family reunited

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 18, 2014

  • Dr Telensky with the Mayor of Wolverhampton, Milkinder Jaspal. In the background is a glass plaque, which is the original one from outside the building and has a portrait of Mr James Baker, the founder, on it

  • James Baker celebrates with his daughters Annabelle (left) and Caroline

  • A letter from one of the original Baker shoe shops - this one in Walsall - from the manager, a JT Corrigan, who was handed a pair of women's boots made 70 years previously and, in 1971, he sent them to the Baker family.

  • James unveils his portrait in the boardroom of his family's old shoe factory

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CHAMPAGNE corks popped as a distinguished Black Country family was reunited for the first time in more than a century.

The Baker family began making boots and shoes at the iconic Boot Factory in Wolverhampton's All Saints in the mid-19th century and turned it into a business which spanned the next 110 years.

And recently the family celebrated their own – and the city's – history as the last member of the board was 'reunited' with his ancestors. Mr James Baker, aged 88, finally had his portrait hung in a gallery thought to have been destroyed decades ago.

The event caused so much interest that people from across the country donated long-lost treasures and memorabilia from the factory which was turning out more than half a million pairs of boots and shoes a year in its heyday.

After hearing about Mr Baker's story Black Country archivists supplied the new occupants of the building, trades training college Engineering Real Results, with a collection of elegant Victorian footwear and the leather-working tools used to make them.

There was even a pair of slim mustard coloured women's boots on display – they had originally been returned to the factory in the 1970s by a Wolverhampton woman who wrote a note saying that they had been in her family for more than 70 years and were still as good as new.

They took pride of place in the small museum set up by centre manager Sara Learoyd and her managing director Phil Prosser. In less than a year they have put together artefacts including shoe lasts, old mechanical memorabilia, a family crest , furniture, a window frieze and personal items including cigarette cards and packets discarded over the decades by legions of cobblers and shoemakers.

There is even an old hall chair with the emblematic 'B' carefully carved into the 'back splat' which was donated by Neville and Sophie Rowell who run a Cannock heavy machinery firm.

Neville was actually brought up in a small house built at the heart of the factory where his father had been caretaker in the 1930s. Neville said: "I actually lived in the factory with my family – I have nothing but good memories of it … playing in the courtyards and the warehouses. I remember my dad stoking up the giant boiler in the cellar which heated the whole building."

But the jewel in the crown is, of course, the gallery of photographs discovered abandoned in the bowels of the building last year by Sara and Phil.

"The pictures were a fantastic find," Phil said. "There they were tucked away in cupboard. We were in the process of renovating the old boardroom and we decided it would be a nice gesture to the heritage of the place to have the family reunited on the walls of the room where all the business decisions that kept Baker's alive for more than 100 years took place."

In 2012 former RAF aircraft engineer Phil, who grew up in Oldbury, was looking for a home for a new venture, a college training people for jobs in the UK's burgeoning construction industry. Phil said: "Part of the factory was up for grabs and was perfect for my plan … lots of space to carry practical training in plumbing, electrical installations and all aspects of the building industry. It smelled of history and I felt a bit of a connection to it too as I remember visiting it with my parents to buy my dad's work boots decades ago."

And it was while rummaging through the abandoned dusty workshops and offices that Phil and his manager Sara Learoyd came across a series of old framed Victorian and Edwardian photographs of the original Baker family. They had been hidden away in an old cupboard for more than 40 years.

As the new portrait was unveiled by Mr Baker, who lives in Claverley, near Bridgnorth, he said: "I'm really pleased that the people now occupying the old factory have decided to honour my family in this way and keep their memory alive by re-instating their portraits in the boardroom.

"The fact that they have gone to the trouble of having a portrait of myself photographed and framed and placed alongside the images of my ancestors is very moving indeed."

Mr Baker's daughter, Annabelle, said: "It must be 40 years since I last visited the old building – it is very emotional particularity as dad is being honoured in this way."

Her sister Caroline said: "It's heart-warming to see how sympathetically the factory has been renovated, I am so pleased."

Dr Jan Telensky, the 'financial angel' who supports ERR, said that he wanted to re-create the Victorian ethics which made Baker's so successful. He said: "The Victorians believed in hard work and dedication – ERR trains people to build for a life in the traditional trades such as bricklaying, plumbing and electrical works.

"These are the building blocks of Britain's future – we teach tradition here by using the most advanced tools available to us. For instance we train using virtual reality which gives you practical experience of a job without the need to leave the working environment.

"This factory lends itself perfectly to our motto of history and innovation. I'm very proud of it."

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