Harry’s keeping old trade alive

Cobbler Harry Cahill with his Singer sewing machine - still good after more than 50 years. 0215harrycahill29
Cobbler Harry Cahill with his Singer sewing machine - still good after more than 50 years. 0215harrycahill29

In the back room of Cahill’s Footwear in Rankin Street, Harry Cahill is keeping a dying trade alive.

At 84, the local cobbler is as busy as ever - but now he’s the only one in town.

It’s a sign of the times that there’s no apprentice to follow in his footsteps. 

As a cobbler, Harry mends everything from summer sandals to boots and leather bags. He even had a Scotsman’s sporran on the workbench for repair when the Advocate visited.

His profession is an old one, featuring in old fairy and folk tales. 

As Harry says, “even the Lord had sandals and someone had to make them! But it wasn’t me”. 

But with this generation, the trade might vanish.

“No-one does bootmaking as a trade any more, it’s not a trade course any more as far as I know,” Harry said.

He’s been in the business more than 60 years and observes that it is the industry that has changed more than his profession. 

Harry started his apprenticeship at David Jones in Sydney in 1947.

His father made the decision to move the family out of the city - to Forbes - and bought the shoe shop from Arthur Champion. 

In those days, most shoes were made in Australia and the leather was stitched rather than the shoes being molded.

People didn’t have 20 pairs of shoes in their cupboard to go with different outfits - each pair was far too expensive for that. When shoes broke or the soles wore out, they were repaired. 

“On modern sandals, all I do is fix the straps,” Harry said.

“As far as boots that are stitched together, there’s only a couple of factories that still do that.

“There were a lot of Australian factories when I started.”

The tools of Harry’s trade haven’t changed much in his time, with the exception of adding  adhesives. 

“There wasn’t anything like this when I started,” he said, holding a bottle of glue.

Harry has the same hammer he started with - although it has had several new handles. 

The lasts he rests shoes on for repair came with the business when the Cahill family bought it in 1949. 

“There’s one for ladies shoes - left and right, the men’s - that’ll build up your body just lifting it,” he said.

“There’s one for pointy toes - they were in fashion, went out and have come back in again - that’s a dangerous weapon.” 

Even the machinery used for stitching and the lathe used for trimming up heels and soles haven’t changed much. 

Cahill’s has had the same stitching machines for 50 years and can still buy parts for them. 

Harry even sits at the Singer on the same stool he has had since his earliest days in the trade.

The family business, however, continues to grow and change. 

The Cahills moved to the current shop site in the early 1980s and bought the Parkes store in 1990. They added Cahill’s for the Girls in 2006. 

***

An oral history of the career of Harry Cahill and his life in Forbes is now archived in the National Library of Australia’s oral history and folklore collection. 

Harry joins a long list of Forbes people that have been recorded for the National Library collection over the past 30 years. 

Locals Rob and Olya Willis have recorded a number of “endangered” occupations from around the nation, including bullock drivers, railway sleeper cutters, blacksmiths, linotype operators and printers, whalers, cedar cutters, piners (huon pine cutters in Tassie).

Locally they have stories of old farming practices from Bill Adams and Paddy Godden and Ebb Wren’s accounts of life as a steam engine driver. 

Frank Drinkwater was amongst those who constructed Wyangala Dam - with pick and shovel - and Elsie Fell worked in retail in the days when your cash was placed in a cylinder in a tube and whisked away to the accounting team upstairs. 

Many of these trades and professions are dying or have already gone and they would appreciate hearing from anyone with knowledge of these - for example the old sanitary carters. If you can help, contact Renee at the Advocate on 6852 1800.  

Harry’s story will be available online through the National Library nla.gov.au oral histories collection.

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