by Judith Goulin - CDHS - Cobourg & District Historical Society
Originally published in the CDHS newsletter September and October 2010.
The King Street walkway that many people pass through on their way from the Covert Street parking lot has a long history. It was not always the handy shortcut that it is now. Early records indicate that this space was occupied by a shop called J. S. Bowen's Variety Store and Barber Shop. Later it was home to a different type of business---John Henley Shoe Repair.
John Henley, who grew up in Surrey, England, was orphaned when his parents both died of influenza. Along with his brothers, Henley was taken to the School of Hand Crafts, a place designed to provide practical training and general education for young men. Here John learned the trade of shoe repair.
John immigrated to Canada and in time opened his small shoe repair shop on the south side of King Street, but later moved his business to the north side, opposite Second Street. This shop was one of several businesses located at street level in the still existing three-storey Flemish bond brick building.
Mr. Henley is remembered as a good person: a quiet, kind, friendly white-haired man, soft-spoken, with a great sense of humour besides. A true craftsman, it was said that he could repair any shoes.
John Henley Shoe Repair was typical of a genre of shops that many will remember. It was long and narrow with large storefront windows and wood paneling at the bottom. It was heated by a Quebec heater that looks somewhat like a pot-bellied stove. In time, John had fewer and fewer shoes to fix, so he branched out into bicycle repair, changing the name of his business to John Henley Shoe Repairs and Bicycles.
A fire that started in the Quebec heater destroyed Henley's shop one night in 1972. It was John's 46th year in business.
A municipal parking lot north of King Street had been approved in 1968, but final plans were still pending. Something good came out of the Henley tragedy when the town of Cobourg acquired the burnt-out premises and the idea was born to create a convenient mid-block walkway from Covert to King utilizing the former business space.
In this much-beloved man's honour, John Henley's name is immortalized in the name of this thoroughfare: Henley Arcade.
This article is based on a personal interview with Fred Cory (a grandson of John Henley) and material gleaned from the Cobourg Star, Cobourg Sentinel Star, LACAC Inventory of Cobourg's Century Buildings, The Life and Times of a Community Publisher by Frank Meharry Russell and Cobourg Early Days and Modern Times by John R. Spilsbury.
One of our CDHS members and a native of Cobourg, Don Houston, added some forgotten details that occurred in the aftermath of the Henley fire. Don recalls that Herbie Lewis, a boarder who lived in an apartment above John Henley Shoe Repair, died in the fire.
Don also told us that after the property was destroyed, some local businessmen, Stewart Stanley and possibly Gary Sharpe and Harley Hoselton - acquired the premises and "leaned on the town politicians to add it to the parking plans."