BEING the eighth generation of the French family to sell shoes in Southampton, Caroline Osman feels more pressure than most to keep the business afloat.

The highly regarded independent retailer in Bedford Place, the oldest and largest shoe shop in Hampshire, has just reopened following a 12-week coronavirus closure.

W.J. French & Son retained an online presence and were available on the end of the phone throughout lockdown, but 90 per cent of their business is shop based, so the coming weeks are vital to the future of the firm.

"It's been as good as I could have hoped for since reopening," said managing director Caroline, pictured above left, who first worked in the shop as a 14-year-old Saturday girl and returned six years ago to run the business alongside other family members.

"Figures are really similar to last year at the moment.We will soon be going into the busy back to school period and a lot of children's feet will have grown during lockdown. I'm hopeful it will be OK."

Any other outcome doesn't bear thinking about for Caroline.

"It's the history of the place and the staff who have worked here for so long. For them to lose their jobs would be devastating. And to have to turn around to my Dad and say the business is folding, well I just can't think about it."

French's, as it is affectionately known, have put new Covid safety measures in place including special shoe fitting screens.

Many of their loyal staff have been with the business for 20, 30 or 40 years and one staff member, who was trained by Caroline's grandfather as a 16-year-old, is still there 55 years later.

They hold a stock of around 150,000 pairs of shoes and welcome back generation after generation of customers, specialising in children's shoes but also selling ladies and men's shoes and being home to an onsite shoe repair shop.

Well known for their expert and personal service, members of staff hold Society of Shoe fitter qualifications.

"I'd challenge anyone in the world to a shoe fitting competition with my staff," Caroline says proudly.

W. J. French & Son is one of the oldest shoe making businesses in the country and is now over 200 years old. Francis French started as an apprentice shoemaker in 1794 and in 1803 became a master shoemaker and began his business from his house in Kingsland Place. It was not until 1890, following several moves, that the family moved to the premises we know today.