|Evening Telegraph report, 12th October 1963
John White - Reunion Dinner 1963
From 3s. 6d.-a-week workshop to a 'unique' shoe empire
THE letters "KB"which prefixed millions of John White shoes all over the worldperhaps shed more light on John White, the man, than any other aspect of his long career as a shoe manufacturer. Mr. White told a "reunion" dinner at Wicksteed Park, Kettering, last night that they were chosen by him, and meant simplykeep believing.
He recalled many of the difficulties he encountered as the firm expanded from a back-street workshop into a "unique" shoe empire selling shoes to over seventy export markets. Mr. White, replying to a toast to "the founder" by Mr. Cyril Skeeles. the firm's former personnel manager, told the story of a self-made man a story complete with "ogres" like the depression and his near moments of despair.
And it all began at the rear of a house in Crabb Street, Rushden, which the Whites rented for 3s. 6d. a week.
"Older guests will know something of the conditions back in 1896 when I entered the tradethe long hours and low rates of pay. The thought was always in my mind that one day I should get free from these conditions and be.my own master." Mr. White said.
With twenty years' experience in the trade, and six years after he had married, Mr. White's opportunity came he had saved about £90. There was then no power or machinery of any kind, he said, and after spending half his money on upper leather, his difficulties started. He didn't have a sole press "I bought more upper leather until I had a thousand pairs ready. Then I came to a complete standstill, as I could not complete a single pair of boots, and things were getting desperate."
It seemed to him and his wife that he would have to abandon the whole project and lose their life savings. Then, said Mr. White, arriva1 a moment of inspiration
"We closed our little workshop and as I locked the door a little girl came by singing 'Pack up your Troubles' at the top of her voice. ..."
The idea came to sell the uppers to other manufacturerssomething quite unusual in those daysand the next morning he set out on his first sales expedition. One manufacturer, however, offered him about 9d. a pair less than cost, and another less than half the cost. Finally, he secured an order from a manufacturer, James Hyde.
"Imagine my relief and lightheartedness as I hurried home to deliver this first order. On the Saturday I was the proud possessor of nearly £250, which I at once spent on more leather," Mr. White said. For some time he did business with Mr. Hide and other manufacturers. Men were cutting uppers and women were closing them in their homes, while Mr. White continued working in his little workshop. He acquired his treadle sole press, and for a time worked about 16 hours a day cutting uppers, soles and general bottom work. The time had then come, however, to approach the regular shoe buyers with the finished article, and he and his wife set out for London with a small range of samples.
Said Mr. White: "It was approaching 1920 and the dreadful slump was already making itself felt. When I told the first buyer we called on that I had just begun shoe manufacturing he said I ought to be awarded the Victoria Cross."
A "not particularly warm" reception at J. Darnell's did result in an order for 72 pairs. The shoes arrived at the firm at 10 o'clock one morning, and by 11 o'clock Mr. White received a telegram asking him how many he could make.
Said Mr. White: "I gave them a fabulous figure, and Darnell repeated and increased their orders. The buyer was Mr. Andrew Thompson, recognised as one of the finest in the country. Over the years I sold him millions of pairs of boots and shoes."
Mr. White then described the running of a small factory with the machinery that he acquired in Church Street, Rushden. While there were people working on all floors, Mr. White was packing the shoes"usually outside on the pavement."
When the slump was at its heightthere were three million men out of workMr. White bought another small factory in Newton Road, and before long his output was 10,000 pairs a week.
It was then that he decided to introduce goods bearing his name, which he could guarantee. The name he chose for them was "Impregnable", and the prefix for the first number was KB 100.
Here Mr. White told the story of the letters "KB". They were taken from a book by Harold Begbie in which two characters, who faced tremendous difficulties, inserted "KB" in the letters to each other, which stood for "keep believing."
Mr. White adopted the letters, and kept it a secret until after his retirement forty years later. Mr. White reminded his guests of how he bought or built eleven separate units in all, and how the factories' output increased to well over three million pairs a year. Anyone who invested £100 in his newly-formed public company in 1934 would have increased their capital ten-fold by the time of his silver jubilee, he said.
From 1950 shoes valued between £4 million and £5 million had been sold to North America alone.
Mr. White ended his speech with reference to the "uniqueness" of the John White Organisationin its manner of foundation, regular work, opportunities and his personal association with all the employees. He and his wife treasuredmost of all, among the many presentations made to them, a bound volume containing the name of every member of the organisation.
He told his guests: "You workers in those early days, and all the years that followed under my direction, enabled the company to produce close to 100 million pairs; of shoes, the whole production bearing the hallmark of British craftsmanship unsurpassed anywhere in the world."
Principal guests at the dinner were Mrs. G. E. Woodley, Mayor of Higham Ferrers, and Mr. R. R. Griffiths, chairman of Rushden Urban Council. Both civic leaders referred to the gifts Mr. and Mrs. White have made to the towns over the years, and wished them health and happiness in retirement.
Mrs. Woodley said: "It has been in their power to give I and they have done so in many ways."
Mr. Griffiths mentioned Mr. White's part in bringing prosperity to the area, and his gifts of a bandstand, new gates at the Hall Park (these have still to be erected) and the John White old people's bungalows at Higham Ferrers.
All the speakers, including Mr. White, spoke of the part Mrs. White had played in the growth of the firm, and Mr. Whitethey have been married 52 yearsproposed a special toast to her.
Mr. Skeeles spoke of Mr. White as the provider of a livelihood for 2,000 people, and his interest in their welfare. Higham had honoured him by making him a Freeman of the Borough, and Mayor twice, and Rushden, too, was very grateful, he said.
The guests, over 500 retired employees, their wives, women with over 25 years' service, and present employees with 30 years' service and over had been brought to Kettering in coaches, which picked them up at eighty different points. They afterwards received a special souvenir programme.