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Copied from papers kindly loaned, 2013
A Study of the Growth and Development
of the Parish of Rushden
By B Whitworth - 1958

Part 3
The Growth of the Boot and Shoe Industry

It was during this century that prosperity came to Rushden and consequently the actual town itself changed from a poor neglected village, as it was at the beginning of the century, to a more prosperous urban district. The period of Rushden’s most rapid growth was between 1881 and 1891, during which decade its population doubled, rising from 3,600 to about 7,200 people (see population graph *missing). This rise in the population was not due to the introduction of the boot and shoe trade, but to the introduction of machinery, and the establishment of small factories which employed men. The actual art of the trade existed in the village at the end of the eighteenth century, but in a different sphere. The man who to-day stands at a machine all his working life, making the same fragment of a sole or an upper, is scarcely likely to be the man, the shoe maker or the cobbler was who sat at his bench and built his shoes entirely by hand. The idea of a craftsman-ship, as far as the whole shoe is concerned gradually died out as the amount of machinery increased, and even to-day there are few of the boot and shoe workers who could produce a complete shoe made entirely by hand.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the population of the village was less than 1,000 inhabitants, and it is certain that the craft of shoemaking existed then. This can be proved by the existence of records at the Parish Church, which tell of the marriages of various batchelor cordwainers of the village. The wearing of shoes became more popular and so the art gradually spread, until in 1841, when the population was only 1,311, there were 200 men engaged in the boot industry, while about 300 woman and children were employed in pillow-lace making.

One can almost picture the village cordwainer at work, sitting in his ‘shop’ wearing a grubby apron, a long drooping moustache and a pair of spectacles on the end of his nose. A shoe would be fixed between his knees by moans of some thick thread which passed over the shoe and down to his feet, and in his right hand, a tough needle and some thread which had been waxed, ready to hand-sew the uppers to the soles. Around him, would be scattered different tools for the job together with other parts of boots and shoes ready to be put together.

All the present boot manufacturers of the town started in this way and many of their own 'shops' where they produced their first pairs of shoes have become quite famous. Let us look a little closer and see how John White first started. He was one of the later starters, but nevertheless, the same pattern can be traced through his development, right up to the present day, when his 'John White, just right' shoes are world famous.

In 1919 he started his business in a small work shop in his own garden. Many of the houses of Rushden had and still have small barns or 'shops' as they are termed locally, built on to the house where the male member of the family could work at his shoe bench. The small amount of money which John White possessed did not enable him to have very much in the way of machinery, and at the outset the manufacture of his shoes was mainly performed by hand. This was possible at that time because abundant labour was available from the elder group of craftsman shoemakers. The initial production, although small in quantity was outstanding in workmanship and quality. For this reason he obtained repeat orders very rapidly right from the start and soon had to arrange additional production to meet the increased demand. Production started on a very small scale, but with exceptional care, thoroughness and personal effort at every stage. In 1919, the amount of materials available was of course, limited by his cash resources, but the steady flow of repeat orders gave him heart and encouragement. The first year's total output was only about 3,000 pairs of shoes.

John White’s first employee was a demobilised soldier from the First World War. A number of the many operations in shoe-making were done by workers in their own homes in those days. For the first 12 months, Mr. White worked entirely alone during the day, cutting by hand the uppers for all his production. During the evening hours he cut out all the soles which was a heavy and arduous task. This made a total of sixteen hours day continued strenuous effort. Consequently, as the demand grew, he was compelled to get help and to start to engage additional labour.

In the 1920’s came the slump which affected the boot and shoe industry. At that time however, Mr. White was able to contact several important overseas buyers who were attracted by the value offered and gave him orders which absorbed a large part of his output. By this means, it was possible to keep going successfully when so many others failed to weather the storm of the 1920's.

Gradually the business of John White spread owing to the great demand for his shoes. Today he is one of the leading shoe manufacturers in the country, but it was only 38 years ago that he was himself making individual pairs of shoes in his own 'shop'. So, as others have done the same, there was larger demand for employees. Outsiders, mainly from the surrounding villages were attracted by these new factories where they could earn bettor money than they had been doing and so the population of Rushden increased.

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