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Northamptonshire Victoria County History Volume II, p322, 328-330
Shoemaking in Northamptonshire

The change from Handmade to Manufactory

Northamptonshire (essentially a shoemaking county) - a short description of the methods employed.

We will take the boot as supplied to the army in the eighteenth century. It should be mentioned that a boot of that class (a fairly strong boot) was produced by practically the same process as had obtained at least a century earlier, and was continued with little development till 1860.

Fashion in shape and style varied often, but the way in which the boot was fastened together remained the same. The boot complete consists of 'upper' and 'bottom'. In the trade the term 'upper' comprises all that part of the boot to which the sole and heel are attached— the upper portion, in short. The expression 'bottom' covers not only the sole and heel, but the connecting portions between them and the 'upper', which are styled 'insole' and 'welt'.

Now for its making: Firstly, the 'upper' must be produced. From a calf-skin or a cordovan hide are cut pieces of leather in such shapes that when sewn together they should be capable of being moulded into a comfortable covering for the foot. These pieces of leather must be joined carefully, in some cases the thickness of the material rendering a sharp piercer of steel necessary with which to make a hole, through which the bristle, and in its wake the well-waxed thread, may pass. 'Closing' is the trade term applied to this process. Until the end of the eighteenth century the upper was closed by the journeyman shoemaker or members of his family; after that time 'closing' was made a special branch of the craft. This done, the 'upper' and a sufficient supply of leather for the bottom is placed in the hands of the cordwainer. Taking the wooden 'last', he attaches with a few short nails to its under­side enough leather to cover it cut from the side (belly) or top end (shoulder) of a well-tanned hide, where the leather is moderately thin and pliable. This is called the 'insole', and it is pared with a sharp knife close to the edge of the 'last'.

Stretching the 'upper' on the 'last' till it lies over its underside and upon the 'insole' for about half an inch all round, he pins it tem­porarily to the said 'insole' with a few nails (lasting tacks). Next he takes a strip of leather about an inch wide (the welt), and running it around the outside edge of the 'last' so that it lies upon the portion of the 'upper' which is tacked to the 'insole', sews by means of a sharp, pointed, curved steel awl and a hog's bristle attached to a waxed thread the 'insole', 'upper,' and 'welt' together in the following manner: the curved awl is thrust downward first, then upward, half through the thickness of the insole, and right through the portion of upper lying thereon and the welt.

A sufficient hole being made the awl is withdrawn and the stitch made. A well-waxed thread a yard or more long has a stiff hog's bristle attached to each end. One end is passed into the hole from right to left, the other from left to right, and pulled up tight. The result is a seam not only of great strength, but practically waterproof, as special care is taken that the hole made by the awl shall only be of a size that will be completely filled by the waxed thread. The three substances are thus united.

All lasting tacks and nails are then withdrawn and soft leather put up the centre of the 'last' to make all level. Next the sole (the thick piece of leather which actually meets the ground) is stitched to the 'welt', the heel attached, the whole smoothed and finished and the 'last' pulled out from the top of the now completed boot.

Lighter-substance boots, shoes, and slippers were made in a different way; that is to say, on the turnshoe, sewround, or pump principle. Taking the 'last', the operator fastened to its underside the sole, wrong side up, with the grain or outer surface to the 'last'. The 'sole' was well wetted to render it pliable. Then taking the 'upper' he turned it inside-out, and in that condition shaped it over the 'last' and attached it to the sole by sewing. This done, the 'last' was withdrawn and the boot turned outside-in and again put on to the 'last', when it was properly moulded into shape and allowed to dry. Of course, for this method neither a very stout 'upper' nor thick 'sole' could be employed, or the turning outside-in would have been an impossibility. All light 'pump' work, dancing shoes, slippers, and such-like are still made in this manner, and also the thin top-boots worn by jockeys.

The antiquity of these methods is so great that it is impossible to date it. Not only were all light boots made in this way from the six­teenth century onward, but before that time there does not appear to have been any other method employed at all. For such stronger boots as were required it appears that a second 'sole' was sometimes superimposed, but all boots and shoes were made on the turnshoe or weltless principle, for it should be observed that in these boots was neither 'welt' nor 'insole'.


Between 1852 and 1860 a very large and profitable trade was done, after which a less feverish but quite satisfactory business continued for many years. Unfortunately this gradually got almost entirely into the hands of middlemen—the Australian merchants—who had no practical knowledge of the trade. By continual agitation for cheaper stock and larger discounts they reduced the standard of the English boot offered for sale in Australia to such an extent, that an opinion came to be formed that high-class footwear must be sought elsewhere. An opening was thus made for those American manufacturers who were turning their attention to this market. They were far ahead of the Englishmen in methods of production, and quite willing to supply any article for which there was a demand. Thus our trade gradually shrank in volume, and the large import duties imposed by the Australian government have rendered it still smaller.

The export trade to South Africa, which has since attained to such importance, had its rise at a later date.

Introduction of Machinery

In 1859 a new method of boot making was in­augurated by the introduction into this country of the Mackay or Blake sole-sewing machine. It did not make much headway until after the exhibition of 1861, at which it was shown at work, but soon after was taken up freely by the trade in Northampton and elsewhere. This was a chain-stitch machine, which in one operation sewed through the sole, middle-sole, upper, and insole, the thread passing on its way to the needle through heated wax. For more than twenty years the machine-sewn boot was held in high repute not only in this country but in the United States. The greatest objection brought against it was the fact that inside the boot where the sole of the foot rested was a ring of waxed thread, an insuperable trouble to people with warm feet. Nevertheless, immense numbers of boots are yearly made after this method, which is the cheapest system, except riveting.

About 1860 a Mr. Crick of Leicester, probably inspired by the pegged boot, worked out a method for attaching the soles with French rivets. An iron plate was placed on the sole of the last, the upper tacked to the in-sole, a middle-sole fixed by the same means, and, with the out-sole placed in position, the whole was fastened together with iron rivets which were clenched on the iron plate. Several Northampton manufacturers sent workmen to Leicester for instruction, and the riveted boot at once sprung into popularity. The men could earn better wages in working on riveted boots than in making cheap hand-sewn, and the boot, though somewhat rough and heavy, would stand a good deal of hard wear.

In 1865 iron lasts were used in place of the iron-plated wooden variety, and instead of making the boot across their knees the men stood at a bench having iron uprights upon which the lasts fitted.

This new style (as also the pegged) brought about a further division of labour, the laster or riveter, after completing his process, handing the boot on to be trimmed up, blacked at the edges and burnished, to another person henceforth known as the finisher.

The Mills Turnshoe Machine was next introduced into this country to replace hand labour in sewing turnshoes or pumps. Messrs. Turner Bros., Hyde & Co., were the first in Northampton who used this machine, about the year 1868.

In 1872 came the first Goodyear Welt Machine and the Goodyear Chain-stitcher. It was claimed that these two machines could produce a boot similar to real hand-sewn. The principle was the same (welt sewn to upper and in-sole, and sole stitched to welt), and after some alterations and improvements the machine eventually entirely superseded cheap hand-sewn and hand-welted work. The chain-stitcher quickly made its way, but it was a long time before the welter was taken up largely. Messrs. Derham Bros. were the first firm to start the machine running in Northampton, which occurred in 1873. The Blake & Goodyear Company opened a place in Northampton in 1874 under the management of Mr. Bertrand and Mr. Satchwell, by whose efforts the machines were gradually introduced.

A further means of sole attachment introduced in 1876 must not be omitted in this sketch, brief as it must necessarily be. A Standard Screw Machine, brought into this country by the Blake & Goodyear Company, produced a boot of great solidity and durability. It was provided with a reel of screw-threaded wire, and by means of a complex operation united by this agency the in-soles, uppers, and soles. The upper, having been lasted, was placed on the machine and held in position, and a 'head' inside the lasted upper pressed against the in-sole directly opposite the point where the screw was being inserted, and the instant screw and 'head' touched, the wire was automatically cut level with the face of the sole. The screw making its own hole fits tightly in the leather, and the various substances of leather being compressed by the operation, a very solid boot results. Screwed boots are still made in quantities for winter wear. The objections made to the system are the stiffness and unpliability of the boot and the difficulty in repairing it.

It will be readily understood that coincident with the growing use of machinery it became inevitable that factories should increase in size, and that more workmen would be required to work indoors. The operatives soon saw that the whole conditions of the industry were undergoing change, and with a view to safeguarding their own interests, such as were employed in connexion with the new methods decided to form a union for that purpose. In 1874 came into existence 'The National Amalgamated Union of Operative Boot and Shoe Riveters and Finishers'. This was actually an offshoot from the older Cordwainers' Society, which it was felt could not fittingly further the interests of the newer branches of the boot industry.

It is worthy of note that the earlier combinations of workers were for the object of the better enforcement of various protective laws, such as the statute of apprentices and the like, which seemed in danger of falling into abeyance. But when the factory system had grown up and caused the laws to be repealed, the function of trade unionism changed. The workers combined no longer to enforce the law, but to maintain restrictions which the law had ceased to countenance. It was only in 1871 that the law gave such combinations legal status, although by an Act passed in 1824 combination of workmen ceased to be a statutory criminal offence as it had previously been.

The rules and regulations of the men's union state among their objects: the employer to find healthy workshops and supply all firing, heating, tools, grindery, and gas, free of charge; uniform state of wages; shorter hours; control of the apprentice system, etc. Assistance in the formation of sick and burial clubs for members is very properly included.

What is now called the 'Manufacturers' Association' was instituted in 1879 as 'The Northampton Boot, Shoe, Leather Trades and Creditors' Association of Wholesale Dealers'.

Its original purpose was financial, as it was framed for mutual protection against a certain class of trader that was victimising the trade, for trade reports, recovery of debts, and the like; but gradually by force of circumstances it resolved itself into an organisation for safeguarding the manufacturers' interests in the case of aggressive action on the part of the men's union.

In its latter capacity it was called upon for action in the strike of 1887. The men had attempted to obtain an increase of wages at the factory of Messrs. Cove & West, who did not belong to the Manufacturers' Association. Their demands were resisted, the firm obtaining non-union workmen in place of such as had refused to work without an increased wage. Disturbances took place, and the Manufacturers' Association was called upon to intervene. They admitted Messrs. Cove & West to their body, and when it was found that no peaceful solution could be found without giving way entirely to the men, forty-six of the principal firms closed their works and instituted a 'lock out'. From September till the end of the year thousands of men were idle until an agreement was arrived at, and on 22 January, 1888, the factories again opened their doors.

Three immediate results followed: An increased accession to the men's union and to the Manufacturers' Association, and a further introduction of machinery. Devices for the lasting of boot uppers had been upon the market for some time, and their inventors found that the shoe manufacturers now turned to them a more attentive ear. In lasting machines the Copeland-Mackay, the Chase, the Cutlan, and the Triumph, each had its supporters ; presumably the fittest has survived, and to-day no well-equipped factory is without some improved form of these labour-saving devices.

As a further outcome of the strike, came the introduction of the principle of conciliation and arbitration in case of disagreements. The deed of settlement provided a board of arbitration, to consist of equal numbers of masters and men, with a court of appeal composed of a nominee of each party, and a third chosen by them. By this means it was hoped that a peaceful solution might be found in all cases of dispute.

In 1889 further machinery was brought into this country from America, always ahead of England in this department. The Goodyear Company introduced the Goodyear Welter, a great improvement on former types, and the Munyan Lock-stitch Machine, an improvement on their Chain-stitcher. Complete finishing machinery also came in the same year. The last-named had a long fight before it established itself generally in the Northampton factories, as its introduction necessitated complete alteration and reorganization of a very important department.

In 1894 the men's union took a step which brought about a revolution in the trade. It demanded that no more work should be done 'outside', but that all labour, except closing (and hand-sewn work with which the riveters' and finishers' union was not concerned) should be accommodated in the factories. It is suggested that the union hoped by this means to get a closer hold on its own members, and also to be better able to recruit among non-unionists. Although it was a serious matter from the manufacturers' point of view, requiring enlarged premises and more foremen, it was carried through without serious trouble. Many of the workmen disliked the new arrangement intensely, as they had to keep regular shop hours, instead of being able to work or not as they felt inclined.

The union having gained its point fairly easily, turned its attention to the wages question, and in 1895 brought out a fresh statement demanding advances. The war chest was well filled, and perhaps the men rather overestimated their power. There had been some friction on the arbitration board at Leicester in the previous autumn. The new demand, instead of being brought before the arbitration board, was put into three factories in Northampton at the beginning of March 1895, with an intimation that it must be accepted or the men would be withdrawn. Simultaneously, in Leicester, a demand was made that no work should be partly made in the town and then completed in the villages. Faced by these serious conditions, the manufacturers closed their ranks, and on 9 March gave notice of a general lock-out. In 1887 Northampton alone had been affected, but now the federation embraced in addition Leicester, London, Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham, Kettering, Rushden, and Higham Ferrers.

In 1890 'The Incorporated Federated Associations of Boot and Shoe Manufacturers of Great Britain and Ireland' had been formed. The strike of 1887 had shown the manufacturers that, just as it was impossible for an isolated employer to stand against the men's union, so was it becoming increasingly hard for any one town to make effective resistance, as the men on strike were supported by their fellows in other districts. The original members of the federation are named above. Anstey, Glasgow, Kingswood, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Stafford, South Wigston and Scottish East Coast have since joined, while Birmingham has withdrawn.

When the lock-out took effect some 31,000 men belonging to the union were put out of employment, besides a number of non-unionists. Efforts at conciliation were made by the Board of Trade, by the members of Parliament for the towns affected, by Dr. Creighton, Bishop of Peterborough, and others, but it was not until 29 April that a compromise was effected, chiefly owing to the good offices of Sir Courtenay Boyle, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade. The lock-out had continued seven weeks (and this had reduced the funds of the union from sixty-two thousand pounds to two thousand).

By the deed of settlement it was provided that the arbitration principle should be carried a step further than in 1887 by the appointment of an umpire, whose decision should be final. The agreement was guaranteed by each side depositing a thousand pounds, to be forfeited in case of any breach of its provisions.

About the year 1900 a determined attempt was made by American boot manufacturers to capture the English market, and some of our newspapers indulged in the most gloomy fore­bodings. Without doubt the American prices were very low, and it appeared at first glance as if Northampton trade would suffer severely.

Although we practically had in use the same labour-saving appliances as our competitors, in organization and manipulation of labour we were still far behind. The difficulty, however, was faced in the right spirit, and within a very short time, by bringing our methods thoroughly up-to-date, goods were produced quite equal in value to anything sent us from across the Atlantic.

Between 1890 and 1900 numbers of new machines were introduced, which it is impossible even to mention here, until at last there seemed to be a separate machine for each operation in the making of a boot.

In 1901 Messrs. John Cave & Sons, of Rushden, brought out a complete welting and stitching plant of English manufacture. This was introduced to the trade by the Standard Rotary Machine Company in the following year.

No operation is too insignificant to exercise the inventive faculty of the boot trades engineer, A typical modern Northampton factory is divided into twelve departments, and in the production of a boot no less than sixty-one distinct types of machine bear their part.

In its staple trade the county can boast of few firms possessing any great length of continuous existence. The business of Sharman & Ekins of Wellingborough is by far the oldest, having been founded by Mr. Samuel Sharman about 1749. In Northampton that of Mr. T. B. Evans (founded 1825) takes precedence, followed by F. Bostock (1835), Manfield & Sons (1843), Henry Marshall (1848), John Marlow & Sons, Ltd. (1860), and Henry Wooding & Sons (1867). The old established firms of J. Dawson & Sons (1780) and Wm. Hickson & Sons Ltd (1812) manufactured in London till 1886 and 1867 respectively, at which dates they removed to Northampton.

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