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From a typrescript c1949, courtesy of John Mackness
A short history of the Boot & Shoe Industry
in Rushden & District

by LV Elliott


The craft of boot making claims a venerable antiquity. During the years since its commencement both its styles and prices have passed through many stages, for as far back as the reign of Edward 4th history records that an act was passed restraining the length of boots and shoes to two inches beyond the toes; evidently it was customary before that time to wear much longer shoes. This law apparently did not affect the width of the she for it was not until the reign of Mary that a law was passed that the width of the toe was to be restricted to six inches.

It is interesting to note that the origin of a pair of shoes for King John in 1213 was 9d., for the leader of Henry 3rd greyhounds 4d., and for winter shoes for William de Bleatherwick (a fox hunter in the reign of Edward 1st) and his two assistants the price was 7/0d. per pair.

It is, however, with the growth of the industry in Rushden and district that we are concerned.

Dr. Fisher, a native of Rushden, published a history of the town some years ago in which he records that in the 18th century the Warden of the town prosecuted local tanners for putting the hides of horses, oxen and other animals into the little river that ran through the town, this being done to the annoyance of their neighbours.

The same authority also tells us that in 1636 shoe makers were fined 12d. for selling shoes on the Sabboth.

There is no doubt therefore that shoe making, combined with tanning must have been carried on for centuries, but only to the extent of supplying Rushden and the villages round for in 1801 the population was only 818.

The art of shoe manufacturing commenced in the county town of Northampton many centuries ago, for during the Civil Wars orders were placed for army boots. That it had spread to some of the villages by 1775 is proved by the fact that there appeared advertisements showing that there was a shortage of labour in the shoe industry.

The first definite claim to manufacturing for the retail trade in the County must go to Wellingborough, for Mr. Sharman founded his firm there in the year 1749. This firm afterwards became Sharman & Ekins.

In those days boots and shoes were made through by hand. The uppers were closed by hand and were stitched to the bottoms by a channel or groove cut in the insole. The upper was then lasted, i.e. moulded to the last, a narrow strip of leather being sewn through the upper into the insole channel. The sole was then attached to the narrow piece of leather, called a welt, by hand stitching.

In the Rushden district manufacturing was commenced by B. Denton & Son in the year 1840. Between the years 1850 and 1890 there were ten other manufacturers in Rushden, the population having increased from 1,400 in 1851 to 7,442 in 1891.

During that period most of the work was done in the houses of the workers, many cottages having a small workshop attached to them. During winter evenings it was an education to spend an hour in one of these workshops with its roaring fire of leather bits, its smoke and din. One would hear the deepest matters discussed, from free-will to pre-destination and from free trade to tariffs.

The only work done in the factory was the clicking (i.e. cutting of the uppers, the cutting of the bottom stock (soles, insoles, etc) and the cleaning of the shoes for packing and despatch). The closing (i.e. putting the uppers together), making (i.e. moulding the uppers to the last) and finishing (trimming and colouring the edges and bottoms) were operations all done by work-people in their homes.

The uppers and bottom stock would be put into a sack. The worker would take them home, completely making the shoes throughout and then bring them to ‘shop’. It was no uncommon sight in those days to see a woman staggering to a factory with half a dozen, or perhaps a dozen, pairs of shoes strung together and slung over her arm, and fortunate indeed was the man who had a Tate’s sugar box on wheels in which he could deliver his work.

Earnings in those days were indeed small, a man with a boy or his wife helping him could secure about 24/- or 25/- per week, though it became a common practice for a man to get as many boys as he could to help him with the simple jobs so that he could earn more money.

During the later part of the century more and more machinery was introduced with the result that a greater number of operations could be done in the factories and less in the homes of the work-people.

In the early days of the chief method of manufacturing was riveting, i.e. attaching the sole through the upper to the insole by riveting it on, the points of the rivets being clenched on the iron last.

In the year 1847 pegged footwear was introduced from America and rapidly replaced much of the cheaper hand sewn shoes, particularly footwear likely to be subject to constant use in wet conditions. The wooden pegs swelled, making the shoe water-tight and more durable.

In the year 1858 the Sewing Machine was introduced by Messrs. Howe and Singer and was used to stitch together the various parts of the upper. This innovation caused wide-spread strikes and disputes in the trade. It was, however, finally accepted and became a major influence in the development of the industry.

In 1859 came the Blake Sewing Machine which enabled an entirely new method of manufacture to be adopted. A channel or groove was made round the edge of the sole. The sole was then attached to the upper by sewing in the sole channel through the upper on to the insole and was a supplementary method of manufacturing to the old hand sewn, riveting and pegged systems.

Neither employers nor employees were organised to any extent and the introduction of machinery and new methods resulted in strikes and lock-outs. There were no Arbitration Boards to fix prices. Every manufacturer became a law unto himself, trying to fix rates which were unacceptable to the work people until at last, in the year 1895 there was a general strike throughout the whole country. The dispute lasted for six weeks, causing much suffering among the employees and bringing ruin to several manufacturers. Every cloud has a silver lining, and so it proved to be with the Boot and Shoe Industry for, after the misery and ruin caused by the 1895 strike, the leaders of both manufacturers and employees got together and determined that in future there must be a better method of settling disputes than by strikes and lock-outs. The result of the Conference, which was held at the Board of Trade, was that the Industry was placed on a firm basis by the adoption of an agreement known as “The 1895 Terms of Settlement”. This was the Charter of the Boot and Shoe Industry, and the result has been that, though there have been small local disputes, yhere have been no general strikes or lock-outs. The Charter has been adopted by other industries and one can only wish that it could be universally accepted, so that lodd and misery caused by strikes and lock-outs could be avoided.

Space will not permit of the giving of the “Terms of Settlement” in full the following are a few of the most important clauses.

1.      Arbitration Boards to be set up in each district, the prices to be paid for each operation to be based on the actual capacity of the average workman.

2.      The Arbitration Boards to consist of an equal number of employers and employees.

3.      The Arbitration Boards shall have full power to settle all questions regarding wage prices, hours of labour and conditions of employment. No Board shall put restrictions on the introduction of machines, or interfere with an employer in the making of reasonable regulations for the keeping and preservation of order in the factory.

P.S. The question of wages and hours of work have since been relegated to the National Federation of Boot and Shoe Manufacturers and the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives who meet in conference biennially to fix a national basic minimum wage and hours of labour.

 4.  In order to make the “Terms of Settlement” binding it was agreed that a financial guarantee be paid by both parties and that should a lock-out or strike occur, failing settlement by the Board of Arbitration, the dispute should be referred to an Arbitrator (appointed by the Board of Trade) whose decision should be final and binding to both parties. Should the Arbitrator award a sum of money to either the Manufacturer or Employees on account of financial loss caused by a strike or lock-out, that sum should be paid at once by the party proved to be at fault. The amount of the guarantee was £1,000 paid by each party. The money was invested in a Trust Deed and administered by members of the Manufacturers Federation and the Trade Union Officials.

Though this Charter was expected to right all wrongs in the Industry, it was many years before Manufacturing and Employees realised the grand work of their for-fathers had done by drawing up these “Terms of Settlement”. Both parties had been so used for so long a period to making agreements between each other that they felt they preferred to continue in the old way instead of being controlled by a Manufacturers Federation or Trade Union.

It was between the years 1890 and 1900 that the greatest advances in the manufacture of shoes developed in Rushden. Workers came in from the villages and the population increased from 7,042 in 1890 to 14,859 in 1900, nearly 100%. By 1900 there were 37 boot and shoe factories. Since that date ten have dropped out but the loss has been more than made up by others coming in. During this period the demand for Rushden made footwear increased and Manufacturers began to develop the export market.

One would think that during these wonderful years of growth misunderstandings and disputes would fade from the trade altogether and yet this period and the ten years that followed were perhaps the most contentious that the industry has experienced.

A matter causing a great deal of controversy was a demand made by the Trade Union in 1893 that Manufacturers should make provision for employees to work in the factories and that work in the homes should be dispensed with. The Manufacturers opposed it on the grounds of expense and some of the workpeople objected because they preferred to be their own “bosses” rather than be under factory rule. After some months of discussion agreement was reached and with the greater employment of labour in the factories a great step forward was achieved.

In 1905 there was a strike in the neighbouring village of Raunds. Some months previous a Conference of Manufacturers and Employees had fixed the prices for the making of army boots. These prices had been submitted to and agreed upon by the War Office and were included in the Fair Wages clauses in the Contract. They were not, however, acceptable by the workpeople. A meeting was called and, as a result, 300 to 400 employees went on strike, and there was a great deal of mob violence against both Manufacturers and Trade Unions. Mr. Gribble, and organiser of the Union, decided to march to London to place the case before the War Office. From the 300 employees who volunteered to accompany Mr. Gribble 115 were selected and on Monday May 8th the great march commenced. Everywhere along the route they were well received and fed, the march taking four days. Their effort, however, was of no avail for the Secretary of State for War refused to meet them. They then went to the House of Commons which also proved fruitless. Mr. Gribble being conducted from the House for demanding a hearing from the Gallery. Though the object for which they set out was not obtained the funds of the Trade Union increased by £200 from collections made on the march.

One outcome of the dispute is that there now exists a strong Manufacturers Association and Arbitration Board for Rushden and district and there has been no major dispute in the Raunds trade since that memorable march to London.

The early years of the present century were apparently ones of quiet development in the industry, excepting for incidents which occurred through the introduction of up to date machinery and attempts by manufacturers to divide up manufacturing operations whereby an operator, instead of making a shoe right through, only did a small part in its creation. The greatest cause of friction was due to the fact that neither the manufacturers nor the operatives were properly organised. Rushden and district lagged behind in organisation for, whilst the rest of the County had a minimum wage for men of 30/- and a working week of 52½ hours, in Rushden the minimum wage was 28/- with a working week of 54 hours. Eventually, under pressure from the Manufacturers and Trade Union officials of the other parts of the County, a meeting, attended by 32 manufacturers, was held on March 23rd 1908, when a unanimous resolution was passed that a Manufacturers’ Association be formed. A Committee was appointed to notify the Trade Union Officials and to persuade manufacturers, not present at the meeting, to join the Association. Later rules to govern the Association were drawn up, and Arbitration Board (consisting of an equal number of manufacturers and representatives of the local branch of the Boot & Shoe Operatives Union) was formed, and various sub-committees appointed whose duties were to make recommendations to the Association on the activities it would be called upon to undertake.

The other centres of boot and shoe manufacture in the district were invited to join the Association which eventually embraced the manufacturers of Rushden, Higham Ferrers. Wellingborough, Raunds, Irthlingborough, Finedon, Burton Latimer, Irchester, Wollaston, Earls Barton and Bozeat.

The development of the Association necessitated that the membership of the Arbitration Board be increased to 12 from the Boot & Shoe Operatives Union, in order that all sections of industry in the district could be covered. The Manufacturers representatives on the Board were given full power to deal with hours of labour, minimum wages, quantity or piece work statements.

The first claim to the Board came from the representatives of the Employees for a minimum wage of 30/- for men and a 52½ hour working week. After many meetings and warm discussions an agreement was reached for a minimum wage of 29/- and a 52½ hour working week.

It took some years to educate both manufacturers and employees to the idea of settling disputes by arbitration, but the basis of the 1895 “Terms of Settlement” were sound and in time both sides became used to looking at questions from the standpoint of what was best for the industry as a whole.

The first President of the Rushden & District Boot & Shoe Manufacturers’ Association was Mr. G. H. Groome. He remained in office for five years and did good work in the development of the Association. He was followed in 1913 by Mr. C. W. Horrell.

With the commencement of the First World War in 1914 the industry was faced with the problem of supplying footwear for the fighting forces and for those of our allies. This task was a tremendous one, for it necessitated not only the turning over of production from civilian to service footwear, but meant a great loss in labour through recruitment. Some factories were commandeered by the Government and the entire output of boots and shoes taken by the Services.

Service boots were made in Rushden and district for our own Army, Navy and Air Force, and also for the Governments of France, Italy, Russia and Rumania. At the request of the Ministry of Supply the Association carried out a contract of 100,000 pairs of boots for the Danzig Army. Some million pairs of boots were manufactured during the war and it may be fairly claimed that our Services were the best shod in the world.

In those days of stress and difficulty Mr. C. W. Horrell continued to hold office of president of the Association and inspired members with his wisdom and ability. He had the honour of being elected President of the National Federation of Boot & Shoe Manufacturers. When he resigned the presidency of the Rushden Association he carried with him the sincere thanks and loving esteem of all those who had served under him.

The period between the two wars was a difficult one for the Boot & Shoe Industry. The spending power of the public was greatly reduced, the demand for footwear was small, manufacturers carried stocks of leather at high prices and there was keen competition against imports from countries that had not suffered the ravages of war. Short hours were worked in the factories and there was much unemployment with resulting suffering and deprivation amongst the employees. It was indeed a rough time for both manufacturer and employee. These troubles had, however the effect of drawing all sections of the community together. The Manufacturers and Officials of the Boot & Shoe Operatives Union formed a Social Service Committee. An empty factory was taken, and after being decorated by unemployed men of the industry, was equipped with games, papers, etc. and refreshments served at a very low cost.

Another scheme which has proved of great benefit to the employees has been the introduction of the Hospital Fund. This was inaugurated in 1922 and, by a voluntary contribution of a few pence per week, (supplemented by donations from the employers) entitled employees to hospital treatment, free convalescent home treatment, glasses and surgical appliances. The success of the scheme is proved by the fact that in 1922 donations amounted to £959 and when the Fund closed in 1948 (with the introduction of the National Health Service Act) they had risen to £4,669.

The depression following the First World War meant that manufacturers had to explore fresh markets for their productions and to manufacture footwear for which there was demand. Larger varieties of shoes were made, new styles introduced and a greater proportion of output turned over to ladies footwear. Between the years 1936 and 1939 many manufacturers were catering for the export markets but were prepared to meet demand of the home market on the return of more prosperous days.

In the early part of 1939 the dark shadow of war again hung over the country and Rushden and district was producing footwear for the Services. When war was declared on September 3rd 1939 the whole industry was called upon to devote its energies to the making of boots and shoes for the Army, Navy and Air Force. Various Committees were set up. A Labour Committee, whose duty it was to see that labour was moved to the factories most needing it, Advisory Committee, Costing Committee, Emergency Committee, Service Committee, Concentration of Production Committee and a Reconstruction Committee.

The work of the latter included the raising of funds and purchasing of materials which were to be placed at the disposal of any manufacturer whose premises were damaged by air  raids, thus enabling that production would be continued with a minimum delay. The Concentration of production Committee was formed to help manufacturers whose premises were commandeered by Government Departments, and who had to find alternative accommodation. In some cases other manufacturers helped with the production of footwear for the civilian trade, thus ensuring that the goodwill of the commandeered firm was not lost.

It speaks well of the industry that during this difficult period there was very little friction.

The demand for footwear was tremendous and included almost every type worn by the Services. The making of flying boots for the Air Force presented a problem as the operatives were not experienced in the manufacture of this type of footwear. The difficulty was eventually overcome by splitting up the operations between the various factories, some undertaking the cutting of uppers, others closing the uppers and yet other factories making and finishing the boots. In Rushden and district 17,000 pairs of flying boots were produced.

At one time during the war there was a great shortage of materials, largely due to losses in transit by enemy U. Boat action and bombing. To overcome this deficiency, wooden soles were introduced for a time in the production of civilian footwear, and worn army boots were reconditioned. The latter presented yet another problem which was successfully tackled by the Manufacturers’ Association. More than one million pairs of boots were saved from the waste dump and made suitable for wear by the Services and by refugees. Further, when the contract for reconditioning had been completed, the Association made a payment of £2,361 to the Ministry of Supply, representing surplus above cost.

By the time factories once more reverted to the entire manufacture of civilian footwear from 20 to 26 million pairs of boots and shoes of various types had been produced for the Services.

Footwear made in Rushden and district through the years has undergone a great change. From the early types of riveted and pegged the industry progressed to machine sewn and machine sewn and stitched, and later to the introduction of welting plant. Today a large proportion of welted shoes are manufactured. By this method the insole is channelled and after lasting a strip of leather is sewn round the edge of the shoe through the upper into the channel. The bottom is filled with a cork preparation, the sole is attached and stitched to the strip of leather by a lock stitch.

A welted shoe is more pliable in wear than one made by other method, with the exception of hand sewn shoes.

The medium and better class of footwear manufactured in Rushden and district is comparable with any and the brands used by various manufacturers are known, not only in the United Kingdom, but in many countries of the world.

Not only have the types of footwear produced undergone great changes but it is interesting to note the increase that has taken place in labour costs. Prior to the 1914-1918 war the total labour cost of a shoe was from 1/3d. to 1.8d. After the war it rose to 2/6d. – 2/9d., and at the present time is from 4/9d. to 5/6d. per pair.

The war years had their problems but the post war years have brought many difficulties to the industry. One is the shortage of good quality materials for the home market and another is the shortage of labour, especially of women who are employed in the closing of the shoe uppers. The latter is partly due to the raising of the school leaving age and to the reluctance of young people to follow the occupation of their parents, and partly due to the fact that many who entered the Services did not return to the industry.

Another problem which has to be faced today is the pricing of various operations performed by operatives in the making of footwear. The old method of pricing the operations on the capacity of the average worker is no longer adaptable owing to the great variety of shoes manufactured and the only fair method is the application of the system “Time and Motion.”

National Union of Boot & Shoe Operatives.

The first branch of the Union in the area was formed about the year 1896, and by 1890 a branch had been established in Rushden.

The following figures will show the growth of the population and the Union membership from the year 1904.



Male members (R & HF)

Female members (R & HF)

Members service
in the Forces.














































Technical Education

Classes in the principles of Boot & Shoe Manufacture have been held under the County Education Authority at the various centres of industry since 1892.

In 1920 the Education Committee adopted a scheme for the provision of three schools of Boot & Shoe Manufacture at Kettering, Rushden, and Wellingborough. Instruction was given to elementary schools as no other premises were available, and as no machinery was provided, theoretical training only would be given.

In 1927, the Rushden & District Boot & Shoe Manufacturers’ Association offered to provide £1,250 towards the cost of establishing and equipping a School of Boot & Shoe Manufacture at Rushden. In response the Authority decided to proceed at once with the work. Premises were purchased and adapted and the School was formally opened in October 1928 by Lord Eustace Percy, President of the Board of Education. With the development of the work, however, it was necessary to provide considerable extensions to the premises and the new buildings were officially opened in September 1938.

There is accommodation for Pattern Cutting, Clicking, Closing, Bottom Stock Cutting and Preparation, Hand Lasting and Hand Welting, while a large machinery hall is available where instruction is provided in Machine Lasting, Machine Attaching and Finishing. The premises also include a well equipped Laboratory, Lecture Rooms, Library and accommodation for both day and evening classes.

The school has a complete equipment of machinery loaned by the British United Shoe Machinery Co. Ltd., and the Singer Sewing Machine Co. Ltd.

The Library contains a permanent collection of representative Service Footwear made by the County Shoe Manufacturers.

Subjects Taught range from the tanning of leather to the finished shoe and include instruction in factory layout, organisation of production, material control, costing, and various other subjects which not only instruct the students in the art of shoe making, but educate then to fill executive posts.

The scheme for work at the School includes four sections.

1.      Junior School.

This provides a two year full-time course of instruction for boys of 13 to 15 years of age as a preparation to entry into the Shoe and Allied Industries. The general education of the students is continued and in addition practical instruction of an introductory character is given in all departments of shoe-making.

2.      Day Release Courses for Juveniles.

As part of the National Scheme for the Training of Juveniles from 15 to 18 years of age, courses are provided on two half days per week for both boys and girls. These courses provide continued general education during factory hours, without loss of wages, for juveniles who have entered the industry.

3.      Evening Courses.

The normal senior Course in Boot & Shoe Technology consists of four stages and requires attendance on at least two evenings per week, one evening for general lectures and the other for practical instruction. A third evening per week for instruction in Applied Science is necessary to complete the full course. Separate courses of instruction in the Closing and Shoeroom Departments are provided for girls.

4.      Course for Ex-Servicemen.

Day release classes have been established on a departmental basis for ex-servicemen returning to the industry. In addition special practical courses are available in the evenings.

5.      Course in Leathercraft.

Practical instruction is provided for women and girls in the making of soft leather articles, slippers, gym shoes, bags etc. Materials for use in these classes are provided to students at cost price.

It is worthy of note that the majority of Manufacturers in Rushden were students of the School of Boot & Shoe Manufacture. The present superintendent of Mr. F. P. Wootton, F.B.S.I., A.M.I.T.A., who has the happy knack of inspiring enthusiasm and ambition in his students.

Research. The British Boot, Shoe & Allied Trades Research Association was formed by a group of Northampton shoe manufacturers in 1919. In 1922 it was transferred to London, and expanded slowly and steadily up to the beginning of the last war, by which time income was about £10,000 per annum, including Government grants.

In 1945 agreement was researched for “block membership” by all firms belonging to the Boot Manufacturers’ Federation. This move had the effect of raising income to about “20,000 per annum, but in no way affected the automony of the Research Association, which remains under the control of an elected Council, comprising members, representatives of the D.S.I.R. and a small number of co-opted individuals.

Arrangements are well advanced for increasing the total income to £35,000 per annum. This result is being achieved partly by increased subscriptions from the Boot & Shoe Manufacturers, partly by bringing in more “allied trades” (such as distributors, last makers, stiffener makers, etc.), and partly by proportional increase in Government Grant.

The Association’s London premises were damaged in 1940, and a move was made to Kettering, where accommodation was found in a portion of the local Boot & Shoe School. Satra House, the present quarters, were occupied in January 1947. Work on the extensions began a few months later, and it is not likely to be affected by the Government restrictions on capital expenditure.

Research Policy. The research programme grows from a consideration of the various aspects of the human need for foot covering. This leads on one hand to work on the effect of shoe design and construction in health and comfort.

Foot Statistics. Consideration of feet in the mass. It is a fair statement of fact to say at the present time there is confusion and inefficiency in footwear service to the public. The variation in size markings, the shortcomings in fitting service, the inadequacy in stock control, the bad condition of a large proportion of feet, and the existence of flourishing businesses supplying comfort aids, all combine to confirm the scope that exists for improvement. The choice of lasts, gradings and size rolls in a retailer’s stock should provide a mathematical certainty that any feet entering the shop could be fitted. This is a subject for ....          probability and it is a big task to acquire the knowledge .....       and question to be answered completely. Research can attain that position and apply it, not only to the home market but to world markets. The results which the Association has already derived from foot statistical research are proof of the large possibilities under this heading.

Methods of Foot Management. The statistical survey of feet sounds simple, but it is not, because it cannot be properly done unless and until the best form of foot records has been decided and a satisfactory method has been devised for obtaining the right kind of measurement from feet.

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