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John White - a Biography

Photograph of John White's Factory in Church Street
The first factory in Church Street
purchased in 1920.

John White set it up with the top floor for the leather coming in, and there it was cut, then passed to the floor below where it was stitched, then moved down to the lower floor where the finishing and packing completed the process.

It is now an Italian Restaurant

George White
Father George
John White was born in 1884 in Irthlingborough, the youngest of nine children, into a Strict & Particular Calvanistic Baptist family. His mother, Jemima (nee Cuthbert) died soon after his birth and so he was brought up by his sisters. As a young boy his father, George, would get John to read to him whilst he made shoes, and by the age of eight he was showing his business interests by starting to breed rabbits for sale.

Mother's memorial card Sister Hannah
Mother's Memorial card
Sister Hannah married George Ward

At twelve he left school much against his father’s wishes, and started in the shoemaking trade just as mechanisation was being introduced. There were some presses for cutting soles but all other work was done by outworkers; clickers, closers, eyeletters, knot tiers and finishers. As mechanisation expanded more work moved from the backyard 'shops' into factories and with that came a need for discipline and regular time keeping which many found hard to adhere to. After several changes of employer, each job a little more skilled than the last, he joined John Shortland’s Express Works at Irthlingborough as a clicker in 1902.

Marriage in 1911
John & Nancy 1911
He left the Baptists and started going with a friend to the Wesleyan meetings and then in 1906 he went to Park Road Wesleyan Methodist Church in Rushden. There he met Nancy (Annie) Darnell, daughter of Joseph Darnell, whom he married in 1911 and they enjoyed over 50 years together.
The John White Band at The Ritz Theatre
The following year Charles Horrell advertised for clickers & John went there and was well paid and by 1918 he was ready to start his own business – in a former paint shop. [at 10 Crabb Street - see C K Woods who took over the same premises] At first he couldn’t get a machinery licence to get a press for cutting the soles, so he started cutting uppers and selling them on. He was soon employing out workers for closing and by the end of 1919 he got his press and licence and so began making complete shoes. The following year another young manufacturer failed badly and walked out leaving everything in the building – a three-storey house – which John bought and was fortunate to find the previous owner had left a list of all his customers.

He continued to prosper and was employing 250 within a year and had works in Church Street (head office) and in Griffiths Street. These were followed by the acquisition of the Newton Road factory which he purchased including the machinery and he extended it three times by 1928. His skills in cutting had kept profitability high in the early days and his ability to calculate accurate costings put the company on steady footing.

Two years later competition was growing too and prices began to fall so he decided to design a new shoe and then he put a full page advert in the Daily Mail to launch 'Impregnable' brand. Production rose to well over a million pairs by the end of that year, and four years later the company was floated. He continued to do all the costings himself and, by paying bills early to claim discounts, the business flourished.


SATURDAY March 24th 1934
South Ward

John White - 1934


The Independent Candidate

From a poster
He treated his workers well, with social events and outings, and kept them all in full time work throughout the depression years. A piece of land in Bedford Road was purchased and a sports club started for football, cricket, tennis and bowling, and many employees took part.

Another opportunity for expansion arose when Alderman Owen Parker’s factory in Higham Ferrers came vacant and was purchased in 1936. The same year his eldest daughter married, he built new offices next to the factory, paid for the restoration of the Chantry Chapel and built the bandstand in the Hall Park. In 1937 he stood as a Councillor for Rushden South Ward and was elected. A modern purpose built factory was erected in Lime Street in 1939 and by 1941 there were nine factories employing two thousand workers.

Output was now at three million pairs annually, much of it for the army, air force and navy. The Evening Telegraph made an appeal for funds to buy an aircraft and the company made a donation of £5000 to pay for a Spitfire; this was named 'Impregnable'.

In 1951 John and his wife toured America, at the same time visiting the companies that were buying his shoes, and he appointed an agent to deal with the sales over there. When they returned home he arranged a trip to the Festival of Britain for the staff – all 2600 of them in 86 buses. The following year he was Mayor of the Borough of Higham Ferrers and in Coronation year (1953) he presented every school child with a crown piece (five shillings or 25pence) at a ceremony on the market square. In 1954 another factory for closing was started at Corby and all the girls came to Rushden for training, and a brass band was also founded.

Picture of a John White shoe box
A John White Shoe Box from the 1960's

A year after celebrating his Golden Wedding Anniversary he retired in 1962. He had been a beneficiary to many local good causes and had treated his workers well – they all thought well of him too and every employee signed a leather bound book which they presented to him, along with a gift of two silver gilt fruit baskets to mark the occasion.

In June 1970 the company’s craftsmen made a leather altar cloth for St Mary’s Church, Higham Ferrers, as a commemoration of 50 years in business, and the following month he gave a pair of shoes each to 134 Conservative MPs and 88 Labour MPs.

John White died in June 1974.

 At the Church of St Mary the Virgin - Higham Ferrers
 Leather Frontal on High Altar
Leather Frontal
The leather frontal was produced in local tanneries and presented by John White Footwear Ltd to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the business. The cutting was done by Peter Keep and the stitching by Mrs. Munns both of whom were employees of the company.

The design includes the figures of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, patron saints of shoemakesr, hides, knives and shoes, oak leaves and water to indicate the process of tanning, together with symbols of the four evangelists and the crown and monogram of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The frontal was blessed by the Right Reverend Cyril Eastaugh, Bishop of Peterborough, on June 10th, 1970. There is a brass plaque to commemorate this on the South wall of the chancel, just to the right of the priest's door.

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