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The Rise & Fall of the Shoe Trade

in Rushden

Graph showing the numbers of factories and workshops which served the Shoe Trade in the period 1883-2007

It is extremely unlikely that the true size of the shoe trade in Rushden will ever be calculated accurately.  The figures in the graph above are based on entries in published directories.  However, not every firm bought an entry in a directory, and it is only by cross-referencing directory entries with other available sources such as Census data that one can get an idea of when established firms began and ended.  What the directories cannot track is the huge number of outworkers - people who did shoe and leather work on behalf of firms, but worked in their own homes or in sheds and outbuildings.  Records and stories of individuals survive, but after such a long period of time it is impossible to know the total number or where they all lived.

... Mr. Daniel Sharp, aged 79, who was the first shoe-manufacturer in Rushden, and for whom Mr. John Cave used to work before starting in business for himself. Mr. Sharp made the first rivetted shoe in Rushden.

Extract from an article John Cave & Sons Expansion The Rushden Echo, 11th March 1898

The graph above includes trades which were necessary to support the making of shoes. Tanners, leather dressers and curriers prepared the leather; grindery dealers supplied hardware such as tacks and nails; some firms supplied the machinery for the shoe factories; others made components of the shoe such as soles and heels.  Then there were firms which supplied heel wax, ink, stain, and even the cardboard boxes for the finished shoes.

As the industry grew, some firms developed with it, while competition forced others into mergers, closure and even bankruptcy.  As the town grew and new areas of land became available and were developed, new and larger factories sprang up as the successful firms looked for larger and better premises.  Thus, some sites in town have seen anything up to half a dozen firms operating there over the past hundred and twenty years.

From the middle years of the last century, there was a process of consolidation and amalgamation.  There were many small and medium-sized factories in operation, but firms like Bignells and John White might be operating across several sites, all of which had originally been built for separate individual firms..

With the 1960s, decline set in across Northamptonshire, and in many small towns the shoe trade was all but gone by the mid-1980s.  Rushden held out longer than most, though by 1983 the number of sites in operation was down to about what it had been a hundred years earlier.  The shoe-making process was labour-intensive at a time when massive automation was being introduced into British industry, and the trade was also badly hit by cheaper foreign imports.  By the dawn of the new century, only a tiny handful of firms were left.

The numbers on the graph show the larger picture, but what they cannot show is the actual distribution of all the factories and workshops.  They were embedded right at the core of Rushden, with factories in the High Street itself, in Duck Street , and also in all the new streets of terraced houses which appeared in the 1890s and early 1900s. It isn’t quite the case that there was a factory on every corner, but there was one in most large streets. After some painstaking research, a series of maps has been compiled into an interactive feature to show where the various firms were located at most of the dates in the graph above.  It shows the growth and shrinkage of the shoe industry in a very striking way.

Click here to go to the Rushden Shoe Trade interactive map page

In Internet Explorer, you may have to click on the yellow bar at the top of the screen to "allow blocked content" and see the control panel

Please note that you will need the Adobe Flash Player installed on your computer in order to see and use the map

If you do not have it, it can be downloaded here

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