1980 onwards

In 1981, enough footwear was manufactured in the UK to satisfy nearly half of the country’s sales of 256 million pairs and direct employment in the industry was 57,400. Imports accounted for 53.5 per cent of the total. Exports accounted for 13 per cent of sales volume, 16.8 per cent by value.

Over the next twenty years the industry collapsed. The labour force fell to 15,100 in 1999, a year in which 92 per cent of the footwear sold in the UK was made abroad. UK manufacturers’ output totalled 63 million pairs. By 2001 things were even worse with 99 per cent import penetration of the home market. UK output was 34 million pairs, with 212 million pairs supplied from abroad. The UK had become a minor producer within the European Union, well behind Italy, Spain, France and Portugal. Globalisation saw UK wholesale and retail distributors acquiring their footwear supplies from overseas and the UK manufacturers’ inability to resist imports left just 4,759 footwear workers in Northamptonshire in 2001.

Amongst manufacturers, in the labour union, and at the Kettering-based Technology Centre, there was an awareness of changes in the sales environment. Answers were sought. There were requests for government assistance including trade protection, partly granted and applied without much success. In 1992 the UK had a tough national limit on shoe imports from the Chinese People’s Republic but the Irish Republic had no limit. As a result, Chinese-made footwear crossed the Irish Sea in large quantity. Product innovation was attempted. So were ‘fast response’ whereby local companies attempted to provide repeat orders within four weeks compared with four months from Brazil or six months from Taiwan, and ‘flexible technology’ to enable rapid development of new models and small batch output.

From 1985 computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacture (CAM) systems were being offered to footwear manufacturing firms. As a target for the early twenty-first century SATRA advocated CIM (computer integrated manufacture) in which a central computer database controlled the whole design, production, financial and management information in a factory. Such systems were too expensive for small manufacturers, but in the 1980s AMT (advanced manufacturing technology) provided a means for lower skilled labour to be used for more complex tasks. In the 1990s British United brought out its Crispin CAD/CAM system incorporating the same technology used by Hollywood special effects companies: it enabled shoe designers to develop two- and three-dimensional designs on screen in real time. Individual firms sought different sales niches for their products.

Largely conceptual, but not fanciful, the schematic used building blocks then largely available for computerised manufacture, such as automated stitching machines, roughing, lasting and injection moulding equipement, computerised tracking systems, robotics and automatic tranfer devices

In the end, none of these things managed to stop the rot. UK shoe manufacturers, including those in Northamptonshire, closed at such a rate that by 2003 the former Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association, renamed the Technology Centre, was trying to protect the jobs of its own two hundred technologists and support staff by advising Asian footwear manufacturers how to succeed in Western markets, running seminars in the shoe manufacturing districts of China on comfort, last assessment and fitting and product reliability.

There were 217 footwear manufacturers in Northamptonshire in 1921; by 2001 there were 26. By the latter date it was no longer possible to write about footwear manufacturing districts within the county because only a handful of firms remained, a mere remnant of what had previously existed. In 2001 there were six footwear manufacturing firms in Northampton compared with 48 in 1956. In Kettering the number had fallen from 29 to three; in Rushden from 37 to 5, and many of the traditional centres of production had lost the industry altogether. A lopsided size distribution of firms, with a large number of small back street enterprises and a mere handful of big firms, has long been a characteristic of the footwear industry. In the 1980s business failures were most frequent amongst the former group but during the 1990s large shoe manufacturers, big component firms and sizeable shoe distributors were casualties too.

Some individual cases may illustrate the process of change. On the manufacturing side came the collapse of the Burlington International Group (BIG) in 1992. Burlington had taken over former British Shoe Corporation (BSC) factories in 1988, including two large ones, in Northampton and Kettering. By Spring 1992 Burlington was in receivership and neither of these two plants continued in footwear production. Indeed the very large Kettering factory, built for Timpsons’ in 1922, was demolished in 1996 because a buyer could not be found. Then came the collapse of the Sheffield-based Facia Group, for a short while the second-largest private retail concern in the UK. Among its businesses were several hundred shops employing 1,700 people trading under the Freeman Hardy Willis, Saxone and Curtess names, sold to Facia by the Sears group in August 1995. Sears were the parent of BSC. There were too many shoe retail outlets in the High Street. Facia collapsed in June 1996. Two months later, in August 1996, so did shoe component manufacturer Chamberlain Phipps, employing 430 people in Northamptonshire. This happened two years after the company’s flotation on the Stock Exchange. The firm owed £30 millions and Arthur Anderson, the receivers, blamed the insolvency on competitive conditions in the footwear components market, aggravated by a second successive abnormally quiet summer trading period.

Until 2003 Totectors (UKS Group) were a major producer of safety boots and footwear for the armed services. In 1944 the firm became the first UK manufacturer of steel toe-capped boots. It was bought by F.H. Tomkins in 1985 for £13.5 millions and in 1993 moved into a big new factory on the outskirts of Rushden. It could produce 25,000 pairs of footwear a week, with annual sales worth £45 millions. In 2001 the firm was bought by the investment capitalists Alchemy Partners. It went into receivership in July 2003, with the loss of 230 jobs, blaming competition from abroad ‘where production costs are lower’.

White and Co. (‘Tredair’ and ‘Gripfast’) was established in 1890. In 1990 the firm won the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement and in 1991 employed 380 people, in its Earls Barton and Daventry plants, with a closing unit in Rushden. It ceased manufacturing in February 2003, moving production abroad.

As the firms disappeared the buildings they occupied were either demolished or reused often for non-manufacturing purposes.. The Wellington Works, on the corner of Montagu Street and Wellington Street in Kettering was opened as an apartment block in 2002. It had been built in 1887 for footwear manufacturer Henry Hanger who employed 500 people there in the late 1890s producing 6000 pairs of boots and shoes a week, with a steam boiler as the power source.

In February 2003 plans were drawn up to develop the former Borough Shoes’ factory in Commercial Street, Higham Ferrers, as maisonettes. In 2000 T.Groocock Ltd., the last remaining footwear firm in Rothwell, applied for planning permission to build one hundred and fifty houses on its land, including the firm’s two factories, with a move to Parkway, Kettering proposed for 2004. At the beginning of 2003 the Paradigm Housing Group was given planning permission to build housing on a former Totectors site in Rushden.

Amongst the catalogue of business failures the brightest light seemed to shine from R. Griggs and Co., Ltd., makers of Dr. Marten’s (DM) footwear. According to some observers, this company had devised a conspicuously successful and profitable business strategy. Griggs had been making Dr. Martens since 1960 but prospered particularly from the mid-1980s when DMs became fashionable. By the mid-1990s Griggs and Co. Ltd. comprised a number of separate companies all situated within a few miles of Wollaston. Wollaston was the head office, design centre and incorporated a clicking factory and main assembly unit, the heart of which was a conveyor track system with workers stationed at a dozen points to perform specific processes. It was a system well suited to flexible small batch production. Also in Wollaston were other Griggs units including G.B. Footwear, providing items such as lace hole eyelets and insoles; Wollaston Vulcanising, which produced all the PVC injection soles for the company; Philips Bros., who handled UK wholesaling activities for the group, and Luther Austin, responsible for fashion-orientated DMs destined for export. In Finedon, the Tower Boot Co. produced DM safety boots, including ones with steel toecaps, in direct competition with Totectors. Three closing units, including GP Closers in Wellingborough, were in operation at different localities to utilise pools of skilled female labour but leather uppers were sourced, too, from China, Vietnam and Romania. AirWair International was an export division opened in 1989. There was a self contained production unit in Kettering, a branch at Whetstone in Leicestershire, Gunn and Co. manufactured and maintained the firm’s machinery, laces were obtained from a subsidiary in Lincolnshire. At Earls Barton, White and Co. (Tredair) operated as a licensee. There was another concern belonging to the company in Shepton Mallet. The group made record sales worth £38 millions in 1988 and by 1989 employed 1,100 people in twenty factories across the East Midlands producing 85,000 pairs each week.

This structure enabled Griggs to hold an enviable position in the mid-nineties as the most profitable UK shoe manufacturer. Technically the PVC injected sole provides the key to the construction of Dr. Martens. Hard wearing, it incorporates sealed cavities, adding to the wearer’s comfort through an air-sprung effect and keeping down the weight of the sole. A sewn-on plastic welt is welded to the sole using an electrically heated blade. The final stage in the process is a special form of edge trimming using a multi-fluted cutter capable of removing a large quantity of excess PVC in a single pass and giving the sole its distinctive Doc Marten appearance. The resulting construction is sturdy. However, it was neither the construction detail nor the firm’s organisation which gave the company a strong position in the market place but the fact that the product became a cult fashion item in the youth market. Shaven-headed skinheads holding up their jeans with red braces took up ‘DMs’ as ‘bovver boots’, together with punk rockers and feminists, dancing to bauhaus music. They remained in favour when ska, two-tone and new wave music became popular in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. The left wing progressive and student movement, His Holiness Pope John Paul II and leading fashion models took them up: ‘Doc Martens’ were seen as chic fashion items. The music connection and exports kept DMs fizzing off the retailers’ shelves but a crucial element, too, was the way in which Griggs controlled the selling of its products. Company policy restricted individual distribution chains to a maximum of 10 per cent of their output which prevented high mark ups on prices. Moreover, 80 per cent of its products were sold overseas, especially the USA and Japan.

The virtual end of Griggs’ manufacturing operations in Northamptonshire came in 2003 when the firm announced that it was to transfer its manufacturing capacity to Guangdong province in China. The company had lost profitability because music- related youth fashion had turned away from the product. Gangsta rap became the youth music of the early 2000’s and its adherents wore trainers, not DMs. China offered the company labour costs amounting to one-tenth of those in the UK. So the firm closed down its UK manufacturing capacity leaving just 123 people in Wollaston to handle marketing and sales, design and to staff a small quick response production unit.

Knock-on effects of Grigg’s departure and that of other footwear firms on small suppliers in associated industries have been clear. Parker Thorne Ltd. in Kettering used to supply Griggs with insoles and shovers (cardboard inserted into a shoe to help keep its shape before sale); it lost 20 per cent of its business in 2002. In Higham Ferrers, Grade One Components used to send 60 per cent of its output of shoe socks to Griggs. Blenkinsop Leathers, also in Higham Ferrers, had to reduce its labour force of 30 people in 2002; it had been contracted by Griggs to ‘alter’ imported leather and to supply linings. Glenn Leathers of Rectory Road, Rushden, imported leather to sell on to other companies. It employed 40 people in 1980, but was down to four in 2002.

Thus, whilst the direct effects of closures in footwear were redundancies, including around 820 accompanying the final phase of Grigg’s departure, there have been predictable losses, too, amongst the component suppliers, including those involved with the leather industry. Elsewhere there have been changes in ownership, which have sometimes made definition of a ‘British’ footwear manufacturing firm problematic. A good example is John Church and Co. right at the top end of the market. The firm was founded in 1873 and run as a family business thereafter. It was sold in 1999 to the Italian fashion house Prada for £106 millions. In 2003 Prada sold 45 per cent of its holding in the company to Equinox, a private Equity fund. Equinox is owned by a consortium of Italian banks and industrial groups. The public face of Church’s product range is quintessentially English, offering fine stitched all leather calf brogues and loafers which in 2003 retailed at between £200 and £500 a pair. A similar story applies to another firm operating in the same part of the market. Barkers of Earls Barton was founded in Arthur Barker’s cottage in 1880. During the recession of the 1980s the firm’s output halved and in 1995 it was sold to Bloomsbury Trading PTE, a subsidiary of Phoenix overseas, an Indian conglomerate.

Despite innovations in manufacturing processes footwear production has remained labour-intensive and labour costs have consistently accounted for between a third and a quarter of production costs. Labour, however, has become a world-wide commodity with a labour pool of around 1.6 billion workers. Assessment of total costs involved in the transaction of making and selling a pair of shoes have impelled businesses to produce their goods in mainland China, India, Taiwan, Indonesia - anywhere where direct and indirect labour costs are significantly less than in Britain. The retail price of a pair of trainers can exceed £100 but the labour component of a pair made in Indonesia in 1995 was estimated by Nike to be 11 per cent. Other clothing industries have been affected in like manner but in footwear production the process has been facilitated by the separation of footwear manufacturing from footwear wholesaling and retailing. The distribution agencies - the wholesaler and retailing chains present in the UK - have no like counterparts in Italy, France or Portugal. They have been able to source abroad, to control the marketing process, and as imports made massive inroads, the Northamptonshire shoe manufacturers had little control over the big wholesale/retail concerns who were articulating and facilitating the import streams. Short of moving manufacturing operations abroad, as Griggs did, the best that many manufacturers have been able to do has been to use imported uppers closed abroad.

Fashion, too, has not always helped. It may well be that too many of the local manufacturers concentrated on what they felt they could make rather than what they could sell, and that insufficient attention was given to design and style as factors shaping consumption. Even manufacturers who were radical in technology could prove conservative in other ways. Some went out of business as a result of poor financial control or a lack of marketing energy. In 1976 a report on the industry by the Economists Advisory Group stated that, ‘…amongst the small family concerns there appears to be a pre-occupation with the task of making the business simply provide a living for its owner which shuts out all thought of new investment and a new aggressive approach to marketing and re-organisation’.

There were, of course, adverse forces quite outside the control of the firms: the rise of new footwear production centres in Brazil during the 1970s and later in China, Indonesia, Thailand; decline of the US dollar and of Far Eastern currencies linked to it which enabled low cost South East Asian producers to become even more competitive; periodic bouts of US protectionism which prompted Far Eastern producers to channel exports to Europe. For the last twenty years or so, however, the two most profitable footwear firms in the UK market place have been Nike and Adidas, foreign manufacturers of sports trainer shoes assembled mainly in ‘third world’ countries. Heavily advertised, with images of world famous athletes, their aspirational products came to be seen as highly desirable across a wide range of age groups in Britain and other countries. For these firms there is no handicap in wide geographic separation of markets and production units. Communication, contact and feedback by computers is worldwide and instantaneous. Pumped up with air, reinforced with high-tech materials borrowed from the aerospace and transport industries, sculpted to the foot and manipulated to eliminate excess weight, training shoes became the footwear of choice for consumers all over the world, from Sheffield through Saigon to San Francisco. With one or two exceptions, such as Gola Sports (W. Botterill) in Bozeat and Earls Barton, Scorpion Sports in Northampton, and Mitre Sports in Kettering, the Northamptonshire manufacturers were left behind in this sales revolution, with traditional leather-uppered men’s footwear in black or shades of brown. The sports shoe market in Britain doubled in size from £130 millions in 1982 to £280 millions in 1987 but the leading British firm Inter Footwear, trading as Hi-Tec, held a UK location in Southend, not Northamptonshire, and sold shoes made in Taiwan and South Korea. Moreover, south east Asia even in the late 1980s was churning out large quantities of traditional footwear as well. From 1987, South Korea became one of the world’s biggest leather buyers, and China now consumes 60 per cent of the world’s leather output.

The end result of this constellation of causes was the deindustrialisation of the Northamptonshire footwear manufacturing district, of exclusion for the old industry from a new production system. By 2004 the reputation for footwear manufacturing, built up since the seventeenth century, was hardly matched by the pale reality of what was left on the ground. The demise of the industry had become part of a new economic landscape in Northamptonshire, one in which the so-called industrial estates and business parks provided space for large warehouses storing consumer goods manufactured by people working at the far side of the world. They were temporarily safeguarded in such stores by a handful of local people prior to being distributed along motorways for sale in the country’s supermarkets and multiple retail chains. School leavers in the county no longer looked for jobs in the footwear and leather factories where their parents and grandparents once worked but instead to motor car racing and its offshoots, IKEA warehouses in Thrapston and Northampton, call centres, hotels, restaurants, shops and leisure centres. Such is the face of the process of globalisation: trades will go to where they see their maximum gain leaving behind places which once they made their own. But a sense of loss at the passing of the old order should be coupled with a recognition that shoe factories were often not very healthy places in which to work. Leather dust and solvent mists in the air, the presence of aggressive chemicals like isocyanates, made for a potentially hazardous environment. The work was hard, often unremitting physical labour and pay was low compared to many other occupations. So it is perhaps to be welcomed that Northamptonshire school leavers are no longer expected to work in such places. Globalisation, moreover, has the benefit of boosting living standards in the developing countries which provide the manufacturing capacity whilst holding back inflation and satisfying consumers in the more developed nations that provide most of the markets.

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