Development and Decline of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Northamptonshire, England, from 1851 to 2004.

Introduction

Strung like beads along watery threads, for the most part following the valley routeways created by the rivers Nene and Ise but avoiding the lowest ground of the flood plains, are situated the former footwear manufacturing settlements of mid-Northamptonshire. The largest is Northampton, situated at a point where a south-flowing tributary joins the river Nene, some seventy miles north-west of London by rail. To the west are Long Buckby and Daventry. Eastwards occur Earls Barton, Bozeat and Wollaston. A mile or two further on from these are Wellingborough, overlooking the confluence of the Ise and Nene, Irchester, Rushden, Higham Ferrers, Irthlingborough and Raunds. From this cluster, extending north-westward, occur Finedon, Burton Latimer, Kettering - on a ridge of slightly higher land, Rothwell and Desborough. These are small industrial towns and industrial villages, the built up inner areas of which are peppered with late nineteenth-century red brick factory buildings set into grid ironed streets of red brick terraced houses. They do not form a conurbation. Each place is individual and separated from its neighbours by gently rolling countryside. But the settlements are in large part the creation of Victorian enterprise capital and labour devoted to one basic industry, the manufacture of boots and shoes, with its necessary ancillary trades and for many decades these places provided one of the clearest examples in Britain of a regional concentration of specialised industrial activity. (1)

Until well into the nineteenth century the hand-craftsman or ‘stitchman’ was the dominant figure in footwear production, with the work done at home. Just such a craftsman is described by the Northamptonshire writer H.E. Bates, in the first volume of his autobiography. He writes of his maternal grandfather, George William Lucas, at work in High Ferrers:

‘[He] could after the fashion and tradition of centuries, create a boot or shoe from the sole upwards, stabbing and stitching, with his own hands. The world in which he plied his craft knew no machines for shoemaking, except perhaps treadle machines for stitching uppers. Consequently I am able still to see him to perfection in the mind’s eye: shoemaker’s last between his knees, tossing handfuls of tacks and sprigs into his mouth, to my extreme consternation; his awls, thread and leather, files, hammers all about him.’(2)
For the men who lived and worked in the shoemaking settlements during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the surrounding fields and woods played an important role:

Shoe makers were a law unto themselves, mostly getting rousing drunk on Saturdays and Sundays, never by long tradition working on Mondays. Either out of duty to their patron saint St. Crispin or in a pursuit of a cure for mountainous hangovers, they sought solace in the surrounding countryside rabbiting, coursing, mushrooming, following hounds, walking or riding mules by devious routes to secret hideouts where barefisted bruisers bloodily battered themselves to pulp before crowds of gentry and poor alike. With Monday behind them, shoemakers returned to their lasts, madly stitching and hammering away until midnight and even into the small hours in pursuit of cash that would, when Saturday came again, be riotously squandered.’

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