The 20th Century

By 1956 the footwear factories in Northampton were concentrated in an east-to-west belt across the town, mostly to the east of the original urban core and in the part of the town built between 1875 and 1914. There were three large factories outside this zone; that of C.E. Lewis Ltd. to the west, in Greenwood Rd. and those of W. Barratt and Geo. Webb to the north. Footwear factories, sometimes with leather dressers nearby, dominated the scene in Wellingborough, Rothwell and Desborough. In Kettering they were located mainly in the north-eastern part of the town, a pattern determined largely by land ownership at the time they were built. In Wellingborough they ringed around the pre-1875 core and in Rushden they were mainly in the north-west.

The movement from workshop to factory took several decades and was not complete by 1905, but within the factories division of labour had produced specialised gender-specific departments:

1. Clicking, and Cutting Bottom Stock.

On arrival from tanners, curriers and leather dressers, leather had to be cut up into requisite shapes and sizes. Clicking is the name given to the cutting out of the pieces of a skin, hide or other material to be used for the ‘uppers’. A natural hide varies in thickness, strength, colour and flexibility throughout its area. Figure 11 shows a textbook layout of pieces that could be cut from a medium-sized calfskin for a man’s Oxford shoe. The task has always required skill and experience. It has been a male preserve and in the hierarchy of factory work the clickers have held a prestigious position. The men at their benches were provided with the best possible natural light, whether working in the traditional way with hand-held knives and patterns or, more speedily, with swing beam presses.

The rough stuff or bottom stock department is where all the bottoming parts - soles, insoles, heels - were cut from leather or other materials and then prepared for attachment to closed uppers in the lasting department. The most important and demanding operation was the actual cutting from the bends, bellies and shoulders of the hide in the most economic and suitable manner. The cutting of bottom stock was carried out by a press and in multi-storey factories the heavy presses were placed on the ground floor and operated by men.

2. Closing.

The preparation, fitting together and attaching together of the various cut out sections used to make complete uppers is known as closing. It is a labour intensive set of small and often delicate operations, varied and in different sequence for different types of uppers. One of these is skiving, the reduction in thickness of certain edges of the upper parts to allow seams to be fitted together without bulkiness. Closing has been invariably dominated by women and girls and within the industry good supervision of closing rooms has been regarded as a demanding task.

3. Lasting and Making.

A closed upper has to be fitted to a foot-shaped last ready for sole attachment. Early in the twentieth century this was a hand operation using a variety of pulled and twisted pincers and was seen as a task for men with strong wrists. Included in the making department were processes whose variety depended on the type of footwear but essentially they were all concerned with sole attachment by sewing, riveting, pegging, screwing, tacking or nailing. In small factories lasting and making often occurred in the same room but in larger plants took place in separate departments.

4. Finishing, cleaning and packing.

Heel attachment could take place in either the Making or Finishing rooms but finishing in general involved scouring, edge trimming and heel burnishing. The Shoe Room held responsibility for sole stamping, removal of insole tacks, polishing and pigment finishing. Women and girls carried out final cleaning and packing.

This is a brief and therefore simplified summary of the processes housed in the footwear factories. The labour intensive nature of the manufacturing process is clear. The twentieth century pattern soon became one of rows of manually-controlled machines with each machine geared to a specific task; cutting, stretching, pleating and stitching leather, shaping soles, fixing the uppers to the soles. Multi-storey premises depended upon vertical circulation of work using trolleys, stairways and occasionally lifts. Generally smoking was prohibited but snuff taking was not with the result that nose cancer was an occupational disease amongst male workers. The major problem for management was the fact that closing even with sewing machines was still the most labour intensive operation and difficulties were found in matching the output of the closers with the processes further along the production sequence. A partial solution was provided through the activities of the independent closers and homeworkers. Other ancillary activities were generated, too, by 1900. One was heel building. Originally each heel, or ‘lift’, was made in one piece. Then it was realised that small bits and pieces of waste leather could be cut in such a way that they could be pieced together to form a heel and specialist producers emerged. Welt-making, too, became work often carried out by independent enterprises.

In this way, by a process of trial and error, of accretion and specialization, a distinctive regional ensemble of industrial activities had emerged in mid-Northamptonshire to support footwear, the basic industry. Tanned upper leather often had to be ‘improved’ - altered by curriers and leather dressers to fit the shoe manufacturers’ needs. Cardboard boxes were required to contain the product; being awkwardly bulky to transport they were often produced locally. Laces, metal hooks and eyelets, patterns, needles and threads generally came from further afield but waxes, inks, stains, polishes, collectively known as ‘findings’, were locally sourced. Firms involved in these support industries were frequently small but did not always remain so. By 1987, for instance, W.W. Chamberlain and Sons’ component factory in Northampton was one of the largest suppliers of footwear materials and components (cut materials, preformed insoles, counters, soles, rands and welts) in Western Europe and Mobbs-Millers’ factory in Kettering was one of the world’s leading shoe last manufacturers.

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Loake shoes
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