The footwear industry at mid-19th century

In 1851, boot and shoemaking was the third largest source of manufacturing employment in Great Britain. The 1851 Census reported 470,000 people employed in the manufacture of cotton textiles; 420,463 in dressmaking and tailoring, 274,451 in boot and shoemaking, with 94,175 ‘shoemakers’ wives’ in addition. The latter were designated thus because they had an active role in making footwear, often working at home, alongside their husbands and sons. It is justifiable, therefore, to accept a total of 368,626 in the footwear industry. The manufacture of woollens and worsted employed 241,875; 219,015 people were directly employed in coal mining; 106,677 in iron and steel, including 25,008 iron miners. Shipbuilding accounted for a mere 25,201.

Of the shoemakers, 17,204, including ‘shoemakers’ wives’, were to be found in Northamptonshire, eight per cent of the national total. There was a different situation by 1951, when there were 35,034 footwear workers in the county, approximately 28 per cent of the total. The end of the century was different again; in mid-1999 the industry provided direct employment for 16,987 people in England and Wales, 4,759 of them in Northamptonshire but still 28 per cent of the total.

Bates portrays a craft industry in which handstitchmen worked at home with their own tools but in truth the configuration of the footwear industry in the county in 1851 was quite complex. In Northampton, traditional master craftsmen working alone or employing a few journeymen and apprentices existed side by side with individuals described in the census schedules as manufacturers and who employed between twenty and two hundred workers. The status of the manufacturers is hinted at by the fact that one of them, Francis Parker, was mayor in 1851 and another, J. Groom, an alderman.

The craft shoemakers could obtain necessary materials quite cheaply and owned their own tools, so an unemployed or independently-minded individual could set up on his own, working with his family and hawking the products on his own account. He might produce six or seven pairs a week.

A third category in the county comprised the still-widespread village cobbler earning a living by making and repairing what was often cheap low quality footwear and sometimes ‘translating’ i.e. buying up small lots of second-hand boots and patching them up for re-sale. It was rare for even the most deeply rural hamlet to be without such a shoemaker.

There were, too, one or two garret masters in Northampton but they were nowhere near so important to the local industry as in London where they supplied poorer families and took in sub-contracted work for the ready-made market.

Mid-nineteenth century Northampton was not a big place, growing to around 60,000 inhabitants by 1881 but it was the first manufacturing town encountered when travelling north from London and contact with the capital was vital for growth in the local economy. There were just two major domestic markets for Northampton’s manufacturers. The two and a half million people in London comprised one, the other being the army and navy, supplied through their London-based Boards. In London existed three kinds of producer. One was the established cordwainers’ workshops where craftsmen served long apprenticeships, their payment regulated by custom and trades union enforcement. E.P. Thompson estimates that they comprised about ten per cent of the total numbers employed in making footwear in the capital. (6) The second, more numerous sector comprised the ‘dishonourable’ workplaces of the non-society men, whose payment was determined by competition. By 1840 there was a clear distinction between these two elements in London, the ‘honourable’ part serving the high-quality and luxury end of the market whilst the ‘dishonourable’ sector served the whole range of ready-made demand. There were, too, some manufacturers. (7)

For Northamptonshire manufacturers, with their large squads of outworkers, continued penetration of both markets was essential.. In the 1830s the ‘honourable’ men of the metropolis were surrounded by scores of ‘dishonourable’ workshops where shoes were made up cheaply, often by translators. However, rural depopulation in the 1820s and 1830s displaced hundreds of people in Northamptonshire. They became a labour source for the local footwear industry so cheap that even the ‘dishonourable’ workshops of the capital found themselves undercut. The low labour costs in Northampton and nearby settlements depended on outworking and subcontracting. Some folk were in factories but most of those counted by the 1851 census enumerators were true outworkers rather than artisans, a distinction drawn by J.H. Clapham in the following terms:

‘Capitalist outwork may be said to be fully established only when the material belongs to the trading employer and is returned to him after the process for which the outworkers’ skill is required has been completed.’
Some of the Northampton outworkers were engaged in stitching uppers together, others were attaching soles and so, by 1851, division of labour was well established with closers, clickers and shoe binders frequently distinguished in the census as specialised occupations.

The significance of the military orders is illustrated by Roy Church’s description of the fortunes of the firm of Thomas Gotch, in Kettering. The firm was founded in 1777 and in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties experienced annual increases in profits stemming from growing tension in Europe and stockpiling of army and navy boots. In 1793 war broke out with France and Gotch’s business boomed but the signing of the Amiens peace treaty in 1802 caused profits to halve. In January 1813 an order came in for 25,000 pairs of seamen’s shoes to be sent abroad and 20,000 for office store, also 10,000 pairs of marines’ and 2,000 pairs of boys’. This was a three-month order. Over the following three months the Navy Board ordered 60,000 seamen’s, 10,000 marines’ and 6,000 boys’. In 1815, however, Europe was at peace and profits dropped immediately. The end of the war saw the re-importation of 30,000 army pairs per week. They came onto the market as army surplus for several months, the residue being disposed of by a series of government-sponsored auctions taking place over several years. By 1825 Gotch was searching for new civilian markets in London, in the Americas, and in the West Indies.

In 1851, those county shoe manufacturers employing over a hundred people each, with the exception of Gotch, were all in Northampton and, like Gotch, used buildings which would be recognisable today as small factories. When Gotch went bankrupt in 1858, the main factory was put up for sale. It was described as a building measuring 27 yards by 6 yards, three stories high. But in 1851 there was little or no machinery in such buildings. The rough stuff cutters and clickers worked in the factories, under the watchful eye of their employer, because a bad error in cutting on the soles or uppers could cost the business the profit on a particular hide or skin. The factory-cum-warehouses were also the places where the leather was stored. The other processes depended on outwork for which the factory served as an organising and distributive focus where the boots and shoes were examined at the various stages of manufacture and stored before despatch. Closing and making took place both in the homes and in workshops, also without benefit of machinery until the arrival of sewing machines in 1856.

There was much coming and going of people, materials and products between the warehouse-factories, sheds and home workshops. Yet it was a system which, with the employment of enough labour could fulfil large orders. In 1813 Gotch’s firm alone supplied the Navy Board with 64,000 pairs of seamen’s and marine’s shoes over a period of two months. Depending upon the circumstances of an order, including the type of shoe output per adult worker involved in this kind of production in 1851 was probably between fifteen and twenty pairs a week, twice the average achieved by the traditional individual shoemaker.

In sum, therefore, at the middle of the nineteenth century the Northampton manufacturers were producing for London, the armed services and for export but a spill-over effect was that cheap ready made footwear became available to local country populations, too, thus limiting the trade available to country cobblers. Until 1857 the county town was the dominant centre of organization as well as production. With a relatively modest population in 1851 of 26,894, its function as an entrepot was enhanced by the presence of shoe factors, leather merchants, wholesalers, carriers for local and long-distance movement of materials and finished goods. The wholesale manufacturers were not limited to the town’s outworkers but reached out to involve workers in surrounding districts, too.

All this activity was enhanced by developments in transport. The Grand Junction Canal was linked to Northampton in 1815 but the London to Holyhead highway had been much improved by Telford in 1819. There was a very frequent daily coach service between Northampton and London and ten firms were engaged in the carriage of goods, including boots and shoes packed into wicker hampers, to London and Birmingham. The London to Birmingham railway was opened in 1838 but it passed through the county to the west of Northampton with stations at Roade, Blisworth and Weedon, where thousands of pairs of army boots were stored at the ordnance depot. (13) Northampton was linked to the London-Birmingham line by a loop in 1838 and the town’s ancient castle demolished to make way for storage and handling facilities for leather and footwear in transit at Castle station. Perhaps the most significant transport link of all, however, was the opening of the Midland Railway main line through Wellingborough and Kettering in 1857. This rendered the Ise valley settlements independent of Northampton and substantially stimulated their involvement in footwear production and population growth.

In 1851 Northamptonshire was the leading provincial centre of footwear manufacturing in the country. Until the mid-19th century the growth of the industry in the county town was faster than elsewhere in the county. Production of ready made boots had taken root at other places but only after mid-century did the rate of growth of the industry in these centres, particularly in the Ise valley settlements, come to equal, and sometimes overtake, that in Northampton. (14)

From 1801 to 1851 the population of Northampton more than trebled and by 1841 nearly a quarter of the people in the town had been born outside the county. (15) The 1831 Census Report commented, ‘ The Borough of Northampton has increased in population, chiefly attributable to the extension of the manufacture of boots and shoes, upward of 1,300 men being engaged in the trade.’ (16) The population growth in the other settlements of the county where shoe manufacture had become established was fastest in the period 1851 to 1901. The population of Kettering, which had increased comparatively slowly from 3,011 in 1801 to 5,198 in 1851, experienced a rapid rise to 28,653 in 1901. Between 1851 and 1901 Wellingborough increased from 5,297 to 18,412, far more than it had risen in the previous fifty years. A number of the smaller settlements along the Nene and Ise valleys also increased, notably Burton Latimer (175 per cent), Irthlingborough (173 per cent), Desborough (165 per cent), Irchester (140 per cent), Earls Barton (128 per cent), Higham Ferrers (123 per cent) and Raunds (103 per cent). Footnotes in the 1861 Census Report attribute the increases directly to footwear manufacture and, in the cases of Finedon and Irchester, the increases are stated to be a consequence, too, of the new Midland Railway line. (17). The most dramatic increase was at Rushden, where the population rose from 2,122 in 1871 to 12,453 in 1901. The fortunes of the Northamptonshire settlements had become closely identified with footwear. The growth of the places where the industry had been established was thrown into stark relief by decreasing or virtually static populations in most of the places where it was absent or only had a feeble hold. In Daventry, for example, a decrease between 1841 and 1851 is explained in the Census Report for the latter year by the closure of two shoemaking enterprises.

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