The footwear industry in the urban landscape

The factories which began to emerge were built into the fabric of the streets: a run of terraced brick homes, then a small factory, then more houses, then another factory. Turn a street corner and the pattern was repeated. The houses had small brick workshops at the rear, the alleyways providing access to them indicated on the street by an extra door between the normal front doors opening into the vestibules or front rooms of adjacent houses. The local industry had been bricked-and-mortared into the domestic architecture. So, too, the public houses and chapels of all the leading non-conformist denominations.

The very earliest factories, such as Gotch’s in Kettering, were centres of organization rather than manufacturing but things had begun to change with the introduction of machinery from the 1850s. The most labour intensive shoemaking process was closing, the sewing together in a multitude of small and often delicate processes of the cut out bits of leather comprising a shoe upper. By 1855 Isaac Merritt Singer’s New York company was marketing a sewing machine in Britain suited to this task. A clumsy machine, worked by hand or treadle, it made only slow progress at first, but improvements followed to the point where, from 1857 onwards, sewing machines came into wide use. In some cases and especially where a high standard of workmanship was required, manufacturers found it best to bring their closers into the factory but an equally common procedure was for sewing machines to be rented out to the closers, thus allowing them to continue to work at home. The main consequence for the organisation of closing arising from the introduction of the sewing machine was the need to have two ‘fitters’ to prepare and position the cut pieces of leather in order to keep pace with the machinist. This brought many more women and girls into the industry. It also created a new branch of the industry in the form of independent closing workshops who contracted their specialist services to shoe manufacturers.

The introduction of closing machines was initially resisted by shoe workers in Northampton who went on strike from March to July 1859. But the opportunities to produce and sell boots had been demonstrated by the Crimean War (1854-6), the Indian Mutiny (1857 -9) and were followed up by the Austro-Hungarian War in 1859, the American Civil War in 1862 and the Franco-German War in 1870-71. Following the introduction of the sewing machine, other processes were mechanised. The Blake sole sewer was introduced in 1859 and had made considerable headway by 1861: it sewed right through the inner and outer sole, taking in the edge of the leather uppers. By the late 1860s rivetting machinery was in general use for bootmaking and army boots were normally riveted, screwed and stitched. Turnshoe machinery followed in 1868, and, most important of all, American Goodyear welting machines, also in 1868. The Screw Machine, to attach soles and uppers, by pegs, came in 1876. Thus most footwear factories were equipped with machinery in time for the Franco-German War (1870-71), for the Boer War (1889 -1902) and for the killing fields of France and the Low Countries (1914 -18).

To properly articulate the work of one set of machinery with another, the machines clearly had to be housed under one roof. The main objective determining the layout of factories from about 1890 was for work to flow without obstruction or hold up. The factory architecture became progressively more ambitious as business confidence grew and profits accumulated in the hands of the family firms. The small brick boxes of 1860s and ‘70s became much bigger brick boxes in the 1880s and 1890s and then, in the early twentieth century the exhuberant frontages of firms such as Geo. Webb Ltd. and William Barratt Ltd. aped the appearance of big houses owned by county landowners. R.E. Tricker covered the front of the factory in St. Michael’s Road with glazed brown tiles and leaded glass windows. In 1894, following rather than leading events, employers and the workers’ union agreed that all work except closing should be carried out indoors. Manfield and Sons built the biggest Northampton footwear factory at Monks Park Spinney in 1894, with an Art Deco flavour. Many of the factories, of course, consisted of blocks built at different dates but ultimately their size and shape were to become significant in determining the ease or difficulty with which new production technologies could be adopted by firms in the late twentieth 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.

Visit the Bradshaw and Lloyd website to view the latest range of shoes from:
Loake shoes
Sanders shoes
Sebago shoes
Trickers shoes

Leave a Reply