The Northamptonshire shoe industry from 1900 to 1957

Most of the elements of Northamptonshire’s twentieth century footwear industry were in place by 1900 and whilst the final two decades were ones of dramatic decline, some statistics might suggest the first half of the century to have been a period of relative stability - of consolidation and capital accumulation following technological innovation. For the manufacturers there was a long period of prosperity from 1890 to 1912, when exports boomed and modest fortunes were made. The first and second World Wars increased the demand for military footwear. Northamptonshire firms maintained their position within the national picture, producing 32 per cent by value of the country’s total footwear output in 1924, 34 per cent in 1930 and 34 per cent in 1935.

The industry benefited from an experienced labour force using effective machinery housed in factories of varying size which were mostly purpose-built. By 1911 much of the machinery was driven by gas engines using gas produced from anthracite, usually in a suction gas plant, or by steam power. The opening of the Midland Railway Company’s line through the Ise valley in 1857 had halved the price of coal in the townships through which it passed. Capital needs were increasing but it was still possible for men of modest means to enter the industry. In the 1890s several production co-operatives were formed in the villages and in such cases the beginning was small; a few men might pool their savings, find premises, elect a manager and begin production. From 1899 any compelling need to buy machinery was removed by the fact that the British United Shoe Machinery Company made their products available on lease. There was a productivity increase in the industry nationally of 28 per cent per man hour between 1924 - 1935 but Northamptonshire’s footwear manufacturing labour force as reported in the Census tables remained reasonably steady with the 1951 figure being almost the same as that for 1891; (1891, 36,134; 1901, 41,989; 1911, 41,928; 1921, 42,283; 1931, 39,585; 1951, 35,034).

Labour unions and manufacturers’ associations were in place to ensure orderly negotiations over wages and conditions of employment. The manufacturers’ associations had emerged in the late 19th century partly in response to the birth of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives in 1874. A manufacturers’ association of a kind was formed in 1859 in Northampton but did not become really active until 1879. Kettering formed an association in 1886, Rushden in 1890 and similar associations emerged in the 1890s at Burton Latimer, Desborough, Earls Barton, Finedon, Raunds and Rothwell. Together with Kettering and Rushden these were amalgamated into the Northampton County Federation in 1916 but the local manufacturers’ associations and local union branches had developed the habit of making local agreements on payment rates for particular classes of work, typically with higher rates prevailing in Northampton than in the other places. One consequence was the continued drift of contracts towards the country districts where labour costs were lower than in Northampton. But with one or two minor exceptions the geographical distribution of the industry within the county in 1921 was similar to that of 1911. In 1894/5 came a major confrontation between manufacturers and workers in which a lockout was followed by a Settlement which governed the relations between employers and employees for more than a hundred years. The Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association was established in Kettering in 1919 specifically to provide the industry with technical support through science based research.

Below the surface, however, were perturbations in the environment in which the manufacturers had to operate. These varied through time in their mode of expression and significance but they included temporal variations in the national economy, increasing competition in foreign and home markets, innovations in production technology, changes in the organisation of footwear marketing and sales, labour shortages, fashion changes and the ultimate internationalisation of production.

Northamptonshire firms shared in the inter-war depressions. A brief boom in the industry after the 1914-18 War was followed by trade depression in the 1920s, and from 1930 to 1933. Periods of short-time working resulted.

Serious competition in home and foreign markets had begun with the ‘American Invasion’ of 1894-5 when the style and appearance of American shoes proved attractive in the UK market. By adopting American methods and machinery the Northamptonshire manufacturers were able to turn the tables, sending exports to the USA, and colonial populations provided a basis for growth in exports which reached a pre-war peak in 1911. During and after the first World War, however, there was a sharp fall in exports as countries which pre-war had been good markets developed their own footwear industries and put in place tariff barriers to protect them. There was, too, increasing competition from European firms both in home and foreign markets in the 1920’s. In the early 1930s shortime working in the industry was common and the demand for military footwear during World War II was less than it had been in World War I, partly because of pre-war stockpiling.

The imposition of clothes rationing and purchase tax precipitated a twenty five per cent fall from the 1938 figure in the home sales value of civilian footwear for 1943. In 1941 the government devised a ‘concentration scheme’ under which some footwear factories were closed, their production transferred to others, and the vacated premises turned over to wartime production. The Barratt works , in Northampton, for example, was used to manufacture components for RAF bombers.

The settlement of 1895 proved robust during the twentieth century and really serious confrontations between manufacturers and their labour force did not occur: there were stoppages from time to time, but no big strikes. There were, however, labour shortages in the post-war period. In 1950 the Northamptonshire County Council Planning Department conducted a questionnaire inquiry into the nature and state of industrial establishments within its area of jurisdiction (the whole county, except for Northampton). Included were returns from thirty-eight footwear manufacturing establishments. The great majority of these indicated a shortage of women closers and juveniles to train.

One attempt to solve the problem was the establishment in the early post-war period of a number of small closing rooms. Most of the places chosen were small townships and villages without much female-employing industry, within an hour’s run by car of the main factory. They had to be sufficiently near to ensure reasonable control of quality and work flow, and to minimise the cost of transporting the cut out leather upper pieces and the sewn uppers back again, but sufficiently far to draw on workers who could not conveniently travel daily to the parent plant.

In the early part of the century improvements in productivity were related more to the organisation of production in the factory than to new machinery. The early 1950s through to the late 1970s was, however, a period of radical re-equipment, increasing the need for quality control within factories. The establishment of branch closing rooms had been a response to the very limited technological changes in closing procedures: at the time the only way to obtain more closed uppers was to employ more closers. In clicking some changes had occurred; by the middle of the century a great deal of clicking was carried out with a swing beam which could be positioned over any part of the hide or skin on the cutting block and then depressed to strike the knife below. Increased speed was the main advantage over the traditional method, but the clicker still had to use skill and experience in ‘reading’ the variations in thickness, colour and flexibility of the material before him. Much more radical changes were taking place at mid-century in lasting, soling and finishing.

In the Northamptonshire footwear factories of the first half of the century men’s footwear dominated output and the products were mainly, but not exclusively, machine sewn and welted. Rivetted boots were made, too, and turnshoe construction used for sports footwear. After the end of the second world war, however, in lasting and making, automatic machinery came in to replicate former hand movements and heat shrinkage methods of leather moulding lent themselves to newer types of construction such as slip lasting. Both of these things reduced the amount of labour needed in lasting rooms. Perhaps even more significant was the widespread adoption of new soling processes. In most factories the sewing, riveting and pegging of soles to uppers gave way to sole attachment using cement adhesives, rubber vulcanising, injection moulding and eventually, deep into the century, moulded sole units. Until about 1959 leather soles were the norm but vulcanization and the direct injection of soles using polyvinylchloride (pvc) eliminated the need to cut, mould, attach, edge trim and burnish leather soles and reduced by two thirds the number of soling and finishing operations formerly required. The use of pneumatics and hydraulics in machine construction also increased productivity by speeding up production.

An atmosphere of technical change became part of the behavioural environment for both management and workers; the industry was becoming more an assembly industry than one requiring traditional craft skills. Technical changes in production methods enabled factories to specialise by production process as well as product type (men’s, women’s, maids’, children’s). They also weakened the attraction of labour pools skilled in traditional methods except for the firms retaining welted sewn production. The need to match the output of one set of machines with that of other sets had previously established a technical optimum of around 1,200 pairs a day, depending on the type of output. Thus at mid-century a factory size of about one hundred and fifty employees was common and larger plants differed from these smaller ones mainly through running additional batteries of production machines rather than in making large scale economies. The fact that the leading supplier of footwear making machinery, the British United Shoe Machinery Co. Ltd., with headquarters in Leicester, continued to offer equipment on lease as well as for sale also favoured smaller concerns through limiting the amount of capital required in the acquisition of machinery.

Despite vicissitudes over the preceding half century, the footwear industry was still a substantial presence in the county in the 1950s and it had few rivals in the employment structures of those Northamptonshire settlements where it had become established. At the 1951 Census it provided jobs for 26 per cent of the county’s employed males and 28 per cent of the occupied females. In some of the Ise valley townships, taking both sexes together, the dependency was nearer 50 per cent. There were 201 factories present in 1956, compared with 217 in 1923. The health of the workers in these factories had improved significantly. In the 1890s phthisis had been a common cause of death and during the following decades pulmonary tuberculosis in the Northamptonshire shoe industry was significantly higher than in many other factory industries. Mass radiography immediately after World War II made a real difference to this situation. A healthier labour force was a more productive one: the average production of equivalent pairs per person employed was 772 in 1930 and 1,030 in 1945; by 1948 it was 40 per cent higher than in 1939.

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