The Northamptonshire shoe industry from 1957 to 1985

Changes in shoemaking technology became a recurrent theme from the 1950’s onwards, sometimes using techniques known before World War II but not widely adopted until after the war. Lasting initially was the most affected process. Slip lasting involves the upper being stitched to a soft sock, the last being forced into it and the sole cemented to the bottom. As a low-cost method method suitable for short-lived fashion shoes and summer sandals the process spread widely in Leicestershire, the home of women’s fashion shoes, but had less impact in Northamptonshire, the home of men’s footwear. In Northamptonshire in the late 1950s ‘hot process’ direct moulding had a bigger effect than slip lasting. In this process uncured rubber blanks are inserted into a sole-shaped mould onto which the shoe is clamped and heat applied for several minutes to cure the sole. Then, during the late 1970s came the introduction of direct PVC and then Thermoplastic Rubber (TPR), widely taken up by 1980.

These technological changes reduced the number of discrete operations in lasting. Also, conveyor systems capable of moving shoes from one shoemaking operation to the next in a controlled fashion took over from the traditional twelve pair trolley or ‘rack’ system. In the 1980s some firms adopted computerised sewing machines.

Improved productivity resulted from these changes. Between 1971 and 1975 output per employee increased by nine per cent. It increased by 24 per cent from 1982 to 1986. However, over the period 1957 to 1985, increasing productivity was set in the context of low demand elasticity in the home markets, modest exports, and steadily rising import penetration of the UK market. The combination provided difficult trading conditions. The total U.K. footwear market grew from around 150 million pairs in 1957 to 225 million pairs in 1965 but thereafter remained static at 225 to 260 million pairs per annum until 1983, when there was an increase to 280 million pairs. Between 1984 and 2000 the market oscillated around 280 – 290 million pairs per annum. Whilst yearly exports remained fairly constant at 15 to 18 million pairs between 1957 and 1982, imports climbed from 20 million to 135 million pairs. Combined with increasing productivity, the UK manufacturers’ decreasing market share inevitably meant contraction in the labour force and an average yearly net loss nationally of around 1,600 footwear manufacturing jobs occurred between 1950 and 1981

In the county as a whole footwear manufacturing employment fell by 42 per cent. In Northampton the fall was 49 per cent and the number of factories halved. The broad swathe of plants running across the town from west to east in 1957 was much less evident in 1975, simply because there were fewer active establishments.

Similar trends were evident elsewhere. In Rushden the number employed fell by 35 per cent between 1957 and 1975, from 5,360 to 3,502. The number of footwear workers in Kettering was reduced by 48 per cent over the period, from 5,084 to 2,225. The main concentration of factories in Kettering, to the east and north-east of the pre-1875 core, suffered badly, as did the comparable clusters in Rushden and Wellingborough. Wellingborough saw a 60 per cent loss in its footwear labour force, from 2,347 to 952. The number of workers in Raunds went down by 52 per cent, from 1,671 to 811, and Rothwell experienced a 38 per cent reduction, from 1,024 to 618. In the core of the footwear manufacturing district, wherever one looked in the late 1970s, factory buildings which two decades previously had been busy places of employment stood empty, with estate agents’ boards on their walls. Some had been turned to different uses, and the demolition gangs had knocked down others altogether. Some of the enterprises still extant had lost their independent existence through mergers and takeovers. Some of the firms who took a leading role in acquisition activity did so to acquire retail outlets, or to reduce competition but the patterns and motivations in acquisition activity were complex. The process was widespread, however. In Kettering, for example, only three of the 27 separate shoe manufacturing firms present in 1957 did not undergo some kind of merger or acquisition activity and associated change between that year and 1980.

Another feature that made itself very obvious during the period was the jettisoning of the less suitable factory premises, with a retreat from the older medium-size multi-storey premises occupying inner town sites. Such buildings raised problems for work organization: floor areas punctuated by floor-support pillars, floors with low load-bearing capacity, difficult access to upper floors, limited vehicular access. Modern horizontal work flow production processes strongly favoured single-storey premises rather than work carried out in the rooms of multi-storey plants. Even so, by 1980 less that 10 per cent of the factories in use had been built in the previous fifteen years; the surviving firms were still operating in old buildings.

Perhaps the most powerful changes in the environment of footwear manufacture after 1957, however, occurred in the distribution and marketing of the product. In 1957 there were different configurations of organizational units amongst the manufacturers, but long-established family firms, employing between 100 and 200 workers, were numerically dominant. They sold through wholesalers, to independent retailers, through footwear retailing multiples competing with one another. The specialist retailing chains dominated sales. From the late 1950s, however, the situation changed as large corporate structures arose on the distribution side. The biggest was the British Shoe Corporation (BSC), whose retail outlets in 1975 handled over one-fifth of the country’s £862 millions-worth of footwear sales. BSC was created in the nineteen-fifties when Sir Charles Clore, in a series of well-publicised takeovers, acquired a chain of 1,800 retail outlets on prime city centre sites. Names such as Dolcis, Lilley and Skinner, Freeman Hardy and Willis, Trueform, Manfield and Saxone became part of his empire. Other companies with a significant High Street presence by 1986 included C and J Clark (Clarks, Peter Lord, Kay), Marks and Spencer, Storehouse, Timpson (acquired by Oliver), Oliver, Stylo Matchmakers (trading as Barratts), Stead and Simpson and Leonards (owned by Great Universal Stores). Many companies on the distribution side sourced their footwear internationally to maximise profits and UK manufacturers felt left with little leverage in negotiating their sales as the concentration of distribution into fewer and fewer hands took place. The control of manufacturing and of selling had become detached and only firms with a better-than-average exporting record could feel sanguine about the future, simply because this gave them a degree of independence in marketing.

By the late 1970s, therefore, as a result of a mixture of different but often related causes, the industry was much reduced from what it had been in the 1950s. There had been heavy losses in the number of factories. The labour force had been reduced by firms going out of business, by firms shedding labour in situ, by the closure of branch factories. Closing rooms were being discarded in favour of closed uppers brought in from abroad. The labour force was ageing and recruitment of younger workers proving difficult.

Even in a slimmed down state, however, the industry remained significant, both in the county and in the country. In 1975 Northampton’s 5,100 shoe workers produced 5.8 million pairs of footwear with an ex-factory value of £24 millions and there were 14,000 workers elsewhere in the county turning out 18 million pairs valued at £78 millions. Men’s footwear of one kind or another continued to be paramount. Long-established firms such as Crockett and Jones, John Church and Co. and R.E. Tricker in Northampton, Barker’s in Earls Barton, W. Green (Grenson) in Rushden and Loakes in Kettering retained a niche at the top of the ready-made market using traditional materials and construction methods. Kettering, Rushden and Wellingborough still emphasised men’s medium-quality footwear but after 1964 two firms in these places changed to producing women’s shoes by injection-moulding and another moved into the production of football and cricket boots. Rothwell, Finedon and Irthlingborough continued to make cheaper varieties of shoes for men, together with boots, but the output at Wollaston changed from protective footwear and heavy boots to men’s wear of medium quality and golf shoes. Wollaston saw R. Griggs and Co. innovating in 1960 with Doc Martens PVC injected soles to begin thirty years of prosperity for the family firm. At Raunds the emphasis remained on army boots and heavy boots for industrial work. At Bozeat the production of working boots was phased out in 1968 and by 1978 only sports shoes were made.

At the end of the 1970s, therefore, the industry was still present in Northamptonshire, though much reduced from its one-time pomp. On 26 February 1981, after an extended Parliamentary debate on the industry’s problems, the responsible government minister of the day, Sir Keith Joseph, wound up the debate with the statement: ‘a combination of design skills, marketing flair, management flair and modern technology can produce triumphant success. In all the gloom, there are dramatic success stories. The really dramatic loss of manufacturing capacity to prove him wrong was still to come, in the last two decades of the century.

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