Murray’s Handbook for Travelers, published in 1878 says: “The visitor to Northampton will at once be reminded by the leather aprons and grimy faces which haunt the streets that he is in the land of shoemakers.” However, the tradition started a long time before then. The first known reference to shoemakers in the county is Peter the Cordwainer (the medieval word for a shoemaker), who is mentioned in early 13th century records.

By 1401 Northampton had established a Guild of Shoemakers and from the 16th century an important trade had developed.

“The Cordwainer” – a statue located in the City Of London

The shoe industry grew up around an already thriving leather trade, for which Northamptonshire had all the necessary ingredients: good loamy soil which provided excellent pasture for cattle; extensive oak forests (the oak bark, combined with water from the River Nene provided the ideal conditions for tanning leather) and a thriving cattle market. So, a good supply of material and its central location for distribution made the area particularly suitable for shoemaking.

In 1642 a consortium of local shoemakers won a contract to supply boots for use in the English Civil war. Northampton had formally declared its allegiance to the Royalists (although it subsequently became clear that they had backed the wrong side!).

By the 18th century shoemakers were beginning to store shoes in communal warehouses and shoes were being produced in bulk quantities, but the shoemakers usually had workshops in their homes, where wives and children helped out and often worked on Sundays to earn more cash for the pub on Sunday nights. They had to be highly literate, keeping records and conforming to measurements to ensure that shoes fitted correctly.

By the mid-19th century, the industry had grown to nearly 2,000 shoemakers, some of whom were now described as ‘manufacturers’, employing a large number of craftsmen, supplying them materials and selling the finished product to buyers.

Businessmen at this time began to recognize that mechanisation meant profit, but the change led to the mechanisation dispute of 1857-59. In 1858, the Northampton Boot and Shoe-makers Mutual Protection Society was formed to oppose mechanisation, and in 1859 when the manufacturers of Northampton issued a statement confirming that machines for closing (stitching) shoe uppers were to be introduced, the Society called a strike urging shoemakers to seek work outside of Northampton. However, the strike failed as many shoemakers did not object to machines if their jobs weren’t threatened.

Some employers persevered however and wanted all of their shoemakers to work inside the factories, trying to entice them with ‘appeasements’. In the end, the fixed wages and hours represented an end to the workers’ autonomy the shoe factory with machinery powered by steam engines had arrived.

With new mechanised mass-production methods, footwear manufacture was much faster and cheaper. In Northampton, many rows of terraced housing were built for the workforce, much of it very close to the centre of the town.

Around 1870 Charles Goodyear patented his own variant of the traditional welting process. Welting involves stitching the upper of a shoe to the insole with a strip of leather (welt) but, in the Goodyear method, the welt is stitched by machine instead of being hand-sewn. By the time this happened, almost half the men living in Northampton were shoemakers.

Welt-sewing by the Goodyear method

During the early 20th century the number of shoe factories in Northamptonshire continued to rise and almost every town and village in the county has had a flourishing footwear industry at some stage, each with its own distinct specialism. Long Buckby was famous for the very high quality of its long boots, Wollaston for its work boots. Other towns like Rushden and Kettering owe some of their character and size to the shoe industry.

Northamptonshire shoemakers were often responsible for providing military footwear. During the Napoleonic wars, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Navy Office had frequently ordered thousands of pairs of boots and shoes from Kettering shoemakers. Shoemakers in the county were responsible for supplying around 50 million pairs of boots to the allied forces during World War One. In 1905, a group of shoemakers from Raunds negotiated a standard rate of pay for producing army boots when they marched from Raunds to the Houses of Parliament to demand fair pay. In the 2nd World War shoe factories once again produced large quantities of boots to supply the allied forces.

John White and Co. of Rushden were hugely successful in the 1930s/40s

But changes in the latter half of the 20th century meant a decline in footwear manufacture in the county as boots and shoes could be produced more cheaply elsewhere. A large number of old shoe factories have been converted to offices or accommodation, some of which are still surrounded by the terraced houses originally built for factory workers. The boot and shoe industry in Northamptonshire became smaller and more specialised, but it certainly wasn’t the end.

The local leather trade has long since gone, but the tradition of shoemaking continues to thrive and shoes made by the Goodyear method are still generally regarded as being of the highest quality. The Northamptonshire region is still the largest area of Goodyear welted manufactured shoes in the world and has provided fine footwear for the discerning and the famous: from Darth Vader to Doctor Who, from Sid Vicious to James Bond, from Sir Ernest Shackleton to Jumbo the elephant.

Today, the county’s craftsmen and designers continue to perfect their skills and processes and still produce some of the finest footwear available anywhere in the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *