Barrage of Boots

Without the unfailing barrage of boots they put over for all the Allied armies, we could never have shattered the German lines.
W.H. Holloway O.B.E., editor of The Northampton Independent, 1922.

The 1910s saw the outbreak of the dreadful, Great War. The United Kingdom produced some 70 million pairs of boots and shoes for the Allied armies during the First World War, and 50 million of these were made in Northamptonshire.

British Army tank boot with a rope sole to prevent sparks in a confined space, 1914-1918. Made by G.T Hawkins, St Michaels Road, Northampton.

The footwear made during this time was as diverse as the people producing them; Regulation British infantry boots, Highland shoes, hospital slippers, African native sandals, ski boots and submarine deck boots, to name a few. How the factories collaborated on this mammoth task is a wonder in itself. An urgent order for mosquito boots for soldiers serving in East Africa could arrive one Saturday afternoon, compelling the factory to open on Sunday. By Tuesday night, the boots would be on board ship.

On 18th September 1914, The Rushden Echo reported how the Rushden and District Shoe Manufacturers Association had secured an order from the French Government for 75,000 pairs. Additionally, ‘One Rushden firm on Monday received a Continental order for 25,000 pairs of boots, the first delivery to be 7,000 pairs. It is questionable, however, whether the firm will be able to complete the order, as they are so busy.’

At one of the Rushden factories they have had more inquiries for boots than ever they have had before. Here is one day’s experience this week. As early at 8.30 a.m., a buyer called and wanted 10,000 pairs for the Yorkshire Territorial Association. Four orders came by wire from Glasgow for large quantities. At 4 p.m., there was a caller who wanted 50,000 pairs, and an inquiry also came for a small quantity for the Lancashire Territorial Association.

Picture One: Ernest also took this photograph of girls at the CWS factory in 1917, working in the ‘Rough Stuff’ department, as replacements for the men gone to war.

British shoe manufacturers and their workers had to collaborate in order to try and meet the incredible demand. Until you see a quote like the one above, it is difficult to imagine the enormity of those production figures and the demands placed on British footwear manufacturing.

One of the Rushden firms, Sanders and Sanders, had begun to expand before the war.  Orders were increasing so William and Thomas employed more craftsmen and out workers. In 1912 they moved to Spencer road, still their factory today, taking around 70 workers with them.

As machinery became more advanced, and Charles Goodyear had provided the shoemaking industry with ‘Goodyear welting’ machines, the production process sped up remarkably. So as War struck and boots were at their highest demand, the factory was producing almost 6000 pairs of army boots per week. When the war ended in 1918, the demand in shoes hadn’t, and around 5000-6000 pairs of shoes were still leaving the factory and being delivered to customers all over the country.

Northamptonshire wasn’t just praised for the amount of footwear it produced in such a short amount of time during the war years. German generals in secret reports remarked upon the superiority of Northampton’s boots and recommended the adoption of our designs for their own men. American experts declared them to be the best army boots ever made. As Mr Harold Baker, Financial Secretary to the War Office stated in 1915, I do not think there has ever been a single case at the front in which bad boots have been served out.”

A year before the start of the war, production had turned from hand-made boots to a machine-riveted boot made of chrome leather. This was hailed as a bold move as it departed from the accepted theory that a hand-made boot was the best for military purposes. However, the new boots proved both efficient and comfortable.

Picture One: Workers at Cooperative Wholesale Factory, Rushden. Picture Two: Probably taken outside of Long Buckby.

Simon Collier

Established in 1871 by 1880 he had a large factory built in Harlestone Road, which housed all the latest shoe making equipment. Smaller factories were later added in Campbell Square and in Kislingbury.

By this time Simon was employing 200 people. His firm specialised in high class welted and tackless footwear sold under the brand names of “Duration” and “Selborne On Top”. They had a buoyant overseas trade, with sales especially strong in South Africa and Italy. Simon Collier himself was considered to be one of the best judges of leather in the country and reputedly this contributed to the success of the firm.

By 1910 three of Simon Collier’s sons were helping him run the business as co-directors. When war was declared in 1914, Simon Collier recognised the potential demand for army boots and he placed the main factory at the disposal of the War Office. Business boomed and production peaked at 15,000 pairs a week; in 1916 an advert in the Shoe Trade Journal proudly proclaimed that 1 million pairs of army boots had been made. As a result of the extra work the staffing had increased to 1000. Many of the expert staff were constantly being called up for service and Simon Collier was recognised for introducing quality training schemes to bring newcomers quickly up to speed.

British Army boot. Regulation No 1. Blucher style boot. Chrome leather with brown vegetable tanned sole. Steel studs on sole and horseshoe 1914-1918. Manufactured by Simon Collier Ltd, Northampton

Returning to Sanders and Sanders, the family owned firm still makes exquisite army and regulation boots and footwear alongside its more contemporary ranges. The Sanders Uniform range is now famous amongst police, military and security forces worldwide, and still maintains the same level of quality as they have done for the past century.

Coming in February  – The roaring 20s

Article written in collaboration with Northampton Museums.