The late C19th and early C20th century saw the Northamptonshire shoe firms, as now, at the heart of British high quality boot and shoe manufacture. By the 1880s – 1890s one in four people in the town were involved in the shoe industry and Northamptonshire prospered.
A Short History of Northamptonshire Shoemaking
The first mention of shoes in Northampton is in 1200 when a stall held by Peter the Cordwainer (shoemaker) changed hands and the transaction was officially recorded in the records. In 1213 King John purchased a pair of boots in the town for 9d. It is thought that these were long riding boots.
The first mention of a shoemaking Guild in Northampton was 1401. The Guild controlled the way the work was done and tried to ensure that all work was of good quality. All the shoemakers in the town belonged to the Guild, which regulated the trade and also provided religious services and social events for its members. From the middle of the 14th Century some shoes were exported. The first record of the export of shoes is in 1378 when some were sent to Flanders.
By 1525 shoemaking was a significant part of the makeup of the town.
Why shoes and Northampton?
We know that Northampton had access to the raw materials for shoemaking and to a large market within easy distance. To make shoes you need leather, ideally leather made from cattle skins.
Northamptonshire was an area where many cattle were grazed. The great herds, which were driven from the Welsh Marches to be killed for meat in London, came through the county and many of them rested here in the town. There was, therefore, a good supply of hides. There was also a good supply of water in the area around Northampton. Tanning (the making of leather) uses a lot of water. Nearby Rockingham and Salcey forests provided the oak bark, used in the tanning process.
Perhaps the most defining point that sealed Northampton’s fate as a shoe town came in 1642 when 13 shoemakers, led by Thomas Pendleton obtained a contract for 600 pairs of boots and 4,000 pairs of shoes to be used to equip the army that was going to Ireland. We know about this order because the shoemakers had difficulty in getting paid for the work and were still complaining about non-payment in 1651. They did eventually receive almost all of the payment.
Thomas Fuller, writing of Northampton in the 1660’s says:
“the town of Northampton may be said to stand chiefly on other men’s legs… the most and cheapest, if not the best, boots and stockings in England are to be bought in Northampton.”
In 1725 Daniel Defoe described the dress of typical Englishmen and wrote of their shoes as being “from Northampton for all: the poorest countrymen and the master.”
The first national census in 1841 listed 1,821 shoemakers in the town. Some of these would have had their own workshops and some would have worked in larger establishments employing a number of shoemakers.