The 1890s and into the C20th century

Northamptonshire’s Finest

“For me Northamptonshire remains the shoe-making capital of the world. We have so many amazing international footwear manufacturers…..…there’s nowhere else that can claim they produced the boots for Darth Vader, and shoes for James Bond and Prince Charles”
Guy West, Jeffery-West

Men’s black leather derby boot. Leather sole stamped ‘Manfield MADE IN ENGLAND’. 1890s (1967.36.2)

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.

Interior of Manfield factory circa 1900 and Sir Moses Philip Manfield

The first machines appeared in Northampton in 1857. These were hand or treadle operated sewing machines. They were used for closing (sewing the upper together). Two manufacturers – Manfield and Isaac Campbell & Co – started using them on their premises. The use of sewing machines speeded up the rate at which uppers could be made. The output of closed uppers was almost doubled and the shoemakers saw this as a threat to their livelihood.

Clicking Room, Sears (Trueform) and Closing Room, Manfield and Sons

The American Lyman Blake perfected his machine the Blake Sewer. This revolutionary machine, designed to sew the shoe upper to the sole, was first used in Northampton during the early 1860’s. It was too big and expensive to have at home or in a workshop and required steam power to drive it. It was this machine which created the need for factories.

Church’s Footwear

Crockett & Jones and Trickers

Northamptonshire is still the home of timeless footwear classics remodelled for each generation by skilled and imaginative craftspeople. Today many of these original shoe companies remain at the hub of a successful industry manufacturing shoes that are exported and respected across the world. More recently and in recognition of the skills of the local workforce new ones have opened. Gaziano & Girling opened in Kettering in 2006, and west end firm Foster and Sons opened the first new factory in Northampton for maybe 100 years in 2018.

Gaziano & Girling and Foster and Son

Coming in January  – A Barrage Of Boots

Article written in collaboration with Northampton Museums.