Northampton centre of the shoe industry

Last night we rewatched “Kinky Boots” a very entertaining and amusing film based on the true story of how one old established shoe company faced with cheap imports and declining sales diversified into fetish footwear.

One thing I had not really appreciated when I first watched it were the lovely close up shots of the antiquated machinery working thick leather to make gorgeous traditional shoes. It made me want to know more about the Northamptonshire shoe industry so this morning I had a quick google. Here are a couple of interesting quotes;

“For many centuries, Northampton’s staple industry was the manufacture of shoes, and records show that the town made 4000 shoes and 600 boots for the army in 1642, and further huge numbers for Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1648.”

“By 1831 a third of all the men living in Northampton were shoemakers. Prior to the 1850s they were all ‘home-workers’, making shoes in their cellars or garden sheds. Commercial Shoe Manufacturers were really only warehouses in which finished shoes were received, inspected, packed and dispatched.”

The Kinky Boots story is based on the family business WJ Brooks of Earls Barton and 4th generation MD Steve Pateman who took over the declining business in 1993. They made quality mens brogues but like all the Northampton shoe businesses were in dire straights due to competition from cheap imports and the strong pound hitting the export market. By 1998 he had been forced to cut the staff from 80 down to 30 but they were still struggling. That was when they diversified into fetish footwear, it proved successfull for a few years untill that market too became flooded with cheap imports and apparantly WJ Brooks stopped manufacturing in 2000.
20 years ago Earls Barton had 6 thriving shoe factories now there is only 1.

So what is left of shoe making in Northampton? The football team are knicknamed “the cobblers” and it has a world famous museum of footwear. What will be left for the next generation? is the name of a football team and a museum enough to mark 300 years as a world centre of shoe and boot production? I remember visiting Dalarna in Sweden and hearing of a particular regional basket, only made there. Every child whilst in primary school would learn to make one of those baskets as it helped them conect with their history, to know who they were and where they were from. I would love to see children in Northampton making shoes, in Walsall learning about saddles, in Sheffield making a folding pocket knife, in Kent picking and drying hops and apples. I don’t want to see large industries subsidiesed when they can no longer compete but this is as much a part as our heritage as the buildings and museums we devote a lot of attention and money to and in many ways more fragile and easily lost.

2 Responses to Northampton centre of the shoe industry

  1. Juan March 23, 2009 at 3:28 am #

    Preservation of old crafts is a very difficult subject If they are subsidized, for example, I am forcing everone to pay for it through taxation. Is this proper? I don’t know. On the other hand, it is very, very, hard for a “traditional craftsman” — especially one of the more obscure crafts, e.g. thatching roofs — to make a living. The only thing that I can suggest is that there are many people who have a job in modern society who need something more. In short, amateurs. These people could be the salvation of all sorts of crafts. The spoon-carving courses that you run might be a model for this sort of preservation. One cannot save all the crafts; but at least some might survive . A great deal more than we will get if we create a bureaucracy devoted to ancient craft survival. BtW I think this blog does more for crafts survival than many a sponsored program 🙂

  2. Robin Wood March 23, 2009 at 5:13 pm #

    Interesting points. Should folk pay to keep some old crafts going? I don’t want to see widespread subsidy as happens say in the farming industry. I would like to see a similar situation to what happens with our material culture, that is buildings, museums, art galleries and things in them. So I would expect to asses what we have, decide what is most important allocate a budget we can afford and spend it efficiently. As with historic buildings some will not be able to be saved but at the moment we don’t even know what we have and we do not recognise the fact that crafts skills are in fact a part of our living heritage in their own right. There is a movement worldwide to recognise this living heritage and we are quite a way behind which considering how important heritage is to the UK economy is surprising.