Skip to content

Trade Memories, The Boot Industry 60 years ago

Between 1920-21, James Ward (1847-1925), a Northampton nonconformist, social campaigner and journalist wrote a series of six articles for the Northampton Daily Echo describing life growing up in the town in the 1850s and 60s.

My earliest recollection is of the year 1855, when I began work as a stabbing boy. I wonder how many there are living who know what it is like to learn blind stabbing on what used to be known as an old pusher; making a bole with an awl with the right hand, feeling for the hole with the left hand, and pushing a bristle through attached to a thread, in this way learning how to stab or set anything from 14 to 21 stitches to the inch, the latter on what was known as patent calf, which can be seen in the Museum and have to do it at night, sitting round what was known as a sixes tallow candle, when as Pope wrote: “My eyes were heavy and red.”

But first, may I give a brief picture of the general conditions then prevailing, and name a few of the manufacturers then doing business I well remember being sent to what was known as Paddy Lloyd’s factory (which was where Mr. Marriott’s place in Abington Street) for the material to close into the uppers of the brown- legged knee boots for the soldiers in the Crimea.

Turner Bros., Hyde and Co. factory Victoria Street, Northampton
Turner Bros., Hyde and Co. factory Victoria Street, Northampton

Among other factories to which I was sent for closing was Hollis’ in Silver Street, where the late Robert Derby (afterwards magistrate and Mayor) was foreman. Bostock’s factory was in College Lane not “street” as now – and stood at the corner of Swann Yard, opposite the old College Lane meeting house, with its spacious graveyard in front. Parker’s was at the top of Wood Street; Manfield’s factory was partly In Regent Street and partly in Broad Lane, with Woodroff’s grindery shop at the corner, I well remember the late Philip Manfield handing me closing over the counter in Broad Lane. He and I often talked over those days in after years, when he became the central figure in the public life of Northampton. Then there was Henry Marshall’s in St. George’s Street, and John Marlow’s in the same street. There was also John Groom’s in Groom’s Yard, Abington Street (where I remember the closers and makers had to buy their hemp and flax to ensure good quality), Charles Cooke’s in Woolmonger Street, and Henry Hardaye’s in Regent Street

Those were the principal manufactories so far as I remember, but there was quite a number of small manufacturers who carried on business in their own houses. We know that rumour is a lying jade, but as a keen-eared nipper I more than once heard that lady say that occasionally some of these small traders would: have to leave temporarily a parcel of boots with Uncle Drage, in Scarletwell Street, to obtain the money to pay wages with.

It might be of interest if I gave a brief description of the; working conditions of those days. Practically two-thirds of the old-fashioned houses in Northampton – like those existing in Lower Harding, St Crispin and Compton Streets were occupied by persons engaged in the staple industry. In one room three, four, or more would be working, often in a foul atmosphere, and at night time round a tallow candle or cocoa-nut fat lamp later gas; no machinery of any kind, boys and girls stabbing; nearly every married woman used to stitch boots for her husband. But a marvellous change was dawning.

After the Crimean War Northampton people had a bad time. The sure penalty of war, bad trade, had to be paid as it must be today. But nations cannot live upon hatred, common sense has to prevail, and trade revised as it will again. But a great change in the methods of manufacture was coming. The first was the introduction of the sewing machine. Dear me, what a stormy period followed its introduction by the firm of Padmore and Marshall. in Queen Street. The volumes of the “Mercury” contain many pages about the machine strike. As usual, the machine was looked upon as the enemy and not as the handmaid of labour; trade was to be ruined, unemployment to become chronic, leading practically to the end of the world. If I remember aright, the man who worked the first machine was a William Nottage, who resided in Inkerman Terrace. Very soon he met with the fate of most reformers. He was hooted, his windows were smashed, and he had a very rough time. Assaults were committed on all and sundry who helped to work the machinery. Scores of cases of assault were brought before the magistrates. But the strike, like Canute, failed to stop the incoming tide, and the advent of the sewing machine was the forerunner of the remarkable display I saw at the Shoe and Leather Fair.

The first machine made a loop stitch that is the thread ran through loops. not a lock-stitch as at present, and even now I can see people pulling the loop thread out and prophesying failure. But the lock-stitch saved the situation. From this period trade advanced by leaps and bounds. Factories were built Bostock’s in Victoria Street, being the first of the new variety, and Manfieid’s. on Campbell Square, the next. It was, if I am rightly informed, at the opening of this factory, when a tea was given to the employed, that Mr. Harry Manfield made his first public speech. Turner Bros., Hyde and Co.’s factory was built soon after, R. and G Turner Bros, removing from St. Peter’s Street. And there were others. For example, Randall and Wickes, R. Derby, Henry Wooding, J. H. C. Crockett; but space forbids further detail.

Much would be written about the development of technology in the trade. At first this movement was viewed with suspicion by employers and workmen. At a committee meeting in the then Grammar School on Abington Square there were present among others, the late Mr. R. Turner, Sir Henry Randall, Mr. Harry Manfield, and your humble scribe. Mr, Manfield made a suggestion. When Mr. Turner said, “Why, if we do that, our men will be giving our secrets away,” said Mr. Manfield, “Mr. Turner, if I want to learn your secrets, all 1 have to do is to buy some of your boots, rip them up and see for myself.” Collapse of Mr. Turner! On the other side I remember my old friend the late Mr. D. Stanton saying that so far as the workers were concerned, all that concerned them was bread and butter. Partly true, but confined in range of vision. Trade prosperity, or general prosperity, cannot develop on these lines. This we know from experience There was a period when the Americans were flooding this country with footwear and machinery. But Northampton, to some extent aided by its technical schools, woke up and ultimately reversed the position and, as I saw in your own columns before the war, exported large quantities to America stamped “Northampton Made.”

The only way to prosperity lies in united action of employer and employed. Develop the brain and hand power of all concerned through the Technical Schools, use all the energy and brain-power of Mr. Blakeman and his colleagues, and there need be no fear of Northampton’s future. In the language of the late Mr. A J. Mundella, “Educate! Educate! Educate!” for as E. Bulwer Lytton said. “Knowledge is power.”

May I be excused one personal note? Years ago at one of the prize distributions, I said that out of the ranks of the Technical scholars would come the non-commissioned officers of the industrial army. And I can hear Sir Henry Randall chime in, “And the captains.” I was glad to note the optimistic view of Mr. A. E. Marlow and Sir Henry at the Manufacturers’ meeting, but there can be little doubt that times of difficulty face the nations. Strife between employer and employed can only add to these troubles. That is why since 1887, whenever trouble has arisen I have always been glad to see that my fellow townsmen have had the common sense to sit round a table of conciliation to settle difficulties.

James Ward
15 October 1920

© Copyright : Graham Ward. All rights reserved.