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Northampton shoemaking - the impact of war

Men's chrome leather British Army boot. Regulation No 2, Eton Balmoral boot. Manufactured by Simon Collier Ltd, Northampton 1918

Men's black chrome leather British Army Regulation No 2, Eton Balmoral boot. Manufactured by Simon Collier Ltd, Northampton 1918.

Northampton in the 19th century boomed, with the boot and shoe industry dominating the town and county. Many of the town’s most famous factories were established at this time, including GT Hawkins, Trickers, Church’s and Padmore & Barnes. Shoemaking also become important in towns such as Kettering, Raunds, Rushden and Daventry.

American influence

Toward the end of the nineteenth century America was having an impact on the industry. The British Empire grew under Queen Victoria opening up new markets in Canada, South Africa and Australia, yet they failed to compete with the rapidly changing industry in the United States.

In 1893 the United Kingdom imported 2,098 dozen pairs from America. At the United States’ peak in 1905, the United Kingdom imported 90,239 dozen pairs. In contrast, exports from the United Kingdom to the United States only started in 1911 with a mere 33,848 dozen pairs.

Victory for the British boot

Europe strove to catch up and, using technical innovations hailing from the United States, were well on their way to increasing factory output significantly. By 1913, The Economist news magazine published an article declaring ‘Victory for the British Boot’. The declaration of war in the following year sealed that victory. In order to meet the demands of the war, boots and shoes were produced on an unprecedented scale, almost killing bespoke bootmaking in the process.

Wonder of the world

W.H. Holloway O.B.E., editor of The Northampton Independent, 1922 wrote: 'Without the unfailing barrage of boots they put over for all the Allied armies, we could never have shattered the German lines.' The United Kingdom produced some 70 million pairs of boots and shoes for the Allied armies during the First World War, and just under 50 million of these were made in Northamptonshire. Northampton wasn’t just praised for the amount of footwear it produced in such a short amount of time. Northampton was hailed as the wonder of the world. German generals in secret reports remarked upon the superiority of Northampton’s boots and recommended the adoption of our designs for their own men.

The impact of war

The First World War had a tremendous impact on the shoe industry across the globe and of that in Northampton. Skilled men went off to fight, never to return. Those who did come back found their view of the world and their place in it much changed. Factory owners lost their heirs and struggled to survive. The industry was changing.