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From an interview with Rae Drage, 23rd March, 2009. Transcribed by Jacky Lawrence
Philip Cuthbert
Rushden Boot & Shoe School, Victoria Road in 1936.
Rushden Boot & Shoe School

Yes, well, as I say it’s Philip Cuthbert and lived in Raunds all my life really. I’m now seventy one, unfortunately, but having left the secondary modern school many years ago I went to the Rushden Boot and Shoe School and served two years there. Everybody who went there was two years training, where we had normal schooling and plus were taught how to make shoes. Closing, clicking, even made hand sewn shoes which I wore for quite a while afterwards. We were quite proud of the hand sewn shoes and however, good days there.

But having left there I then went to R. Coggins and Son, Marshalls Road, Raunds and I started work there a week before their annual August holiday prior to the factory shutting up for two weeks and done a week’s work. I think I had to ask for my first wage which was somewhere around £3, if that. That was from half past seven until half past five at night, with an hour’s dinner. I had to leave Coggins to join Her Majesty’s Forces for two years serving in the Northamptonshire Regiment. Ten weeks training at Northampton and then a week’s leave and then off we sailed to Hong Kong for ten months. Having served that we sailed back for another month and served the rest of the time down in Somerset, good old days they were.

Building of the British United Shoe Machinery Co. in Midland Road, now Stanley L. Hunt, printers.
British United Shoe Machinery Co. building.
After that I went back to R. Coggins and Son, Raunds where I was a closing room supervisor and quite hectic really. But knowing the British United mechanics, as they used to come in and mend our machines, we got talking and they said. 'Unfortunately one gentleman at Rushden, he had an accident, and would not be able to carry on servicing. There’s a good position going if you like to push yourself.’ So, after the interview at British United, which was down in Midland Road, Rushden, where they had an office, a workshop and stores for the parts etc. I was employed there. I started there in 1965 and after which, I’m pleased to say, that I completed thirty year’s service.

As a matter of interest most of the machines were built at the works in Leicester where they had the head offices of the British United. They had branches throughout Northampton, Kettering, Rushden, Leicester, all over the country, up in the Lake District as well as abroad. Most of the machines that were supplied to the factories were on a rented system so that they were given free service. But later on, as times changed, machines were offered to the factories for them to purchase but of course when they purchased the machines the rental system finished and the factories then come under a charged service.

Quite a lot of them weren’t none too happy about that but however that was the system. As a matter of interest funny story one; I went out of Rushden to the Lotus factory at Towcester, their closing room. I was having to mend a machine and there was quite a lot of electrical work on it so I thought, well Cuthbert you’re being a bit clever here, I was trying to fit these electrical parts without turning the electric off. So carried on until the last wire that I’d got to fit and all of a sudden I thought, this room’s gone quiet. When I looked round all the girls on the track, the complete room had come to a standstill. Unfortunately I’d blown a fuse somewhere in the factory. Well, not knowing where the fuses and that were in that particular factory they had to get their mechanics from the Lotus factory at Northampton to come over and put us right. So, rather embarrassing, especially in Lotus, when all the girls were on piece work or time work, so they were none too happy.

The other one was the fire damage that we had to go in the course of work if the factory had a fire. Knight and Lawrence’s, they had one in Rushden and Avalon Footwear at Rothwell. We had to clear the factory there and it was a horrible job, especially at Avalon Footwear where it was all fog and mist and fire water that the fireman had put over. You knew your clothes smelt but we had to go and find and get the machines if we could make any good of them. But most of them, i.e. at Avalon, they were no good and they were just scrapped, but it was rather a horrible job. Knight and Lawrence’s, they had a fire, and we did manage to get some of their machines up and running again after a lot of a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but not very grand jobs.

When you’d done twenty five years on the British United you joined what they called the “Quarter Century Club” and you then had a dinner at Leicester once a year. You had some vouchers or cash after twenty five years; if you had cash you got taxed, if you had vouchers you had the full value. Also a certificate signed by the directors and in a frame which was quite pleasing to receive. The Grand Hotel, when I’d done twenty five years, was the venue for our evening dinner. They took you there and brought you home. Prior to that The Granby Hall in Leicester was used, where I’m given to believe there was over a thousand members of the British United would sit down to dinner at this “Quarter Century Club” and they had music provided by a military band. I didn’t see that because that was just, you know, after twenty five years. I suppose the staff were smaller and so it went to the Grand Hotel. But then again there was about four hundred people sat down to dinner there.

Another funny story, I went to Church’s and Co. of England at Northampton one Friday working in the closing room, on a perforator, they done a lot of brogue shoes. Now in those days Friday afternoon there was no one there in the room only myself. I had to try and get a bolt undone on this machine so I thought, well it wouldn’t move, so I put the blow lamp on it and that didn’t shift it. So, I thought, well I’ll put some spray on it first. So I sprayed it and then I put the blow lamp on. Well, there was a few flames started to appear and all these little perforating pieces caught light. So, I thought, what do I do here. As much as I tried to put a rag on it the rag caught light. One bit of luck, on the other side of the gangway there was a cup of cold tea that somebody had left, so I threw this on the flames and fortunately that put them out. Otherwise Church’s had a lot of wood flooring and I could see this place going up in smoke. So I think with that I packed my tool kit up and out I came home.

After the thirty years service, and as a good many more on the company we were made redundant. So I had two or three weeks on the job seekers however contacts that I knew from R. Griggs at Wollaston they sent for me and said, would I be interested in, you know, doing some servicing for their group, going to their factories, which included Wollaston and Finedon, Kettering, out in Leicester as well. So we come to agreement and I would do three days a week and I worked for them for four and a half years. Funny enough Max Griggs was at the technical college in the early days but working for him for four and a half years I never did catch sight of him. No, but he was a gentleman that came up to his ranks and a very pleasant chap to this day.

The machines changed new ones came out. I mean from thirty years ago there was some real early machines but after a period of time more electronics come about. Hydraulics and various new systems; some of the latest ones they got a bit technical and a bit complicated especially where electronics concerned. Where we dealt with cams and levers it turned onto electronics which, you know, took a little bit of grasping really. But every machine had its different characteristics. Mind you working with women that can be a problem because it didn’t matter how you set some of the machines up it would never be feel right for them. You had to be very patient and many a time, when you’d mended a machine, you said. ‘Try that.’ ‘Well, it doesn’t feel quite right, it’s not really as it should.’ So you’d say. ‘Well hang on a minute I’ll just make an adjustment.’ You’d turn a screw, adjust a spring pressure and then say. ‘Try that. ‘Well that’s a little bit better.’ So many a time you’d say. ‘No, hang on a minute I think I’m got the idea.’ You’d go round the back of the machine, you’d get your screwdriver out, you’d put it on. ‘How’s that, try that.’ ‘That’ll be lovely,’ they said. ‘Thank you very much.’ And you hadn’t done anything really but psychologically it worked, yes.

Most of my machines were in the closing room for the sewing of uppers. I never worked in any of the other departments no, only closing room which I was always interested in really from the early days. I always liked closing. s.

The best makers of shoes in our area, I wouldn’t like to pinpoint because Sanders and Sanders they made a lovely shoe. Grensons made a lovely shoe. Alfred Sargent’s they done some very nice stuff. But I mean, with due respect to Griggs, they’re on the heavier side and their materials were real hard. Some of it were very difficult to work with. I mean some of the ladies, where they were eyeletting, they all had bad wrists trying to bend them to get to do the eyeletting.

What I used to enjoy about the B.U. too is also we used to have to teach the operators in the factories. Teach and instruct, I enjoyed that. I liked instructing people and one particular factory, this was in Wellingborough, and I was working for Griggs at the time. They said to me. ‘Phil we’ve got a teaching job for you this morning.’ So I said. ‘Where’s that?’ They said. ‘Well, it’s in one of our factories in Wellingborough. You’re got an Italian girl to teach, you see.’ So they said. ‘You’ll be caught out this morning with your language.’ So I said. ‘I shall get by, you needn’t worry.’ Well this Italian girl, she was very pleasant, and I had to teach her to do lacing. That’s where the uppers have a string put in the eyelets prior to them being lasted on the lasts so they don’t pull open. I set off this morning and do you know it’s a difficult machine to learn, although when people work it, it, looks easy.

Fortunately, when I went to the B.U. in the very first three weeks when I started at Leicester for the course, I was the only one who could work this lacing machine because I’d learnt it up Coggins. I said to this Italian. ‘Well I’ll show you about the machine and show you how to set it up, thread it up etc.’ So I done that and I said. ‘Now we’re going to try and lace the machine, lace an upper, put it on.’ Of course everything went wrong and it’s dangerous really because there’s a needle comes across, go quite easily, you know, go through your finger if you’re not careful. However, within half an hour, she’d got the swing of this machine and by dinner time we were turning the uppers out to go onto the next stage and it was quite an achievement really. With me trying to tell her in English and her being Italian and she went on to be on piece work. I think she had a good number there but she was a very good. Of course the mechanics pulled my leg I said. ‘No problem.’


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