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Account supplied by Catherine Lawrence. Written by Sam Roughton around 1920/30.
Boot Manufacturing in the 1880s - Sam Roughton

A picture of Sam Roughton and his wife, Jemima.
Sam & Jemima Roughton

Sam Roughton was born around 1871 and married Jemima Parson in the Toller Chapel, Kettering on 20th September 1897. His occupation at the time was 'Clicker'. By the time of the 1911 census his occupation was a leather stock-keeper and was living at 63 Russell Street, Kettering with wife Jemima. They had no children but were especially close to their niece Phyllis Sharman, only daughter of Jemima’s sister. I also believe he was a noted musician and he died in 1949, although there is no confirmation of this.

Older workers in many industries have lived to see vast changes in methods of manufacture, and in working conditions generally; but in few trades has so complete a change over in these directions been seen as in the boot trade.

Sixty years ago there still remained a few of the old hand sewn bootmakers, survivors of a craft who, without the aid of machinery and solely by their own skill and craftsmanship, converted rough unshapen pieces of leather into the completed boot ready for wear.

At a school concert in 1881 the writer took part in the following song given with appropriate action;

“The shoemaker toils that our feet may be
Protected from dampness and cold you see;
He first cuts out his leathers of proper size and form
The shoemaker keeps our feet all warm.

He makes all his waxed ends so nice and long
And sews up the seams till they’re tight and strong
He hammers out the soles with his lapstone on his knee
The shoemaker toils both for you and me.

The uppers he fixes upon his last
And tacks on the soles with his tacks quite fast,
And then he drives the pegs thro’ the edges round and round
To keep all our feet from the damp cold ground.

He draws out the tacks, then the sole trims nice
He pulls out the last with his hook in a trice.
He then rasps off the pegs that they may not prick our feet
Then puts on the polish with his brush so neat.

Hurray! for the shoemaker good and true!
Hurray! For his trade and his honour too!
While honestly he labours to keep us from the cold
We’ll sing of the shoemaker brave and bold.”

That picture has almost completely disappeared today; something vastly different has taken its place (modernisation in 1880)

My first practical experience of the boot trade was in 1880, when having been granted a half-time certificate at school, I commenced work as a half-timer in one of the smaller of a number of factories then engaged on what I suppose was then considered a more modern method of making boots. I worked one week in the mornings and the following week in the afternoons at the commencing wage of 1/6d per week. Clicking was the objective, but in these first years of half-time work, many and various were the jobs that came my way. So far as clicking was concerned, side linings and backstraps were about the limit of progress. The cutting was all done by hand on the old lime-boards then in general use. These latter were rough, chippy affairs and needed frequent planing. In the clicking room were five small machines, all of which I had to work as required. These I recollect were a toecap puncher with changeable dies and designs and worked with a hand lever; a punching and eyeleting machine, each worked with a foot treadle, the former punching one hole and the later taking only one eyelet at a time – each of which was put into position with the thumb and finger; the fourth was a machine for hooking; of the remaining one was a press used for crimping – an operation by which with the aid of brass dies, lines were embossed across the vamps. (Upper sections)

It may safely be said that in nothing has greater change taken place than in the leathers used for uppers. At the time of which I am speaking, chrome tanning had not arrived; and Willow Calf, Bore Calf and Glace Kid were quite unknown. Practically all golash leathers were dressed to show the flesh side; waxed calf and waxed kip for the better work; Waxed Split being used in large quantities for lower grades. In contrast to the flesh galoshes, various grain leathers were used for the legs in bals and in the elastic side boots which were largely worn. Calf Kid, Seal and Morocco Goat were among the better leathers used; and for the split galoshed work Glove and Satin Hide and a bright kip grained or printed material called Levant. Bals in whole, but mostly in pieced galosh were perhaps the style most favoured, followed by derbys and elastic side boots. Shoes were not generally worn, the trade was literally a Boot Trade.

The factory where I was working had a wide range of production. This, in addition to the usual lines mentioned above, included a few long and short Wellingtons; an occasional order for split leggings of knee length and fastened with ten buckles to the pair. There was also a regular output of whole and pierced chelseas, the blocking of these being done by the trade blocker.

The surface of the flesh leathers was generally very rough by the time the boots were finished, especially so the split; the nap of which at times almost reached the roughness of a file. Russian tallow was brushed in very vigorously to lay down this nap and prepare the way for the size, which was made on the premises by boiling down calf kid scrap. I see a picture of a high stool or form, hollowed out at one end for the slab of tallow and at the other to hold a supply of size. On one side sat a juvenile greaser; and on the other sat the sizer-up; the former slogging away, possibly on a line of split derbys or split chelseas in a vain attempt to keep one of his employers going.

The output of the factory was often sent forward to customers in cases or boxes (any old boxes) obtained from tradesmen; and occasionally, young as I was, I was sent on a tour of the shops with a sack barrow to buy up anything suitable. Sometimes in an emergency these included orange and soap boxes. I carried out this task, not only with a sense of its importance, but with an appreciation of the trust placed in me, for I was given a supply of money and carte blanche. The boots when packed were put in neat layers with a sheet of brown paper between each layer; they were not given the added dignity of a carton in those days. Of the boot factories working in Kettering at this time I remember those of Messrs. Saddington & Robinson Bros. W.R. Thorpe & Co. F. Felce, Abbott and Bird, Charles East, W & J Farey, Meadows & Bryan, Messrs. Cleaver, Matthew Thompson, George Page, William Timpson in Market Street, The Kettering Boot Company, Albert Street extensively enlarged, N.Newman & Sons, J.D. Felce.

Moving in 1885 into one of the larger factories, I found that despite the greater output and a somewhat better class of production, the working conditions were in many ways similar. The hours of work were of course general, a 54 hour week being the rule laid out as follows;- 7.30am to 12.30 and 1.30pm to 6.15 on the first four days, a quarter of an hour later on Fridays to 6.30pm finishing on Saturday at 12.30pm

Factory heating in the earlier experience was by stove; and as leather bits formed part of the fuel the atmosphere was sometimes a bit “blue.” An advance to the hot water pipes in the second factory was better in the latter respect, but neither was ideal, for in the coldest days the rooms were rarely warm before 9 or 9.30am and this was a common complaint in most factories

Looking back on the general conditions in the trade at that time two things are outstanding; the small amount of machines used and the position with regard to home workers. Leaving out the office and the packing room there were five groups of workers; clickers, closers, pressmen, riveters and finishers.

Clickers, in those early days, mark the last four words, were as a body an inveterate lot of snuff takers; almost everyone possessed a snuffbox, pinches from which were freely exchanged in a most sociable manner. The riveters and finishers always said they had to take the snuff to keep them awake, which was rather ungenerous of them. In spite of this, however, the clickers were looked on as the gentlemen of the trade. It was an unwritten law that they wore starched linen collars; and it was quite infra dig for a clicker to walk through the streets with his apron on. Riveters and finishers had no such aristocratic notions as that.

One old time practice in the clicking room has gone, locally, if not generally; that is the use of the marker. The better leathers, such as waxed calf and kip and crup butts; a leather made from horse skin and fairly generally used at the time, were marked up and cast out by the more experienced men and passed on to the rounders. The former were skilled men who took a big interest in their job and in those days when men were paid by time, economy of cutting was considered more important than output. A pair of pincers were an important part of the clickers’ equipment and a good craftsman earned around 25/- per week. The patterns being of zinc, cut fingers were much more frequent than they are today. In the absence of the First Aid Box, fuzzyballs, a fungus found in the fields and somewhat resembling a mushroom in appearance were used to stop the bleeding.

Closing was an outside job done to a large extent at home. Actually the word closer embraced two kinds of worker, fitters and machinists. A closer able to do both fitting and machining sometimes worked alone and did the whole job of work singlehanded. The extent of the mechanisation of the Boot and Shoe Industry today and the subdivision of labour is well illustrated in contrast to this, by the fact that in a modern closing room the priced piecework operations may number several hundreds.

In the press or roughstuff room, the presses were of the round buffer type and they were worked by foot treadle; which necessitated the pressman standing on one leg while the other provided the power. The leather from which soles were cut was first cut into ranges, which were immersed in water and afterwards put through a kind of mangle with large iron rollers.

The word riveter has a far away sound when applied to boot making, it being derived from the fact that in the bulk of lower grade work the soles were fastened on with rivets. With the exception of sole sewing and stitching – which in the case of smaller manufacturers was done by trade sewers, the riveter converted the closed upper into boots ready for the finishers; from the skiving of the stiffeners to the paring of the heels; and this was all done by hand!

The riveter, like the closer, sometimes worked singly at home; generally speaking however he worked in company with others in isolated rooms in or near the factory. Riveters were a law unto themselves; they knew little of factory discipline. One remembers that Monday with them was often a slack, sometimes a workless day; for a work weariness and thirsty throats seemed more aggressive on that day than on any other. In spite of these inherent ailments, the riveter was a good and a versatile craftsman. Conditions gave him a wider outlook on the making of a boot than could be expected of the machine specialist of today. It must be admitted that the boots of his day were a rougher type of product than the artistically designed and produced footwear of today; but the riveter required a wide range of personal knowledge and skill. The fine building of a heel, the nailing or studding of a bottom or the lasting of crude, unyielding material, together with many other aspects of his job, required a quality of workmanship only to be achieved after years of experience.

In the early days finishing was all done by hand. There was no finishing machinery whatever. It was the day of the hand tool. With all the splendid machinery in the finishing department today it must be difficult for operatives to visualise these pre-machine days, when all the operations they know, large or small, were combined in the one word “finishing”. Finishers worked at their own homes, and working conditions were anything but good. They worked irregular hours, being very subject to attacks of the “Monday” complaint mentioned earlier, to be followed with an effort to make up for lost time. The finisher was often a hard taskmaster, employing boys and sometimes women to do the rough and heavy work. These were not well paid and the finishers I knew were neither gentle with them nor considerate in their language. At a time when bottoms were heavily weighted with grindery, bottom filing was a really hard job. It was also very unhealthy for dust particles filled the air around the worker as he sat slogging away with his file, his knees gripping the bolt as he bent over his work.

The large amount of work done at home was very apparent in the streets. With three big groups of workers working wholly away from the factories it will readily be believed that boots and boot materials formed a noticeable part of the street traffic. Boots tied together at the loops and slung over the arms of boys, women and children were to be seen everywhere.

Rivetters and finishers worked on what might very well be called approximate rates of pay, getting what they could; but this unsatisfactory state of things was brought to a conclusion in 1887, when the first piecework statement got out in Kettering, for lasters and finishers, was agreed to, jointly, by employers and workpeople.

The first movement towards indoor accommodation for all workers was brought forward by the Leicester Boot Operatives Union in 1891, and it is an interesting fact that Mr. George Page (formerly of Strong & Hall), at his factory on the Stamford Road, was the first Kettering manufacturer to accommodate workers inside and to have a full set of lasting and finishing machinery.

I have made little reference to present day conditions in the factories, preferring to recall memories of the trade as I saw it in the early days, and leave qualified readers to make their own comparisons. Thinking along more general lines of the changeover from past to present conditions, an important question arises as to how far the change has worked out to the advantage of the workers. In two directions the advantages are questionable. Specialisation in industry can be overdone – almost to the point of danger. Surely it cannot be for the psychological well-being of an operative to be engaged on one infinitely small operation, year in year out. Further, the disadvantages of what is called “The Team System” are felt by many of the older machine workers. In his earlier years an operative may successfully “take his corner” in the flow of work through his team; but in time, through health or years, he finds this increasingly difficult and eventually impossible. Much individual worry has been caused through this; and in justice to his employer let it be said that however sympathetic he may be it is often impossible to find the worker an easier job.

Let us now turn to some of the many advantages which changed conditions have brought:

It has recently been my privilege to be shown round the County School Boot and Shoe Manufacture in Thorngate Street. The visit was most interesting and illuminating; for passing from room to room, equipped with modern and up to date machinery, I saw something of the almost amazing extent of the instructional facilities offered by the school to students. A full staff of expert part-time instructors cover every aspect of the trade. Since the important extension of the premises last year, the building now includes accommodation for Pattern Cutting, Clicking, Closing, Bottom Stock cutting and Preparation, Lasting & Attaching, Finishing & Shoe Room Work, as well as a Science Laboratory, Lasting Rooms and a most interesting looking library of books chiefly concerned with the Boot and Shoe Industry. (The Library was equipped in memory of his son, Charles Louis Clarke, by the late E.W.Clarke). The practical work in the school is organised in a way which permits shoes to be made completely during a session and students are able to purchase the finished product.

The scope of the scheme of instruction has been gradually increased and at the present time not only covers the actual process work of the various departments, but also a study of materials – leather, fabrics, rubber, grindery – and in the honours stage, department and general management – uppers, bottom and general costing, sampling, stores systems, in stock systems and shoe study. Films are also being used as part of the equipment for teaching in the classes.

Welfare Work in the trade today is well established and is becoming increasingly active, not only through the efforts of Factory Welfare Committees, but also under the watchful and safe guarding eyes of the State. Sanitation and hygienic conditions have been improved with the aid of modern science (The dust plant in the finishing room is a first rate example of this) Piecework, is I think largely responsible for present day “pace” in the factories; but the hours of leisure have been considerably increased by the reduction of working hours and wages show a much larger proportional increase than the cost of living.

There are also the financial advantages given by holiday and unemployment pay; with the prospect at 65 of a pension of 10 shillings per week under the contributory Pension Scheme; it is a significant fact that all the benefits here described have come into the trade since the period described earlier in this article.


Although not a Rushden man, this account by Sam Roughton has been included as it is a good description of the shoe trade from the perspective of the ordinary man.

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