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History of the Shoetrade in Rushden
The Rushden Echo and Argus, 21st January 1955, transcribed by Jim Hollis
Part of the 'Spotlight on Rushden' series

Industry thrived as shoe men worked longer for less pay

Last week we described Rushden as a town of hard work. Not only is it hard working today, but the same virtue, it seems, led to its mushroom growth as a shoe town.

Half a century ago Rushden shoe operatives worked longer hours than their fellows in the rest of the county – and for less money.

This gave Rushden such an advantage that the rest of Northamptonshire put pressure on the town’s staple trade to shorten hours and raise wages.

The story was set down before he died a few years ago by Mr. F. J. Sharwood, former president of the Rushden Manufacturers’ Association.

He wrote a history of the development of the trade in the town, running to some 6,000 words, and gave it to my colleague, L. V. Elliott, with the comment: “That may be useful sometime.”

Mr. Sharwood’s manuscript says that the greatest advance in the shoe manufacture in Rushden was between 1890 and 1900. “One would think that during these wonderful years of growth misunderstandings and disputes would fade.” he wrote.

“Yet this period and the 10 years that followed were perhaps the most contentious that the industry has experienced.”

Rushden District Lagged Behind

Mr. Sharwood, after dealing with national matters and the Raunds strike, continues:

“The greatest cause of friction was due to the fact that neither the manufacturers nor the operatives were properly organised.

“Rushden and district lagged behind in organisation, for whilst the rest of the county had a minimum wage for men of 30s and a working week of 52½ hours, in Rushden the minimum wage was 28s with a working week of 54 hours.”

This could not continue, and pressure was exerted on Rushden by manufacturers and trade union officials in other parts of the county.

Thirty-two Rushden manufacturers met on March 23, 1908, and the upshot was historic. They formed the Manufacturers’ Association, which eventually embraced places as far afield as Higham, Wellingborough, Raunds, Irthlingborough, Finedon, Burton Latimer, Irchester, Wollaston, Earls Barton and Bozeat.

The appointment of an arbitration board followed, and the first claim from the workpeople was to bring wages and hours in step with the rest of the county.

But in Rushden rugged individualism died hard, and the manufacturers would not agree. There were many meetings and warm discussions, writes Mr. Sharwood.

In the end, although the working week was cut to 52½ hours, the minimum wage was fixed at 29s – a shilling a week less than the rest of the county.

Mr. Sharwood, writing on earlier days, recalls that in the 15th century the wardens: “Prosecuted local tanners for putting the hides of horses, oxen and other animals into the little river that ran through the town, this being done to the annoyance of their neighbours.”

He also records a Sunday trading offence of 1636, when shoemakers were fined 10 pence for selling shoes on the Sabbath.

Centuries-Old Craft

Shoemaking, combined with tanning, must have been carried on locally for centuries, but only to the extent of supplying Rushden and the villages round.

The era of manufacturing for the retail trade began as early as 1749, when Mr. Sharman founded the county’s first firm of this type at Wellingborough. The firm afterwards became Sharman and Ekins.

At Rushden manufacturing was commenced by B. Denton and Son in 1840, and by 1891 there were 10 other firms, and the population was 7,442.

During that period, most of the work was done in the homes of the workers, many cottages having a small workshop attached to them.

“During the winter evenings it was an education to spend an hour in one of the workshops with its roaring fire of leather bits, its smoke and din.” Mr. Sharwood writes.

“One would hear the deepest matters discussed, from free will to predestination and from free trade to tariffs.”

The only work done in the factory was the clicking, cutting of the bottom stock and cleaning the shoes for packing and dispatch.

Closing, making and finishing were operations all done by workpeople in their homes.

Mr. Sharwood describes the toil of the shoe families, who in those days had to carry their work to and fro: “The uppers and bottom stock would be put into a sack. The worker would take them home, completely making the shoes throughout, and then bring them back to ‘shop.’

25s Week

A couple worked for a week to earn less than a day’s work yields now. A man with a boy or his wife helping him could make about 24s or 25s a week, though it became a common practice for a man to get as many boys as he could to help him with the simple jobs so that he could earn more money.

Mr. Sharwood traces the growth of the factory system and the introduction of machinery which caused widespread strikes and disputes.

Every manufacturer became a law unto himself, many trying to fix rates which were unacceptable to the workpeople, until in 1895 there was a general strike throughout the trade.

But there was a silver lining, for the misery and ruin of the strike led to the 1895 terms of settlement – the Charter of the industry – and the result has been that there have been no general strikes or lockouts since.

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