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Alan Harper, 2007
The Footwear Industry by

Alan Harper


As I found it to work in the year was 1943 when someone came to my school to ask if anyone was interested in attending the local boot and shoe collage to learn the art of shoe making. 

Our class teacher was asking what we would like to do when we left school in about two years time as not many of us had a clue as what to do. I thought to my self, people will always want shoes to wear, so I put up my hand and said that I was interested also partly because my sister was very clever and had passed exams to go to Wellingborough Grammar School. I knew that I would never do the same as my work was not up to standard (I have wished many times that I had worked as hard at school as I have had to since - I may have had a better life when I retired).

Anyway I left that autumn 1943 and started at the Rushden Boot and Shoe College to learn the trade. As only four children had applied for the course we had very good tuition; the first year covered hand making shoes although we were not given any shoes to practice on I learned to hand sew on a two inch square by about ten inch piece of wood with a thick piece of leather tacked on one side for the inner sole and a piece of scrap upper leather to sew to it by hand   There was a war on at that time and things were short, we had to make up our own thread to sew with nine cord for the welt this was made by measuring out strands of linen thread to arms length then laying them out with the end of each thread about half an inch short of the first to form a tapered end we then pulled black wax over the threads and rolled then on our laps over our apron to form a tight thread. A boars bristle was then fixed to each end to make it easer to sew with by rolling the thin end on the bristle for a few turns then coming back over the start in the other direction, this was done to stop the thread from rolling back when it was pulled through the leather to make a stitch. The first stitch was formed by making a hole with a curved awl in the insole and upper and also the welt passing the thread through to the middle so half the thread was either side then making another hole one third of an inch away passing both bristles through and pulling tight. We had to keep to 3 stitches to 1 inch.

For the welts different lengths were used to stitch the soles to the welts. As we were still of school age part of our time was spent doing normal school work including sport, the rest was devoted to shoemaking. We had lessons in pattern cutting and clicking for the first year, we had to cut shoe back strips shaped like fish tails hundreds of them until a pile would stack evenly and all be the same shape and size, boring but very good practice. Although I did not take up clicking to earn a living the skills have stayed with me to this day and have come in very handy over the years.

The science lessons taught us how leather was produced; this included visits to the local tanneries and leather dressers during school time; there were some very dirty and unpleasant jobs involved and the noise could be deafening. That was one road I did not want to go down.

We did a little bit of closing (MACHINING THE UPPER PARTS TOGETHER) but as it was considered to be work for the ladies not too much time was spent doing this.

The next stage is to produce the parts to make up the rest of the shoe called BOTTOM STOCK. This meant cutting inner soles, the soles, through soles, welts, piece soles and lifts for the heels; this was common practice in the days before plastics came on the scene. This meant using a press and other machines but at 13 we were not allowed to use them until the second year. In year two we were allowed to work the machines and this was much more to my liking. I seem to have an empathy for shoe machinery and can soon work out how they work and how to keep them running.

This workroom was arranged just like a making room in a shoe factory with all the equipment needed to put together Goodyear welted footwear, the main method of shoe making in those days. The machines are built to follow the hand method as close as possible and some of them need a lot of skill to get the right result which is probably why once you were taught to operate a particular machine it was not unknown for someone to stay on that job for [all] his working life but that was not for me as you will see later on. During those two years we acquired a good grounding in all aspects of shoe making and I was ready to go out and try to earn my living. I had been working in the school holidays during the second year as I was then 14 years old which was school leaving age. Then my father had got me some work at his place of work helping him by cutting off the thread ends he left on when he had finished stitching on the soles [and] also winding the bobbins for him. He was another one who worked the same machine for most of his working life, not the same factory but the same operation.

When it was time to leave school it happened that we had an uncle that was a director of a shoe factory in WELLINGBOROUGH and he gave me my first full time job - the firm was the Blanford shoe factory on Finedon road. I started as a trainee welt sewer by an old man who had a firm at Rushden called the Rotary Shoe Machine Co. - they built welt sewers, sole stitching and other machines but the company was purchased by the B.U.S.M. Company soon after.

I had a problem that I was not tall enough at that time in that I could not reach the operating position without standing on a thick board. I then had a difficulty working the foot pedal; the head of the machine could have been lowered to suite my height but instead I was given something else to do - this was riveting a piece of leather to the heel end of the sole as it saved leather to cut a ¾ sole instead of a full one this was called a piece sole. Another job on a similar machine was to put five rows of slugs down the middle of soles to give more wear, these were put in from the wrong side so as the sole was worn down more metal appeared and they were less likely to fall out. I think these were used for ARMY boots as the firm rebuilt boots for the IRISH army (so I was told at the time).

The firm also produced children's footwear; these were made by a different method called riveted and stitched. Instead of stitching on a welt the upper was laid flat on the insole and held in place with tack’s, then the last was taken out, a piece of leather called a through was fixed on. The through was then riveted all the way round with brass rivets and the sole was fixed to that with a row of stitching. If I remember right the factory opened at 7-30 am and the doors closed three minuets later to reopen at 7.45 am so you lost 15 minutes wages if one was late, the same happened at dinner time when we had the one hour - just time for most of us to go home and get a quick dinner and go back. I absolutely hated it at work; it was not what I had expected at all. I badly wanted to leave and try something else but my parents had let me go to college and persuaded me not to, saying it would be such a waste - I did get time off to attend college a day release course. I settled down and attended night school twice a week until I was called up for my NATIONAL SERVICE - I did my time as an officer’s cook - a long way from shoe making.

                                           CHAPTER 2

Time served I went back to my old firm for a time; things had changed a bit, you were no longer locked out if you were late but stopped 15 minutes wages if you were 2 minutes late clocking in. We also had to work on Saturday morning. I did not settle down very well after my service was done, I felt that I wanted something better. I think that I must have spent my whole life looking for something better than I had.

I started to look in the paper for a better situation and found one at the CLARIDGE shoe factory at RUSHDEN- the job was for a welt sewer and I was set on as an improver. (I WAS TALLER NOW) My first day ended in me trapping my finger in the front door when I got home this was very painful as the blood built up under my nail, I called at the doctor's and he drilled a whole in the nail to let the blood out and I went to work as usual the next morning. The machine was a model K and very hard work, especially as some of the welts were of double thickness to make the sole look thicker than it really was. I got on very well with the Foreman at this factory; he took an interest in me and let me practice on other machines so long as I kept up with my own work. I became proficient on the no.7 and no.9 bed lasting machine, also inseam trimming and the no 9 and 10 sole stitching machines. Later on the first model L welt sewer in the town was put in - this was a real advance - the machine was so much easier to operate and did the job faster. I was paid on the piece work system 5 and a half pence for every 12 pairs on the model K plus what was called the cost of living, this was cut to 5 pence for the model L welt sewer so although the job was easier to do, I had to work harder to earn the same wage. I worked there until June 1954 when I applied to join the B.U.S.M.Co. branch at Rushden - I was informed that they did not have a vacancy at that time but they would contact head office at Leicester. They sent me to join the Northampton branch as they were short of a Goodyear mechanic there but unknown to me the boss of that branch had promised the job to someone else and he was told to wait a bit longer as the job had been filled by head office and I was given 6 months trial (this came to light at the end of the 6 months trial). As it turned out he had done me a very good turn but it did not seem like that at the time as I had only been married for a week. I gained a lot of experience during that time teaching and being lent out to many factories around the district, sadly most of them have now gone along with the B.U.S.M.Co. and their pension scheme with it. That building is now a nightclub and a lot of the factories have been turned into flats. My work at Northampton was lost, I was married and had to find work, I did this the next day by knocking on the door of a firm called SANDERS AND SANDERS operating a no 10 stitching machine with a task of stitching the number of stitches stipulated on the tickets so the next operation, a stitch separation wheel, could pick out the stitches. The old method of doing this was much better with a skilled operator doing the job in my opinion. I had only worked there for about 3 months when my old Foreman who had heard of my situation, came over to WELLINGBOROUGH with his boss and asked me to go to his place to work. I was offered more money than I was getting at the time so I went with him. He also had changed his place of work to C.W. HORRELL at Rushden I think.  Our old firm had closed down due to lack of orders from the catalogue people, a great pity as they had been going for the last 100 years or so. Again I was working a no.10 stitching machine; I had to stitch the heavy soled footwear the firm was well known for - its welted VELDT SCHOON footwear, when the welt is sewn to the lining with the upper folded back first! From a very greasy leather named zug - I think that is the right name for it but this was 50 years ago, the upper was then rubbed down and stuck to the welt, a row of stitching run round as close as possible to the last before the sole and through were applied and another row of stitches run all the way round the shoe. The result was a very water resistant pair of shoes that could be repaired time after time; I had a pair my self they lasted me for at least 10 years before I had to throw them away. I found that in some factories operators were reluctant to share the work trying to keep the easier work for themselves and would race like mad to finish their rack first and grab the next one. This suited the employers as the work moved faster. After a time one of the welt sewers left, there were 3 at that time and I asked to move and take his place. One was sewing in the ladies welts, another the leather men’s ones and I did the plastic ones. This came in the form of a coil that we dipped in water to lubricate it so it ran through the guide better, some factories had a tank of warm water by the machine and this kept the plastic pliable and easer to work with as I found out in later years. I think I sewed about 450 pairs a day, the guy on the ladies shoes was very fast and some times reached 600 pairs a day.

My new wife was very ill at the time with T.B. and spent most of that year in hospital. I was still living at home trying to save some money ready for when she came out to hopefully buy a home of our own, so wages were important. As ever I was looking for a better job that paid more money and moved to the DENTON shoe company, this factory concentrated on workers footwear boots with steel toe caps and sometimes steel plates in the soles to stop nails etc from pushing through the sole. I worked on another production line stitching soles on to a lighter form of shoe with a model O stitcher. When one thinks about the job it is quite easy to see how one could become trapped into one operation for life as I seemed to be following in my fathers footsteps working sewing and stitching machines all the time.

Something had to change for me! As I had an interest in Motor Cycles (I had worked at night and Saturdays for a local repair shop) I asked the owner if I could work full time. This I did for about a year but the wages were very poor compared to what I had been earning in the shoe trade and I was making things harder for my wife to manage on the money so I moved back into the shoe factories.

This firm went by the name of KNIGHT & LAWRENCE, they were based at Rushden and I absolutely loved the place. I fitted straight in and started to earn twice the money I had servicing motorcycles. The machines were driven by belting from overhead shafting worked by an old gas powered engine that broke down quite often; this usually produced a cheer form the workers as this gave the men a chance to get a smoke in, leaving your place to go and have a quick fag in the toilets was frowned upon if the Foreman thought you were taking too long you would be fetched in and told to get on with your work. The work was pushed from job to job on 24 pair racks; these were later changed to 12 pair ones to make the flow of work smoother. I had a no. 9 sole stitcher to work on for a few months then a brand new no. 10 one came in - I kept this very clean even going to the length of taking in some Brasso to polish up the oil pipes - it looked a picture until, that AUGUST HOLIDAY the making room was redecorated and my lovely clean machine was covered with white paint spray. The shafting had recently been removed and the machines motorized. I also had a model O stitcher that I could use, this had been put in to stitch a particular type of sandal that was produced in season, that had a moulded sponge rubber base stuck to a through covered in leather, then a leather rand was stitched round to hold down the straps that formed the shoe. A quite expensive sandal to produce and extremely comfortable we supplied a lot of the top Northampton factories as the sandal was registered and some patents applied for so no one else could make them.

It must have been the late 1950's or very early 60's when I joined this firm, as enormous changes were happening in the footwear industry. Cement lasting began to come on line together with injection moulding for footwear, never slow to try something new this company was, I think, something of a pioneer in cemented footwear. The main difficulty when sticking on pre finished soles was getting them to fit properly with leather being a natural product you had different thicknesses to cope with. By this time I had been promoted to FOREMAN of the making room. A short time later the rough-stuff foreman left and I was given this Department to run as well, with a rise in salary.

To try and get round the fitting problem, it was decided to pass all upper components through a band knife splitter to the same substance, this worked to a certain extent but a lot depended on the skill of the operator sticking the units on and the person that roughed the upper to take the glue.

In the early days of cemented footwear there were a lot of problems to over come indeed. At the JOHN WHITE factory, a high volume producer of footwear, over a hundred workmen were over come by fumes and were taken to hospital, a number of them died as a result. HEALTH & SAFETY got involved and cements had to be labeled with the dangers involved and the conditions for their use, adequate ventilation being one. I al so became involved with one of the cement producers, testing their product on the factory floor and passing the test results back to them.

Before I became foreman the flat lasted footwear was pulled over the same as welted but the toes were wiped in with a no 10 toe laster. These had a small hand held spray gun, latex was sprayed onto the innersole and upper then laid flat with the machine; this process was a bit messy as the gun kept blocking up.

A new development in lasting came in; it consisted of two lasting machines, one for the left foot another for the right, they pulled over the upper and wiped in the toe and sides of the shoe as far as the heel; these were called the no. 1 toe laster. The uppers and insoles having been pre cemented they cut out 2 operations, toe lasting and side lasting but someone still had to go through the work, as they were not completely perfect.

Looking at the process one day I had an idea that if we could restrict the forward movement of the machine to stop at the right place for a welted shoe and sufficient heat was applied and a bit more dwell was given to allow the celastic toe puff to set we could last welted footwear without the use of tacks and nails. Someone had already come up with a means of temporarily fixing the inner sole to the last without nails. I put my idea to my boss, he liked the idea and a shoe was tried out. It worked so well that the bosses took the sample to LEICESTER HEAD OFFICE of the B.U.S.M.Co., they could see the advantages, came over to Rushden to look at the process, paid me a reward for thinking it through, went back to LEICESTER and started working on a machine that would inject hot melt cement to hold the upper in place instead of pre gluing. When ready it was delivered to us together with a B. U. mechanic for trials to be carried out. This format removed the danger of leaving nails that were used to hold the upper on the last until the welts were sewn in as the wire around the toe was held in place with two thin nails that were often cut In half when the welt sewing needle hit and cut them. The old pullover drove in six nails as well and one was often overlooked, it was a nasty and sometimes a prickly job putting one’s hand in the shoes and feeling around for tacks and nails that had been overlooked but this was the only reliable way. The Northampton branch wanted to come round the factory to have a look but had to get my permission first; considering it was that branch that had given me the sack years before I felt that I had got my own back. The method was, I believe adopted through the trade. Another idea that I came up with was a system to get fresh air circulating through the shoe with a pump that fitted under the heel of the foot pumping air through passages in the innersole but I was too early with this, as the product that I wanted to make the pump with had not yet been developed to take the strain. When work racks went out of general use, conveyors were put in the factories, some worked automatically, others had small trolleys that one pushed on by hand. Conveyers were very unpopular with some of the workers; shoe work was hard and fast enough as it was without being pushed even harder. Time and motion studies were tried in some factories but I think this was counter productive, if an operator was on piece work he would find the easiest and fastest way that suited him to earn more money. In my day I was considered to be very fast on the no. 10 stitcher; I used to cut off the thread ends on the way round the shoe to save time when welt sewing I would pick up 2 shoes, tuck one under one arm and sewing the other; this saved bending down with every shoe - I could earn good money then.

I was promoted again after a time to factory manager; one of the things I looked forward to every year was the SHOE fair held at the MOUNT ROYAL Hotel in London. I would take our samples to the hotel in the morning with another man, we were friends and lived quite close to each other, job done we spent the rest of the day looking round London, going home late evening. I spent about thirteen happy years there but things gradually got on top of me. Having lost my son, my wife spending a year in a sanatorium, her mother having a stroke and having to live with us, it all got too much for me. It was getting difficult to replace staff as they left, shoe factories were closing down due to foreign imports, it seemed that no one was keen to have a carrier in the shoe trade even the shoe COLLEGES closed their doors. I became very depressed, was ill for a month and gave in my notice, I had no job to go to at the time but I just not carry on as things were. About three weeks into my notice there was a fire at the factory and all the work in the clicking and closing rooms, together with the upper leather stock were lost, also the top floor of the factory had to be removed. I felt that I could not leave with the firm in that state, the rest of the factory was in a separate building so apart from a lot of water on the floor, things were OK and we could carry on with the orders that were ready to make up. A part of the factory next door was used for a temporary closing room, the clicking room was moved downstairs to a part empty bay. As the machinery in the closing was smoke and water damaged it was cleaned up by an army of workers from a firm who specialized in this work before being set up next door next door, with every body pitching in things were up and running in a week. As for the lost orders, due to the system I had, I was able to trace the work that had been ruined by the fire. 100's of pairs were lost but I took home my records and rewrote the work sheets I was very proud of this as the only order duplicated was a small order of 18 pairs, that job done I worked out the rest of my notice and left, the year was 1968. I still had not found a job to go to at that time but a foreman's position came up at WELLINGBOROUGH. I applied for this and got the job thanks to them making enquiries about me but an advertisement in the local paper caught my eye, it was for a shoemaker to start up a new business making made to measure orthopedic footwear based at RAUNDS 5 miles away. I applied for this as well and got that job so now I had a choice of 2 jobs. At the time I gave in my notice, the foreman I had looking after the making room insisted that if I left he was going to do the same as a new partner had joined the firm and neither of us felt that we could work with the man. Anyway, I told him about the job at WELLINGBOROUGH he took that and I went to RAUNDS; it was down to me to find any plant we needed to start up and get into production, which I did. It turned out to be a very strange set up, the person that had provided the premises that we eventually moved to had them taken from him by a some underhand means on the part of 2 of his partners, but he did not give up his dream of making orthopedic footwear to measure and supplying by post. I think he obtained premises at KETTERING and the firm is still going! This did not go down very well with me as we were now trying to produce very high-class fashion ladies footwear, not something that I was used to; being used to men's footwear all my life. I carried on for the next few years and started to make a few shoes at home to order, I also placed an advert in the local paper advertising the fact that I would call at the customers home and give a service for made to measure boots for which I would cut out paper patterns with the knowledge and with help of a set of books called THE BOOT AND SHOE MAKER that my parents had given me years before. 

One evening the pattern cutter I worked with at K & L called at my home and asked me if I would join up with him to start up our own business. This really gave my wife and I something to think about, we had the usual doubts, could we make a go of it and what would we do if things did not go to plan. One or two friends advised against joining him in the venture, they must have known what he was like and what his long-term plans were. The year was then 1973, we thought about it long and hard, my confidence was still a bit shaken after my breakdown but we decided to take the plunge and go ahead with the knowledge that I could always go back into a factory to earn a living if it came to it.

My partner to be had got wind of a gentleman who wanted to sell his business that he had started in 1943, some 30 years before he was running a shoe repair shop on the Wellingborough Road in Rushden but unknown to us he also made a few cycling and running shoes on the premises. We called ourselves BISHOP & HARPER and it was left to me to call on him to see if we could buy the business; I had a look round the place and was astonished at what I saw behind the shop front. We seemed to hit it off straight away - I liked the man and felt comfortable with him, it turned out that we would have to lease the premises for the next 7 years. He gave us the goodwill and the fixtures and fittings but we had to purchase his stock and any machinery we wanted. It turned out that he had been going to factory sales for years and buying up machines and storing them, he was a proper magpie, they were all stacked in the cellar. There were also premises in another street that he occupied. The old HOME GUARD building in Brookfield road to repair his shoes and finish off the ones he made. He employed 2 men that we had to agree to keep on. We finished up with enough plant to manufacture Goodyear welted, staple welted and cemented footwear, there was also a Blake sewer that he used for his running shoes. I think this lot cost us about £500.00 - I thought this was an absolute bargain and a wonderful chance for us to make a new start. As the turnover was not enough to give 2 families a living, my partner kept his job for the first year and I ran the place on my own with the help of my wife who came in to do the closing. The previous owner and his wife came in the mornings for a few weeks to see us up and running. I made a profit in the first year and from then on we never looked back until we parted some 12 years later.

We carried on serving the original customers but as time went on we built up our customer base mainly for boxing and wrestling boots for people like LONSDALE AND TITLE. We also produced motorcycle racing boots, track shoes and shoes for throwing the hammer- these were for GEOFF CAPES. We supplied FRANK BRUNO throughout his boxing career having given him his first pair when he started boxing and we made running shoes for the film Chariots of Fire. One day a wrestler turned up from CANADA and asked me to make a pair of boots to his specification; he collected them the next day (having worked late to get them finished). When the end of the lease was getting close we decided to try and purchase our own premises and looked at several buildings, settling on a 3-storey place quite close to us. It belonged to a person that I used to buy welts from who also wanted to retire so again we struck lucky and purchased the place at a bargain price. He left behind a large quantity of welts that we could use. We paid cash for the place by putting in our savings and raising a small loan but we never did move in; we rented it out instead as the top floor was already let and took on another 5 year lease on our factory. The years went by and tension started to build up between us, it got so bad that I decided to get out by selling my share to him, probably what he wanted in the first place as I was to learn later.

But some thing always seems to turn up round the corner; a man I had helped in the past by repairing his lock stitch machine offered me a job at his place at BEDFORD, he had a contract with a very large importer of footwear to buy all their returned footwear. This meant that some were quite worn but others were very minor faults

and very simple to fix with the right equipment. Thousands and thousands of them, when repaired they were sold in his own outlets. The ones that had gone to far were loaded into containers and sent to AFRICA, nothing was wasted. I did this for over two years but travelling from Northampton to Bedford in all weathers was a bind. I had been lucky in the past working without having to travel far to work. I found work in Northampton with a very small firm for a time but at this moment I just cannot recall what it was they produced - I must be getting old. I was getting close to the time that I could retire when again I decided to have a complete change in lifestyle.

I decided to become a market trader - I obtained some returns myself repaired them in my garage and took them to Sunday markets; the venture began to grow so I moved into a small workshop, purchased some shoe repairing plant, my Daughter left her job and we started to do more markets, some of them in London, repairing on the days we did not stand the markets. The business was still growing so we employed a man to stand other markets on the days we were repairing using our van but sadly the supplies dried up and we had no choice but to buy new ones to give us stock to sell. There was not as much money to be made selling new shoes so we looked for another line to sell. My daughter said she would like to try cosmetics and costume jewellery; this side also grew and we had to purchase another van for this purpose. We had another blow one night; some thieves completely emptied our shoe stock leaving us with nothing; that was the end for me as I was then over 60 years old. We sold one van, gave up the workshop and my daughter carried on with the other side of the business for a time.                              

Although I was now over 60 and should have been thinking about retiring, I started to look round for something to do. An advert caught my eye for a utility man at R.GRIGGS and Co. Wollaston. After an interview I was offered a job but not the one I went for, it turned out I was wanted to teach welt sewing, stitching and other jobs as they came up. This was OK with me - I stayed at GRIGGS till I was 65 and had then to retire (company policy) but after a week I was able to return for another 18 months. Then I retired properly, played golf 3 times a week, did jobs around the house but got bored stiff and found myself more work but that is another story.

THE END       


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