Although officially associated with Northampton in the 15th Century, shoemaking in the county was establishing itself early on with references to Peter the Cordwainer as in 1202. See our section on the Middle Ages to see how it helped Northampton to become one of the most important towns in the Country.
Sixty-four to the inch
Northampton was often referred to as having the highest quality shoes in the business. ‘Sixty-four stiches to the inch’ was a reference to the detailed and painstaking quality that went into the shoes.
The first factory
Although a well established industry, the first machine based factory in Northampton was founded in 1838 by a 19 year old Moses Philip Manfield who originated from Bristol. (NOTE: Possibly incorrect information. Please see comment here). He setup a workshop in Silver Street (click for map) and from here began trading in footwear created by men who traditionally had handsewn.
This young man went on to become the mayor of Northampton and the liberal M.P. (succeeding Charles Bradlaugh) before he died in 1899 where his funeral procession was watched by an estimated 15,000 people.
For a detailed look at factories breaking into shoemaking in Northampton, we recommend this excellent article from the BBC - Northampton Shoemakers.
The Northampton Football team is still referred to as ‘The Cobblers‘. In 1841 There were 1,871 Shoemakers in the town. The Football Team was officially formed in 1897 so at that time, Northampton was very much a shoemaking town with images of men in aprons working great machines in the many factories in the town center.
Interestingly, although shoemakers are often referred to as ‘cobblers’ the word cobbler is correctly applied to those that repair shoes. The manufacturer of footwear is known as a ‘cordwainers’. This term has its origins in the word ‘cordovan’ which was a reddish leather produced in Spain and thus one who worked in cordovan was a cordwainer.
In Duston there is a hospital known as St Crispin’s which is a huge old building visible as you drive up past Rothersthorpe and towards Duston. St Crispin is in fact the patron saint of shoemakers. Since medieval times, October 25th has been celebrated as St. Crispin’s Day and the Shoemaker’s Holiday. In the past, boot and shoemakers traditionally closed their shops on this day, in celebration and commemoration.
St. Crispin was born into a wealthy Roman family in the third century A.D.. Early in his life he converted to Christianity which was an embarressment to his family and peers. The legend says that he was disinherited and forced to make his own way in life. He became a shoemaker to support himself whilst his main calling was to teach the gospel. In the end he was put to death for his beliefs.
Northampton supplied most of the boots to the British armed forces during the 20th Century World Wars.
During the Civil War (1642 – 1651) Northampton’s shoemakers supplied the Parliamentary armies with 600 pairs of boots and 4000 pairs of shoes. It is said that they never received payment for these items.
Northampton today is still considered the place to go for prestige Shoes, such as supplying James Bond with shoes during the last 5 films including Casino Royale. Shoes from Church’s were also used in the Da Vinci Code movie.
Among the current leading names in the industry is Church’s English Shoes, based in St James, which now employs about 400 people. This is a family run business established in 1873 and is majority owned by Prada. In October 1999 Prada purchased an 83% share for $170 million (approx £83 million) with some analysts questioning the heavy price tag.
In the late 1940′s there were around 240 shomaking factories in the county of which about 34 remain. The ones which have survived are all over 100 years old.
An amazing new site has been set up over atwww.northamptonshireleather.com which provides a wealth of information and an interactive timeline of the shoe industry. I’m very pleased to see this appear so please do go and take a look…!
You can also try typing ‘Northampton Shoe’ into an Amazon search and you will find many books on the subject, as well as in the Northampton Library and the Shoe Museum which is a worthwhile and easy visit being in the town center and free to enter.
There will be more information here at some point but as mentioned, there is lots of information available so we will be concentrating on other areas in the near future. If you would like to contribute, drop us a quick post in the forumand you could be editing this page!.