An­ces­tors At Work

Michelle Higgs dis­cov­ers the skill and hard work that were re­quired to be a shoe­maker

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The skill and hard work re­quired to be a shoe­maker

Shoe­mak­ing has been known since an­cient times, de­vel­op­ing wher­ever set­tle­ments of peo­ple were found. Shoe­mak­ers and cord­wain­ers (or ‘cordiners’) crafted shoes from scratch by hand, while cob­blers re­paired them to be good as new. In Scot­land, ‘souter’ meant ei­ther a shoe­maker or a cob­bler.

Early footwear was of the moc­casin type; the Ro­mans then im­proved tan­ning meth­ods to cre­ate higher-qual­ity leather for their more so­phis­ti­cated san­dal­like shoes. The An­glo-Sax­ons in­tro­duced the ‘turn­shoe’ where the var­i­ous parts are sewn to­gether in­side out, be­fore be­ing turned the right way round.

From the 12th cen­tury on­wards, shoe­mak­ers in towns con­gre­gated in par­tic­u­lar streets and formed trade guilds. Northamp­ton, Stafford and Lon­don were fa­mous for shoe­mak­ing, while in Scot­land the towns of La­nark, For­far and Selkirk were sim­i­larly well-known. These were all ar­eas with easy ac­cess to leather from cow hides and good trans­port net­works. Northamp­ton fo­cused on men’s footwear, par­tic­u­larly

army boots, while Lon­don with its links to high fash­ion spe­cialised in women’s shoes.

In about 1500, the welted shoe be­came com­mon in Bri­tain. This de­sign in­cluded a welt, a thick leather band around the up­per. Adding this left a cav­ity which was filled with cork or sim­i­lar ma­te­rial, mak­ing the shoe more com­fort­able and flex­i­ble.

The shoe­maker was a highly skilled crafts­man and an in­te­gral part of vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties, work­ing by him­self or with fam­ily mem­bers. The first doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence of his tool­kit dates from the late 15th cen­tury. It in­cluded a tranchet (knife), lin­gels (thread), lasts (the moulds around which shoes are formed), awls (piercers), a shoe­ing horn and nails.

The Shoe­mak­ing Process

Mak­ing a shoe or boot by hand was an ar­du­ous and time­con­sum­ing process. First of all, the last was con­structed, usu­ally from wood, after which the pat­tern could be made. Next, the clicker cut out the parts of the leather up­pers with a clicking knife. Then the thin leather up­pers were sewn to­gether, a process known as ‘clos­ing’. The com­pleted up­per was then moulded around the last, after which the leather soles and heels were at­tached to the up­per; this was known as ‘mak­ing’. Fi­nally, the shoe or boot was fin­ished by trim­ming, pol­ish­ing and re­mov­ing the last through the top.

Shoe­mak­ers sold footwear in their shops, ei­ther made-tomea­sure or ready-made, and also in hab­er­dash­eries. In the rapidly grow­ing towns, shoe­mak­ers oper­ated as out­work­ers in their own work­shops at home. Boot and shoe man­u­fac­tur­ers em­ployed them to work on a ‘piece’ ba­sis; the footwear was then sold in shoe ware­houses from the 1780s or ex­ported. When there were more than two or three peo­ple in one work­shop, there was a clear divi­sion of labour to carry out the var­i­ous stages of mak­ing a shoe or boot. Tra­di­tion­ally, women and chil­dren worked as ‘closers’ while men were em­ployed in ‘clicking’, ‘last­ing’ and ‘mak­ing’.

The cen­sus re­veals some of the very spe­cific roles in shoe­mak­ing, par­tic­u­larly for fac­tory work­ers. Com­mon terms are ‘clicker’, ‘shoe closer’ and ‘shoe binder’ (bind­ing and clos­ing meant the same thing); ‘boot blocker’ (shaped the in­step) and ‘boot riv­eter’ (at­tached sole to the up­pers); ‘press­man’ (used presses to cut out soles and top pieces from leather), ‘shoe ma­chin­ist’, and ‘boot’ and ‘shoe man­u­fac­turer’.

Life As A Shoe­maker

In the mid-19th cen­tury be­fore mech­a­ni­sa­tion, chil­dren were paid about 2s 6d a week while women earned in the re­gion of 7s. Click­ers and mak­ers were paid more than closers and fin­ish­ers,

and they earned about 15s a week. Great at­ten­tion to de­tail was re­quired, and hours were long – the Chil­dren’s Em­ploy­ment Com­mis­sion of 1842 found that 12-hour days were stan­dard.

Like other skilled trades, a prospec­tive shoe­maker worked as an ap­pren­tice with a mas­ter for seven years. By the 1860s, this usu­ally be­gan at the age of 12 or 13. Once com­pleted, he be­came known as a jour­ney­man; he was not a mas­ter shoe­maker un­til he had his own ap­pren­tices. The sys­tem was reg­u­lated in most towns and cities by the guilds, but their pow­ers had di­min­ished by the mid-19th cen­tury.

It usu­ally took 14–18 hours to make a stan­dard pair of boots. Shoe­mak­ers worked from home, and chose their own hours.

Rage Against The Ma­chine

The in­ven­tion of the first prac­ti­cal sew­ing ma­chine in 1846 changed ev­ery­thing. Ten years later, it was adapted to stitch leather, paving the way for the mech­a­ni­sa­tion of shoe­mak­ing in fac­to­ries. Shoe­mak­ers saw ma­chines as a threat to their ex­is­tence, be­liev­ing they would re­duce their earn­ings and lead to mass un­em­ploy­ment.

Nev­er­the­less re­sis­tance was short-lived, and over time ev­ery part of the shoe­mak­ing process be­came mech­a­nised. For work­ers able to adapt, there was the prospect of higher earn­ings. For ex­am­ple, women and chil­dren em­ployed as closers could

to ‘It usu­ally took 14–18 hours make a stan­dard pair of boots’

be­come ma­chin­ists, some­times earn­ing three times their pre­vi­ous pay. Fac­tory strikes by unions in the 1880s and 1890s re­sulted in a stan­dard 54-hour work­ing week. After 1894, all work ex­cept clos­ing and hand-sew­ing took place in fac­to­ries, and the ‘piece men’ be­came ‘day men’, work­ing set hours for fixed wages.

Fac­to­ries pro­vided em­ploy­ment for large num­bers of peo­ple, but made footwear less ex­pen­sive and re­duced de­mand for hand­made shoes. By the 1920s, most vil­lage shoe­mak­ers were work­ing as cob­blers, re­pair­ing shoes rather than mak­ing new ones by hand.

Shoe­mak­ers at work in a Bri­tish fac­tory in Oc­to­ber 1936

A shoe­maker in his work­shop in South Kens­ing­ton, Lon­don, c1930

A Northamp­ton fac­tory in 1869, with ma­chin­ists work­ing along­side man­ual labour­ers in­clud­ing young girls

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