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