History of Shoemaking in Britain – Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution

The Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution


Georgian shoemaker (from 'The Book of English Trades', 1821)

Shoemaker's sewing machine

Late 19th century shoemaker's Singer sewing machine (Staffordshire Heritage & Arts)

By the mid 18th century shoes were no longer sold only in the shoemakers’ own shops, but could also be bought in many towns from warehouses, which stocked shoes from a range of sources. In towns most shoes were made by outworkers working at home. Manufacturers such as William Horton in Stafford or William Dixon in Stone employed a large number of workers and stored completed boots and shoes in warehouses.

The huge numbers of boots and shoes made to supply the army during the Napoleonic Wars not only saw a great growth in the shoe trade, but also encouraged the development of methods of mass-production. In 1810 M.I. Brunel patented a sole-riveting machine. It faded from view after the end of the war in 1815, but the onset of the Crimean War in 1853 saw Tomas Crick of Leicester patent a riveting method.

Meanwhile, in America, Samuel Preston patented a pegging machine in 1833, which used wooden pegs to attach the sole, rather than iron rivets. Another American invention, the sewing machine, was adapted to sew leather. The first machines were introduced to Britain by Edwin Bostock in Stafford in October 1855. Although quickly abandoned following workers’ unrest, it was soon introduced in Northampton and London, ad the first recognisably modern factories followed in 1857. These early machines were only for closing the uppers, traditionally women’s work, so other processes were still carried out in the shoemaker’s home. Over the next decades a series of further inventions ensured all processes could take place in a factory system. The Blake sole stitcher was perfected around 1864, and introduced to Stafford and Stone by 1871. Pegging and riveting machines were adopted in Britain during the 1860s. Finishing was the last process to be mechanised, but by the 1890s mechanisation was complete.

Labour troubles continued throughout the later 19th century as the export trade to colonies in Australia and Canada declined, and as the United States began to flood the market with their products. Strikes too place, resisting extended working hours and depressed salaries, culminating in May 1905 with the Raunds army bootmakers marching from Northamptonshire to London in protest against the tendering system which kept their wages low.

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18 Responses to History of Shoemaking in Britain – Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution

  1. Eileen Finlow says:

    My ancestors were all shoemakers from Stafford and this is just the concise history I’ve been hoping to find to support the records we have in our family tree. Thank you. I would like to read more about the strikes and to discover some sort of pictorial record.

  2. David Waymouth says:

    My great great grandfather was Henry Penkett Mather 1806-1886 ‘Wholesale Boot and Shoe manufacturer’ of Fore Street, Stafford. He was certainly there in the 1850s and he is recorded as being a trustee for a bankrupt about then.
    Any cross bearings? He may have been Plymouth Brethren.

  3. Kim Fredericks says:

    My great great grandfather worked at Bostocks in the late 19th Century before sailing for Australia and setting up his own store in Marrickville, Sydney, Australia. Apparently, according to his obituary, he was one of the first to use the new sewing machines when they were still in their experimental stages. Joseph Grundy, if anyone has any history about him there, I would appreciate hearing about it.

  4. Scott Hughes Myerly says:

    Does anyone know a good source on shoes/shoe making in 18th century England & the controversy over shoe laces? One of the Emperors of Russia was reported to have said around 1800-12 that shoe laces were the cause of revolution. Shoe laces were long banned at the English court, Does anyone have information this? Thanks.

  5. Scott Hughes Myerly says:

    Does anyone know a good source on shoe making & especially shoe laces in 18th century England? The Emperor of Russia was reported to have said around 1808 that shoe laces were a cause of revolution. They were long banned at the English court. Thanks.

  6. Donna Noble Ward says:

    My Grandfather William Ernest Rands born 1871, came from Northamptonshire England in the 1890’s via Canada, to Iowa, thence to Kansas. He said his father was a shoemaker.
    I would like to know more about the Rands family, and their part in the shoe industry?

    • shoead says:

      Hello Donna, can I suggest you contact Northamptonshire Record Office, who may be able to help with your enquiry. The name Rands indicates a link to the Northamptonshire town of Raunds, one of many shoemaking centres in that area. Here’s a link to their contact details: http://www.northamptonshire.gov.uk/en/councilservices/Community/archives/Pages/Contact-Record-Office.aspx

      • Emma says:

        Hello Shoead! I am writing a final paper in my American History class on how the British revolution affected the American Industrial Revolution when it came to the industrialization of shoes. Could you tell me where you learned your information? Thanks, Emma

        • shoead says:

          Hi Emma. A good starting is the ‘further reading’ list under the ‘Resources’ tab on this website. Much of the more recent history was drawn from oral history interviews and unpublished research by local historians. We hope you found this website useful and good luck with your final paper.

  7. Michael Risbridger says:

    One of my ancestors Captain Rees Howell Gronow (1794-1865) Wrote 4 voumes of memoirs which are still in print. He tried to forge a parliamentary career, but his hopes were dashed on account his pockets weren’t deep enough to satisfy the greedy electors of Stafford. Largely he said shoemakers. Hell bent on selling their leather at a highly remunerative price!

    • David Wynne says:

      My 3 x great grandfather John Wynne a shoe manufacturer of Stafford with his brother in-law Thomas Stevenson, another shoe manufacturer – were paying money to the voters in the 1832 Stafford Election in support of Captain William Chetwynd. This the same election Captain Rees Howell Gronow and William Blount were candidates.

  8. Michael Gooding says:

    Doing family research we have two of our great grandfather’s son working as boot and shoe makers in the East End of London. However, they both became brass finishers, the latter is a common term and might apply to many trades. A brass finisher working in the shoe and boot trade might well have been a person who fitted brass eyes to the latter. One of my great grandfather’s sons a brass finisher and his family were admitted to the workhouse several times and over several years and must of lived a life of hell.

  9. B Henry says:

    My great grandfather, Cornelius Harrison was a foreman at a shoe factory in Stafford. He lived at 81 East Gate Street in the 1860s and 1870s. Would like to discover which shoe maker he worked with.

  10. june hawker says:

    I also have shoemaking in my family
    My Great Grandfather Edwin Golding was living in Westminster London in 1841
    He was married in Martin in the Field in 1830
    His son also Edwin was a shoemaker

  11. Mark Phelps says:

    My great great grandfather, James Harper Phelps was a shoemaker . In the 1841 Census, he is living with his parents and siblings in the City of Worcester, Worcestershire, England. He is listed as age 20 and as a Shoemaker. In the 1851 Census, he is living with his wife and 2 children, as well as his wife’s brother and a servant – in Suckley, Worcestershire, England. He is a Shoemaker, employing one man. The employee is his son in law. Interestingly, a James Phelps is imprisoned for 6 months in the City of Worcester, in July 1851 for “Larceny of Fixtures.” This may be my great great grandfather. In May 1854, James Phelps and family leave England out of he port of Liverpool. They arrive in New York in June, 1854. In 1855 they appear in the Wisconsin State Census, living in Whitewater, Walworth, Wisconsin. They appear in the 1860 Census in Whitewater, Wisconsin. James Phelps is working as a Shoemaker. My father told me that James Phelps’s wife talked him in to moving to America “to get him away from his drinking buddies.” LOL.

  12. Evie Baker says:

    My great grandfather, Frank Wright, was the leader of a shoe company in Raunds called Frank Wright shoes. Any leads?

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