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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