Strikes and sewing machines

Shoemaker's sewing machine

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

Before 1855, most shoemaking processes took place in people’s homes, with outworkers carrying out work in their own houses. Women and children would sew together the leather uppers, made from pieces of thin leather, while men would carry out the tougher work of sewing the uppers onto thick soles. However, across the Atlantic, developments in sewing machine technology in the United States were to begin the move to a factory system, where all shoeworkers would carry out their work in mechanised manufactories. However, the people working in the boot and shoe industry did not accept these changes without a fight.

In October 1855, Edwin Bostock introduced three Elias Howe sewing machines into his Stafford Foregate works. These new machines could sew together leather uppers. But men and women from every business in Stafford and Stone held mass protests in their respective towns. They feared that the new machines would mean no work for the women, and reduce their families to poverty. They refused to work on machine-sewn uppers and went on strike. The machines were soon withdrawn.

Meanwhile, sewing machines were introduced into factories elsewhere in the country, notably Northampton, but also closer to home in shoe manufactories in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Stafford lost business to these more productive centre, and Stafford and Stone’s trade began to suffer accordingly. In February 1859 the Stafford manufacturers announced that sewing machines would be re-introduced. Once again, in March 1859, the shoemakers came out on strike again, but by July hardship forced them back to work, having agreed to work on machine-sewn uppers for a wage increase of one penny per pair of shoes. Machinery was here to stay, and new factories spread accross Stafford and Stone during the 1860s and 1870s. For a while, the men’s work of sewing on soles was carried out by outworkers, but clicking by men, and closing by women now took place in factories, were owners could control production and working hours.

New machines for other processes were introduced soon afterwards. The Blake sole stitcher was introduced in the 1870s, and other eyeletting, rivetting and finishing machines followed. By 1900 the mechanisation of the boot and shoe making industry was largely complete.

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