There was a time, not so long ago, when Northamptonshire’s streets were trodden primarily by shoe-makers, when bustling factories employed a significant proportion of the population and when terms like ‘clicker’ were part of everyday county lingo.
It was some time during the 20th century when this story of success became a sad tale of demise and factory closures, due to a number of reasons including the cheaper manufacture of shoes abroad, became commonplace.
But many companies dug in their heels and stood their ground, continuing to practise and promote the quality of British-made goods. And, speaking to some shoe company owners, the tide seems to have well and truly turned in terms of the popularity of the ‘Made In England’ tag.
From October 3–5, representatives from some Northamptonshire companies will travel to London, to take part in a consumer show called Best of Britannia, aimed at showing the best in British design and manufacturing...in many different trades.
I caught up with the Northamptonshire shoe firms taking part to find out more.
Meeting owner Ivor Tilley and sales director Malcolm Knighton, at NPS Shoes, in Wollaston, I am given a potted history of the company. Ivor explained how, in the 19th century, a small group of men started to manufacture shoes from the base of their own homes, supplying military footwear. Eventually they were able to afford a factory premises.
Ivor, who has also been involved in other shoe trade companies, explained: “The actual company was founded in 1881. It was a co-operative and it moved to these premises in 1900. It was more like a cottage industry in those days before the factory system came in.
“It carried on being a co-operative until seven years ago when I bought it because there was a probability it was going to close down, it had some difficult times. We had to make it profitable as quickly as we could.”
Nowadays footwear such as service shoes are still “bread and butter” business for the firm, but they also do a healthy trade in fashion shoes. On a tour of the factory, Ivor showed me a practical farming boot and, close by, a trendy-looking white shoe which is soon to be exported to Japan. NPS now exports shoes to 20 different countries including Japan and South Korea. It not only manufactures shoes for its own brand, Solovair, but also makes shoes for well known firms such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.
Ivor explained that the export market is particularly strong at the moment.
He said: “There has definitely been a demand for Made in Britain and that has helped us. It is almost as if every major retailer wants a bit of that.
“All that is left in Northamptonshire of the trade is busy and it is driven particularly because of the ‘made in Britain’ popularity but also by exports, not just Europe. We are supplying a lot to Japan and the East. Our managing director, Christian Castle, is just coming back from the Middle East.”
At Joseph Cheaney & Sons, in Desborough, there is a similar story of growing export success.
Cheaney owners, William Church and his third cousin Jonathan Church, are fifth generation members of the original family behind Northampton’s Church’s Shoes. Although they are no longer involved with the Northampton firm, they bought the Cheaney company four years ago. The business itself has been in operation since 1886 and based in its current Desborough factory since 1896.
Nowadays, the Cheaney name is world-famous. Not only does the company manufacture for others but has hundreds of its own designs on sale at Cheaney shops, retailing at between £200 and £400 a pair. Celebrity fans of the shoes include actors Mickey Rourke and Ray Winstone.
Some employees have developed their skills over several decades and in some cases many generations of the same families have worked with the firm.
During my tour of Cheaney’s I briefly spoke to 65-year-old Graham McNulty, who was retiring after 49 years. His son, Liam, also now works for the firm.
Graham said: “It used to be either shoe factories or building. My dad was a builder.”
When asked what kept him at the firm so long, he joked: “Nothing better came along!”
But this jokey comment definitely belies the amount of skill most employees build up over the years while working at the firm. A single pair of Cheaney shoes takes about 200 individual processes to complete – all carried out by highly-skilled individuals – including, in some cases, hand-written labels.
And it seems that today there is plenty of world-wide appreciation of the attention to detail given to this very British product.
William said: “Two or three things have made the difference. It is made in England, premium end, it is brand and it is export-led. You have all of these different attributes and you can throw in heritage too.
“In terms of export, in four years, we have increased from 15 per cent to 35 per cent of turnover. Our growth is export-led. There is an abundance of demand from new and determined markets; such as South Korea and Russia.”
Another county firm taking part in Best of Britannia is Jeffery-West. Childhood friends, Mark Jeffery and Guy West, started out by designing and selling their own shoes in Northamptonshire markets and at Kensington Market in London. A lot of hard work later and Jeffrey-West was founded in 1987.
Today the company’s creative designs are well-known in the shoe trade and it has a range of shops in such diverse locations as Northampton, Manchester, Leeds, New York and Taiwan. The popularity seems to be in high-end shoes, according to Guy.
He said: “Everything is quite artisan now. The days of big manufacturing have gone. Made in England means a lot more abroad than it does in England.”
He continued: “What the factories are doing with Goodyear Welted, there is a trend for any old world English brogues. If they want the originals, they want the English ones.”
Best of Britannia will be held at the Farmiloe building in Clerkenwell, London. For more information, visit www.bestofbritannia.com. Other exhibitors will include names such as Morgan Motor Company, Ginetta Cars Limited and the Vickers Bicycle Company.