Rebecca Shawcross (Northampton Shoe Museum)

May 31, 2013

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery reflects Northampton’s first position as Britain’s shoe capital. The beginning of shoemaking can be traced back to the beginning of 13 century (1202) with references to Peter the Cordwainer. The craft developed and in 1642 13 shoemakers, led by Thomas Pendleton, obtained a contact for 600 pairs of boots and 4,000 pairs of shoes to be used to equip the army going to Ireland for the Civil War. (Northampton  supported Parliament in the conflict with the King).

In 1851, boot and shoemaking was the third largest source of manufacturing employment in Great Britain. The 1851 Census reported 470,000 people employed in the manufacture of cotton textiles; 420,463 in dressmaking and tailoring, 274,451 in boot and shoemaking, with 94,175 ‘shoemakers’ wives’ in addition according to P.R. Mounfield – Development and Decline of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Northamptonshire, England, from 1851 to 2004.

Although the large number of shoemakers decrease over the years (1,821 shoemakers according to the 1841 Census lists, 240 factories in 1940s) presently there are 34 shoemakers establish in Northampton. Among them famous brands like Church Crocket&Jones and independent shoemakers like Gaziano&Girling, Cliff Roberts or Nicholas Stamp.

Today the tradition of shoemaking is preserved in the newly opened Northampton Museum located in Guildhall Road, Northampton, who display world’s largest collection of shoes, with more than 12,000 pairs. Rebecca Shawcross, who is Shoe Museum Resources Officer, gladly offered me more information about the great collection of shoes that made Northampton famous.


The Shoe Collection was reopened in 2012 after a recent refurbishment. Please tell me more about the period before this process and why that refurbishment necessary?

The new look refurbished museum was opened on 12 April 2012. Over the preceding six months Northampton Museum and Art Gallery underwent a major modernization to give the public the kind of experience they have come to expect from a big city museum.

Renaissance funding of £113,000 from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council along with money from Northampton Borough Council’s capital fund paid for the modernization which saw the entrance-way to the museum opened up, floors raised, state of the art lighting installed, new flooring laid and modern display cases put in. Visitors can now relax and enjoy refreshments being served in the new, welcoming shoe lounge and buy a whole range of gifts and memorabilia from the refitted museum shop.

The museum, which is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of shoe heritage in the world, has been designated as being of national and international importance and this funding for the refurbishment is further recognition of its importance in Northampton and internationally.

bs374_d01_540h540w“Pair of men’s black leather running spikes. They were made by Thomas Dutton & Thorowgood Ltd in the early 1860s. They are thought to have been worn by the Earl Spencer, Northampton at the time or by one of his family.” –

What are the defining moments in the development of shoe industry? Why was this area a magnet to shoemakers over the years? 

Northamptonshire has a long history of shoemaking in the town and county. In the Middle Ages Northampton was a busy market town.  It had a street of cordwainers (shoemakers) making footwear for the locals as other towns, but it had the advantage of being a stopping place on the road to London, and many people, including the King stayed in the town. In 1213 King John purchased a pair of boots in the town for 9d (4p). His son Henry III ordered one hundred and fifty pairs of shoes for distribution among the poor while he visited the town.

In 1401 The Shoemakers Guild was set up which laid down rules for shoemakers and had the powers to punish those, whose work was unsatisfactory. Northampton was slowly becoming a town where shoes were made and sent for sale in other places. Why Northampton? Well the town had the advantage of possessing three raw materials. Cattle for leather as Northampton had plenty of pasture land for cattle as well as benefiting from being on the drove road to London. It also had oak bark from nearby forests and water from the River Nene to use in the tanning process. Northampton was also within easy reach of London and other large towns where many people needed shoes.


An important event that sealed Northampton’s fate as a being a shoe town was that in 1642 Thomas Pendleton, a Northampton shoemaker, was given an order for 4,000 pairs of shoes and 600 pairs of boots for the army in Ireland. He had to get twelve other shoemakers to help him. They delivered the boots on time, but were not paid for them. Eventually they received about £1200, rather less than they were owed.

The shoemaking industry was well established in Northampton by 1650. It had proved itself capable of producing large numbers of shoes very quickly. In 1660 Thomas Fuller wrote that “the town of Northampton may be said to stand chiefly on other men’s legs…the most cheapest, if not the best, boots…in England are to be bought in Northampton.

TheNorthamptonShoemakerLowRes                                                                                               The Northampton Shoemaker, 1860

Shoemaking was carried out in workshops at home and due to the different skills required for women’s shoes; the town specialized in men’s footwear.The turning point for the industry was the introduction of machinery. The Singer sewing machine had been introduced from  America, modified to stitch leather rather than cloth. It was used to close uppers. The American Lyman Blake perfected his machine the Blake Sewer for stitching on soles in 1864. This machine was too large, heavy and expensive to have at home and needed power to drive it. It drove the shoemakers into factories over the next thirty years.

During the 19th century there were periods of strike action. The strikes in the 1880s strikes resulted in a standard working week of 54 hours and restrictions on boy labor so that there was more work for the men. There were further strikes through the early years of the 1890s when in 1894 the union demanded no more work should be done outside. In 1895 there was the last big strike including a lock out when the manufacturers were determined to crush the agitators. The settlement survived largely because every two years wages were re-negotiated and linked to the cost of living.

Northampton in the 19th century boomed, with the boot and shoe industry dominating the town and county. In 1836, one manufacturer, William Parker, made 80,000 pairs a year. In 1841 there were 1,821 shoemakers in Northampton. Many of the town’s most famous factories were established at this time, including Manfield, G.T Hawkins and Padmore & Barnes. The 18th and early 19th century also saw shoemaking become important in towns such as Kettering, Raunds and Daventry.

Northampton’s shoe factories made footwear for soldiers across the world during the First and Second World Wars. During World War One about 70 million pairs of footwear were produced for the British forces and its Allies and over two thirds of them were made in Northamptonshire.

Northampton’s shoes turn up in almost every important moment of British history. Oliver Cromwell soldiers walked in Northampton shoes, soldiers from both WW1 and WW2. What other “historical” shoes were made here?

Northampton shoemakers have made some important and quirky shoes over the years they include:

Flying boot
Leather and sheepskin
Haynes and Cann, Northampton

During the Second World War shoe factories across Northamptonshire increased production to supply the British forces and its Allies. The ‘Escape’ flying boot was designed by Ron Kitchin of Haynes and Cann, who had a factory on Hood Street, Northampton. They produced these boots for The Royal Air Force (RAF).

EscapeBoot2                                                                                                                           Flying boot

They are known as the ‘escape boot.’ If a pilot was forced to bale out of his plane and land in enemy territory he had a good chance of finding new clothes with which to disguise himself, but his distinctive boots would give him away. This boot was designed so that the leg could be cut away to leave an Oxford shoe. The inside leg of the right boot has a pocket containing a small penknife for just this purpose. With the boot leg removed, and wearing his non-military looking Oxford shoes, the pilot would have a better chance of evading capture.

Elephant boot
Canvas and leather
Lotus Ltd

On permanent display the elephant boot is one of four boots made for the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition. The expedition aimed to recreate and track Hannibal’s route during his invasion of Italy in the 3rd Century BC. Often disputed by historians that the crossing ever took place, chroniclers reported that Hannibal crossed the Alps with 37 surviving elephants to take into battle. The British Alpine Hannibal Expedition asked the question: ‘Can the Alps be crossed by an elephant?’

Turin Zoo was generous enough to provide the non-geological materials. Her name was Jumbo. Jumbo traveled 150 miles in 10 days from France to invade Susa, Italy. The result of the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition’s experiment suggests that elephants can indeed cross the Alps.

To protect Jumbo from the weather she had a canvas coat and trunk cover and to protect her feet a set of canvas and leather boots. These boots were made by craftsmen at Lotus Ltd, Northampton using the patterns supplied. To find out the size of Jumbo’s feet she stood on a large sheet of paper and someone drew round them. Unfortunately Jumbo was unable to finish the last eight kilometers of the expedition as the track was considered unsafe.

The boot is made from canvas and leather. It has an oval sole with band of leather attached forming galosh. The rest of the upper is canvas with lacing up back and leather straps threaded through the loops at the ankle and top. The upper is rivetted to sole. The sole is studded with pyramid nob nails. It is one of set of four.

Asics trainers worn by Sir Ranulph Fiennes 

How would you describe the organization of the exhibit itself? Can you walk us through some of the show’s major highlights?

The Shoe Collection at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery is the largest collection of shoe heritage in the world and is designated as being of national and international importance. Its strength lies in the collection’s scope and range. The Museum has been collecting shoes since about 1870 and now has over 12,000 examples ranging from ancient Egyptian to contemporary design. The collection contains men, women and children’s shoes. Some of these have been worn and some are samples made by the factories to advertise their wares.

Most of the collection is of fashion footwear made in Britain, Western Europe and North America. Military footwear is well represented, Northamptonshire having made shoes for the armed forces since at least 1642. The footwear section of the collection includes overshoes, galoshes and patterns. There is also a collection of world footwear, much of which was collected by travelers and foreign residents in those countries as souvenirs and gifts.


The collection also contains lasts and components for making shoes as well as part made shoes showing construction methods, shoe machinery, a large number of hand tools, items relating to the selling of shoes, shoe trimmings and buckles, shoe polish, shoe trees and other shoe related subjects. There is an archive containing trade journals from Britain, Europe and the USA, catalogues and photographs. We also have a library of shoe related books.

Shoes have been used as decorative objects for several hundred years. Snuff boxes and other small decorative objects have been made in the shape of shoes. We have a representative collection of ceramic, wooden and metal objects in the shape of shoes, as well as miniature shoes made by shoemakers.

The museum also maintains an index of Concealed Shoe finds. Shoes have been hidden in buildings for good luck and protection for many hundreds of years. When alterations are done these shoes come to light. We have a number of concealed shoes in the collection. They are significant because they are usually working class footwear, and are generally the only way such footwear survives from the 18th and 19th centuries. We are willing to identify and date concealed shoes for the finders, if details of the find and photographs are sent to us. These details are then added to the Concealed Shoe Register, which contains records of about 1,900 finds in Britain, Europe and North America.

The collection is on display at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, Guildhall Road, Northampton. The Life and Sole gallery highlights the history of shoes and shoemaking, as well as such topics such as Looking after your Shoes, Shoe Mending and Shoes made for Special Purposes. The Followers of Fashion gallery deals with fashion and design and highlights some of the recurring themes in fashionable footwear.

BS410 Pair of blue velvet latchet tie shoes reputedly worn by Lady Mary Stanhope in 1660

Highlights of the collection include a boot made for Jumbo the elephant, the stilts in the shape of a pair of Doc Martens made for Elton John to wear in the Pinball Wizard sequence in the film of ‘Tommy, A Rock Opera’, a pair of blue velvet shoes embroidered in gold made about 1660, the shoes Queen Victoria wore on her wedding day in 1840, shoes by top end designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo and a pair of Super Elevated Ghillies by Vivienne Westwood (the style that caused Naomi Campbell’s downfall in 1994).

More specifically some of our most popular shoes on display are:

Crimson velvet shoe 1888

This shoe was worn by Pope Leo XIII. He was Pope from 1878 to 1903. The shoe was made by Juan Mercadel of Menorca, Spain. The date is embroidered in metal thread at the heel. Embroidered at the front is the papal crown, the Popes coat of arms and the Latin phrase ‘Beati Pedes Pacifici Regis’ which translates as ‘How blessed are the feet of the King of Peace’.


Red satin ballet pointe shoes made by Freed 1948

They were made for Moira Shearer to wear in the film ‘The Red Shoes’. Twenty five pairs were used by Moira Shearer to take her through all rehearsals and filming. This pair were prepared to be worn, the toes have been darned and the ribbons attached, but they remain unused.


White satin shoes worn by Queen Victoria on her wedding day 10th February 1840

Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in the Chapel Royal St. James. To compliment her white satin dress trimmed with Honiton lace she wore these flat shoes trimmed with ribbon. Long ribbon ties fastened round the ankles to hold the shoes in place. They were made by Gundry & Son, 1 Soho Square London, Boot and Shoemakers to the Queen.

QV Wedding Shoes

The Tommy Boots

These are in fact stilts in the shape of a pair of Dr Martens made for Elton John to wear in the Pinball Wizard sequence in the film ‘Tommy, A Rock Opera.’ In the 1975 film Elton John played the Pinball Wizard.

Is there any exhibit that you are more fond of?

The exhibit I am most fond of is The shoemaker shop by taxidermist Walter Potter. It shows a shoemakers workshop with the shoemaking figures made with stuffed squirrels and stoats. The squirrel is wearing an apron with clamps between its knees on a shoemaker’s ‘seat’. The stoat is behind the counter clicking, while another stoat is at a desk writing, the other squirrel has a mug of beer and there is a canary and clock on the wall. It was made by Walter Potter and used as an advertisement in the window of Curtis, bespoke shoemaker and repairer of 107 Bostock Avenue, Northampton. 1860-1869.

Ferrets Stoats and Squirrel's Shoe makers

Two years ago, in June 2011, a cabinet report of Northampton Borough Council “identified an area incorporating approximately 70% of the surviving boot & shoe buildings in the town to be appropriate to potentially designate as a conservation area.” Tell us more about the major historical important buildings that are intend to be included in this conservation area.

I think the report sums up why the Boot and Shoe Conservation area is such a good idea. Northampton’s history as a boot and shoe town has been well recognized since the 17th century. It wasn’t however, until the advent of industrial processes that a significant and lasting effect was seen on the townscape.

From the middle of the 19th century, the industry developed with astonishing rapidity, resulting in the long rows of terraced housing and associated factory buildings and community facilities seen today surrounding the historic core of the town. These areas are very important in showing how the Victorians adapted to a new way of working and living – one centered round the factory. The finest remnants of Northampton’s boot and shoe industry can be found in the area immediately to the north and east of the town center.

This area has the highest density of boot and shoe factories, the greatest survival of buildings (around 70%) associated with the industry, and the widest range of building types in Northampton. The street layout and buildings within this area show the development of the boot and shoe industry from its origins as a home-based craft through to the establishment of single large factories employing whole teams of workers. The street layout is regimented, with long straight rows of terraces which have long been considered commonplace and ordinary but are now recognized as having unique characteristics and importance.

The oldest surviving buildings are grouped around the area to the west of Overstone Road and the area to the south of Abington Square. Eight of the factories connected (or formerly connected) with the shoe or leather trades are listed buildings (nationally recognized as being of architectural or historic importance).


The conservation area exhibits a number of distinctive features worth preserving. These include long straight streets with regular layout and continuous rooflines, the houses facing immediately on to the street with no front gardens; houses and industrial buildings sitting side by side, as you might expect from an era when most people would have walked to work; factories and specialist workshops of different sizes and types, with houses which are usually two-storey, and factories typically no higher than three; the factory buildings often have elaborate designs to illustrate their importance in the community.

A range of social, religious, educational and commercial buildings is intermixed with houses and places of work, providing for all of the community’s needs. Chapels and churches occupy key locations dominating the views along the streets. Corner sites tend to be occupied by significant buildings, including shops, pubs and factory entrances. The houses may appear uniform, but closer inspection reveals subtle differences of size and decoration, indicating the status of worker they were intended to house. Trees or public green open spaces are few. The whole adds up to a distinctive townscape of historical value. Some of the most well-known shoe factories in Northampton were (and some are still) located in this area including G.T Hawkins and Trickers, the latter still making man’s footwear.


After the World War 2 the footwear industry in Northamptonshire experienced a decline, the area still have remarkably talented shoemakers in the present. Who are the leading figures of this craft located in Northamptonshire?

Within the town there are still five factories making traditional classic men‘s footwear. These are Church’s, Trickers, Crockett & Jones, Edward Green and John Lobb Ltd. The town is also home to Jeffery-West who although have no factory have their range of men’s footwear made in the county. There is also JUJU Ltd who make classic jellie shoes and Springline Ltd who are last makers.

Within the county there are also many companies successfully making shoes including Horace Batten, makers of riding boots, Cheaney, Barker, Grenson, T. Groocock and Co Ltd (makers of Padders) Loake, Dr Martens, Alfred Sargent and Daisy Roots (makers of baby and children’s footwear).


Coco Chanel once said  that “With four pairs of shoes I can travel the world“. If money were not a problem your four pairs would be …

I would love a pair of bespoke shoes by contemporary shoemaker Caroline Groves who makes the most marvelous looking women’s shoes. They look fantastic and would appear to be incredibly wearable too. I would like a pair of original Vivienne Westwood Super Elevated ghillies or alternatively a pair of silver toed Mary Janes. A bespoke pair of made in Northampton brogues. A pair of the incredible shoe creations by Noritaka Tatehana, which even if I couldn’t wear would look great on display.

What is the most difficult thing about your line of work?

I love my job because it is so incredibly varied. I look after a wonderful collection, meet some extremely interesting and knowledgeable people, get to see people’s shoe collections and answer some downright odd and intriguing shoe enquiries from all over the world. The most difficult aspect of my job is that there are not enough hours in the day!

*Photos courtesy of  Rebecca Shawcross (Northampton Shoe Museum.)