My grandmother told me, literally on her death bed, “I used to make boots, you know.” No, I didn’t know. I knew that the vast majority of my family for several generations had been involved in the shoe industry but I was unaware that my grandmother had also counted among that number. Apparently it was only “during the war,” one of her favourite phrases.

Her husband, my grandfather, was a shoe designer and talented amateur artist. He died at the age of sixty one, leaving my grandmother to live on her own for nigh on forty years. It wasn’t until we were clearing her house that we found an elaborate certificate detailing his involvement as President of the Northampton & District Boot & Shoe & Allied Trades Managers’ & Foremen’s Association in 1961-1962.

His brother, my great uncle Jack, was a real character. He lost an eye at the age of three and therefore escaped the fate of many of his contemporaries in the war. He was employed by Church’s shoes for nearly all his career, although his precise role was apparently something of a mystery to his coworkers. Allegedly one was heard to remark something along the lines of, “Whatever job John Brown does, I’d like it.”

Again it was not until clearing uncle Jack’s house, when his wife moved into a home, that I heard about my great grandfather Jubilee John Brown (or John Brown senior, as he dropped the “Jubilee”, apparently a common epithet bestowed to those born in Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee year of 1887). There is a rather grand photo of him as a moderately young man, dressed incredibly smartly and soberly in a suit among others similarly attired, which I am told is a portrait of the investors in G.T.Hawkins, presumably when it became a limited company in 1916, where he became a director. Apparently Jubilee John had been loaned the money by his more well-to-do father.

Moving back down the family tree both my mother and her sister worked at the Manfield’s factory, part of the British Shoe Corporation, with their father. My mum worked in the offices and her sister as a machinist.

My father worked his way up from the factory floor to shoe factory manager at Barry Road, also owned by the British Shoe Corporation, where he was in charge of over three hundred workers. He then set up a shoe closing firm (ie. sewing the elements of a shoes together before the sole is attached) which morphed into the local factory shoe shop “R & F Closers” when the making work dried up due to cheap labour abroad.

My mother and father met through the British Shoe Corporation’s float at the Northampton carnival. That year the theme was pirates and mermaids. My mum claims she wasn’t pretty enough to join the mermaids on the float and so had to walk beside it as a pirate. My dad and his brother were also pirates and they were carrying a treasure chest, on which they offered her a lift when she got tired.

On my dad’s side of the family his mother, stepfather and older brother also worked in the industry. His mother as a machinist, his stepfather as a sole edge trimmer, both at Crockett and Jones, and his brother as a foreman at Manfield’s .

I suppose you could also argue that my sister and I worked in the shoe industry too; our first earnings were from helping out with piecework; attaching metal trims or tassels or weaving leather strips across the aprons of men’s shoes, work brought home for us to help out with when the factory was too busy. Our young, slender fingers meant we could undertake these tasks with speed and with practise our efficiency led to a decent rate of pay, particularly for teenagers who were still at school. I chose the shoe industry in Northampton as the theme of my O level Geography project and felt proud to be taken on a tour round the factory of which my dad was the manager.

Although times have changed and many of the factories have been closed and converted into flats and luxury apartments, it is heartening to know that Northampton is still remembered as a shoe making town, through the remaining mainly high-end shoe brands still based here including both Church’s and Crockett and Jones and, probably more famously, through the success of the film and subsequent musical Kinky Boots which is set in Northampton (although the true story that inspired it was about a firm in Earls Barton, a village situated about nine miles away).

By Beverley Webster