Boots and Belts
A brief history of Walgrave's Industry
From early times Northamptonshire has been known for its leatherwork and the development of the footwear trade in Walgrave followed that of many Northamptonshire villages.
By 1851, 10% of the population were employed in the shoe trade. By 1881 there were 101 people involved in what was a cottage industry. Many cottages had "shops" probably not more than eight feet square at the bottom of the garden or attached to the house. The boots were made entirely by hand.
Stephen Walker and the Development of the Factory
In 1890 the first factory was built in the yard of the Chestnuts in Church Lane; there was one machine to cut heavy leather.
The shoemaking was still done at home. A small group started a Co-operative society, they purchased their materials direct from suppliers and dispatched goods all over the country. The society closed in 1906.
There were many characters associated with the shoe industry in Walgrave, one was Barber Bill. Barber Bill was a hand-sewn boot and shoemaker, and part-time village hairdresser. His prices in the mid-twenties would give you a haircut, shave and corns trimmed for 3d.
In 1899 Stephen Walker opened the factory in Old Road. Machinery came into the village. The hand-sewn men stilled worked at the Chestnuts and "closing" and "stabbing" was done at home. Wages were low – sixpence an hour – and a pair of boots made entirely from leather cost about twelve shillings.
Prosperity came to Walgrave during the Boer War (1898 -1902). Boots were made for the War Office, Navy, Crown Colonies, the Home Office and the Post Office. Contracts were awarded half yearly. If no contract was received there was no work for six months.
In the late nineteenth century brick terraced cottages were built and given the names Spion Kop, Klondyke Cottages and Crispen Cottages. There were over 60 shops in the village with over 100 people employed in them. Right up to the outbreak of war in 1939 scores of hand-sewn craftsmen were working at home in their "shops", lasting, sewing in the welts, laying soles, then taking the half completed boots into the factory to be stitched, heeled and finished.
Austin Walker* reflected on the prosperity of the village in his 1979 article:
"Boots were made here for the services in three wars, the Boer Wars, and the first and second World Wars. Under tender to the Crown Agents for the colonies thousands and thousands of pairs of footwear have gone out from Walgrave to every part of the then British Empire. The village certainly owes much to the late Stephen Walker, founder of the first factory here. ………
The transport of goods was by horse and cart to Lamport Station where the boots set on their journey across the Empire. The final despatch of Army Boots by cart to Lamport Station was in the late 1920's and a photograph was taken to mark the event. Afterwards boots were dispatched by road.
The Mercury & Herald September 24 1954 ran a series of articles on Walgrave and reflected on the "current" shoe and boot industry:
"One of the remaining shoemakers in Walgrave is Mr. O.P. Wills. Everyday, he can be found at work in his shop in the garden of his home in Crispen Cottage. But even Mr. Wills does not make shoes entirely by hand now. He spends his day closing uppers by hand for a Northampton firm. He is the only craftsman left doing this type of work in Walgrave, although there are one or two others who hand-sew welts."
George Webb & Sons
In 1951 the factory was sold to George Webb and men's shoes were made for civilian wear. A local newspaper article gives a view of Walgrave's shoemaking in the 50's:
"Shoes mean prosperity to Walgrave, and more are being turned out there than ever before. But this one-time stronghold of the hand-sewn craft now depends on a Northampton firm's factory for employment."
The building was completely re-equipped and modernised when Webb & Sons took over. The modernisation increased production from 700 to 2,200 pairs-a-week. The number of workers doubled to over 100. The then manager of the company, Mr Farey, commented: "… the village provides a very good class of worker".
An article in the Webb and Sons Bulletin in 1958 reflects on the Walgrave factory:
"…what a delightful setting the factory occupies on the outskirts of the village with the obvious advantages of the maximum amount of fresh air and sunshine. Partly because of this and partly because of the excellent tradition, which still maintains, it is deservedly looked upon as a happy place to work".
The standard (minimum) wage scale for 45 hours per week for a 19 year old was: male – 124/-per week and female – 105/-per week.
The factory was taken over by the Ward White Group and closed during the decline in the footwear industry in the 1980's. In the Chronicle & Echo on Tuesday, June 10th 1980 the following news was reported:
"Yet another bombshell has hit the shoe trade with the announcement that John White, part of the Ward White group … is to cut its workforce. George Webb's of Walgrave is closing with the loss of 98 jobs…"
From 1982 the factory on Old Road was the home to the Regent Belt Company employing 100 people and exporting belts and luxury leather goods.
Regent Belt continued the tradition of Walgrave products being sent around the world, with over 80% of its production being exported. The company won the Queen's Award for Export on two occasions. However, work ceased in Walgrave in 1992 when Regent Belt decided to move production to its site in Long Buckby.
The site was then developed replacing the modern factory buildings with two and three bed "starter homes" in what is now Walkers Acre. The original Victorian Factory was retained and, for a time, was used as offices. The Laurels, Stephen Walkers' house next to his factory, reverted back from offices to a private home. The factory remained empty for several years until it was converted into three town houses in 2003.
Information taken from:
"Northamptonshire Within Living Memory" published by Countryside books and the Northamptonshire Federation of Women's Institutes.
Chronicle & Echo Tuesday June 10th 1980
The Mercury & Herald September 24 1954
Webb and Sons Bulletin 1958
Northampton & County Independent December 1979 – Article by Austin Walker