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For a detailed list of Sileby's Boot and Shoe COMPANIES, FACTORIES AND WORKSHOPS

BOOT AND SHOE MAKING - Introduction

1924 figs titles_edited.png
1924 Boot and shoe figs.jpeg

Source : US Department of Commerce - Special Agents Series No. 226

'Shoes, Leather and Hides in Great Britain' (1924), p169   (Internet Archive)

Domestic Trade

Before the mid-19th century Sileby’s shoemakers and cordwainers worked on a small scale, catering for local trade. They were generally of poor or modest means.

 

The growth of the boot industry in Leicester after the 1850s led to an expansion into the surrounding suburbs and villages, taking advantage of the ‘underemployed remnants of the domestic hosiery industry's labour force'. At Sileby, domestic workers completed shoes and boots by hand, sending the finished articles back to their Leicester masters. In 1871 a small number of shoe finishers are recorded in the census. In the same year Joseph Clarke, a boot manufacturer, was living in King Street. Furthermore, the earliest mentions of a boot machinist and clickers are also made during this time.

  Industrial Development

From the mid-1880s a number of Leicester masters had established branch shoe factories in the village. A feature of these factories were the cheaper wages paid to their workers in comparison to their counterparts in Leicester. Disputes often arose from Leicester workers seeing these practices as a threat to their livelihoods. Tactics such as strikes, picketing and marches were used by them to try and halt the progress of the Sileby factories. Likewise, Sileby workers saw their cheaper wages as their competitive edge and the foundation to their job security. Therefore, unionisation and attempts at pay parity of the workforces were seriously discouraged by Sileby’s factory masters and workers alike, resulting in lock outs and intimidation to those that tried. Permission to hold union meetings in the village was often refused for fear of disorder and recriminations.

 

The forty years from 1871 to 1911 saw boot and shoe manufacturing supplant hosiery production to become the largest employer in the village, and catered for about one in four of all occupations. Expansion occurred in the 1890s with the establishment of branch factories from Walker, Kempson & Stevens Ltd, A Knight and Co and William Gare.

 

By 1911 Boot and Shoe production had eclipsed all other trades in the village. The census of that year indicates that the industry employed over 35% of the total adult working population (609 out of 1717). Male employment dominated the trade making up over 75% of the jobs recorded.

The Rise of Home Grown Enterprises

From the 1890s a number of ‘home-grown’ shoe manufacturing firms were beginning to be established in the village. In the main these were small partnerships of ex-branch factory workmen making women’s and children’s shoes, and they often started with little capital. By the end of the First World War a number of these new enterprises had been created. Names such as J A Simons, Lawson Ward and Swan and Preston were all rooted in this wave of entrepreneurial activity. A feature of these local companies in the early stages were the frequent changes of ownership and business partners. A good example of this is that of Charles Henry Preston. In the mid 1890s he was a partner with three others in the firm of Ward Brothers, he had a single partner in Swan and Preston, and finally in with his family in C H Preston (& Sons). There was a sizeable attrition rate of boot and shoe companies, mainly of the smaller proprietors. A number of bankruptcies and failures are noted. Once a company got over the initial five to ten years of trading they generally went on to be mildly successful.

The most influential of these new enterprises was the firm of Newbold and Burton. Its growth through investment in the latest plant and in quality assurance saw Newbold and Burton's premises enlarged to take over a large swathe of the central belt in the village for its 'Premier Works'. A period of local company acquisitions also saw the company expand elsewhere in Sileby.

By 1924, projected output of Sileby's Boot and Shoe concerns are shown as follows :

 

 

 

 

 

Unions

It has already been mentioned that Sileby's factory owners and staff resisted union membership and collective bargaining. Resentment and frustration over this position was one of the reasons why a group of workmen broke away and formed the Excelsior Co-operative in 1906. All of Excelsior's staff became members of the National Union of Shoe and Boot Operatives (NUBSO). Over time the general situation slowly changed. The Sileby branch of NUBSO had managed to garner over 1,000 members by the late 1930s, mainly under the stewardship of its branch secretary Mr J Waring. On the 9th July 1937 Mr W.R. Townley, the General President of the union, opened a new branch headquarters building on Swan Street. Unity Hall, as the building was called, was officially opened with the aid of a golden key.

 

War, Boom and Bust 

The wars provided contracts for manufacturing boots and other essential footwear. However, difficulties were met due to the shortage of labour and raw materials. On the 22nd January 1915 the Loughborough Echo reported that many of Sileby's boot firms were "engaged in the making of army boots and canvas shoes for the use of our army and for the French." During the Second World War the government compelled boot companies to manufacture non-shoe related products in addition to their normal wares. Sileby's firms were mandated to follow these various schemes and orders. For example, in June 1941, Newbold and Burtons had a third of its production space in its main factory requisitioned for the manufacture of munitions. Later that year, in September 1941, Newbold's also had to forego a seventh of its shoe manufacturing output to another company as part of the government's scheme of concentration in the shoe industry.

Following the war, reorganisation and replanning of assets allowed greater production and efficiences. The period from 1945 to the early 1960s was a golden age for local boot and shoe firms with thriving home and foreign markets and almost continual growth. This coincided with new production methods, better machinery and the introduction of plastics and other synthetic products.

 

By the mid 1960s the signs of an industry wide downturn were starting to be noticed. Foreign competition, a depression in sales and a lack of investment meant that by the late 1980s the local industry had been decimated by closures or switches in production. As a result, Excelsior had closed its doors in 1968. Even the stalwart Newbold and Burtons had succumbed to a takeover by Peter Black Holdings, a Keighley based consumer goods manufacturer and importer, in early 1987. By 1996 the boot and shoe industry had disappeared altogether from the village landscape. It left behind a cavernous void in terms of the social and economical benefits that the factories had brought to Sileby, and very large, vacant brownfield sites.  

Dec 2000 Google Earth.jpg

Central swathe of the village showing hosiery and shoe factories : December 2000

​© Google Earth

June2021GE_edited.jpg

Central swathe of the village showing the Burton Road estate : June 2021

© Google Earth

For a detailed list of Sileby's Boot and Shoe COMPANIES, FACTORIES AND WORKSHOPS   -

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