Memories of the boot and shoe factories at the heart of industrial Norwich
- Credit: Frances and Michael Holmes
It was work which was a way for life for tens of thousands of Norwich and Norfolk families over so many years… at the shoe factories.
In 1972 we reported how the firms in the city produced 10.8 million pairs of shoes and fashion boots… an all-time record.
And there was a time when the shoe companies were owned and run by Norfolk people. Many stayed with the same company all their working lives.
Norwich had a long and proud history when it came to shoemaking dating back to the 14th century.
Then, in 1792, James Smith opened a factory and shop selling ready-made shoes on a site where City Hall stands today. It survived and went on to become a firm famous across the world – Start-Rite.
Slowly but surely the shoemaking trade in the city expanded and people went from working at home to moving into factories that were opening up.
New machinery was being invented and by 1861 more than 6,000 men and women were involved in making footwear.
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As the textile industry faded, the shoe-trade was starting to flourish.
And shoemakers had a reputation for standing up for themselves.
In 1875 the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives was formed and some 20 years later more than 1,500 workers went on strike for a minimum wage, a 54-hour week and a limit on the number of boys working for little money.
The strike lasted 34 weeks… the workers went back with few of their demands being met.
By the turn of the century, Norwich was concentrating on making shoes for women and children and became the third-largest centre of shoemaking in the country after Northampton and Leicester.
Business boomed. In 1931 the trade employed more than 10,000 people in the city. Norwich shoes were among the best in the land.
The Second World War followed by cheap imports along with changes in fashion resulted in the factories closing… times were changing.
Look out for The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Trade published some years ago by Frances and Michael Holmes of the Norwich Heritage Projects which features many of our stories and photographs.
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