Memories of the boot and shoe factories at the heart of industrial Norwich

The Shoe Room at Shorten & Armes in 1972.

The Shoe Room at Shorten & Armes in Norwich in 1972. - 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.

The Closing Room at the big Sexton, Son & Everard shoe factory in 1959.

The Closing Room at the big Sexton, Son & Everard shoe factory in Norwich in 1959. - Credit: Archant Library

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.

Workers at the Trimfoot shoe factory in 1960.

Workers at the Trimfoot shoe factory in Norwich in 1960. - Credit: Archant Library

The Clicking Room at Bally Shoes in 1959.

The Clicking Room at Bally Shoes in Norwich. Date: 1959. - Credit: Archant Library

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.

 The Trimming Room at John F Kirby’s factory in 1966.

The Trimming Room at John F Kirby’s factory in Norwich in 1966. - Credit: Frances and Michael Holmes

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.

The Norvic factory in 1952.

The Norvic factory in Norwich in 1952. - Credit: Archant Library

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.

For more old photos and articles about Norfolk history and heritage, subscribe to our fortnightly Through the Decades email newsletter. Sign up by clicking here