Were you part of Norwich's booming shoe and boot trade?
- Credit: Steve Adams
The factories may be gone but the memories live on…of a time when more than 10,000 men and women were working in the Norwich boot and shoe trade.
And half a century ago the companies produced around 11 million pairs of shoes and fashion boots. An extraordinary achievement.
Today we live in different times…we don’t make that many shoes anymore. We import them.
The people I know who worked in the booming shoe trade look back on those days with great affection. It wasn’t so much a job…more a way of life.
And they were certainly skilled workers.
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Now I bring you news of a reunion for all those who were part of the Florida/Van Dal family.
They are looking forward to getting together next month and the organiser, Alan Robinson, who spent more than 20 years working in the clicking room, hopes as many people as possible will join them.
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These gatherings illustrate the bond of friendship between the men and women, many of whom spent their entire working lives making a huge range of top quality footwear.
Norwich made footwear for hundreds of years. Leather workers, saddlers and shoemakers gathered to live in the same neighbourhoods.
Such as: London Street was Hosiergate, Gentleman’s Walk was Cordwainers’s Row and St Peter Parmentergate Church on King Street recalls the street where leather sellers (parmenters) worked.
It was the far-sighted James Smith who saw the need for ready-made shoes and opened a shop and factory on the site of where City Hall stands today.
His company went on to became Start-rite.
While many people worked from home, times were changing. The Norwich shoe trade expanded and by the 1850s was employing more than 5,000 people and the city became an important centre for shoemaking along with Northampton and Leicester.
Slowly but surely large factories emerged and in 1936 Adelman Goodman bought the Florida shoe factory at the junction off Salhouse Road and what is now the ring road known as “Florida Corner.”
It had been established by a German refugee Mr Herschel to produce ladies’ shoes and during the First World War operated from an old aircraft hangar.
Under the wing of the popular Goodman family the company grew and prospered, and when peace came again, in 1946, Val-Dal Shoes were formed to market the Florida range.
In the 50s the Florida was flourishing, moving to a large factory on Dibden Road making around 8,000 pairs of shoes a week. It closed in 2018.
It is important we remember the big shoe factories and the part they played in the history of the city…and in people’s lives.
The gathering for all those who worked at the Florida/Van-Dal is taking place at The Cottage on Thunder Lane, such a popular spot for gatherings, on Friday, September 10 from 7pm. Partners are welcome. More details from Alan on Norwich (01603) 487588 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Trade by Norwich Heritage Projects is available at £12 from norwich-heritage.co.uk
What does the future hold for local shoe brands?
Created in 1946, the last two years have arguably been the most tumultuous for Van Dal not least because of the critical impact of Covid 19.
Marketing director Jason Larke explained: “With a shift to online sales putting pressure on traditional independent shoe retailers, availability on local high streets changed rapidly. Ten years ago there were more than 750 viable retailers round the UK, today just above 150 are left.
Back in 2019 it was clear that to remain profitable the business needed to change. Van Dal’s owner, The Florida Group, acquired the Kettering-based Padders brand in June of that year and the future looked positive.
“Come March 2020 though and with all shops closed due to lockdown, The Florida Group had seen 70% of its revenue disappear. Lockdown life was tough,” said Jason.
And with the third national lockdown imposed in January 2021, it was clear the situation had become untenable and The Florida Group took the decision to cease trading in April 2021,” said Jason.
”Fortunately,” added Jason, “ a rescue package was put together by the former managing director, Tony Linford, and both brands were subsequently acquired by the newly formed Norwich Footwear Ltd.
“As of August the brands are now trading, with most staff returning and the business once again building momentum. Furthermore, with the spectre of lockdowns now hopefully removed, sales are back on an upward trajectory,” he said.
Confidence has returned and a stock of new styles are arriving every week into their Norwich warehouse. All of which will be available to buy online at vandalshoes.com or padders.co.uk
“More locally, and for those looking for a bargain, try heading out to the Van Dal & Co shop on Church Street at Hoveton (Wroxham) for shoes at factory discounted prices – in fact quote this article and you can get an extra 10% off in store until the end of August,” Jason said.