Sole traders: the rise and fall of a Norwich shoe factory

PUBLISHED: 09:15 26 May 2018

Checking the quality...

Checking the quality...


Recently we told the story of Sir Henry Holmes, born 150 years ago, the shoe baron with a heart of gold. Today Derek James takes a look at the rise and fall of the business he created and at a trade which in 1972 made 10.8 million pairs of shoe and boots.

Putting the finishing touches to the shoes.Putting the finishing touches to the shoes.

Two years after the death of Sir Henry Holmes, the Edwards & Holmes factory he created was blown apart in the Baedeker raids in April of 1942, his son Geoffrey switched the business to two smaller factories in Westwick Street and Starling Road.

Six months later a bomb dropped on the Westwick Street. Luckily it was at lunch-time when the workers were out of the building.

The shoes ready for boxing up.The shoes ready for boxing up.

The following year the forward-thinking and top shoemaker Bill Forrest joined the company as a right-hand man to Geoffrey Holmes. They were a great double act and in 1948 a new factory was built on the site of the old factory at Drayton Road.

They built up a reputation for class and quality making a range of shoes and specialist footwear for top musical shows in the West End. Thousands of men and women worked in the factory over the years.

A sign of the times � where people worked, they now live. Homes on the old E&H shoe factory site.A sign of the times � where people worked, they now live. Homes on the old E&H shoe factory site.

In 1966 600 workers were treated to a night out at the Norwich Theatre Royal to see My Fair Lady to celebrate the fact they had made 900 pairs of shoes for the production.

In 1975 Bill Forrest died, leaving Peter Holmes at the helm. A dozen years later he sold the firm to Simon Goodman at Florida Shoes and told Frances and Michael Holmes, authors of The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Industry: “By then only Start-rite, Florida and Bally still survived. If I hadn’t sold there’s no doubt that in the next couple of years we’d have gone bust.”

Times were changing, the glory days for Norwich shoemakers were coming to an end. The 80s were worse than the 70s. In 1972 Norwich shoe firms produced no fewer than 10.8 million pairs of shoes and fashion boots which was heralded by the Eastern Daily Press and Evening News as an “all-time record.”

In the years that followed the industry was torn to pieces by cheap imports, recessions and other factors. Today it is a shadow of its former self but we can still be proud of the shoe-makers which remain.

They do not include Edwards & Holmes, sadly. Its factory closed in 1990.

The factory off Drayton Road in Norwich came tumbling down and a new homes have been built at least the road names remember the past. They include Bootbinders Road, Clickers Road and Finishers Road.

It’s a tribute to all those who worked for Edwards & Holmes. We mustn’t forget them.

They included the likes of Bruce Rampley who started work at the firm in 1945 aged 14. In the 1960s he started photographing shoes for the firm for catalogues and advertising material. In 1967 he left to become a full-time photographer. Bruce died in 2012.

His photographs seen here appear in the book The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Industry by Michael and Frances Holmes which is still in the shops.

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