The Footwear Industry Shaped Me

As an artist I am fascinated by archival materials, searching for fragments of the past to reimagine and place in the present. An exploration of history to find forgotten narratives told through digital assemblage, print and free-hand machine embroidery. The personal histories found in archive photographs and documents often give us a glimpse of a way of life that no longer exists as well as the people who lived it.

All of my recent work has been connected to the history of the textile industry in Lancashire. The repetition and restriction of work seems to have been pivotal in defining the lives, memories and experiences of the people who live there. There are important stories to be shared about lives spent in work and one of the aims of this project was to find and record valuable first-hand testimony before it disappears.

Over the past few months I have had the privilege of spending time immersed in the archives of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery looking at objects, photographs and documents that capture the history of Rossendale. Rossendale was once at the centre of the U.K’s footwear industry. At its peak it employed 60,000 people with one of the biggest companies Lambert, Howarth & Sons producing 10 million pairs of shoes a year.

‘The Footwear Industry Shaped Me’
Digital collage and free-hand machine embroidery by Sharon Brown

The first slippers were made in 1874 with manufacturing technology and skills developing to produce all kinds of footwear made by all kinds of companies such as Gregory & Co, H.W. Trickett, Deardon & Co, Hoyle and Hoyle, The Bacup Shoe Company, The Newchurch Boot Company, Samuel McLerie & Sons, JH Hirsts, JW Rothwell, Maiden and Ireland Ltd, Rawtenstall Shoe & Slipper Co Ltd, E. Sutton and Sons and Ashworth and Hoyle. The decline of the industry began in the 1980’s as cheaper imports began to flood the U.K. market.

Image courtesy of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

I became fascinated with a small black and white photograph of a large room full of nameless women working in a shoe factory. Digitising archive materials allows you to zoom in on every detail of that photograph, the working environment and those working within it. Who were those women and what were their lives like? Curiosity and unanswered questions led to searching for further archive materials connected to footwear manufacturing, an area of industry under represented in Lancashire’s rich textile heritage.

I wanted to explore the individual and collective experience behind the easily discoverable facts. Making connections with the local community enabled me to meet with ex-workers to hear and record their first-hand testimony. Some of those words, written in their own hand, have been translated into stitched narratives using free-hand machine embroidery. I feel so honoured to have spent time listening to, reading and working with their memories and experiences. These stitched words give a personal insight into how those workers feel about the industry they were once part of as well as the impact it had on their lives. I have also included some quotes from interviews conducted in 1988 found in The Whitaker Archive.

Spending time in the community led to the discovery of Valley Heritage http://www.valleyheritage.org.uk and their on-going restoration of flood damaged archive materials to create the Rossendale Footwear Collection. A remarkable archive that I was able to access and explore which has played a key role in the development of my work and ideas. The final series of embroidered digital collages use archive materials that have not been touched or seen for decades. A body of work that I hope to continue and build on in the future.

Exhibition Credits:
I am extremely grateful to all the people who helped and participated in this project, particularly; Pat Smith, Janette Navan, Dave Jones, Bev Wharton, Joe Healey, Alyson Hampson ,Tom Lord and Linda Ginty.

More information can be found here:
Facebook: Rossendale Shoe Industry Lancashire Textile Gallery Commission
Instagram: @sharonjbrownartist

Date: 1941
Origin: Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“I moved to Newchurch Boot Co Globe Mills and took a position in their press room, this was a fantastic employment making virtually all types of footwear construction with some of the best quality shoes made by the Veldtschoen construction.”

Date: c.1900 – 1930
Origin: Sir H.W.Trickett Ltd, Gaghills Mill, Waterfoot, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage

Sir Henry Whittaker Trickett went from working in one of the first slipper manufacturing companies in Rossendale to starting his own factory at Gaghills Mill in Waterfoot. By 1900 he was employing over 1,000 people and producing 72,000 shoes per week. Known as ‘The Slipper King’ who left school at 8 years old, he was the first factory owner to have a profit and share scheme wanting it to be different for his workers. This beautiful illustration shows the range and breadth of slippers made in the early days of Trickett’s.

“And his marketing was something else wasn’t it, in that age: these magnificent advertisements that he did, he was definitely an entrepreneur, a man in the style of Barnam and Bailey, I would think. He had certainly a desire and he could make people have a desire for his products”

Transcript from interviews conducted by Ken Howarth in 1988, from the collection of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

Date: c.1956
Origin: Gaghills Mill, Waterfoot, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“I attended day release every Monday and night classes every Wednesday at the Rawtenstall College for Footwear Technology. We were taught all aspects of footwear manufacturing and took a course of B.B.S.I. exams which would lead to a final certificate of ‘Associateship’ B.B.S.I. ( British Boot & Shoe Institute)”

Date: Unknown
Origin: Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage

“I think Sir H.W. Trickett over the years , spawned a lot of offshoots, or people who could take advantage of his training and work in the industry to move forward. As I understand it he gave my grandfather and his partner £100 each to go up the road and start in business in competition with him”

Date: Unknown
Origin: Gaghills Mill, Waterfoot, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“After the war I went straight down to Gaghills, my mum never wanted me to go in the closing room and from the first day of going in I knew I loved it. It were what I always wanted to do, and I don’t know why my mum stopped me when I was fourteen. I fancy she thought there was a lot of worry to it, you know, but it never worried me. I loved it. And when I got on a flat machine, oh that was it, I loved it.”

Transcript from interviews conducted by Ken Howard in 1988, collection of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

Photograph used with kind permission of Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage.

“The Closing Room was the department which closed all the upper materials of a shoe, slipper, boot or sandal together using various sewing machines.”

“Oh you were frightened of breaking needles. At Gaghills, they had what they called a needles sign and you were allowed two needles a day, and if you’d had your two needles, that was it, and if you broke them, then well, you were frightened to death of going up, well they were foreladies in them days: they knew their job. But I remember breaking needles, so I got to the stage “ Can I borrow off you ?” “ No I haven’t got any” “ Can I borrow off you” “ No , I haven’t got any “ So you had to go up then, you see. Everybody was frightened of parting with their needles, cos you knew you were – well I’d to go and tell such a story when I broke those needles, you’d have thought I was asking for a thousand pounds .”

Transcript from interviews conducted by Ken Howarth in 1988, from the collection of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

Photograph used with kind permission of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery.

“Birthdays, weddings, births were always celebrated but Christmas was the best. We would clock on as usual but at 10 o’clock would stop, clean our machines, sweep up and party.”

“At Christmas time all the trimming went up and all the workers got the management by tying them to posts and putting make up and shaving foam on them”

“Yes, we always had a footing and we used to have Christmas Day off and Boxing Day ,then back to work. But I’m thinking about now, now they have the footing about ten and then they’ve finished you know. That didn’t go on when I was younger, we’d have our footing in the morning and they’d say you can have half an hour: you know, which was a long time because normally your lunch break is ten minutes but then you’d get to your work because you needed your wage. There weren’t so many holidays with pay then.”

“In the closing room we had a tradition where if someone was about to get married they would dress up the girl in a “lovely” dress with a net curtain on their head and parade them around the factory for everyone to wish them well.”

Transcript from interviews conducted by Ken Howarth in 1988, from the collection of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“There was always lots of kindness in the closing room.”

“I worked on a sewing machine called a flat bed on piece work. I also did a lot of samples. I always used snippers in my hand to trim off work, a tool called a bob harry which was like a hammer used to flatten the leather on the back seam. We worked hard but had a lot of good banter”

“We all clocked on and off and never stopped unless you smoked.”

“If you were on piece work, you wouldn’t waste a minute, even to brewing up; six of you might brew together, your turn for a week, then you wouldn’t brew again for six weeks, you’d be working while somebody else went brewing. You had to save time.”

Transcript from interviews conducted by Ken Howarth in 1988, from the collection of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

Listen to first-hand testimony of an ex-worker from Ashworth & Hoyle, discussing their experience of working in a shoe factory. Used with kind permission of the The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery and the Lancashire Archives. Image shows the Machine Lasting Room at Lambert, Howarth & Sons in 1927. Used with kind permission of Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage.

Excerpt 1: General company information about Ashworth & Hoyle and Star Works.

Excerpt 2: Her father’s experience of working in the industry as a pattern cutter in the clicking room.

Excerpt 3: General impressions and working conditions of a temporary summer working job in the factory.

Excerpt 4: Temporary worker’s experience of the factory floor production line.

Excerpt 5: Thursday payday and Friday finishing for the weekend.

Excerpt 6: Footings for birthdays and Xmas customs

“Most people had family members that worked there in other departments. My sister worked on the evening shift, her husband was a backmoulder and later their daughter worked in returns. Everyone looked out for each other so another saying was “kick one and they all limp.”

“I had the best time at LHS, everyone was friendly and we had a great social life. The motto was “work hard and play hard” and we did both.”

 “Clicking’s right good money, oh it’s always been a good job: It’s always been one of the top jobs, the clickers, so long back when I was young they went in collars and ties, oh yeah, they were the cream of the slipper works.”

“In those days you’d to practically wait for somebody to die before you got on clicking or a press.”

Transcript from interviews conducted by Ken Howarth in 1988, from the collection of The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

Date: Unknown
Origin: Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“I remember when I started work at first you could go year after year and you always made sandals, children’s sandals and you seemed to make lots and lots of them.”

Origin: Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage

“We frequently had not far short of a thousand tons sometimes of crepe rubber, because when you’re producing about 2,000 dozen pairs, that’s 24,000 pairs of kids’ sandals every week – one of the most comfortable shoes a child can wear.

Origin: Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage

Date: 1970s
Origin: Rawtenstall, United Kingdom
Credit: The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“Whenever we got a new style coming from the design team, we had to sit down with the shoe, sandal or slipper and cost the pair. The way we did this was to measure each part of the stitching process with our thumb (from tip to 1st joint measured 1 inch). Depending on how many inches was multiplied by 38p then multiplied by 12 ( 1 dozen pairs). 38 pence was for the more skilled machinist on a Flat, Post or Binder. 35 pence was for the average machinist on a elasticator or seam press, Eyelet.30 pence was for a low skilled job – an automatic embroidery machine, table workers.”

Date: 1970s
Origin: Rawtenstall, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Credit: The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery

“Greenbridge and Rossendale works always joined forces to put on a show at Bacup Empire Theatre every year to raise money for charity. For months leading up to this we rehearsed in the canteen as 5 of us from the closing room volunteered to be in a dance troupe.”

“We had a sports and social committee where members from each department talked about organising different events for example, taking employees young children to pantomimes, having Kareoke nights, christmas party nights and weekends away in Blackpool.”

Photograph used with kind permission of Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage

“I loved being on the track where I gave about 40 ladies on different types of machines their boxes of work. I had backseamers, seam rubbers, folders, binders and elasticators on my track, each lady wanting the ‘best work’. As I sent down each box on the conveyor belt I also had to mark their wages card with the amount of uppers needed to be sewn along with the price of which they would get paid. I had to have a good memory.

Photograph used with kind permission of Rossendale Footwear Collection, Valley Heritage

“My mother-in-law worked at Lambert Howarths on the stitching machines. She said it was piecework and dog eat dog for the best trays of shoes to be stitched. The more you completed and quickly the more you made. She is now in her 90’s and still loved her time in the factories.”

“In 1999 around October all the department managers were to attend lunch time meetings with the factory manager to see if each department could save money by looking into where we could perform with less people . These meetings went on for 6 weeks. For me, as the closing room manager of 134 employees, I worked it out that I would be able to lose 6 machinists, all managers went away from that meeting thinking that we’d done what was asked. Later that day I was asked to bring all the machinists into the canteen. Smith stood in front of around 350 people to tell us that Greenbridge would be closing its doors in December. Everyone was in shock !! There were so many families worked in that building. For me, my mum, dad and auntie worked at Greenbridge, it was devastating. We were all sent home and told to return the next day. Lots of people were crying or getting angry.”

“Sad day when we all got made redundant, some of the best days of my life was working there.”

“The decline was very sad and as some people would say unnecessary.”

Business consultant Sid Johnson believed that he could use the knowledge and expertise of the Lambert, Howarth workforce to improve productivity in the factory by reorganising the production line.

“In 1995 we got a new director, who introduced the other directors to Sid Johnson and so started the filming of ‘Sid’s Heroes’. It was a very tense time for the machinist and members of staff. Team working really didn’t work for us but we did have 4 small teams performing skills on different machines so that a upper was started and finished in shorter time. We gave it our best shot but there were obstacles in the way – machine breakdowns, if we couldn’t get a mechanic there and then, the whole team were non-productive. If a needle broke, again the whole team stopped until we found it. None of us rated it but we stuck at it with 4 teams until 1999.”

Comments

(1 comment)

Rachel Midgley

I loved looking at the old photographs and listening to the audio excerpts, it really brought the workers to life.

I was also really interested to see the H.W.Trickett Ltd slipper advert; we have an almost identical pair of slippers to style no.38 in the collection here at Gawthorpe Textiles Collection! The quilted satin and fur lining must have felt very luxurious in addition to being cosy. I’ve attached an image of them along with another pair that came from the same donor.

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