14.3. Boot and Shoe Makers

These workers in London worked individually in their workshops for masters, and were formed into two unions. 

The wages of the journeymen shoemakers in London remained the same from the strike in 1812, until 1842, when they were reduced by 15 percent, reflecting the lessening of duties on imports, particularly from French production. From 1842 to 1849 they were from 15 to 17 shillings. There was much price competition from Northampton, where there was a sort of “assembly line system” (Mayhew, 1850, Letter XXXII and Letter XXXIII).   

The main region outside London for the boot and shoe industry was the city and the county of Northampton. The structure was of small home workshops of a few people (almost all the establishments were of one to nine adult males, to which would be added wives and children). There was no use of machines before 1850. 

“In Northampton, and some of the neighbouring towns, upwards of a thousand hands are employed, in making shoes for the supply of the army and navy, and the shops in London, and also for exportation to different parts of the world. About 7000 or 8000 pairs are manufactured weekly in time of peace; but at present (July 1794), in consequence of the war, from 10,000 to 12,000 may be manufactured in the same period. The price runs from 3s. 6d. to 5s. and upward the pair. The medium price may be reckoned at 4s. 3d. of which about 1s. 6d. is paid for labour.

The leather is purchased partly in this and the neighbouring counties, but chiefly from the London market. A journeyman earns from 7s. to 14s. the week; but from 9s. to 10s. may be considered as the general average.”

(General View of Agriculture of Northampton, 1794, James Donaldson, p. 10) 

In the 1790’s wages in Northampton were from 10 to 15 shillings a week for the cheap work. The wages fell by 20 to 25 % from 1812 to 1850 (Greenfield, 1998, p. 28); but this would be approximately compensated by the decrease in living costs in the same period. The number of active male shoemakers in Northampton borough changed from 500-600 in 1818 to 1,800 in 1841, and to 4,600 in 1871. 

In 1857-9 there occurred an important change in the industry in Northampton. The manufacturing companies decided that the workers instead of working manually, would have to use sewing machines for “closing”, that is, sewing the parts of the uppers together. Further, the work would be carried out in large factories, instead of in the family workshop.


This was rejected by the workers and their families, and they went on strike. But the strike did not prosper, and as the companies managed to convince the workers that they would not suffer a reduction in wages or lose their jobs, the workers accepted the change. One of the manufacturing companies took out a full-page advertisement in the “Northampton Mercury”, promising the workers good working conditions, reasonable hours, separate work places for men and for women, and noting that they would now not have to use their homes as workplaces.

In 1861, steam engines were introduced in the factories, and in 1865 they were producing 100,000 pairs of shoes a week. By 1864, there were 1500 closing machines in the town.


The average weekly wage of hand closers of less than seven shillings, could be doubled, or even trebled, by working on machine closing. 

(Greenfield, 1998, p. 74, n. 20, quoting the Children’s Employment Commission, Second Report, 1864, XXII, p. 164)

In 1869, in small factories (more exactly, large workshops), the young women working as “machinists”, sewing uppers on the Singer machines, were earning 9s. to 18s. a week; the “fitters” joining up the parts were earning 7s. to 12s. a week. 

(BBC Legacies, Northants, Mechanisation and Northampton’s shoemakers, http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/work/england/northants/article_2.shtml)

(Greenfield, 1998, pp. 102-113)

(Magazine “Good Words”, Nov 1st 1869, http://www.familyhistorynorthants.co.uk/1869.html)

This gives us a very important example of the effects of mechanization and the change to factory work. The men and women were able to improve considerably their income, find more employment, and have better working conditions, because the shoemaking industry could increase considerably its sales volume at low prices.

In Lancashire in 1839 to 1859, they had an increase from 26 shillings to 32 shillings (“bootclosers”) and from 22 shillings to 25 shillings (“bootmakers”). This was supposed to be due to the introduction of sewing machines.

(Chadwick, 1860, Section VI, p. 17)

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