The main section of this article appeared in the magazine Good Words on Nov 1st, 1869.
It gives a very interesting picture of mid-Victorian Northampton and it's shoemaking.
Northampton in 1869 probably had just under 40,000 inhabitants. The 1871 census revealed that
41,168 persons were living in the town at that date, an increase of 8,355 on the figure for 1861.
Out of the 10,909 male inhabitants aged 20 years and over, 4,641 (43%) were described as being
employed in making shoes. There were 7,804 houses occupied or empty in the borough, an increase
of 1,188 from 1861. In 1811 the population of Northampton had been only 8,427 and the number of
By 1869 the area of Northampton formerly enclosed by the town walls, (which followed approximately
the line of St Georges Street, Upper and Lower Mounts, York Road, Cheyne Walk, Victoria Promenade,
Weston Street and the Naseby branch of the River Nene) was almost completely covered with streets
and buildings. Expansion had taken place chiefly in a northward and eastward direction from the pre-1811
town. Kingsthorpe was still a large village, St James End was the site of an iron foundry and a few rows
of terraced houses. Far Cotton, excluding Cotton End which contained Bridge Street railway station, was
mostly rural, although a small housing estate had grown up west of the Towcester Road (Henley Street, etc)
and was sometimes called "New Zealand" because it was so far away from the outskirts of the town.
Between Billing and Wellingborough Road was a thickish scattering of streets and houses as far as East Street,
although there was still sizable amounts of land which had not yet been developed. In Billing Road itself, and
in adjacent Cliftonville, (not called by that name until 1875), there was a number of handsome villas which
commanded a view of the Nene Valley, and in which resided some of the successfull professional and business
men of the town.
Between the Wellingborough and Kettering Roads, the eastward limit of houses was Market Street. North of The
Mounts, Great Russell Street stuck out like a brick finger into the countryside. There were a few houses in
Semilong. A dense mass of houses centred on Grafton Street; this district was where many of the shoemakers
lived. In 1868 it had been a stronghold for Charles Bradlaugh, the well known secularist and Radical politician.
The vicar of St Andrews, the local church, had one of the toughest jobs which could fall to a Victorian parson; in
1878 his successor wrote sadly that the whole parish had been leavened with Bradlaugh's "athesistical principles",
and that it was most difficult to induce people living in the parish to attend public worship, "especially as when
they do [attend] they have to endure ridicule and persecution from their neighbours."
Northampton has modern meeting-houses, but it also holds the one in which Dr. Doddridge used to preach. It has
a splendid Town Hall [erected 1861-4] and it also has the remains of the old Norman castle [demolished in 1879 to
make way for the Castle railway station]. Modern red-brick shoe factories stud the town, pleasant red and white brick
little private residences with tiny trim lawns fringe the town; and it contains as well quaint old St Peter's Church and
picturesquely mellowed and mottled brown of St Seoulchre's - one of the four Templar churches still extant in England.
A detachment of of the 17th Lancers, billeted in the town en route for Edinburgh, are clanking their spurs on the
pavement, grooming their horses and shoeing the Queen' s steeds - if Simon de St. Liz, who built the castle, was still
alive, he would have to het that done for them.
In Billing Road there is a white Infirmary, founded in 1743 [transferred from George Row to new premises in Billing Road
in 1793]; and in St Johns Lane there is a dusky, time-gnawn Hospital of that ilk, founded in 1170, Sheep Street, Cow Lane
are racy names that tell of times when Northampton was laid out by cattle, Bearward Street - thereabouts Bruin used to
be baited. Narrow Toe Lane is a title that "talks shop" in a town of shoemakers, and Quart Pot Lane tells of proclivities
of far-off ancestors making leather-bottles.
The Northampton Mercury was started one hundred and fifty years ago. The town crier in red plush waistcoat
and breeches, drab gaiters, and gilt-branded hat reminds one somehow, when he rings his bell in the diamond-paved
"Drapery", of the Northampton parish clerk who got Cowper to write verses for his bills of mortality.
There is an old-fashioned town fool, also, who is abominably tormented by the youthful snobidae ['snob', a
common nickname in the past for a shoemaker]; the cruel young scamps varying their amusement by supplying him
with ammunition to pelt their fellows with.
The dress of the Northampton charity-boys [The Blue Coat School was in Bridge Street and ther Dryden or Orange
Coat School in Abington Street] is another thing that strikes a stranger as telling of the past. Charity costumes
everywhere seem droll to those not used to them, but this particoloured youngster has a specially comical aspect
as he dances along, quite unconscious of the effect which his light-hosed spindle-shanks are producing.
Old churches and houses of brown and cream-coloured Kingsthorpe stone are so oddly blended with two and three
four floored new brick shoe-factories, with trim villakins, and new streets running, bramble-blocked, into corn-fields,
or up ot the scarped banks of meadows. Pallid men, stubbly-chinned, and smudged as to the cheeks and aprons like
a lodging-house slavey black-leading a grate, are loafing about at every corner. Ditto men and boys, and untidy
women and girls, are "going to shop", with bagfuls and faggots of boots and shoes, and soleless "uppers". The
women-folk seem to toil under the heaviest loads. The Northampton shoemaker, I am told, too often makes his
wife his beast of burden. Sometimes he has the excuse he can go on working, and the Northampton cordwaineress
does not possess the power of the purse, like the far-heavier-load-carrying Scotch fish wife.
We see shoemakers and shoemakeresses at work in dingy ground-floor rooms and at open upper windows; he
notices "Riveters' Entrance", & c., painted on the finger-rubbed doors of the many-windowed factories which might
be taken for little cotton mills [metal rivets were used in cheaper kinds of footwear to attach soles to uppers and insoles].
Let us go to Messrs. Turner Brothers, or Mr. Manfields, both in Campbell Square. The first impression produced us
one of the queer contrasts that there are in the cordwainer's trade. The cobbler, cramped in his cupboard-like stall,
belongs to it, and so does the firm, which employs four hundred hands on, and four times as many off, the premises.
In one long room, five rows of clickers, with pale faces and dirty aprons. with a pent-house or brief upper skirt of
leather at the waist, are cutting on wooden slabs, and blocks like butchers', all kinds of women's materials; in another
tougher men's materials are being manipulated. When cut, the uppers are rolled up, placed in ticketed baskets, and
sent up to the operatives in other parts of the premises, or away to outside hands. A boot ot shoe often goes out in
this way twice before it is finished, and stacked in the drying-room heated by steampipes. Down below there is a
puff of steam; wheels whir, bands run round and round, machinery clanks. Soles and heels and "split-lifts"
[split-lift - narrow strip of leather wedge-shaped in section, curved so that it forms a marginal heel layer] are being
punched out by iron frames that come down upon the leather with a thud, and when punched, slide down shoots
into the shoots into the bin-like receptacles beneath. These lads are pricking holes for the riveters by the aid of a
machine; that old man is passing leather, to harden it, between steam-turned rollers. It is curious to note the difference
between hand work and machine work. Close by a sole-cutting machine a young man or two are cutting up odds
and ends of leather into soles by hand. Although they have the aid of the machinery to press the the leather
into shape, it is almost ludicrous to remark how few they make in comparison to the machine. Soles and heels are
garnered in great pigeon-holes. Shaped leather of all sorts is arranged on shelves in ticketed baskets. Cistern-like
tin-lined cases, inner-lined with brown paper, are gaping for their loads. Here is a pile of boots done up in pairs in
white and green tissue paper; there is a pyramid of bright pink boxes, each holding a dozen pairs. Here the
patent-leather tops of boots for South American gallopers over the Pampas are being eyeleted. Specially gay
and graceful are the women's boots intended for Spanish-American countries; sky-blue, with a golden star on the
instep; mauve, golden-bronze, like a butterfly's wing, green, with a sheen like a drake's neck; pink, yellow, and
black, with coquettish little ankle-tassels. Close by are shoes for New Zealand servant girls - that looke as if their
wearers would never need a second pair; and not far off, as substantial-seeming sea boots for Newfoundland
cod-fishers. In an adjoining room there is an "infinite variety" - a dazzling variety - of many-coloured babies' shoes,
varying in price from 5d. upto 30s.
"And what is the value of Northampton's export of shoes?"
"A million sterling per annum would be a low estimate", is the answer.
"And what are the average wages of the hands?"
"Oh, it is almost impossible to strike an average. Some of mine -a very few- make £3 per week; more make £2;
but I dare say a good many do not make more than 12s. It depends entirely on the man himself."
What I may call a middleman manufacturer - one who takes work from the large manufacturers and employs
boys and girls to do it - is good enough to say that, if I like to come, I can look over the place. Although he
employs seventy hands, the middleman wears an apron, and carries work backwards and forwards in a basket
on his shoulder, "No", he chuckles, when I ask whether there have been any strikes lately in Northampton.
"We've done striking, I think. The strike against the machines gave us a lesson, I fancy - drove the trade to
Leicester and Stafford, and half ruined Northampton. But we're going again now - p'r'aps trade's a bit slack just
at present - but we've got the trade back, and there'll be no more strikes, I reckon". The strike referred to was
an epoch in Northampton's history. Waggons were converted into platforns on which indignant orators
consigned the machines, verbally, to perdition; those who worked for them were hooted through the streets
as "scabs"; but machinery triumphed, and shoemaking still employs the bulk of the labouring population
The middleman's factory is a three-floored brick building, window lighted on both sides. On the gound floor
the paste-boys work, earning from 3s. to 4s. a week. The two upper floors are given up to the girls. In each room
there is a row of about a dozen "machinists" - young women from seventeen to twenty odd, some of with
chignons like small pumpkins - working "uppers" on Howe and Singer sewing-machines, and earning from
9s. to 18s. a week. The little girls who sit on the floor in the middle of the room, with baskets beside them are
"knot tiers". They earn from 1s 6d. to 3s. by picking out and knotting the ends of the machinists threads. At a
long dresser-like counter on the other side of the room stand a row of "fitters", girls of an age intermediate
between the knot-tiers and the machinists, and earning the intermediate wages of from 7s. to 12s. a week.
The ceaseless ticking of sewing-machines, the pummelling of the fitters give the uppers they are fitting to
the lasts [in preperation for the machinists], and what I must be ungallant enough to call the "clatter"
which is an almost necessary consequence of feminine foregathering, combine to make those upper rooms
remind me of one of the parrot-house in Regent's Park. The working hours are from seven to twelve a.m,;
and from one to six p.m. Such of the children as come under the Factory Act are sent to school in batches.
Here, as well as I believe at the larger factories, work ceases at two on Saturday afternoons - a boon which the
Northampton operatives highly and jealousy prize, and the holidays given amount to about four clear days
in the year.
In one of the new streets [Robert Street] ending abruptly in a little precipice of scarped meadow, the Northampton
Industrial Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Society (Limited) has recently built itself a commodius factory.
Wandering about in it, I find the manager in red shirt and apron, and with hands that show he does his full
share of the factory's work. The Association plainly means business, and squanders no money on luxuries
for directors. It counts one hundred members, sixty of whom work for the factory - ten on the premises. The
manager on the society's success, "Our last balance-sheet shows goods to the value of about £4,370 have been sold
during the half-year (material costing £2,260), and that nearly £1,500 have been paid in wages to members and
Northampton has what may be called two public parks, looking out upon the green grassland, golden
cornfields, dusky wood, and winding water, with which the slope of the red, yellow, brown white town, here
and there bristled with tall chimney-stalks, is begirt. These are the rough race-course, sacred to the Pytchley Hunt
performances in race-time; during the rest of the year given up to cows, kite-fliers, cricketers and strollers; and the
Cow Meadow [Becket's Park], bordered on one side by the locked cut which renders the Nene navigable there for
its long, slow, man-poled, women-steered barges, and on the other side of the irregular triangle, by a most
pleasant Alameda of over-arching trees, known as the New Walk, or Victoria Promenade.
A large proportion of the Northampton shoemakers struck me, during my recent visit to them, as being decided
members of the Alcoholic Persuasion. I met them mooning about, unshorn, unkempt, - a condition in which too
many of them remain in the day on which they need not work - with filmy eyes which showed that they had gone
on the "fuddle". I met them staggering. I saw them sparring - one with his apron down, and the other with his apron
hastily rolled up around his waist - and then suddenly knocking off knocking each other, and amicably nodding
their heads together, as if they had quite forgotten that they had been trying to blacken each other's eyes two
seconds before. It is, I am informed, "the thing" with the Northampton shoemaker to take what he calls a
"Sunday-Monday": id est, he works on Sunday, that he may have the more to "lush on" on Monday. There is
a large sprinkling of "Freethinkers" amongst the shoemakers.
Bearward Street, already mentioned; Harding Street; Spring Lane, with stagnant duck-weeded water at its foot;
Compton Street, the very unaristocratic namesake of the local earl; Scarletwell Street, so called because its well
used to be supposed to supply water peculiarly adapted for scarlet-dyeing; and Crispin Street, are the most
fashionable quarters of the cordwainers' colony, a part of the town which is almost soley peopled by shoemakers
and their purveyors. Neatly built, yet squalid, unfragant, two-floored cottages; roadways splashed with slops,
and littered with garbage; dirty children quarelling, grubbing in the dirt, racing, squealing, squatting on the
kerbstone in rows; vixenish women and beery men, in and outside of low "publics", are the salient features of
In one of the strees I saw a fierce young mother box her child's ears savagely for dabbling in the mire, and then
pursue and savagely drub the neighbour's child who had tempted her offspring to dabble.
"There you", "little snob", exclaimed the snob's wife, "you come an' take my Bill down into the muck agin,
In Scarletwell Street "St. Crispins Arms" and just opposite stands the qually patronised "Gate", with this
inscription on the sign :-
"This gate hangs well, and hinders none,
Refresh, and pay, and travel on",
A writer for the Northampton Mercury suggest that the second line ough t to be parodied into,
"Be fresh, and pay, and still stop on"
I never heard such a general superfluity of obscene-naughtiness issuing from my lips as I heard during my
stay in Northampton. After nightfall, too, on week days its noble Market Square is disgraced by scenes of
juvenile depravity quite as shameless as those which ever and anon, when police supervision has grown slack,
may be witnessed after church-time in Sunday evenings in the Westminster Road and Upper Street, Islington.
The stike mentioned by the "middleman manufacturer" took place in the early spring of 1859. It was the
culmination of fifteen months of unrest which followed the introduction of closing machines by two
Northampton manufacturers in 1857. The strike was a failure. Six years later it was stated that there were
1,500 cloing machines in use in the town.
Richard Rowe does not, it must be admitted, give a flattering picture of the rank and file of the Northampton
shoemakers or their wives! To conclude this article, therefore, here are two more accounts of Northampton
and it's shoemaking inhabitants, each giving a brighter picture of the town. The first appeared in the March
1868 issue of the Leather Trades Circular, and was written by "Simon the Tanner".
"We next day stroll through this ancient town, and truly I was struck by its clean appearance. I was
astonished to find so large a town, and one so devoted to the subjects of St. Crispin, so tidy, orderly, neat
and respectable. Being so often in London, and remarking the unwashed appearance of the shoemakers there,
and having during my rambles at times entered their inodorous dwellings, I was suprised to find in
Northampton such good houses, such well-dressed people, and a remarkable politeness in the working class,
both male and female. Of course, I lost my way, and had to enquire my whereabouts, and I was delighted at
the very proper speech and respectful behabiour of that class, which, in the before-named towns and cities,
would have been gruff, if not rough."
The second account comes from a printed report on the sanitary state of Northampton and its environs,
which was written by Dr. George Buchanan, a permanent inspector in the Medical Department of the
Privy Council Office. It is dated April 1871.
"The people of Northampton are, as a rule, very fairly housed. Even the poorest people have usually a house
to themselves, for sub-letting is seldom found to an extent beyond a married son or daughter, or an artizan
who works in the house. As compared with average towns the instances are few in which two or three
families reside in one house: and even though for the last three or four years house-room has been in
extra demand through exceptional briskness of trade, the want has been supplied by the occupation of new
houses. There is little over-crowding, therefore, unless it be such as results from the mal-distribution of the
family in the rooms of a house. In the older parts of town, particulary, houses are found ill-kept and dirty; but
even this is not so general a fault as in most large towns. There are no cellar habitations. Common lodging-houses
are regulated by the police, and it is stated that they are fairly kept.
The old type of house consisted of two rooms, one above the other, with a back room and privy built on and
almost covering the scanty back yard. Other old houses in courts were built without any back yards, and even
without any back windows. The new type of cottage [i.e. terraced house] has 15 feet frontage, two or three
stories, with two rooms on each floor, and a basement used as a coal-cellar. The privy is outside the house in
a small but fairly sufficient yard. To the rear of these cottages are somtimes attached workshops, in which
materials brought from the shoe factories are made up by members of the family, who, in some instances, take
in boys and girls as assistant workers.
The staple occupation of the people in Northampton is shoemaking; it is partly carried on at the workers' homes,
but of late years, owing to the introduction of machinery, a larger proportion of work is done in factories.
Good wages can be earned, and there is little extreme poverty in the town."