Shoemaking in Nantwich
From tough work boots to fine ladies' styles

Nantwich is nowadays known as a pleasant country town for commuters and the retired, with some good pubs and nightlife for the bright young things of South Cheshire. The old town was once better known as the home of the Nantwich boot, the tough work-boot, popular in the mill town of Lancashire, and also fine ladies’ shoes. In the 1790s, the work-boot and fashion shoes were made at Nantwich and sold in Manchester, and even London.

The trade was organised on the 'putting out' system, whereby a merchant would commission the designs, obtain the orders, and arrange home workers, to make up the shoes to his specifications. The work would be undertaken by the whole family. The hides would be cut up by very skilled men called 'clickers', often at the merchant’s own premises. The leather strips would then be given out to be made up into shoes.

The strips would be 'bound', that is sewn into a rough shoe, shape by the women and these were then shaped on a last, which was an iron or wooden foot-shaped mould. At this point the bottoms were sewn onto the shoe 'uppers'. The young men did the heavy work of making the soles and stitching the soles to the uppers, to make the completed shoe. Women, children and old men then undertook the lighter tasks of ‘finishing’, i.e trimming and polishing.

Once ready for sale, the shoes would be returned to the merchant for Thursday ‘packing night’, ready for dispatch to Manchester’s shoe market, Shudehill. The merchants would hire coaches, or when the railways reached Crewe, take space in goods wagons. James Hall, the Nantwich historian, writing in 1883 stated that in 1656 a pair of men’s shoes cost three shillings, in 1759, “leather being dearer”, five shillings, and in 1838, nine shillings and sixpence.

In 1825, an industrious workman could make one pair of men’s shoes in one day, for which he received one shilling and tenpence. The first ‘colleges’ of shoemaking were established in 1825 and, presumably, these were small factories-cum-warehouses. Traditional factories did not arrive in the shoe trade until much later. The principal manufacturers were John Davenport, William Davenport and Thomas Barker. Leonard Gilbert introduced the sewing machine to Nantwich around 1860, for the light work, and then rivetting machines were introduced.

This still caused considerable ill-feeling and a bitter struggle ensued as the earnings of almost every family in Nantwich were hit. It is said that Gilbert had to employ Liverpool workers in his factory, in Churchyardside, because local men refused. Some even threatened to torch the factory and Gilbert reputedly carried a revolver to protect himself.

Despite these threats and troubles caused by economic slump, the Nantwich shoemaking industry thrived and by 1870 a man and a lad could earn £3.00 a week between them, although in other shoemaking towns the wages were even higher. Strikes broke out in 1872/73 for pay parity with Stafford and even Sandbach. The employers fiercely resisted and a good deal of trade was lost to the town. The town never really recovered and the likes of Leonard Gilbert pulled out. He became Mayor of Chester, but retained an interest in his Nantwich factory until 1883.

In the 1890s the shoe trade was revolutionised by the first powered machinery and by the turn of the century the Nantwich trade was beginning to decline. The last factory in the town closed, after a fire, in 1925, although smaller works continued until 1932.