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
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
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.
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