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The shoe trade

In October 1855 over 500 shoemakers, both men and women, attended a mass meeting in Stafford’s Market Square. They were protesting against the trial of a sewing machine by Edwin Bostock, one of the town’s leading shoe manufacturers. The meeting passed a number of resolutions and

‘The fourth resolution proposed by Mr A. Brew and seconded by Mr A. Prosser condemned machinery as injurious to the interests of the working classes and solicited the higher and middle classes of Stafford to assist them with their sympathy and support.’[i]

The proposer, Andrew Brew, was Irish, and until his death in 1866 he was in the forefront of the fight by Stafford’s shoemakers to prevent the introduction of machinery. He was born in Downpatrick, Co. Down, in 1806, one of eight children from a poor Protestant family. He became a shoemaker and in the late 1820s or early 1830s he emigrated to Manchester. There he married an Irish woman, Ann Turpin.[ii] In 1841 they were living close to Angel Meadow, a notorious slum that was home to many Catholic Irish families, but in the 1840s the Brews decided they would do better in the specialist shoe town of Stafford than in the squalor of east Manchester.

Andrew Brew was one of many Irish shoemakers who came to Stafford during the nineteenth century. Between 1841 and 1901 almost one in ten of the town’s adult Irish workforce was in the footwear industry, and many of the children of Irish families entered the trade when they grew up.[iii] This body of workers was a classic example of how emigration and settlement were fuelled by the shift in economic power between Irish and British capitalism. Ireland suffered ‘deindustrialisation’ in the nineteenth century, and Stafford’s shoe trade illustrates how industrialisation and deindustrialisation were complementary forces.[iv]

Traditionally shoes were bespoke products made by cobblers selling directly to their customers, but in Britain the growth of London and the industrial cities created a profitable market for mass-produced ‘ready-mades’. This was exploited most profitably when entrepreneurs could use economies of scale, division of labour and cheaper road and rail transport. The trade increasingly concentrated in specialised shoe towns and villages of which Stafford was one.[v] Here the development was mainly due to William Horton (1750-1832), the first ‘manufacturer’ to orchestrate production on a large-scale, although most of the work was still done in workers’ houses.

Apprentice domestic shoemaker in the 19th century.

Apprentice domestic shoemaker in the 19th century. Image taken from The Band of Hope Review November 1861. Found within The Band of Hope Review 1861-67 and Child’s Paper Vol. 2 1853. London: S.W. Patridge. Parker Collection BF

Shoemaking remained a sweated domestic trade until the second half of the nineteenth century. The shoe manufacturers marketed their products both home and abroad, and Stafford’s growing dependence on the overseas and ladies fashion markets meant its trade was subject to booms and slumps.[vi] This volatility forced shoemakers to often go ‘on-tramp’ in search of work elsewhere. They had an easily transferable skill which used simple tools and had an organised system to provide support during the search for work. By the 1820s the Dublin trades had tramping links with England and in the shoe trade there was a broadly open labour market between Britain and Ireland.[vii]

The collapse of the Irish shoe industry

Shoemaking declined drastically in nineteenth century Ireland. In 1841 50,334 ‘boot and shoemakers’ were recorded in the census. The number had dropped to 45,421 by 1861, a decline of nearly ten per cent and the industry’s decline after 1861 was precipitous.[viii] Employment fell to 25,650 in 1881 and 13,627 in 1911. By the 1900s the majority were not makers of shoes but shoe shop assistants or cobblers repairing footwear imported from British factories.[ix] This decline was a direct result of what was happening in the British shoe industry. In Stafford Andrew Brew had fought the introduction of sewing machines, but he and his comrades lost the battle. The employers imposed them rapidly in the 1860s and followed up with other machines that de-skilled the work and reduced the unit costs of production. The industry was moved into purpose-built factories and workshops.

Mason & Marson

Mason & Marson’s shoe factory, Sandon Road, Stafford – a photo taken in the 1980s when the building was up for sale. Note the Hop Pole pub on the opposite corner of Wogan Street.

These more efficient methods as well as vicious competition by British shoe firms eliminated artisan producers in Ireland and more or less strangled the growth of factory production there.[x]  The 1907 Census of Production recorded a mere 2,026 factory shoemakers in Ireland.[xi] British firms particularly targeted the Irish market because overseas sales were hit by tariff barriers and American competition.[xii] Mass-produced ware from Britain flooded an Irish economy that was becoming more commercialised in the decades after the Famine. The dealers, shops and mail traders who encouraged the purchase of imported boots and shoes played a major part in undermining the native Irish shoe industry. They were the middlemen between Stafford’s manufacturers and the Irish consumer.[xiii] Imported ladies’ shoes, Stafford’s speciality, dominated the Irish market.[xiv] In these conditions it is no wonder that Irish shoemakers turned up in Stafford.

Work in the shoe trade

In Stafford the number of male workers in the shoe trade rose from 899 in 1841 to 1,607 in 1871, an increase of seventy-nine per cent.[xv] By then footwear workers formed nineteen per cent of the total population of the town. Census returns recorded 175 Irish-born shoemakers in Stafford between 1841 and 1901; the real number who passed through was probably three times that number. They formed only a small minority of the shoemakers who left Ireland in the nineteenth century, but those who settled were a microcosm of the mass.

Until the 1880s Stafford’s shoe trade attracted many in-migrant workers and their families, not just the Irish. In 1871 almost one third of the town’s shoe operatives had been born elsewhere, nearly one fifth outside Staffordshire.[xvi] That meant that outsiders were common and there was general acceptance of the shoemaker’s right to come and go in search of work. A perennial shortage of housing meant that many households included lodgers and were overcrowded. Although initially instrumental in motivation such households could develop quasi-family relationships around work, social life, sexual intimacy, bonding and marriage. Because shoemaking was still largely domestic until the 1870s, ‘home’ was often the workplace.

Booms and slumps meant work was difficult to get and incomes varied from week to week. Times were often hard. The nature of the work meant a shoemaking household and its family environment could be inherently stressful. Gender roles were complex, with women often both home-making and earning money in lower grade jobs like shoe binding. Their children were exploited with long hours, hard work and insanitary conditions. [xvii] Even when the work was moved into workshops children were still exploited, and it was said around 1880 that boys were paid ‘wages only just a remove from the pauper’s dole.’[xviii]

Mason & Marson wsp

The move to factory production. The finishing room at Mason and Marson’s factory in the 1900s.

At home men were likely to dominate the household, particularly if they did ‘superior’ work like clicking and hand sewing. The male shoemaker’s sense of self was moulded by the worth of his skill, a willingness to go anywhere and solidarity in the face of hard employers and uncertain work. Male domination could, however, be diminished when the men were forced into low grade work or were unemployed. Domestic routines were frequently disrupted, particularly by the shoemakers’ fabled addiction to weekend and ‘St Monday’ drinking.[xix] Even so, ‘St Monday’ was as much a symptom of the shoemakers’ independence as of their intemperance. Running through their lives was a sense of craft pride under threat, and that encouraged solidarity and determination to control as far as possible the terms of their work. The national Rivetter’s Union was founded in Stafford in 1874 but the battle to control pay and conditions was long and hard. Most workers remained outside the union and many endured a life of drudgery, uncertainty and crippling work done in unhealthy conditions.[xx]

The significance of shoemaking

The shoe trade peaked as Stafford’s major industry in the generation following the Famine and it played a significant role in the history of Irish families in the town. Capitalism’s uneven development meant that Stafford’s gain was Ireland’s loss. In Stafford the trade was, however, the route by which many second generation Irish found a footing in the core of the local economy. The increasing sub-division and deskilling of the labour process provided openings for young people from an unskilled labouring background like many of the Irish. Furthermore, the trade was open to both women and men. Although jobs remained markedly gendered, women in many shoemaking households played a major role in income generation as well as in home-making.

Shoemaking therefore offered the possibility of a modest but attainable step in upward social mobility. In the short term it was no automatic passport out of slums like Plant’s Square and Snow’s Yard. The incomes of shoe trade workers remained low and fickle and most still lived cheek by jowl with Stafford’s unskilled working class in the town centre and north end. Nevertheless, the diversity of jobs and the increasing concentration of work in factories and workshops offered advancement possibilities to ambitious people which were seized by some Irish families.


[i] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 20 October 1855.

[ii] Information from Rachel Clayton, a descendant, May 2006.

[iii] For an extended review of the Irish and the Stafford shoe trade, including family case studies, see John Herson, Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015; ppbk 2016), chapter 9.

[iv] For reviews of the issues, with differing perspectives, see C. Ó Gráda, ‘Did Ireland ‘under’-industrialise?’, Irish Economic and Social History, Vol. 37 (2010), pp. 117-23, A. Bielenberg, Ireland and the Industrial Revolution: the Impact of the Industrial Revolution on Irish Industry, 1801-1922, (London, Routledge, 2009); C. Ó Gráda, Ireland: a New Economic History, 1780-1939, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), esp. Chapter 13; F. Geary, ‘Deindustrialisation in Ireland to 1851: some evidence from the census’, Economic History review, Vol. 51:3 (1998), pp. 512-41; J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: a Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850, (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1985), esp. Chapter 6 & 7.

[v] M. Harrison, ‘The development of boot and shoe manufacturing in Stafford, 1850-1880’, Journal of the Staffordshire Industrial Archaeology Society, No. 10, 1981, p. 1.

[vi] VCH Stafford, p. 217; A. Middlefell, The Ancient Town of Stafford from the 8th to the 20th Century, (Stafford, Privately published, 2000), pp. 50-54.

[vii] E. Hobsbawm, ‘The tramping artisan’, in Hobsbawm, E, Labouring Men, Studies in the History of Labour, (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 36.

[viii] Census of Ireland, 1841, General Summary and County Tables: Table VI, Table of Occupations; Census of Ireland, 1861, Part 4, Vol. 2, Occupations.

[ix] J. Press, The Footwear Industry in Ireland, 1922-1973, (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1989), p. 20.

[x] Press, The Footwear Industry, pp. 18-20; J. Press, ‘Protectionism and the Irish footwear industry’, Irish Economic and Social History, Vol. 13 (1986), p. 75; A. Fox, A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, 1874-1957, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1958), Chapter 2.

[xi] Census of Ireland, 1881, Occupations, Tables 18/19; Census of Ireland, 1911, Occupations, Table XX, Occupations of males and Females by Ages, Religious Persuasion and Education; A. Bielenberg, ‘What happened to Irish industry after the British industrial revolution? Some evidence from the first UK Census of Production, 1907’, Economic History Review, Vol. 61:4 (November 2008), Appendix, Table 3.

[xii] Press, The Footwear Industry, p. 18.

[xiii] Ó Gráda, Ireland: a New Economic History, p. 268.

[xiv] L.M. Cullen, An Economic History of Ireland since 1660, (London, B.T. Batsford, 1972), p. 163.

[xv] The 1841 figure for women, 94, is clearly defective. Census, 1841: County of Stafford: Occupations, Stafford Borough; Census 1871, Occupations of Males and Females in Principal Towns: Stafford Borough.

[xvi] Derived from Harrison, ‘Boot and shoe manufacturing’, Figure 16.

[xvii] Report on Bootmakers, Tailors, Hatters, Glovers etc., Children’s Employment Commission, 1862, 4th Report, Parliamentary Papers, 1865, XX, ‘Bootmakers’, pp. 123-6.

[xviii] British Library of Political Science, London School of Economics, Webb Trade Union Collection, Vol. 24, National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, p. 142.

[xix] D.A. Reid, ‘The decline of St Monday, 1766-1876’, Past and Present, Vol. 71, (1976), pp.

[xx] Webb Trade Union Collection, pp. 96-9, 112, 160, 201.