This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13th March 2000 (p.1 & p.7, and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)


Our series on bygone industries is brought to an end with a trade which was interdependent on so many of the others, literally at ground level. A good pair of boots or shoes made all the difference to everyday life whether in the workplace or not. And they had to last. In poorer families, and not all that long ago, many people had just one pair of shoes to their name and for children that usually meant hand-me-downs, often a pair of boots.

Nobody had to go far to buy footwear, a village of any size was likely to have a resident shoemaker. Even the leather was usually local, obtained from the nearest tannery, as at Stoney Middleton where there seems to have been a commercial connection between bootmakers and Grindleford tannery.

In the 1830s Bakewell had up to forty shoemakers; Tideswell, Winster and Matlock Bath each had seven, Hope three, Bradwell three, Hathersage and Calver each had two. By 1857 Bakewell supported only eight but more than twenty were in business at Wirksworth, nineteen at Matlock, thirteen at Ashbourne, seven each at Baslow, Eyam, Winster and Hartington and six at both Bradwell and Bonsall. One-man businesses met the needs of numerous hamlets and villages including Priestcliffe, Brough, Little Longstone, Tissington, Two Dales and Over Haddon.

As the century wore on, the strong tradition of shoemaking of Eyam and Stoney Middleton expanded into family concerns employing relatives and neighbours working with simple machinery. Production then expanded into factories, set up in former textile factories as well as purpose-built buildings. Smaller associated factories were established at Bradwell and Hathersage, providing outwork for women who machined uppers in their homes. There was no shortage of either cottage or factory workers, the majority being women and girls on piecework, hand-working and machining together five or six segments of uppers at ninepence for a dozen completed pairs. Employers were loathe to pay for gas lighting so workers often had to work by the light of candles which they had to buy for themselves. The women grew round-shouldered and developed poor eyesight, while severe breathing problems affected those involved in the final buffing and scouring of leather and brass rivets, when the air was thick with particles of sand-paper, leather and fine brass. Men were employed for heavy cutting work, originally by hand with a sharp knife until machinery was introduced. Sole and heel pieces were stamped out by heavy machinery which invariably claimed at least one finger or thumb from every operator, the price of cutting a dozen pieces of leather per minute. Lads as young as thirteen spent long monotonous hours inking boot edges - up to a thousand pairs a day for four shillings per week.

The Stoney Middleton factories produced only mens' heavy working boots, including army boots during the First World War, while Eyam specialised in women's and children's shoes and slippers. In 1910 the two villages shared three wholesale boot, shoe and slipper manufacturers, all providing essential jobs even though the workers of 1913 were paid only £1 for a 63-hour week, half the national average for the trade. With just a half-hour dinner break, the shoemakers of Eyam barely had time to run home, bolt their food and run back to work.

Inevitably small manufacturers began to face competition from larger concerns and the subsistence wages and long hours were drawing attention from the trade union movement. At the risk of immediate dismissal from their jobs, many workers became members of the Boot and Shoe Operatives Union; on taking up the post of secretary of the Eyam Branch in January 1918, Bill Slater was sacked by his employers, Ridgeway Bros. Furthermore, bosses declared that they would not ask for exemption from call-up for any employee of military age who had joined the union. Attempts at all negotiations with employers were fruitless and a strike was called on 28 February 1918 involving seven footwear firms. Six months later - by which time £1,566 had been paid out at Eyam in strike pay, out of a national total of £1,589 - the continuing dispute was raised in parliament but dragged on until 1920 without reaching the union's objectives, though there had been some headway at Stoney Middleton. The concluding union report read: 'We are relying on a Government Bill to make law a 48 hour week and a minimum rate of wages agreed by the Association of Employers and Workmens Union.'

Production resumed, continuing at Stoney Middleton into the 1970s, some time after it had ceased at Eyam. (Related items of local origin are on display at Eyam Museum.) Meanwhile, most smaller shoemakers had bowed to big business. In some villages, Longnor being typical, the end came with the falling demand for quarrymen's boots, a necessity which had supported many workshops in the Peak well into the 20th century.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13th March 2000.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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