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Original Public Benefit Boot Company

 Dave Bean 2015 Cornwall

My slogan: Footwear, a neglected subject on histories of clothing and fashion.  

Story of devotion, and dogged researching, to produce  in depth accounts of two major, and typical, Boot and Shoe companies recently dissolved after more than a century of trading. This work, in simple terms presents a very important collection or compilation of various records, and facts, gathered over a period of decades, hitherto, for this industry, never undertaken previously on this scale. Here we had two firms co-operating, utterly working towards beating the ‘big boys’ to a race, for true and total, national, representation.

This site reveals, how they both began and developed, exploring every milestone, every down turn, it also gave us a beneficial side effect. Clearly, a ‘telling’ aspect of this project, by ‘using’ two companies of this calibre, not the largest or smallest of companies, that, by following their progression, many similarities can be ‘picked out’ when comparing most medium to large firms within the industry over the same period. What is perhaps expected, but remarkable all the same, is the extent to which major companies copied from each other. The 1920’s and 30’s depression for example, affected all industries, but how did each company in this trade deal with it? Briefly, both firms continued opening new shops, sold off old stock, brought in the new, and with advertising campaigns, built up the repairing trade in a bid to ‘work’ their way out of the problem, many of their main rivals would have undoubtedly, followed suit. Many firms developed and nurtured an extensive, foreign trade, during and beyond Victorian times and largely within the ‘Empire’, today of course, conditions favourable to British companies then, to use this to best advantage, no longer exist. Lennards could boast they had served over time, two million customers abroad in 70 lands, they even had their own permanent postal division! 

 Brief  notes on the Scene today

Benefit ladies shoe from 1960’s

So what is out there on the ‘net’ with reference to the old style industry? Northampton Boot and Shoe Museum, a wonderful and worthwhile museum I visited many years ago, has revamped its’ website to show off its’ fantastic collection, but isn’t really, as far as i can tell, a site dedicated to ‘histories’ of footwear firms. There are for example, works at length on the once major Boot and shoe centres, Norwich, Northampton, Leeds and Leicester and so on making references to firms therein; and there is a plethora of short, articles on individual shoe companies past and present. ‘Stead & Simpson and nephews’ history is presented in a timeline format, but few if any have not delved into the area of  ‘nuts and bolts’ investigations, the ‘nitty grittiness’ of their success or failure, through the time span covered here. That said, they all have merit in their own way and are a welcome and worthwhile addition, for there are generations nowadays who know not, of the old Boot industry. Using a crude analogy, fish shops, would complain that few people knew of, or appreciated how fish and chips got onto their plates. A similar position exists today regarding the footwear industry, only a small percentage of the population will know that it was once one of Britains’ staple industries, employing hundreds of thousands decade after decade. Yet the crucial question is, why did it decline in the way it did, leaving us open to cheap foreign imports and in many cases, high priced fashion shoes? 

From 1875 to the 1990’s what has been unearthed is an exhilarating, look, at ‘hey days’ of British Boot and Shoe’ manufacture and retailing, often through the ‘eyes’ of those who worked in the industry, during this time frame.  Accomplishments, include, valuable documentation of the old but now defunct  industry, related in a series of ‘articles’  using hundreds of photographs and images, ‘capturing’ shots of buildings still around in 2018 but will inevitably disappear as time marches on. That is one aspect of my compilations I believe gives this an enduring quality, for as I have been able to compare ‘then and now’ so others will also be able to, decades from now, using my material.

Today we have a footwear industry that has ‘specialised’, it is no longer a mass market commodity in the old terms. The top thirty British Made shoe brands cater for the ‘well heeled’ in my opinion, leaving the man or woman on the Street to visit a range of alternative outlets that also stock footwear or use online sites . It is still possible to find dedicated shoe shops, Clarks for example, produce good shoes, and there are others, still catering for those on limited budgets. However, the romantic era, of seeing a bright, branded, British, shoe shop on every street corner, has long since faded. 

Margin Images click on images for enhanced views

Fig 1.  Poor quality factory ‘closing and Prep’ room staffed mainly by Jewish immigrants. Image found as part of a collection of prints from an old factory 

Fig 2. Gainsborough Market Place and Silver Street having a commanding position Public Benefit Boot would have traded well in this once busy port with links to Hull.private collection

Fig 3. Early Steam Powered factory found as part of a collection of prints in an old factory 

Fig 4. ‘Cable’ window display. may be in a rural branch from about the late 1950’s early sixties as they are selling top branded Hush Puppies. Private collection

Fig 5. Reading Broad Street circa 1910 private collection

Fig 6. York Market Street, still there erected in 1902. DB photo

Fig 7. Truro Branch erected in 1893 now a bank it still stands majestically on Boscawen Street and King Street notice the cathedral behind.The cathedral wasn’t completed until 1914. DB photo

Fig 8. Another variation on the ‘Big Boot’ 1897-1947 Fifty  years of Trading a brief History’ company booklet.

Fig 9. Hull Hessle Road Branch 1897 still trading and selling boots and shoes under the name Premier DB photo

Beginning with Nothing

This project commenced in 1986 at a time when the internet was still very much in its’ infancy, I didn’t own a computer, I owned a typewriter. Beginning with nothing, just one image of a Public Benefit Boot Company branch, from Hull, and, acting on advice, set about writing to libraries, archives, also, historical and industrial museums. Results poured in gradually, with information and sometimes images, but this process was painfully slow. Sometimes it could take up to six weeks to receive a reply but thankfully most came back within a week or two. and in fact, overall more than 200 letters of enquiry, each accompanied by a S.A.E. were sent out. It cannot be stressed enough how  important this period of gathering information from these institutions had become. To give an example, in 1904, when both companies merged, there were two hundred branches from all corners of the U.K. Imagine trying to make a personal journey to every main depository, nationally? Quite apart from prohibitive, time factors and opportunities to undertake such a venture when holding down a full time job, the enormous costs involved made that option a non option. Utilising, hundreds of institutions with professional staff to provide simple research from Trade directories, and journals, my chosen subject began to open up in a way, never imagined, leading me to become a modern, historical and industrial detective. As information dropped through the letter box it was summarily, added to a crude chart I had concocted, which then provided impetus, to act on new information. Overall it took a lot of years to accomplish, I have copies of letters from 1987, 1989, 1990, the bulk were from the 1990’s, followed by further enquiries in the years 2000-2003 before publication of a book in 2004.  There are many letters missing not all were photocopied unfortunately, but the information from them was recorded.

Meantime I met an Australian chap, Brian Seddon in 1988 who was married to the niece (Anne) of one of the founders in Hull, George Edward Franklin. Brian, it turned out was also trying to find information on the company but logically it was easier for me to do it than him, as he was based in Melbourne, Australia. A professor of Art and Design, his interest lay in satisfying a long held ambition to finalise researches on his various, family histories, particularly that of the Franklins’ and the Public Benefit Boot Company. His priorities were vastly, different to mine but as we both needed the same information, we collaborated and became good friends.

Whilst holding down a full time job, that first computer was purchased in the 1990’s, allowing me to re-organise my researches. I was lucky enough to contact many individuals usually by phone or letter and received lots of encouragement, interest, and information. My contacts were from all ‘walks of life’ from Bruce Robinson a former assistant managing director of the British Shoe Corporation, founded by  Charles Clore. He was invaluable as he helped me to formulate a brief history of the main players in the established, Boot trade rapidly disappearing and to understand the complexities of the trade. It was he who told me ‘Benefit Footwear’ lost out in the horse trading because, they didn’t fight their corner! 

Arthur Hudson see biographical details section

Another gentleman was Arthur Hudson whom I visited in Leeds during the 1990’s and there is a very fine ‘write up’ on him in the Biographical section. Arthur after the war years in the Royal Navy, spent all of his working life at ‘Benefit Footwear’. He attained, huge respect as one of the leading authorities on footwear repairs. Enormously knowledgeable and always ‘on hand’ to answer any questions, often through his help I was better able to formulate ideas and views on matters relating to conditions and trends within the trade. When he ‘passed on’ I lost a good friend.

Templar Street repair factory managed by Arthur Hudson after WW2. The workers are holding onto sacks of army boot in 1938

My letters were sent left, right and centre and of course eventually, the internet was also starting to show promise. Letters arrived from sales assistants in ‘Benefit’ shops nationally but especially in the North East where the company perhaps offered the strongest representation. I spoke to managers, an errand boy (then in his eighties), factory and shop workers . All related wonderful stories, sometimes, on conditions and wages. Conditions were fairly ‘basic’ with long hours, and pay not over generous, but on the bright side, they had a pension scheme, holidays, regular pay and a reasonable guarantee of a job with prospects of being able to ‘rise through the ranks’. Fred and Joe Lunn had both worked in the large Templar Street repair factory in Leeds, their stories told of a character called ‘Benefit Bill’ who walked around Leeds, wearing a large leather boot around his neck advertising Benefit Boots. Olive Smeatham nee Gospell answered my call on the telephone, to tell me she had travelled from store to store after the war, training men in the changes that had occurred since their long absence. She later also, spent many years ‘dressing windows’ for the company. Her career began in 1934 at the age of 17 in the Whitley Bay branch, a seaside town where the staff consisted of two female sales assistants, a manager and an errand boy. 

Staff day out from all shops in the North Eastern area met at Whitley Bay, in 1928.

Brian and I when he came over for a visit in 2002 began to collate all information I was managing to gather with regards to branches, people, imagery. He took away with him letters received from various sources, as well as a collection of Shareholding lists we had purchased from Company House in Cardiff. We also purchased a sizeable amount of post cards, and prints, all taken to Australia, which have subsequently been disposed of. This undertaking was in  preparation for a hardback book we had decided to publish. ‘Well Heeled’ The Remarkable story of The Public Benefit Boot Company.  Mostly, filled with old Street scenes, many, with views of company shops, nationally, it also included lots, of the personal stories gathered, along with, how the two companies worked together to form one entity as we knew it at that time in 2004. Brian also made it known his desire to manage the design and layout of the book, hence why so much material ended up in Australia. The book was on sale for a number of years and was marketed, under Business, Finance and Law, Biographies and Histories. This became clear when a large financial centre in California bought six copies, as they employed historians to research historical businesses across the world.  Further information and occasional images were filtered through to me, because of the publication of this book. Meanwhile Brian and his wife Anne at this point in time, having embarked on a long period of touring their own country, often to areas with no internet access, communication was as expected non existent at various times. 

Later, a decision was  made to set up a website, managed through Ancestry, called Roots-web it was a free and simple site. It contained a few images from the Book,  opening notes, listings of branches compiled from the many letters and replies from libraries on the internet. This was purely Brians’ website and I had no control over the inputting or access, but we began to view the website at this time,  as a way of closure and dealing with the vast amounts of paper research accumulated over the years. Material, collected and remaining here in Hull, added to the volume of material he had taken to Australia, took up quite a bit of space, in fact it amounted, to almost, filling two filing cabinets!!

Our next joint venture was to relay all the information on my half of the shareholding lists to him via email which was then added to what he had compiled from his collection. Results from this substantial task was then placed on his website. From those same listings, a Biographical section was also formulated, then embellished, with information from B.M.D and census records on Ancestry. Once accomplished, our partnership faded as Brian and Anne decided they would recommence their retirement plans of  visiting, their many family and friends scattered across the world. However, during this period his website remained unaltered, despite lots of new information regularly, coming to light, with no personal access, the site simply, stagnated! Eventually the ‘plug’ was pulled by Ancestry with Brian, upon his eventual return, unable to update the site either.

2017,  I set up this website but only after spending eighteen months on further, deep research, revisiting all of the various components, Branches, Biographical listings, gallery and the ‘writing of articles.’ Embarking on a huge project to produce modern images of branches, to offer a contrasting view to the book with a ‘Then and Now’ concept of  Public Benefit Boot Company and Lennards Ltd branches. Subsequently, also the ‘written’ Branches section has been enlarged, using a variety of new sources, more accuracy has been attained as to when the branches began trading, and in many cases ‘folded’. No area of the old research was left untouched with the exception of the Shareholding lists which cannot change.

Dedicated to a remarkable industry 

This project has been, for me, since the publication of the book, a challenge, to gain recognition for both an industry and the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in this industry, who for decades not only worked diligently, to shod our nation but also other nations throughout the British Empire, which at that time meant two thirds of the known world. Footwear is neglected regarding its’ history and yet their  contribution in terms of working, and generating wealth was enormous, and as such should be recognised. The people, and this is about people, gave me their many stories, all of which would have been lost forever, had it not been painstakingly gathered up. In my own humble way I feel particularly pleased on getting to where we are today. Current and future aims is to try and win over the large libraries and industrial museums in a bid to link this website to theirs. I have made some progress on that but as you would expect it is a slow, process. It is not about Company profits and losses, to me this is a human story, sadly overlooked. From the ladies and men who staffed the shops to factory workers,  delivery drivers, warehousemen, office staff, and travelling salesmen, and inspectors, they sold, promoted and delivered, quality, British footwear to the world.  

‘Closing Room’ in a good quality factory.using natural light and gas lighting. The overseers are wearing collars and ties

It’s not widely known, but the original Public Benefit Boot Company was the first to establish a national multiple Branch network across the U.K using two companies trading under the same name. 1875 a basic, simple shop was opened  in Hull by William Henry Franklin. Just ten years on, 1885, again in Hull, Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham and elsewhere up and down the country, lavish, Emporiums, sprang up. Money invested in those impressive upgrades was  perhaps, something other businessmen would begrudge spending, yet over time, it was proven to be exactly the right policy.

From  early years in Leeds, William Franklin developed strong business partnerships with family members and numerous entrepreneurs in the boot trade. Many members of the Dickinson, Lennard, Harker, Kirby, Franklin and Hunn families led the way, ‘they held the candle’  but there were also many hundreds of people, making an equally, vital contribution to the success of the venture throughout the ensuing years. Most of the successful boot firms tended to operate in similar fashion, particularly in the matters of, ‘partnerships’,  ‘Franchising’ and progression through ‘takeovers’. In the 20th century evidence emerges of firms in the trade, introducing a social element to businesses; providing pensions, paid holidays, bonus payments, and in the case of Lennards for example a holiday home in Weston Super Mare. Data protection acts hadn’t been realised in those times. It is fair to point out ‘Public Benefit’ and ‘Lennards’ are an extremely good representation of the trade throughout their long period of trading.

Please read my articles in Further Reading for a far greater insight into my work and researches into the two companies, which I insist is also a fair representation of the entire industry.

STACK ‘EM HIGH, SELL CHEAP’ they cut out the middle man, cash only no credit, avoiding ‘bad debts’ coupled with consistent modern styles and quality, they sold by the millions. From the outset advertising was essential, a giant-sized boot was regularly seen in  towns and villages across the nation, on a flat horse-drawn cart. The rim of the boot was about Three metres above the road and the driver’s figure emerged from the top of the boot.  In 1883 the horse-drawn boot was registered as a company trademark, by Henry Lennard in Bristol. Evidence shows this important piece of showmanship, at a time when illiteracy was still high amongst the adult population, earned them recognition as ‘The Big Boot firm’

Premises were undoubtedly another way to advertise a business, outstanding buildings often, with six, large, display windows, divided up into classes, Gents, Ladies and children with huge stock holding abilities, stocking latest designs of footwear. Comfortable, Palatial, many of those grand buildings still survive, across the country.

Should further information be forthcoming it will be added, though a comprehensive store of factual, information and images are there to be explored currently.Valuable sources for family and local historians, genealogists, archive facilities and local history groups nationally with comprehensive listings; is provided.

Demise of the Great British Shoe industry (please refer to Northern Sector Leeds 1875 Onwards Article) 

 

 

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