Original Public Benefit Boot Company


Modern 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, Public Benefit Boot working the Northern sectors and Lennards the Southern sectors. co-operating, utterly, working towards beating the ‘big boys’ to a race, for true and total, national, representation.

Milestones, one such being the three incorporations of 1890, 1893 and the final one of 1897 as at various stages parts of the business slowly, became joined at the hip. Original Public Benefit Boot Company was used ‘early doors’ to differentiate the company from imposters or imitators. Market stall men, as one of the Midlands directors complained of bitterly in 1886, were calling themselves similar or even audaciously the same name, as Public Benefit Boot company and advertisements were placed in local newspapers to alert the public. This began to occur in other sectors of the country also and vigilance was the ‘byword’ to keep abreast of such practices. One of the reasons for a ‘rushed’ incorporation in 1890, at a time when the company was not entirely ‘ready’ for ending partnerships was done to protect the company name. Larger traders too with shops, were also advertising in total opposition began claiming they were the ‘only Public Benefit boot shop’ in town! Such was the intense rivalry and it is said imitation is a form of flattery but clearly this was quite a problem.

1904 and time for complete collaboration had arrived, when the two companies would each, centralise operations, setting up a major headquarters combining warehousing, manufacture, distribution thus ending the ‘territorial’ aspect of the business; whereby individual partners or directors clung doggedly to their own ‘empire’. 1904 wasn’t welcomed by many on the Northern board and resignations took place as the realisation unfolded that, T.J. Lennard of the Southern concern, was to become both chairman and MD overall to oversee a smooth transition, he, having acquired shareholdings from the Northern sector in order to become the largest shareholder. Within a few years it became abundantly clear such a merger wasn’t going to take place amid such stiff opposition from ‘within’ but it took many years before the marriage could be ended and both companies went their separate ways.

Both firms aggressively built up their branch holdings even during the ‘depressed’ years of the 1920’s and 30’s prior to WW2. Wars of course bring greater profits as firms are ‘brought in line’ to service military requirements above domestic customers as large contracts were awarded. However, the path to greater profitability along this route, was not without difficulty as companies ‘up and down’ the nation struggled immensely, with losses of skilled workers and diminished supplies to fulfil urgent demands of the military war machine. Greater taxation was also another ‘burden’ but accepted as necessary to ‘beat the common foe’

Both Public benefit and Lennards traded well as did the trade in general, and can be used as a benchmark as to the health and state of the trade, but as the 1950’s and 60’s dawned this industry was to witness ‘takeovers’ on a massive scale and a ‘break up’, leading, eventually to the demise of many popular household names. World free trade means no longer will our domestic markets be ‘ruled’ by ‘home grown’ manufacture and retailing as fierce competition has overtook us from far flung countries across the globe. In many aspects, not all, quality has suffered forsaken for the cheaper product to meet the demands of diminishing household budgets.

Benefit ladies shoe from 1960’s

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 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 department stores and clothing fashion shops, who stock shoes. 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. Online shopping has also ‘hit’ traditional companies hard and High Streets are seeing an abandonment like never before. Once powerful strong names, big employers, trusted brands, are vanishing as ‘price’ rules.

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

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. I received letters 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, embarked on a long period of touring their own country and were often away from internet access.

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 Brian’s’ 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. This 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.

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.

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.

The Forgotten Industry