Chairmanship of Brow Dickinson

Sandwich Board men pose in front of the repairs factory and a Benefit delivery van. Taken from in house mags 1925 the late Rick Dickinson

The Big Slump

After a murderous World War came a terrible period whereby instead of a ‘Land fit for heroes’ it was a land filled with poverty and unemployment. Even those in employment often had uncertain futures with a majority suffering pay cuts. Britains’ working population in the 1920’s was largely struggling to ‘make ends meet’ and even a joint of beef for the traditional Sunday Roast became a ‘less frequent event’. This led on to less ‘hides’ coming onto the home market, forcing footwear manufacturers to import at higher prices, a worrying trend. Sales of new shoes were not as buoyant as had been previously enjoyed. The period of the Global war had been  profitable, despite shortages of manpower and materials, the government also, dictated what they manufactured.  

Fig 1 Diss Express 14 oct 1927 image @ Johnston Press PLC

Brow Dickinson had been chairman since 1915, following the death of John Kirby. During the war years he had on average opened 8 new shops per year, but this was commonplace as most  major manufacturers and multiple retailers, did likewise. It was to their chairman, employees looked to steer them through years of ‘hard times,’ with odd bright spots occurring, such as ‘Cossack Boots’. Known as the Russian invasion around 1924/5 the Ladies suddenly and quite unexpectedly began buying ‘Russian High leg Boots’ to fit in with their changing fashions in clothing, and to wear in bad weather rather than the unstylish galoshes. Made of ‘Willow’ and ‘Tan Glace’ in different colours, even middle class women demanded the boots. Benefit Footwear manufactured and sold 10,000 pairs overall, they couldn’t make them fast enough. It was phenomenal, every manufacturer turned to making ‘Cossack Boots’ they had found a saviour. Shops nationally regardless of company demanded more boots to stock and sell. One Russian lady who had ‘settled’ in Britain wrote in a column, she felt proud of the women wearing Russian boots even though, according to her, they didn’t look anything like Russian boots. In Russia apparently such boots were designed for the military and Russian people only bought boots traditionally ‘off the peg’ if they were poor otherwise they had them specially made.

Fig 2 Portsmouth Eve News 21 oct1925 Russian image@ Johnston press PLC

Ladies clothing fashions had changed, no longer were their skirts and dresses plunging down to their ankles but were ‘rising,’ in tune with the ‘roaring twenties’. The boots became a ‘fashion statement’ enjoyed by actresses and leading fashion designers keen to hide the leg as hemlines rose.It caught on in France and America having seen how British women enjoyed wearing them. They were available in calf or knee length, and had cuban or Louis Heels 1-2 inches high, such boots remained popular almost up to the 1930’s, then they died a death for a couple of decades before being resurrected. They tended to replace galoshes in bad weather which made them popular, but trouble was brewing, as  boots were blamed for women catching colds, and having accidents. In America women who frequented ‘Speakeasy’s were considered racy and often hid a bottle of spirits in the top of the boot becoming known as ‘Bootleggers’. Cheaper Russian boots were also being made with an accompanying, cheaper leather which affected their waterproof qualities and did harm the industry eventually, as it helped in the decline of Cossack Boots in this country. However it was then that Rubber Wellington boots, made by firms like ‘Dunlop’ came into their own gradually replacing their old ‘Cossacks.’

Fig 1 is a high class Russian boot in 1925 guaranteed not to sag at the ankle ‘fitting like a glove’. Fig 2 shows again in 1925 the subtle difference between a Wellington and the Russian Boot.

1924 issue 4 ‘The Benefit’ courtesy of the Late Rick Dickinson

Benefit always performed well at selling slippers in the winter months and sandals in the summer months. Brow needed to be ‘wily’ and ‘wily he was as he embarked on a series of measures to improve efficiency but the most ‘telling’ of these was the Company ‘Benefit’ magazine, an in house quarterly magazine from 1924 to 1928 a total of twenty issues. Brow’s grandson, an industrial designer, the late Rick Dickinson, placed the mags online. Here was a means of ‘reaching out to all staff’ with the aim of ‘picking their brains for ideas and ‘whip up’ enthusiasm for implementing the best of them. It also raised flagging morale-  a clever way to engage and make everyone feel a part of the company. Above all it was a vehicle from which to teach the workforce new methods and better ways to work.Hardboard

One of the ‘pressing’ issues was how to ‘push’ harder to gain sales in the shops? Window dressing became a focal point, models were made up at H.Q, photographed then sent to all main branches as well as utilising ‘inspectors’ who travelled to every region in the land. Staff were encouraged to ask customers about ‘hose’ along with other sundry items and to be courteous at all times wearing a friendly smile. The big sell was on. Repairs became another area to focus on as staff were reminded how to promote repairs. It had the right effect as in 1924 repairs rose substantially but then when money is short folks will ‘make do and mend.’ 

Margin Images The importance of a good window dresser

Fig 1 Ashington Branch in 1928 has devised a way of displaying their wellingtons more prominently perhaps reminiscent of the days when Boots were hung on pegs?  Utilising a Hardboard/cardboard strip they have attached it to the exterior of the shop, to try and promote wellingtons.  The problem that I can see is that they have featured them in front of their main shop windows, hiding part of the display in favour of ‘pushing ‘ wellies! When seen in that position they look like ‘Russian Boots’?

Fig 2 Lancaster Branch has in 1924 sent in their ‘dressed’ window. The upper parts of displays are generally wasted and the idea was to fill the entire window. All very well if all windows were the same height but they could vary from 6 feet high to anywhere between 8-10 feet high. This is where the window dressers’ skill becomes paramount.Here the branch has used screens to hide the ‘ladders’ holding footwear from floor to top,  and using rails, platforms and what appears to be string to position footwear about their main part of the window, in this way they are able to produce a focal point for the customer. Each shoe has been carefully filled with crepe paper to ‘fill out’ the ‘uppers’

Fig 3.Slippers at Meanwood Road Leeds. As with Lancaster two thirds of the main window has been screened off to hide the ladders behind using glass shelving to support the footwear in various ‘poses’ The crepe has been ‘ruffled nicely to fill out the shoes. Adjacent is the slipper display in readiness for Xmas. There are plenty of pricing tickets attached too in both cases.

Fig 4. Ashington branch again have apparently dressed the window in the old style to obtain a change in effect. They have used a staging from the floor up covering it with a material. Travel upwards and we see glass shelving with show cards and pricing tickets on the footwear. They would have used Props such as Heel rests and clips. It does look cluttered though?

Fig 5. Grimsby Victoria Street branch has been successfully ‘dressed’ by a Miss Wingfield. Again it looks moderately ordered as you can pick out individual shoes, this is a ladies window. Price tickets are placed, the shoes filled with ‘ruffed’ crepe to fill out the uppers as the footwear is placed in every possible position.

Fig 6. This to me is the best window, the winning window, all the others look typically as though they had to get as much as possible in the windows but why? Was it to create an image of Large stockholdings perhaps? Or Variety of styles and sizes? Sports footwear was a line that sold and was known as ‘white’ goods. The display has afforded space, breathability for the customer to actually see what he or she wants.The usual Show cards and Tickets are visible along with tennis racquets, but I cannot see a cricket bat?

Fig 7 War Boots. France 1917, women occupy the factories like Britain and the rest of Europe. Here they are finally, after manufacturing sufficient boots for the troops, given the ‘go ahead’ to produce boots for women workers. Here in Northampton, similar work is being conducted, and both factories are working for the same results, to supply troops in Flanders and to ‘kit out’ women workers. The first shoe on the left is intended for women clerks to wear behind the lines in France. The next picture shows the studs inserted into the sole to ensure a longer life. The boot is for the British army and they too are studded. The ankle boot at the end is for ‘field women’ and likewise they too have studded soles!

Gleaning the in house magazines, 1927 was also the year whereby a window display was made up at St. Pauls’ House. Managers were then brought to H.Q. to observe the correct way to present a window display. This was the beginning of standardisation of displays within  company shops. The main focus was on using modern props to display particular models, stuffing shoes with crepe paper was also suggested to present a full shoe and ensure adequate space is allowed between each ‘line’ of shoe whilst also concentrating on ‘grouping’ giving of the impression of a ‘filled’ window. Misuse of price tags and window bills present an untidy picture. Old fittings were to be eradicated and replaced with modern shelving, as the window is a company’s best advertisement, attention to details such as this was a constant project.Lighting was also a concept that began to creep in gradually whereas in days of yore the large lamps outside illuminated the shop and the window.

Fig 8.The ‘Cable’ company window display. A great display it shows more clearly the ‘ladder’ upon which the footwear can be placed keeping them uniformly apart. Modern glass shelving has been used , show cards and tickets are large and the footwear is displayed in ways to see every side of the shoes. This is a mens’ window and whilst it still has the ‘cluttered’ look it appears as a better display than those previously sent into the magazines.

 Advent of the photographed Window display

 This concept came into being during the 1920’s it is mentioned in 1928, and was an idea introduced by Brow and his top team. Referring to ‘double photographs’, whereby a skeleton photograph and finished photograph was produced and distributed. Along with relying on the managers’ skill in advising staff how to put the display into practice, it was the onset of a brighter, attractive and organised window. However, the use of photographs was only taken up by H.Q. whenever they wanted to change the outlay of windows completely. The skilled eye of the window dresser was very much to the fore at this stage. In the 1940’s, possibly to supplement a lack of skilled window dressers, photography began to be used far more, and it may have been prompted by the world conflict. It was definitely a permanent and accepted, feature throughout the 1950/60’s whereby a window display was ‘made up’ at H.Q and photographs were then regularly, distributed to all managers, showing how the window needed to be ‘dressed’ for that particular month. This then began to reduce the need for skilled window dressers and introduce uniformity within, Benefit’ shops. Another concept that crept into the windows was ‘backgrounds’ posters or cardboard cut outs and presenting, themes. Of course, there were the dissenters who believed the advent of reducing the need to rely fully on window dressers, was also reducing the human element in the art of dressing the window. A debatable point when uniformity and order nationally, is the aim. 

Reptile hides. A tale of how the popular hides for reptile shoes arrive in the UK.

Those Reptiles. April 1927 issue of the House magazine begins… The south American crocodile provides 90% or more of the crocodiles supplied to the shoe and handbag trade. No crocodile is used in the shoe trade until it is at least 40 years old, for sports shoes 70-80 years of age and for the handbag trade anywhere from 100-150 years old. Baby crocodiles are of no use whatsoever thus exploding tales of crocodile farming as pure myth.

The python used in our trade like the lizard is mostly found in Java. To be useful the skin must be 8-9 inches wide, which equates to a python being 15-30 feet in length resulting in the hunting of such animals as being extremely dangerous. It is stalked by the pairs of natives who at the right moment pounce, one grabbing its’ neck the other grabbing its’ tail and between them they slowly strangle it in a do or die mission. True to say if the native didn’t get the python the python would get the native and it is this that makes the skins so expensive.

The water snake, or Karung, is a much better proposition. It lives in the water, and is harmless and can be captured in large numbers, but the drawback is a tough skin, difficult to tan, resulting in these well dressed snakes, being as expensive to produce as pythons.

Lizards. Are most popular and are of all types. Some live in water, some on land and some like squirrels, live in trees, there being about 1700 different species of lizard. The Java lizard inhabits small streams and is distinguishable with black and white markings. The best for the shoe trade is a water monster with dark brown skin and yellow rings. The Indian lizard has no markings; it is small and lives in the ground. When monsoons prevail, the floods throw up these particular lizards making them easy to catch. This is the time to buy when supply is plentiful, as in the ‘dry’ season supply dwindles but not the price.

Miss Fashion

It was said in the 1927 September edition that short skirts would have a detrimental effect on the ‘rag trade’, this turned out to be false. As far as the shoe trade was concerned, the young miss of 1927 buys between 2-6 pairs of fashion shoes per year, along with as many clothes as her Victorian predecessors. Brow made it known he wished never to see the long, sweeping, dress appear again, as it was the good ladies of the age with their short skirts and an eye on fashions, that were keeping the shoe trade afloat.


A quick word on a advertising device that launched the company to great success, ‘Big Boot’. When considering costs alone, this was never going to be a cheap option, it required a lot of hides for the uppers and sole leather. I believe the framework in those days was constructed of wood, today perhaps, a light metal. What do we know of its’ dimensions? A manufacturer in Long Buckby in 1906 was asked to construct a large boot for advertising purposes for a customer, (said to be the largest ever made in England??) reported as being 44 inches from Heel to toe. It took 41 square feet of Calf willow for the uppers and 51 pounds of sole bottoming leather to make.

‘Big boot’ was altogether larger looking at several depictions of it dimensions are eight feet,(96 inches) from Heel to toe and six feet, (72 inches) high. It held a platform half way up to about three feet, below which was stored samples of footwear. It had a doorway on one side from the top to somewhere above the heel to allow access and retrieval of footwear samples.If we look at the Book cover image, taken from a Lantern slide, the Hull Boot, a large chap standing at the back is at least six feet in height, the driver also looks to be very tall. From the two men we can easily make educated guesses regarding the overall dimensions. The sheer amount of leather required to wrap around the framework was phenomenal and would be made in a factory, to be later attached using strong glues, or even pitch. Secured to the bed of a flat dray it would have been heavy, too heavy to remove safely and quickly. A horse pulled it around and in the case of the Hull Boot, was used to parade around villages in both the East and West Ridings. Having produced such a  device other costs creep in, coach houses and stables, grooms and drivers, flat bed drays, were all required. What puzzled me for a long time given the sheer size and weight of the boot, was, how did it reach the delineated territories when at most it would travel at 5-6 miles per hour, inbetween resting at villages? Trains traversed anywhere to everywhere but pushing this monstrous contraption on and off a freight carriage would have been a feat in itself? My strong belief is it would ‘set off’ and simply keep going, stopping each night to rest the horse and driver at prearranged coaching inns. As it remained in each village for a while, displaying the samples it then obviously moved onto the next and so on. It was reported in the 1897-1947 company, history booklet that a man walking in front of the boot ringing a bell, alerted villagers of their presence but I do find that a little hard to swallow? There is only scant mention in the booklet regarding how the company originated, and the man with the bell could possibly have been ‘here say’. I did read however that customers visiting Franklins’ shops would mention how they remember the travelling boot visiting their villages, so it must have been quite a sensation.

In all company documents, for both Public Benefit Boot Company and Lennards Ltd as both firms used ‘Big Boot,’ there simply isn’t any mention of it whatsoever. Yet here was an asset as important as any other. The first founders to use the Boot initially from the late 1870’s and 1880’s was, Hull, Derby and Nottingham, managed by William and George Franklin and Jabez Harker, Brow Dickinson and his brothers, in all probability produced the ‘wrap around’ leather for each boot. Later it was used in Birmingham district by founder, Benjamin Hunn, and in the Southern sectors by the Lennards. In all, rough estimates of about 6-8 of the Giant boots were made. What happened to them is anyone’s guess but two world wars and severe economic slumps may have taken a toll. It would have been a big temptation to dismantle the boots and re- use the leather for army boots, when leather supplies were limited during times of war!

Evidences have emerged of the big boot and its early days movements set out below.

1879 Derby it is reported in Derby Daily Telegraph of the driver speeding through Derby at a speed of 8 MPH. Wow! George Franklin also names his extensive branch on London Street, ‘Big Boot’.

1880 Again this time another driver is also reported as travelling at speed through the centre of Derby. In each case both drivers were fined.

1880 Nottingham Emporium advertised for a pony for ‘big Boot’. 1881 an ad appeared for a Coach House, stable, groom, young and steady to make himself useful. 1882 Nottingham again advertises for a coach house to be at least eleven feet high for Big Boot!  From floor to bed, the dray it would be about three feet high, Big boot would be up to nine feet high in total when stationed on the dray so a tall building would be required.

1883 Henry Lennard registers Big Boot from 37 High Street Bristol.

1887 Birmingham branch is involved in a court case with their big boot.

Ceramic tin plate hung inside or outside another version of Big Boot copyright Dave Bean

Charles STANIFORTH Employed by the Public Benefit Boot Co in Birmingham to drive one of the large horse-drawn boots used for advertising the company and delivering merchandise to customers. In September 1887, he was summoned to the Birmingham Police Court “for having driven a certain vehicle in the shape of a boot, for the purpose of an advertisement, and contrary to the bye laws. Mr Bickley (Buller, Bickley, and Cross) defended. Inspector Jeffries stated that he saw the defendant driving a horse and vehicle in Moseley Street on the 19th inst. The body of the vehicle was shaped like a big boot. Mr Bickley argued that there was no intention to break the bye laws, as the vehicle was being legitimately used for the purpose of delivering goods, and not for the purpose of advertising. Mr Cook said that when the case came before the magistrates a few weeks ago it was admitted by Mr Bickley’s client that the vehicle was constructed as an advertisement, and that similar vehicle were used in other towns. In Birmingham, however, they had their own bye laws. The only difference between the arguments then used and now was that it was not stated that the vehicle was used for delivering goods. Mr Bickley stated that what his client wanted was an expression from the Bench as to whether they were of opinion that notwithstanding that the vehicle was used for commercial purposes it yet came within the spirit of the bye laws. The Bench said they considered that the vehicle was a violation of the bye laws – namely, that it was intended for an advertisement. The Bench would only inflict a fine of 5s. and cost in this case, as they presumed the intention of the defendants had been to raise the point. In future cases, however, a heavier fine would be inflicted.”

Bristol Headquarters found 1899 depicting ‘Big Boot’

1882 Hull  ‘Big Boot is mentioned by a rival  in his advert. 1888 Hull  wanted a groom to attend horse & drive parcel van Public Benefit Prospect Street Hull. 1899, Hull Daily mail an ad is placed for a coach house for BIG BOOT Beverley Road preferred.     

1891 Nottingham Evening Post:  Tenders required for coach builders to supply a trap and Boot as owned by the Public Benefit Boot company apply J. Hume Belfast. (Hulme was a franchisee)

1899 Western daily Press a partial sketch of the new HQ in Bristol on Queens Road features a ‘big Boot’

Cornishman Nov 1882 Big boot is mentioned: ….in another city may be seen a monster boot about 8ft long and 4 feet high, with a man standing inside. This is drawn on wheels by a horse, and is the mode of advertising adopted by Public Benefit Boot and Shoe Co.. Of course this is a  strictly legitimate means invented by pushing men to bring their wares to public notice, but we see exhibited at times a spirit of antagonism and rivalry.

Hull Big boot seen in the margin, appeared in the company booklet 1897-1947 fifty years of Trading and said to be photographed in 1912. Again based on a hunch, ‘big boot’ would have stopped touring the villages after a few years, as the company expanded branch establishments were founded by the Main branches or Emporiums, the need to visit villages would have diminished substantially. It was next used by those areas that owned them, Birmingham, Hull, Nottingham, Derby in the Northern Sector as a delivery cart around the above four cities and towns. In the Southern Sector it would be used similarly in Bristol and one or two other large centres including, possibly, Cambridge in 1884 according to Cambridge Independent Press. There are reports of it being used in Jesus Lane, when the pony slipped on cobbles. Seriously speaking though, I doubt the trademark would have been used in 1912 when motor transport was fast developing, presenting a vastly quicker and more efficient mode of delivery vehicle. Local deliveries would have been made by the errand boy who would issue a receipt.

Unusual Sight around Leeds pre-War

Bill The Benefit Boot Man another of those outlandish and yet eye catching pieces of advertising this company continued to produce. This one appeared on the Streets of Leeds, when it began no one really knows, but it did end about 1950. Arthur Hudson one time manager of the Templar Street repairs factory and several ex employees of the factory told me about this.Having made contact with those previous long serving members of the company regarding  ‘Bill the Benefit Bootman’ and, despite extensive enquiries, his true identity was never completely revealed. However, this should not in my opinion allow us to be deflected away from the significance of events that took place in Leeds city centre many years ago. This is a simple tale of a major footwear company based in Leeds that took a decision to employ a man to walk around wearing a leather boot around his neck.

Fred Lunn of Castleford kindly drew a very good picture of ‘Benefit Billy’ and describes his round as being; ‘from Templar Street,  (this is where the large repair factory was situated). Then down towards the bus station, around the market, round by the Corn Exchange, along Boar Lane, up Briggate to the old dispensary and back to Templar Street. He also had a few ports of call, The Commercial club, ‘Robin Hood’ ‘Golden Cock’ The Central Market’ and ‘The Whip’ He died in 1953.

Fred’s brother Joe wrote in 2002, and his career with Benefit footwear began in 1952. ‘Bill used to hang around the bus station opposite the Quarry Hill flats in the company of other characters. ‘Woodbine Lizzie’ real name Alice Porter, ‘a housewife with kids who tired of her husband’s behaviour and ran away to London and was half way there when she decided to return to Leeds to live on the streets’ according to John Morgan an ex reporter who worked on the Yorkshire Post for 56 years! ‘I was based in the centre of Leeds for at least thirty years but never saw a bloke with a boot around his neck’

‘Scotch Billy’ and ‘Woodbine Liz’ seen outside ‘The Whip’ public House

Lizzie got her name after asking almost everyone who passed, ‘have you got a Woodbine to spare ‘guv’ and she spent all day picking up fag ends’ Other characters included ‘The Spiderman’ ‘Cartwheel & Spoffana’ also Harry Bendown.’ Cartwheel was a very tall lady who appeared to walk in a wheel turning movement. Spoffana a very small lady with a stick she was cartwheels’ friend, they both came from Rothwell and looked so comical together. One six foot and the other 3 feet.’ Harry Bendown what a character he was. Harry mocked Bill and he used to make fun of all the misfits to the delight of onlookers, after his entertainment he would hold a window cleaning bucket out for any spare coppers as he called them. He was very much like Tommy Cooper with a full, thick shock of curly hair.

Apparently, there is a photo of Bill in the factory he used to work on the finishing line as a ‘scourer’ but sadly the photo hasn’t materialised after all we are talking pre-war days, a long time ago. ‘I was an apprentice and think Bill passed away in 1953. Polish immigrants in the Welting dept made the boot he wore.

The man who first put me onto ‘Benefit Billy’ was Arthur Hudson one time manager of the repair factory who went on to become president of the Footwear repairers’ association and was highly respected throughout the trade. The Templar Street factory employed a lot of ‘deaf and dumb’ workers and the spokesman was a chap called Ginger Burnell. After a while I took a bus ride to Leeds library and searched the newspapers for traces of ‘Benefit Billy’ without success. For such an unusual sight a man wearing a heavy leather boot around his neck and no one apparently took a picture? I put this to John Gilleghan MBE no less, after his name was passed to me. A local historian, author, columnist, broadcaster and lecturer, John was absolutely fascinated and like me went to great lengths to track Billy down. He had over the years written about all of the strange characters frequenting Leeds over the years but confessed Like John Morgan ‘Billy’ had them ‘licked’. John Gilleghan suggested he might have been a character called little Billy Sellars? Whilst John Morgan reflected on ‘Scotch Billy’ seen with Alice (Woodbine Liz) outside ‘the Whip’ he was known as Scotch Billy because he would ‘chug, chug, his way around Leeds with his arms moving like railway train pistons’. Scotch Billy was often seen praying in St. Anne’s cathedral

Mr Gilleghan wrote a piece in the Yorkshire Post and put out a broadcast on his half hourly radio show for me and it encouraged some lively replies but no-one amongst them could remember Bill! The boot had no heel in it and it fitted right over Bill’s head and the laces tied around his neck. The ‘upper’ and ‘toe’ of the boot were in front of his body like a tray, it was quite a size and when he went to the toilet he used to take it off and leave it outside where kids would jump in it and on it’ according to Fred Lunn.

What of the boot? Fred mentioned that it was still in the stores at Templar Street when he left in the mid ‘fifties’. I do know the factory was burned down along with that wonderful piece of old memorabilia once a part of the social history of Leeds. The upper levels of the factory were occupied by Ming Sing Chinese restaurant and the police were called often to investigate ‘incidents’ at the ‘restaurant ’ but it burned down in the late 1950’s.