Gradual Formation of British Shoe Corporation

Gradual Formation of the British Shoe Corporation

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

Anglo American deals on footwear were widely spread across the U.K. French, German, Swiss, Italian and Czechoslovakian companies also sent footwear to this country, but the American invasion had been the most effective on our home market.

We know Public Benefit Boot Company not only manufactured their own boots but they also imported, in a, Anglo American deal in 1878/9 thousands of pairs of boots and shoes of all types, poured into their warehouses in Hull, Derby and Leicester. Retrospectively, Franklin and his partners were simply, continuing their policy of ‘Factoring’ on a large scale, a practice perfected in Leeds. They not only imported American but also other foreign footwear and it becomes obvious, price and quality were the deciding factors. The company continued importing foreign goods for decades trading under the title of British and Foreign Boot & Shoe exchange. In Nottingham 1880, Harker had a Ladies French Saloon and Great Boot Exchange. They were not alone as evidence reveals footwear companies everywhere were also taking advantage of the practice. Advertising was crucial as each company vied to out do another in their ‘classy’ and informative ads often placed in ‘Elite’ or main newspapers

Worcestershire Chronicle July 1877

Foreign boots and shoes imported here has increased in 6 months of 1875, the value was £104,049, in 1876, £176,376 and in 1877, £187,386. It shows a rising trend

Yorkshire Post March 1895 reports on a column in a noted American Journal. It was an open Letter on Exports from America written by an American. I have plucked some figures from his assertions. In 1893 a sum total of 30,310,445 pounds (Weight) of sole leather exported to GB more than any other country in Europe.

1894: 36,860,575 pounds of Sole leather again outstripping any other European country

Other leathers exported were ‘patent’. Pebbled leathers and manufactured leather articles, handbags, shoes and so on.

1893 there were 588,093 pairs of American Boots and Shoes exported to foreign countries

1894 there were 723,517.

Northampton Chronicle April 1904

An article on the protectionism afforded to the American Boot and Shoe industry for the home market of 25%.

Britain exported 9,279,312 pairs of shoes at a value of £1,847,128. In point of quantity it is double that of the United States but not growing with the same rapidity.

On the other hand, British methods of production have seen considerable improvement and gradually the American market is being closed to American Boots whilst everywhere else is gaining ground!

Chief purchasers of American Boots and shoes though in 1903 was Britain 996,154 pairs,

Australasia 475,386. British Africa 197, 306, West Indies, 399, 482 pairs. Despite their high priced, labour force in comparison to Europeans and the fact that they can overcome high tariffs from Germany and Canada is testimony to the efficiency of American factories and the quality of their products. 

An extract from R. A. Church, “The Effect of the American Export Invasion on the British Boot and Shoe Industry 1885-1914,” Journal of Economic History (1968)

Tariffs, here, although increasingly under consideration, were not imposed until the 1930s. Therefore, British businessmen were obliged to lose their market or else rethink and modernise their operations. The boot and shoe industry faced increasing imports of American footwear; Americans took over the market for shoe machinery. British companies realised they had to meet the competition so they re-examined their traditional methods of work, labour utilisation, and industrial relations, and to rethink how to market footwear in terms of the demand for fashion

 Marc-William Palen, “Protection, Federation and Union: The Global Impact of the McKinley Tariff upon the British Empire, 1890-94,” Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History (2010) Some facts from this work are presented below.

 Britain persisted in its free trade policy even as its major rivals, the U.S. and Germany, turned to high tariffs (as did Canada). American heavy industry grew faster than Britain, and by the 1890s was crowding British machinery and other products out of the world market.

 The Americans were trading aggressively, aiming to expand their markets by sending sample cases of boots and shoes to South America, W. Indies, Central America, Mexico, and South Africa. The thriving cities and settlements in S. Africa afforded a particularly fruitful field for the American drummer (Travelling salesman) In these areas they were naturally captured by English manufacturers, as British made goods were in demand. However, American boots and shoes are slowly gaining ground by removing the American trade mark fooling people into thinking they are English boots!

American makers also provide more widths and six sizes in comparison to English makers who provide only two.

New York makers are ‘lining up to send their boots and shoes to South America or Africa where a $1-$1.25 retails at $2.-$2.50 and it was estimated there are now 300 New York Firms engaged in the business of exporting.

 The Americans had the best machinery and the quickest workmen.

Interesting fact is raised by the Americans, as many campaigned, in a freeing up of the American market and eradicating tariffs completely, gathering pace it was prompted by the question of ‘hides’. British and foreign manufacturers bought leather tanned in the United States, sourced, from foreign imported hides, which are then manufactured into boots and shoes, and ultimately, go on to compete with the American product. The American government, whilst ‘protecting’ their domestic, boot and shoe trade with tariffs, actually returned 99% of the duty paid on ‘Raw Hides,’ amounting to 5-10 % back to the foreign buyer of this leather! In real terms, what this equates to is a reduction of between 5-10% being applied to the leather that goes on to make uppers and soles, cheaper than American manufacturers could buy it, they were in effect subsidising foreign manufacturers.

Staffordshire advertiser 1927 reported on an important Meeting raising concerns on Imported, Foreign footwear with a ‘call’ to enforce countries to undertake stamping of footwear as ‘Foreign Manufacture’. This order would extend to compulsory marking of imported boot, shoes and slippers except those made of rubber. 

117,000,000 pairs of boots shoes and slippers were made in this country every year

80,000 workers were represented in 130 towns as unions and employers alike pressed for the ‘stamping’ regulation

Lennards, backed by Leicester, Northampton and Norwich chambers of commerce asked that imported footwear should bear an indication of origin, legibly and conspicuously stamped on the waist of each shoe. Ordinary public could not distinguish between British and foreign made footwear and shop assistants were not able to give the information. It was further pointed out that shoes imported into Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Holland and the United States had to be Marked

E.W. Lennard chairman of Lennards Ltd did not oppose foreign imports as the practice allowed people more choice but at the same time, the consumer should know what they were buying. He also believed, there isn’t a foreign shoe feature that couldn’t be reproduced or bettered by British manufacturers. Apparently, the bulk of footwear imports came from Czechoslovakia and Switzerland worth £809,681. American and French imports are worth £485,502.

Not all speakers or manufacturers were in favour of this action the National Federation of Boot & Shoe manufacturers were wholly in support of stamping foreign footwear, ‘Foreign Manufacture’ Interesting remark came from W.H. Skinner of Lilley and Skinner Ltd who objected to the stamping on the grounds that foreign shoes were only bought on merit, and his company objected to becoming advertising agents for foreign goods. As distributors, they also objected to giving away their source to competitors and from the ‘factors’ view it would be injurious to the trade.

R. Upson MD of Upsons Ltd owner of High Life and Dolcis shoes amongst others said that the effect of marking in America meant an increase of exports to that country.

Whilst it is not crystal clear, I have always believed top firms were importing footwear. Some like Saxone, supposedly, forced into to it by government legislation and controls during the Great war. Dolcis also hinted, as did Lilley and Skinner, regarding foreign imports they, as distributors objected to giving away their sources to rivals. After the war, of course as normality returned, top footwear companies entered the race to attract high Society clientele, to achieve this, grand, ‘fashion stores’ were opened and importing of fashionable ladies and Mens shoes from places like Italy, and Paris, took place.

Main companies in the build-up to forming British Shoe Corporation

Some mentioned here were ‘big boys’ of the trade, whilst, ‘Benefit’ would be classed as a middle range company. Had their merger with Lennards been accepted by the Northern board, it is likely, under the direction of Thomas Joseph Lennard, together, they would have secured a larger slice of the trade, perhaps overtaking the likes of Freeman Hardy and Willis or Stead and Simpson?.

Edward Wood of Leicester began making boots in 1870, a mere six years later his company had become Freeman, Hardy and Willis. 1895 they had over 300 branch establishments in 150 cities and towns but in 1926 it had risen to 520 branches with a manufacturing base and Headquarters in Leicester. Watching closely, this was the company that began a secret campaign to ‘knock out’ a serious, rival, begun in 1875 Public Benefit Boot Company and also their partners, Lennards. He realised their goals could inhibit his own plans, also with no evidence of F. H. & W. ever importing foreign boots, this may have provided further impetus, to take action. This ‘action’ as explained in my other articles, involved buying up a collection of small companies registered with names closely resembling Public Benefit Boot Company. They then began a sincere campaign in territories secured by main directors of Public Benefit Boot such as Derby, Birmingham, and main towns and cities in Lennards territories. T.J. Lennard opened a company by the name of Mutual Boot stores with a simple trademark of a small vessel pulled by oars with the motto, ’Let’s Pull together’ and F.H.& W. opened one by the name of Mutual Benefit Boot Company. In all both companies traded under a mix of trading names and battled it out, cleverly F.H.& W. opened their companies using ‘clerks’ as shareholders, careful to be disassociated with any form of trading war, with headquarters in Birmingham, & Leicester close to their rivals H. Q’s. Such was the early success of Public Benefit; their name was copied everywhere and may have prompted a ‘rush’ to incorporate in 1890 in order to protect their trading name. In summing up, Public Benefit and Lennards achieved rapid successes due to a mix of factoring, importing cheap, good quality goods including, boots, shoes, ‘hides’ and ‘uppers’ from America, as well as building up a reputation for their own quality, manufactured, brands such as the ‘Benefit’ and ‘Briton’ brand boots.

Once the global, depression arrived following WW1, whilst most firms had experienced, ‘hard times’ previously, the period from 1920 and even into the 1930’s was a prolonged struggle, even a fight for survival, tempered only by occasional ‘bright spots’ and the onset of WW2. Each firm tackled this painful period, in a slightly different way but the single, main, common denominator was an attitude of determination to ‘work through’ the difficulties.

All main footwear companies, had other common practices too, in that the large to middle range ‘multiples’ introduced a ‘shoe fitting’ service, with properly trained staff, knowledgeable of the bones in the feet. They made much of this service in their regular advertising campaigns. Their retail outlets year on year were increased, ‘Benefit’ and ‘Lennards’ for example from the First World war and throughout the depressed years, generally opened about eight new branches annually. Many saw increased profits year on year, some scraped by but rarely fell below the previous years’ profits. Results for all of them were often seen as disappointing but not calamitous. Mail order facilities were common amongst major footwear companies, Lennards served the domestic market and foreign markets, exporting to places like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Illustrated Sporting etc. 1928 ‘The Whirligig of Fashion’ Lilley & Skinner is cleverly sending the message of the Shoe is an important and essential part of overall clothing fashions!!

Lilley and Skinner 1921 opened the worlds’ largest shoe shop at 358-360 Oxford Street. It was a stunning success aimed at the ‘better off society’ reflected in their advertising campaigns. They maintained good profits throughout the 1920’s with persistent advertising campaigns many in top class newspapers, one in particular being Illustrated London News group .

Nearly all major multiples including ‘Benefit’ and ‘Lennards’ engaged in ‘wooing’ the ‘New rich’ and established aristocracy, advertising was integrated into full page fashion ‘spreads’ displaying ladies, modelling skirts, frocks, coats and so on along with footwear. One reason for this being, reduced wages and unemployment owing to the vicious slump, left little money to go around amongst the working population, nurturing a higher-class trade produced satisfying results. Companies now were keen to promote shoes as a part of ‘fashion trends’ overall.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Illustrated London News Group  1920 stressing the long held view that ladies were buying dresses to match their shoes!!

Manfield   established 1846 in Northampton opened a prestigious shoe store at 170 Regent Street after the First World war catering for the ‘upper classes’. This company also enlisted ‘agents’ to promote and stock their range of ‘football boots’

John Upson began selling boots from a Street barrow in 1865, continued and expanded by his son John, Upsons’ Ltd gained recognition as a pioneer of shoe fashions for Ladies. 1923 a shoe store ‘Dolcis’ dedicated to Women, and the following year 1924 one dedicated to men were opened side by side in Oxford Street London.

At the same time, they opened a Prestigious branch in Hull in 1924.

1925 Upsons’ acquired C. W. Barron and company who, traded in English and Continental shoes, London, Paris, Brussels, and New York they also sold Java Lizard shoes with a growing market for unusual but enduring shoes; profits since 1922 to end of 1926 increased every year and in Western Daily Press November 1927 is a Prospectus for ‘Upsons’ revealing their structure and other details.

Carries on business of Boot and Shoe retailers in London and the suburbs. Also in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol in various names, in total, there are 138 branches.


Dolcis Shoe Company

London Boot Company

High Life Shoe Company

Barron & Company 24 branches

Illustrated London News group  ‘The Tatler’ 1933 Dolcis are committed to producing ‘eye catching’ ads but the market to which it is aimed at is the tall, demure, elegant woman with an air of independence, and a big bank balance

Dolcis developed the brands of ‘Freetoze’ footwear for children, and Dolcis footwear for men and women New large shoe stores were opened in December 1927 in Glasgow with other branches under construction to be opened in Bromley (Kent), Brixton Road SW, Holloway Road N, and Maidenhead. The company also maintained a mail order department in Great Dover Street London the site of their head office. During its ’lifetime Dolcis accrued a sizeable number of freehold premises which came under Clore’s scrutiny in 1956.

Freeman Hardy and Willis orchestrated a price war by reducing prices in January sale of 1921, advertising prices reduced, down to pre-war pricing. The company also, due to disappointing results ‘moved’ to restore an export trade.

1923 a difficult year but managed to buy leasehold shops of many years standing turning them into Freehold. A progressive company and the largest in the trade a saving scheme for employees is revealed promising interest of 5% tax free.

Illustrated  London News group  ‘The Bystander’ 1925 promoting ‘Miranda’ range, mass produced in huge quantities achieving a fine finish and distinction at low cost. This company were larger than ‘Benefit footwear but operated in the same markets, lower to middle range.

1924 a bonus was paid to employees setting aside £25,000

1925 the company own over 500 shops they also have several repair factories. Year on year they hold an annual sale with highly, reduced pricing

1927 despite difficult trading times, funds were transferred into pensions and bonus payments to employees.

Jan 1928, they acquired Burlington works at Leicester and a factory at Kettering

More branches were opened than at any other time in their history. Optimism is growing as they near the end of the 1920’s. £50,000 was made available to share amongst employees.

Freeman H.& W. again in ‘The Tatler’ Illustrated London News Group 1920 promoting their ‘Burlington’ range . This has the same looks as ‘Benefit’ styles and would be the general High Street range and yet they depict ladies relaxing in the glorious sunshine with no other care than to go out and buy a pair of summer shoes.

1929 Charterhouse Trust bought up major shareholdings in F. H. & W. but stirrings from the London Chamber of Commerce raised several important points. It was seen as a sinister move to capture the boot industry from the men who had built it up. There was a general trend to buy up British industries during the world slump. The boot trade had seen large unemployment figures owing to the shrinkage of the home markets. Whilst it was seen as progressive for one boot company to buy another, concerns raised on trusts buying them out were worrying as trends showed from other ‘buy outs,’ results were disastrous for industry. 

Charterhouse Trust a London based financial institution ‘snapped up’ 99 % of shares in the company, employees were offered shares at a reduced rate.

Charterhouse also had their eyes on J. Sears (True Form) founded in 1891 but Sears with great astuteness managed to ‘turn the tables’ on Charterhouse by raising enough capital to then buy the shareholding off the trust. At this juncture, fresh concerns were debated by the Chamber of commerce, as to where the money was coming from to buy Freemans by Sears? It was asserted the undertaking was welcome as long as the money was derived from the boot trade. By men who understood the business and not some financial trusts, only in it for the quick buck.

Trusts could also be governed by foreign interests with no assurances for workers or any concerns as to their rights or conditions, and could close a concern after ‘cherry picking’ the best of it.

Another issue brought up by members of the chamber was thoughts of the industry in general ‘going to the dogs’ as sons of founders were attending office for a couple of hours then off to play golf for the rest of the day. He felt many of the younger generations ‘coming up’ were showing no interest. However, other members of the commerce voiced an opinion this was not entirely true as figures told the opposite story.

1929 a Prospectus revealed FHW and Sears held 722 shops between them of which a massive 300 were freehold and 100 on long term favourable leases. Head office was Rutland Street Leicester with a central warehouse and factories in Leicester.

Had the Charterhouse trust managed to control this empire they would have had the largest distribution of footwear in the UK

Saxone Shoe Company formed from an alliance in 1908 between F. & G. Abbott Ltd and Clark and sons, the latter was an old established outfit born in Kilmarnock in 1783. Saxone went on to acquire Cable shoes. In the 1920’s they opened a Large shoe store in Regent Street London to present quality footwear to the ‘well Hee

1920 & 1928 Saxone advertised ‘Saxone and Sorosis’ in their Nottingham and London branches respectively. First invented and Manufactured by an American company in Lynn Massachusetts by the name of A. E. Little who introduced ‘Sorosis’ as a brand in 1897 of women’s shoes. Saxone also begins to promote this style of shoe as being sold in a more alluring sounding, Saxone Salons in ‘shoes of the Mode’ in their London Branch.

F. & G. Abbott Ltd advertising in the ‘Illustrated London News Group ‘Tatler’ 26th dec 1917Specialising in military orders with officers boots. I believe W.Abbott is the same company

American Imports: It appears from the 1920 Advertisement and I quote, “A large percentage of our output commandeered by the government during the war,  compelled us to purchase large quantities of boots and shoes from outside manufacturers to supplement our stock! 

Northampton Mercury Nov 1927 Prices of Boots and shoes debated as many manufacturers fear they cannot meet their obligations against rising raw material prices

Northampton Chronicle October 1922 Looking back, they ran an article stating the Biggest Boot ever made was by Frederick Cook in Long Buckby for a customer who wanted it for advertising purposes. From Heel to Toe it measured 44inches with 41 square feet of Willow Calf being used in the uppers.  51 pounds (Weight) of Sole leather was used for the bottoming. This occurred in 1906.

Pity they didn’t do their homework the ‘Public Benefit Boot’ (Big Boot) was far larger!


Illustrated London News group promoting DRI-Ped soles there were only ads 9 ads placed for Dri- Ped showing Lennards Ltd as a stockist. The ads were  placed using a combined nine other footwear companies. 1925. those listed are: Dolcis, Upsons, High life, W. Abbotts, Lilley and Skinner, Lennards, Crick, Jacksons, Civil Servants Association and London Boot. A classy ad in a classy paper

Illustrated London News Group 1950 ‘Britannia and Eve’ Dolcis continue to place outstanding footwear ads using the actress Lana Morris working for the Rank organisation in a string of films. ‘Walk with the Stars’