Category Archives: Footwear

Running the show: Reebok

J W Foster & Sons produced some of the most highly-regarded running shoes in the world in the 1920s. Rebranded as Reebok, its fashion shoes became highly successful in the 1980s.

Joseph William Foster (1881 – 1933) was a cobbler and keen amateur runner. He developed a spiked running shoe in 1895. In 1900 he established his business at 57 Deane Road, Bolton, where he hand made running shoes.

By 1910 the firm was trading as J W Foster & Sons. This was presumably an attempt to make the firm seem larger or longer-established than it really was, as his sons at this time were eight and four years old. His two sons, John William Foster (born 1902) and James William Foster (1906 – 1976) did eventually enter the business.

Foster’s running shoes were the elite athletic item of their era. A large number of professional athletes used his shoes. By 1922 the firm was advertising that 90 percent of English and Scottish football league clubs used their shoes. J W Foster & Sons supplied the 1924 British Olympic track team.

By 1926 the firm was advertising itself as the oldest manufacturer of completely hand-made running shoes in the world.

C Ellis broke the one mile record in 1928 wearing Foster’s shoes. Percy Williams (1908 – 1982) used Foster’s shoes to win the 100m and 200m races at the 1928 Olympic games.

The founder died in 1933 and his sons took over the firm.

Production switched to army boots during the two world wars.

The founder’s grandsons, Joseph William Foster (born 1935) and Jeffrey William Foster (1933 – 1980), established Reebok in Bury in 1958.

Joseph William Foster was the chairman and managing director.

The Reebok brand was well known throughout the North West of England by the 1970s. Reebok absorbed J W Foster & Sons in 1976.

Paul Fireman (born 1944) lobbied Joseph William Foster for the license to sell Reebok shoes in the US. Eventually Foster relented, and sold the US sales rights to Fireman for $65,000 in 1979. Reebok logged sales of around $300,000 in 1980.

By this time the components came from the original factory in England, but the shoes were assembled in South Korea.

Pentland Industries acquired 55 percent of Reebok USA in August 1981 for $77,500.

By the end of 1983, sales had climbed to $12.9 million. Reebok had stumbled upon an expanding market for aerobics. As chance would have it, Nike was also suffering from a downturn, which allowed Reebok to flourish.

Reebok International and Reebok USA merged in April 1984. Pentland Industries maintained its 55 percent stake, and its chairman, Stephen Rubin, was named chairman of Reebok International. Paul Fireman was named President and CEO of Reebok International, and held the remaining 45 percent share.

Reebok headquarters were relocated from Bolton, England to Avon, Massachusetts. The site had 52 employees. The relocation was based on the fact that most Reebok sales were in the US.

Warehouse and office facilities were maintained in Bolton, and Foster remained President of Reebok International.

In 1984 all the lasts, dies and markings were made in England. Research and development took place in England and South Korea.

Stephen Rubin, chairman of Pentland Industries, pushed for Reebok International to go public, which it did in 1985.

1985 sales totalled over $300 million.

Due to growth, head office was moved from Avon to Canton in 1986.

Rockport was acquired in 1986 for $118.5 million in cash.

Foster retired as President of Reebok International in 1990, but remained in a consultancy position.

Pentland Industries sold its stake in Reebok in 1991 for $770 million.

Reebok was acquired by Adidas for £2.1 billion in 2005.

Foster steeped down from his consultancy position in 2015.

Boots to Boots: John White

John White was the largest shoemaking company in Britain.

John White (1885 – 1974) was born into a strict Calvinistic Baptist family. His ancestors had been engaged in the shoemaking trade since the mid-eighteenth century.

White was trained as a clicker, one who cuts the uppers of shoes and boots from leather. He cut the uppers of 650,000 pairs of shoes and boots before 1918.

White went into business for himself in 1918. With £200 in savings he bought a small workshop in Rushden, Northamptonshire. He acquired a shoe press in 1919, and by the end of the year he had three employees.

White acquired small local factories which had gone bust due to a trade slump. His business produced 100,000 pairs of boots and shoes in 1921.

John White launched his own brand of shoes in 1930. He promoted the new brand with national advertising. John White was the largest shoemakers in Britain by 1935. The Rushden factories employed 1,200 people, and 1.75 million pairs of shoes were manufactured each year.

White acquired a factory at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire in 1936 from Owen Parker, whose own shoe manufacturing business had failed. Adjacent office were constructed.

John White supplied both sides during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Each side placed orders for 100,000 pairs of shoes.

White undercut his competitors by efficiently cutting costs and accepting low margins. He avoided trade union trouble by paying for piecework; payment for work completed, rather than basic wages.

White built a new factory on Lime Street, Rushden in 1939. It was designed by Albert Richardson (1880 -1964), a leading architect whose work included the Manchester Opera House.

John White had nine factories, a staff of nearly 2,000 and production of three million pairs of boots and shoes a year by 1941.

During the Second World War the firm sold over eight million pairs of boots to the armed forces; one ninth of all footwear supplied to the troops.

Wholesalers were not marketing his product as effectively as John White would have liked, so after the War he began to sell directly to retailers. Profits mounted rapidly. By 1951 the company employed 2,600 people.

In the 1950s John White was exporting 400,000 pairs of shoes a year to America, and the company accounted for 90 percent of British footwear exports. John White shoes were exported to 56 territories.

Expansion saw a factory opened in Corby, Northamptonshire in 1954.

The company employed nearly 2,000 people when John White retired in 1962. The company initially struggled in his absence, but had regained profitability by 1968.

George Ward of Leicester was acquired for £4 million in 1972 to create a footwear group with a market capitalization of over £6 million. The name of the company was changed to Ward White Group.

In 1973 G B Britton was acquired. By 1973 the Ward White Group had 9,000 employees in nine countries.

The group acquired the Halfords bicycle and car parts stores in 1989.

Ward White was acquired by Boots for £900 million in 1989, in what was to prove an ill-fated attempt at diversification.

Admirable feat: Lilley & Skinner

Lilley & Skinner was one of the largest footwear retailers in Britain, and operated the largest shoe shop in the world for many years.

Thomas Lilley (1814 – 1899) established a shoe manufacturing business at Southwark, London in 1835.

Lilley relocated to Wellingborough, Northamptonshire in 1851 and established a factory. Northamptonshire was a nucleus for the footwear manufacturing trade.

Lilley employed 233 people in 1871.

Lilley employed 42 men and 12 boys in 1881. By this time a factory had been established at Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire.

Thomas Lilley was a generous philanthropist. He was fair and honest and enjoyed good relations with his workforce.

His son Thomas (1846 – 1916) entered the partnership and was joined by his brother-in-law, William Banks Skinner (1847 – 1914) in 1881.

Lilley & Skinner was incorporated in 1894. In 1896 the firm had capital of £260,000 when it made a limited offering of shares to the public. Its head office was at Paddington Green, London. There were factories at Bristol and Chesham and a leather warehouse at Rushden.

By 1896 there were around 50 retail shops, all situated in London and its suburbs. There was a large export trade to Australia and South Africa.

The London warehouse was destroyed by fire in 1900. The Bristol factory was destroyed by fire in 1905.

Thomas Lilley II left an estate valued at £100,801 in 1916. He was succeeded as chairman by his son, Thomas Lilley III (1872 – 1951), a shrewd and financially astute man who would guide the company to greater prosperity.

A flagship Oxford Street store was opened in 1921. It was the largest shoe shop in the world.

Lilley & Skinner became a public company in 1950.

Following the death of his father, Thomas Lilley IV (1902 – 1959) became managing director and chairman.

Lilley & Skinner had a fully-paid share capital of £2 million in 1951. The company was one of the largest footwear retailers in Britain, with 84 branches mostly situated in London and the Home Counties. The company employed over 2,300 people.

Benefit Footwear, with 143 branches in the Midlands and the North of England, was acquired in 1951-2.

Lilley & Skinner merged with Saxone in 1956 to form Saxone, Lilley & Skinner. Thomas Lilley played a major part in the merger, and became chairman of the new company. Saxone, Lilley & Skinner was second in size only to British Shoe Corporation. Saxone concentrated on men’s and children’s shoes, whilst Lilley & Skinner specialised in fashion.

Saxone, Lilley & Skinner had 470 retail outlets, including over 60 department store concessions by 1958. There were five factories in Kilmarnock and Leicester. A new distribution warehouse was opened in Leeds in 1959  to supply northern branches.

British Shoe Corporation acquired Saxone, Lilley & Skinner for £27.3 million in 1962.

Lilley & Skinner still operated the largest shoe shop in the world in 1974. Located at 360-366 Oxford Street, it had 76,000 square feet of floorspace across four storeys. It had ten departments, 250,000 pairs of shoes and a staff of 180. An average of over 45,000 people visited the store every week.

Hell for leather: Pocock Brothers

Pocock Brothers was the largest boot manufacturer in the world.

The firm was founded as a boot manufacturer by John Joseph Pocock in 1815.

In 1832 a boot retailing partnership between Joseph Poole and Thomas Pocock at Tooley Street was dissolved.

In 1851 Thomas Gotch Pocock (1815 – 1883) was a shoe salesman.

By 1855 Pocock Brothers had a boot factory at 20-23 Southwark Bridge Road, London.

In 1871 T G Pocock was a shoe retailer employing 120 men and 50 boys. In 1881 T G Pocock described himself as a boot manufacturer employing 335 men.

In 1888 Pocock Brothers advertised themselves as the largest boot manufacturers in the world.

In 1889 E Pocock left the partnership to leave T Pocock, George Pocock (born 1853) and Percy Rogers Pocock (born 1857).

By 1891 the firm employed well over 1,000 men and women and along with Rabbits & Co, was the largest shoe manufacturer in London. That year it locked-out its workers in response to union activity.

In the 1890s the firm had contracts to supply boots to the Army and the Metropolitan Police.

In 1902 the firm pleaded guilty to hiring four boys beyond the statutory hours.

By 1909 the business was solely managed by the two brothers, George and Percy Rogers Pocock.

In 1910 the retail operations were sold to Freeman Hardy & Willis, but continued their boot manufacturing operations.

In 1927 the firm was registered as a limited company, Pocock Brothers Ltd.

In the 1930s the firm made padded cells for psychiatric wards.

The firm was still trading as late as 1962.

A new angle: Saxone Shoe Company

Saxone was the largest footwear manufacturer in Scotland.

Established in 1820, Clark & Co of Kilmarnock manufactured shoes for export, particularly to South America.

From 1887, with the erection of import tariffs in many countries, Clark began to open retail outlets across Great Britain. In 1904 the factory at Titchfield Street employed 150 people.

F & G Abbott Ltd was a shoe retailer established in 1902 which purchased much of its stock from Clark & Co. Saxone was their own-label brand for an American-style men’s shoe.

Saxone offered half sizes, as well as five different fittings for each size. This wide offering of varieties was the key behind the success of the brand.

The Saxone Shoe Company was established in 1908 when Clark & Sons merged with F & G Abbott. George Clark (1861 – 1937) and George Sutherland Abbott (1862 – 1940) were joint-managing directors.

In 1928 the company went public with a share capital of £1 million. By this time there were 106 retail stores.

George Clark, chairman and managing director, died in 1937. G S Abbott left £133,592 when he died in 1940.

Throughout the Second World War a large proportion of production was devoted to military service contracts, including regulation army boots and officer’s footwear.

By 1948 1,200 staff were employed at 180 retail branches, and 1,000 people were employed at Kilmarnock.

In 1956 the firm merged with Lilley & Skinner to form Saxone, Lilley & Skinner. In 1961 the merged firm had 450 shops, seven factories and 26 repair factories.

In 1962 the firm was acquired by British Shoe Corporation.

In the 1960s the firm introduced American Hush Puppie shoes to Britain.

Saxone manufacturing was severely effected by Italian imports to Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1995 Saxone had 111 outlets and 1,100 full time equivalent staff, but the chain was loss-making. In 1996 British Shoe Corporation closed the unprofitable Saxone stores, and the profitable outlets were sold to Facia. Later that year Facia entered receivership and 61 Saxone stores were acquired by the Stylo sports footwear group.

The Saxone brand is currently owned by Barratts of Bradford.

All’s fair in war: Faire Brothers of Leicester

Faire Brothers of Leicester operated the largest shoe findings factory in England.

Watkin Lewis Faire (1819 – 1892) of Kidderminster moved to Leicester in 1850 to become an agent for the Leicester Temperance Society. He visited 3,030 houses in 1851.

He established Faire Brothers, lace manufacturers, in partnership with his brother in 1855.

His son, Arthur Faire (1854 – 1933), established Smith Faire & Co, boot and shoe manufacturers.

Watkin Lewis Faire retired from Faire Brothers in 1886, and the business was continued by his three sons, Joseph Louis (1841 – 1898), John Edward (1843 – 1929) and Samuel Faire (1849 – 1931).

Watkin Lewis Faire died in 1892, and his funeral took place immediately after that of Thomas Cook, travel agent and fellow temperance advocate.

Faire Brothers operated factories at Wimbledon Street and Southampton Street, Leicester by 1892.

Joseph Louis Faire was the head of Faire Brothers when he died in 1898.

Watkin Lewis Faire built a new factory at Rutland Street, Leicester in 1898. The firm acquired a factory at Borrowash, Derbyshire, in 1900.

Faire Brothers became a limited company with a capital of £250,000 in 1900.

St George’s Mills, Wimbledon Street, Leicester was the largest shoe findings factory in England by 1912. Faire Brothers employed 600 workers.

St George's Mills in Leicester
St George’s Mills in Leicester

John Edward Faire was chairman by 1916.

Faire Brothers received a contract to provide around one million pairs of braces for the army in 1916. The firm also manufactured suspenders and garters.

Faire Brothers had seven factories across Leicester, Burton upon Trent and Borrowash in Derbyshire by 1917. They included the largest small wares factories in Britain.

During the First World War, the firm was able to take a large share of the shoe and boot lace market, which had largely been held by German manufacturers.

Sir Samuel Faire died in 1931 and left £271,874. A Liberal Unionist, he had been a keen philanthropist throughout his life.

Ernest Alfred Lillie, company chairman, died in 1956. By this time Faire Brothers had factories at Burton upon Trent, Thorne near Doncaster, Mansfield, Borrowash and Leicester.

Faire Brothers was acquired by Phipps & Son in 1967.

Faire Brothers employed 1,000 people by 1970, including 400 at the Rutland Street factory. That year the unprofitable braces manufacturing operation was closed down due to declining sales.

Phipps extensively streamlined the Faire Brothers operations, reducing eight factories to two large factories and two smaller specialist supporting factories.

Meanwhile, Smith Faire & Co was liquidated in 1982.

Chamberlain Phipps entered receivership in 1996.

Sole survivor: Manfield of Northampton

Manfield & Sons became one of the largest shoemakers in Northampton, and opened shoe stores in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Moses Philip Manfield (1819 – 1899) was born in Bristol, the son of a poor shoemaker. He was raised as a Unitarian.

At the age of twelve he was apprenticed as a boot closer (one who sewed the uppers of boots) at a shoe factory. He eventually rose to the position of manager.

In 1843 Manfield relocated to manage a business in Northampton, but it failed. Local Unitarians assisted Manfield to re-establish himself. Initially he targeted the lower-end of the market, and government contracts.

The business employed 200 workers by 1851.

Manfield became one of the leading shoe manufacturers in Northampton. The firm employed 688 workpeople by 1871.

In 1881 the firm employed 231 men and 20 boys.The introduction of mechanisation had resulted in lower staffing levels. Harry (1855 – 1923) and James Manfield (1857 – 1925) entered the firm as partners in 1883, and the firm became known as Manfield & Sons.

Retail branches were opened in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Sheffield and Birmingham in 1884. A retail branch was opened in Paris in 1889.

A purpose-built factory was built in 1892, capable of producing 350,000 pairs of shoes a year. At this juncture Moses Philip Manfield handed day to day management of the firm to his sons.

Retail branches were opened in Belgium and the Netherlands in 1901.

By 1910 the firm employed over 1,300 workers at its Northampton factory, and there were over 70 retail branches across Britain and Europe.

Manfield & Sons was incorporated as a private company in 1920.

By 1944 the firm employed 2,525 people.

Manfield & Sons was converted into a public company with an authorised capital of £3 million in 1950. The firm could produce 27,000 pairs of shoes and boots in a week. There were 102 retail branches, including eight in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. The firm employed around 2,500 people.

Manfield & Sons was acquired by the Charles Clore controlled J Sears & Co for £3.37 million in 1956. Manfield operated 180 retail branches, as well as interests in France and the Netherlands.

In 1990 the quality middle market Manfield was merged with Saxone, another Sears subsidiary. A new chain of 30 Manfield stores was established to cater to the over 40s market.

Sears divested a number of shops, including Manfield, to Fascia in 1995. Manfield in the Netherlands was subject to a management buyout in 1996. Facia entered administration in 1997.

Manfield footwear and retail shops still exist in the Netherlands and France. In the Netherlands the chain has 69 stores and 620 employees. In France there are 33 Manfield stores.

Manfield shoes are still sold in Britain, where the brand is owned by the Jacobson Group, which also owns the Gola sportswear and Dolcis shoe brands.

A shoe in: J Sears & Co of Northampton

J Sears & Co was the largest footwear retailer in Britain.

John George Sears (1870 – 1916) was the son of James George Sears, a Northampton leather seller, who in 1871 employed two men and three boys. John George Sears was raised as a Congregationalist.

Sears began as a clicker (one who cuts the uppers for shoes and boots from leather), and rose to the position of factory foreman.

In 1891 J G Sears entered business with his brother, William Thomas Sears, under the name of J Sears & Co. They had a small factory on Derby Road, Northampton.

The firm was able to take work from the strike-affected Manfield of Northampton in 1895.

In 1897 Sears opened his first retail outlet. In 1900 a branch was opened on Fleet Street, London.

A large factory on Adnitt Road, Northampton, was acquired in 1904.

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Much of the firm’s success was due to extensive advertising, and the energy, bold application and sound judgement of J G Sears.

In 1912 J Sears & Co went public with a capital of £350,000. The firm had 80 branches, including 47 in London. The company had one of the largest shoe factories in Britain.

Sears was a loveable, generous and unaffected man. He was a prominent Freemason.

Shortly after the public offering, Sears’ health broke down, “undermined by years of almost superhuman activity”, according to the Taunton Courier. He died in 1916 with an estate valued at £400,718.

In 1916 the firm employed 1,000 people in manufacture, and 1,000 people in retail.

In 1928 J Sears & Co acquired Freeman Hardy & Willis, a business similar to their own. By 1929 the firm had an issued capital of £3.35 million and 722 retail shops.

In 1953 J Sears & Co was acquired in a hostile takeover by Charles Clore.

Bouncing back: Rabbits & Co

Rabbits & Co became one of the largest shoe manufacturers in the world.

Edward Harris Rabbits (1818 – 1874) of Frome, Somerset, emigrated to Newington, London, and established himself as a shoe maker and retailer with a half crown he had borrowed. His factory was at the Elephant Buildings, Newington Butts.

Rabbits was a argumentative and characterful man. Tired of the formality of the Wesleyan church, he became a Methodist Reformer and later became a dedicated member of the evangelical Methodist New Connexion.

Rabbits met William Booth, a penniless yet gifted Methodist preacher, in 1850. He would provide financial support for Booth, who he encouraged to continue as a preacher, and introduced him to his future wife, Catherine Mumford. Booth went on to found the Salvation Army in 1865.

E H Rabbits employed 90 men and 85 women by 1851. E H Rabbits had multiple retail branches by 1856.

The E H Rabbits shoe factory was described as one of the largest in the world in 1861. With a height of 68 feet, it was one of the tallest industrial buildings in London. The warehouse constantly employed nearly 400 people. Well-heated and well-lit, it also contained a sixty foot-long lecture hall for the discussion of religion and philanthropy.

E H Rabbits died in 1874. He had been a keen donor to religious and philanthropic causes throughout his life.

The business passed to his brother, William Rabbits (1827 – 1878), who was also a boot maker with a factory at St Thomas’s Works, Whites Grounds, Bermondsey. The firm was renamed Rabbits & Sons.

Rabbits died in 1878 and the firm was run by his executors until 1880, when it was taken over in partnership by his sons, William Thomas (1847 – 1908) and Charles Joseph Whittuck Rabbits (1854 – 1901). By this time the firm had 18 retail outlets across London.

William Thomas Rabbits left the partnership in 1887, likely due to ill health, and Charles Rabbits became sole proprietor.

Charles Rabbits died in 1901, with a gross estate valued at £321,179.

Rabbits & Sons was acquired by Freeman Hardy & Willis, a larger shoe retail chain, in 1903.

The Elephant Buildings at Newington Butts had become an engineering store by 1909.

Brought to heel: George Oliver & Co of Leicester

George Oliver was the largest retailer of shoes and boots in the world.

George Oliver (1836 – 1896) began life in humble circumstances. He was apprenticed to a cordwainer (shoemaker) in his native Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire.

Oliver opened a shop in Willenhall, Staffordshire in 1860. He employed three men by 1861. He opened another shop with his brother Charles (1845 – 1897) in nearby Neath in 1868. Additional shops soon followed.

Oliver established a shoe factory in Wolverhampton in 1869, but sold it to concentrate on his retail business in 1875. A distribution warehouse was established in Leicester. Oliver employed twelve men in 1881.

By 1889 there were over 100 shops, located in the more densely populated parts of Britain. Oliver had one of the largest shoe retail businesses in Britain by 1896.

George Oliver had a shrewd mind and a keen business sense. His rugged exterior and brusque manner disguised a kindly personality. A keen Conservative and Freemason, he was a retiring man, renowned in Leicester for his generosity. He died from a sudden haemorrhage or stroke in 1896.

George Oliver was succeeded in the management of the business by his brother Charles. A buoyant man with a genial temperament, he too died of a sudden haemorrhage or stroke the following year.

Management of the business was taken over by George Oliver’s son, Charles Frederick Oliver (1868 – 1939).

In 1897 George Oliver advertised itself as the largest retailer of boots and shoes in the world, with 140 branches. Between 1915 and 1918 the firm claimed to be the largest footwear retailer in the world.

Charles Frederick Oliver was created a knight in 1933.

George Carter Oliver (1864 – 1935), a director of the firm and a son of George Oliver, died in 1935 with an estate valued at £158,206.

George Oliver was incorporated as a private company in 1936.

Sir Charles Frederick Oliver died in 1939, with a gross estate valued at £125,047. He was succeeded by his sons, Frederick Ernest Oliver (1900 – 1994) and Claude Danolds Oliver (1904 – 1987) as joint managing directors.

The family sold 36 percent of the company to the banking firm Robert Benson Lonsdale & Co in 1950 in order to pay the death duties of Lady Oliver.

George Oliver went public with a fully-paid share capital of £450,000 in 1954. Frederick Ernest Oliver was chairman. The business sold medium-priced footwear and hosiery for men, women and children. There were 111 branches, including 63 in England, principally in the South and West, and 48 in Wales. There were around 580 employees. Headquarters were at 18 Charles Street, Leicester.

F E Oliver was a modest, humble man. He retired from George Oliver in 1973.

With both firms suffering from the recession, George Oliver acquired Hiltons Footwear, a retail firm, for £9.8 million in 1981. Oliver had 130 branches and Hilton had 189, but only 25 overlapped. Oliver then sold and leased back 14 properties for £7.8 million to an investment group to fund the acquisition.

George Oliver had 1.7 percent of the British shoe retail market in 1986.

Timpson Shoes, with 228 shops. was acquired for £15 million in 1987. This doubled Oliver in size and created the third largest footwear retailing chain in Britain, with around 500 shops. The Timpson shoe shops were mostly located in Lancashire, Scotland, Teesside and Yorkshire, and only overlapped with Oliver in 30 locations. However they were not particularly profitable at the time of takeover.

George Oliver (now renamed the Oliver Group) acquired Frame Express, a London-based picture framing chain with 16 outlets for £1.8 million in 1989.

No members of the Oliver family worked at the Oliver Group by 1994.

The loss-making Oliver Group, with 258 stores, was acquired by Shoe Zone of Leicester in 2000 for £6.1 million. The Oliver, Timpson and Olivers Timpson names were replaced by the Shoe Zone brand. Loss-making outlets were closed and new stores were opened in low-rent locations.