Category Archives: Footwear

R & J Dick of Greenhead

R & J Dick was the largest boot manufacturer in the world. The firm later reinvented itself to become the largest manufacturer of industrial belting.

R & J Dick was established by two brothers, Robert (1820 – 1891) and James Dick (1823 – 1902) in 1846, one a jeweller and the other an upholsterer.

The brothers utilised gutta-percha, a gum substitute for leather. Robert made the moulds and James prepared the material. Soon, they were able to offer a low-cost boot with a watertight gutta-percha sole.

R & J Dick employed six men and three boys in 1851. Robert was the inventor, whereas James was more business-minded.

A four-storey factory was acquired at Greenhead, Glasgow in 1859. R & J Dick employed 100 men, 100 boys and 200 girls by 1861.

The firm supplied the greater part of the insulation for submarine cables.

R & J Dick operated the largest footwear factory in the world by 1866. 60,000 pairs of boots were manufactured every week. Retail shops were established.

R & J Dick employed between 1,400 and 1,500 workers in 1867. That year the factory was struck by a fire which caused damage to the value of £25,000.

By the early 1880s the business was flagging: the price of gutta-percha had risen exponentially as demand had increased, and the boots and shoes could no longer be manufactured at a competitive price.

In 1881 the firm employed 610 men, 83 boys, 204 women and 46 girls.

In 1885 James married one of his workers, and emigrated to Australia.

In his brother’s absence, Robert invented a mechanical belt using balata gum. It was immensely strong, and resistant to oxidisation and moisture.

In 1886 there were 1,500 employees.

Robert Dick died in 1891, and James reluctantly returned to manage the business.

James Dick
James Dick (1823 – 1902)

The balata belting patents expired in 1900, but the firm continued to hold a considerable share of the market.

James Dick died childless in 1902, and dedicated his wealth to charities and employees. John Edward Audsley (1824 – 1920), an employee of 40 years, took over management of the company.

R & J Dick was converted into a company in 1908 with a capital of £650,000.

In 1909 a new American tariff on belting imports led the company to build a factory at Passaic, New Jersey. It could match the belting production levels of the Greenhead factory.

R & J Dick balata belting was used across the world by 1911. The product was advertised in languages as diverse as Burmese, Romanian and Hindustani.

The firm acquired estates in Venezuela to provide balata gum in 1918.

R & J Dick had an authorised capital of £925,000 by 1920.

In 1921 the company sustained heavy losses relating to its Venezuelan operation following a slump in baltata prices, and was forced to mortgage its properties in order to maintain sufficient working capital. Trading loss for the year amounted to £298,463.

In 1922 the company chairman, J Parker Smith, blamed the “extravagance and laxity” of the Venezuelan manager.

In 1923, after continued losses, a shareholder criticised the loss-making American factory as a “white elephant” from the beginning.

Shoe production was discontinued in 1923. Retail shop leases were allowed to expire. In 1935 the firm sold 12 retail shops in Scotland to Greenlees & Son of Glasgow. The boot manufacturing business was sold in 1935.

In 1961 there were 235 employees.

In 1962 the firm was acquired by the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Co in a share transaction which valued the company at £1,075,000.

Built to last: Stead & Simpson

Stead, Simpson & Nephews was the largest footwear manufacturer in the world.

Edmund Stead (1803 – 1881) of Darlington and Morris Simpson (1808 – 1888) of Leeds established a curriers shop, to process leather for shoemaking, on Kirkgate, Leeds in 1834. Edward Simpson (1819 – 1904), brother to Morris, later joined the partnership.

Edward Simpson was of good judgement and sound business mind. He was a genial, likeable man who stood over six feet tall. A keen Wesleyan Methodist, he was a Radical in politics.

Morris Simpson left the partnership in 1844 in order to establish his own shoemaking business.

Problems in sourcing sufficient skilled labour led the firm to open a branch factory at London Road, Daventry in 1844.

Currier work began in Leicester in 1853, initially at Cank Street, before relocating to Belgrave Gate.

The firm was best known for the manufacture of footwear by 1855. The firm employed 314 workers in 1861.

Stead and Simpson each introduced a nephew to the business in 1863: Henry Simpson Gee (1842 – 1924) became the factories manager, and Richard Fawcett (1828 – 1889) was enlisted as a salesman. The firm employed 120 women in Leicester by 1863.

Gee constructed new factories and was a pioneer in the introduction of steam-powered machinery in shoe and boot manufacture. He was a man of clear vision and had an immensely practical nature.

The growth of business saw a new factory erected at New Street, Daventry in 1866.

The first retail shops were opened in the early 1870s. The earliest branches were at Carlisle, Whitehaven, South Shields and Sunderland.

Stead, Simpson & Nephews was the largest footwear manufacturer in the world by 1875. The firm employed 1,216 workers in Leicester, 505 at Leeds, 500 at Daventry, 100 at Northampton and 80 at Oakham. 25,000 to 30,000 pairs of shoes and boots could be produced each week, including 5,600 pairs in Leeds.

Headquarters had been relocated to Leicester by 1884. Joseph Griffin Ward (born 1843) and John Lipson Ward (born 1847) entered the business as partners.

By 1884 there were retail shops in fifty towns across Britain. Over 3,000 workers produced over 30,000 pairs of boots and shoes each week.

In 1886 the Leicester factory at Belgrave Gate was destroyed by fire, with damaged estimated at £36,000. 1,500 people were temporarily thrown out of employment.

Edward Simpson, the senior partner, retired in 1887. Following the death of Richard Fawcett in 1889, the firm became too large for the remaining partners, and was converted into a public limited liability company, Stead & Simpson, with a capital of £300,000. The entire business, including goodwill, was valued at £268,000. The head office was at Belgrave Gate, Leicester.

Henry Simpson Gee was the senior partner, and he became company chairman. J G Ward and J L Ward, the other two partners, were appointed as joint managing directors. Edward Wood, the chairman of Freeman Hardy & Willis, shoe retailers and manufacturers of Leicester, also joined the board.

By 1889 there were about 100 retail shops.

In 1892 the Leeds tanning and currying trade was discontinued, and the capital was utilised to extend the retail arm of the business.

Harry Percy Gee (1874 – 1962), the son of Henry Simpson Gee, joined the board of directors in 1898. He was subsequently appointed managing director.

Henry Simpson Gee was raised as a Wesleyan Methodist, but switched to Anglicanism in his later years. He died in 1924 with an estate valued at £659,699. He died as one of the best known businessmen in the Midlands. His largest charitable bequest was £20,000 to Leicester College, later the University of Leicester. He was succeeded as company chairman by Harry Percy Gee.

By 1934 there were 250 retail shops, 115 of which were freehold, with a total value of around £500,000. There were 1,067 factory workers, 168 warehouse and clerical staff and 1,130 shop managers and assistants, a total staff of 2,365.

Harry Percy Gee retired as managing director in 1958, but remained as chairman until his death in 1962. His obituary in The Times heralded him as the “greatest benefactor the University [of Leicester] ever had”, and it was his generosity in the 1930s that enabled its survival. Gee left a net estate of £484,771.

By 1963 the firm owned 223 retail branches.

The firm branched out into car dealerships in the Leicestershire area in 1966.

In 1973 Stead & Simpson closed its shoe manufacturing operations in Daventry and Leicester in order to concentrate on its retail business of over 200 shops. 400 jobs were lost.

In 1974 UDS Group acquired 16 percent of the company. In 1983 Hanson Trust acquired UDS Group, and with it control of 29.1 percent of voting shares in Stead & Simpson.

In 1984 the shoe retailer Ward White acquired the 29.1 percent voting stake in Stead & Simpson from Hanson Trust for just under £2 million. By this time the firm had 240 shoe shops.

In 1987 Ward White sold its stake to Tozer Kemsley and Millbourn for £3.6 million in cash.

In 1989 the company was acquired by Clayform Properties for £120 million in cash.

In 2005 the company was bought out by its management for £50 million. By this time the firm had around 400 stores.

In 2008 the chain entered administration. It was acquired by Shoe Zone of Leicester. 309 stores were retained, whilst 37 were closed. In 2012 a further 90 shops were closed.

Clores out: Freeman Hardy & Willis

Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest footwear retailer in the world.

Edward Wood (1839 – 1917) began his career as an errand boy in Leicester. By 1861 he worked as a hatter and hosier.

Wood began manufacturing shoes and boots from 1870. By the following year he employed seven men and one boy.

Freeman Hardy & Willis was incorporated in 1876. Wood appointed as company directors Arthur Hardy, an architect, William Freeman, his factory manager, and Willis, his salesman.

In 1877 the first retail outlet was opened at Wandsworth, London. Wood employed 55 men by 1881.

Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest footwear retailer in the world by 1900. By January 1903 there were about 300 shops, mostly located in the Midlands and the North of England.

Freeman Hardy & Willis acquired Rabbits & Sons Ltd of Newington Butts, shoe retailers with a large presence in the South of England and London, in 1903.

Edward Wood was knighted in 1906. A dedicated Baptist, he served as Mayor of Leicester on four occasions.

Foreign-made shoes accounted for just one percent of sales in 1910.

The Kettering Boot & Shoe Co Ltd, a manufacturer, was acquired in 1913.

Wood died in 1917 with an estate valued at £172,649. He left charitable bequests of over £23,000.

Freeman Hardy & Willis operated 428 shops in 1921. There were 500 shops by 1923.

The Leicester firm of Leavesley & North Ltd was acquired in 1925.

The Charterhouse Investment Trust, controlled by Sir Arthur Wheeler (1860 – 1943), acquired Freeman Hardy & Willis in the 1920s for over £3.5 million.

Freeman Hardy & Willis was sold to J Sears & Co of Northampton for over £4 million in 1928. Sears was a similar business, and the merged firm had 796 shops and a combined market value of £9 million.

Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) acquired control of J Sears & Co in 1953 in one of Britain’s first hostile takeovers. Clore immediately removed the existing chairman and managing director of Freeman Hardy & Willis. Later in 1953 he sold much of the freehold FHW estate, and leased the premises back.

From the 1960s until the 1990s Sears held around a quarter of all British shoe sales.

Freeman Hardy & Willis outlet in Porthmadog (1987)
Freeman Hardy & Willis outlet in Porthmadog (1987)

Sears divested its shoe factories in a management buyout in 1988.

By 1990 Freeman Hardy & Willis was aimed at the 15 to 30 market, and located in prime retail sites. However the chain was loss-making.

245 Freeman Hardy & Willis stores were sold in 1995 to Facia, a private retailer, for £3 million. 60 stores were retained by Sears, and converted into other shoe retail formats. Facia converted the Freeman Hardy & Willis brand to other retail formats.