Category Archives: Footwear

By gum: R & J Dick of Greenhead

R & J Dick became the largest boot manufacturer in the world. The business established the first national shoe shop chain in Britain. R & J Dick later became the largest manufacturer of industrial belting.

Robert and James Dick establish the business
Robert Dick (1820 – 1891) and James Dick (1823 – 1902) were the sons of a sailor who had settled in Kilmarnock. The father died young, and the widowed mother relocated to Glasgow, where she opened a grocer’s shop.

Robert Dick was apprenticed to a watchmaker, and James Dick was apprenticed to an upholsterer.

The two men decided to utilise gutta-percha, a gum-based leather substitute, to produce a low-cost watertight-soled shoe. Robert Dick made the moulds and James Dick prepared the material. The partnership of R & J Dick was formed in 1846, with premises at Gallowgate.

R & J Dick employed nine people by 1851. Robert Dick was the engineer, and James Dick managed the business.

R & J Dick enters into mass production
A four-storey factory was acquired at Greenhead, Glasgow in 1859. R & J Dick employed 400 people by 1861.

R & J Dick supplied much of the insulation for underwater telegraph cables during this period.

Retail shops were introduced, and R & J Dick became the first national shoe shop chain in Britain.

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

R & J Dick employed between 1,400 and 1,500 workers by 1867.

R & J Dick employed 943 people in 1881. The business was flagging by the early 1880s: 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.

James Dick became fatigued with business, and his health began to suffer. He married one of his employees in 1885, and emigrated to Australia.

Robert Dick invented a mechanical belt using balata gum in 1885. It was immensely strong, and resistant to oxidation, moisture and high temperatures.

R & J Dick employed 1,500 people in 1886.

Following the death of Robert Dick in 1891, James Dick reluctantly returned to manage the business. Before he left Australia, he acquired a one seventh share in the Broken Hill Silver Mine.

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 as one of the wealthiest British businessmen of his era in 1902, with an estate valued at £887,651. He was childless, and dedicated his wealth to charities and employees.

John Edward Audsley (1824 – 1920), an employee of 40 years, took over the management of the business.

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

A new American tariff on belting imports led the company to establish a factory at Passaic, New Jersey in 1909. 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.

In order to secure a supply of balata gum, R & J Dick acquired estates in Venezuela in 1918.

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

Following a slump in balata prices, R & J Dick sustained heavy losses at its Venezuelan operation in 1921, and was forced to mortgage its properties in order to maintain sufficient working capital. The company blamed the losses on the “extravagance and laxity” of the Venezuelan manager.

After sustaining continued losses, a shareholder criticised the loss-making New Jersey factory as a “white elephant” in 1923.

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

R & J Dick employed just 235 people in 1961.

R & J Dick was acquired by the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Co for £1.1 million in 1962.

Built to last: Stead & Simpson

Stead & Simpson is best-remembered as one of the largest footwear retail chains in Britain. However the business has its origins in production, and became the largest footwear manufacturer in the world.

Establishment of the business
Edmund Stead (1803 – 1881) was born in Darlington, the son of a well-respected innkeeper and coachman. He relocated to Leeds from 1824, and found employment in the shoe-making trade.

Stead formed a partnership with Morris Simpson (1808 – 1888). The two men established a curriers shop, to process leather for shoemaking, on Kirkgate, Leeds from 1834.

Stead & Simpson declared their intent in 1835 as, “to supply every article of sterling quality at the lowest rate of profit”.

Boot manufacturing commenced from around 1840.

Edward Simpson (1819 – 1904), brother to Morris Simpson, joined the partnership shortly afterwards, and was initially employed as a bookkeeper. Edward Simpson was a likeable man who stood over six feet tall. He was a talented businessman, as well as a keen Wesleyan Methodist, and a Radical in politics.

Morris Simpson left the partnership in order to establish his own shoe-making business in 1844.

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

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

Footwear manufacturing had become the principal trade by the mid-1850s.

A Goodyear welting machine was installed in 1858, which enabled the replacement of hand-sewn labour.

Further premises in Leeds were acquired in 1860 in order to produce patent leather.

Stead & Simpson employed 314 workers in 1861.

Two nephews enter the firm
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.

It was around this time that the business began to enter into mass production.

Gee was responsible for the construction of new factories, and pioneered the introduction of steam-powered machinery in shoe and boot manufacture. Gee was gifted with a clear vision and an immensely practical nature.

The growth of the 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.

The largest footwear manufacturer in the world
Stead & Simpson was the largest footwear manufacturer in the world by 1875. The business 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.

The business became known as Stead, Simpson & Nephews from 1878.

Business headquarters had been relocated to Leicester by 1884. Joseph Griffin Ward (1843 – 1915) and John Lipson Ward (1847 – 1926) entered the business as partners.

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

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

Conversion of the business into a public company
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 located on 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 (1839 – 1917), the chairman of Freeman Hardy & Willis, shoe retailers and manufacturers of Leicester, also joined the board.

There were about 100 retail shops by 1889. The Leeds tanning and currying business was discontinued from 1892, 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 from 1898. He was subsequently appointed managing director.

470 employees were called up for active service during the First World War.

Henry Simpson Gee died in 1924 with an estate valued at £659,699. He was remembered as one of the best known businessmen in the Midlands. His will included a bequest of £20,000 to Leicester College, later to become the University of Leicester. He was succeeded as company chairman by Harry Percy Gee.

There were 250 retail shops by 1934, including 115 freehold leases, 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.

Stead & Simpson operated 223 retail branches by 1963.

End of shoemaking and demise of the business
Stead & Simpson closed its shoe manufacturing operations in Daventry and Leicester with the loss of 400 jobs in 1973. The company explained that it would focus on its retail business, which could be managed more competitively if its products were acquired externally.

Members of the Gee family continued to hold voting control over Stead & Simpson. The Daily Mail described the chain as “downmarket”.

Stead & Simpson was acquired by Clayform Properties for £120 million in cash in 1989. Clayform was attracted by the value of Stead & Simpson’s 110 freehold high street properties, which it sold on and leased back. Stead & Simpson became loss-making, and was starved of cash and investment.

Stead & Simpson was acquired by its management in 1993.

Stead & Simpson was subject to a management buyout for £50 million in 2005. By this time the company had around 400 stores.

Stead & Simpson entered into administration in 2008. It was acquired by Shoe Zone of Leicester. 309 stores were retained, whilst 37 were closed. A further 90 shops were closed in 2012.

Since 2012 the Stead & Simpson brand was been quietly phased out. Shops were either closed or converted to the Shoe Zone fascia.

A shoe in: Freeman Hardy & Willis

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

Edward Wood (1839 – 1917) was born in Derby, the son of a railway engine driver. As was typical for the era, his schooling ended at the age of ten.

Wood relocated to Leicester, where he initially worked as an errand boy. He was then apprenticed to a draper and outfitter. He worked as a hatter and hosier by 1861.

Freeman Hardy & Willis outlet in Porthmadog (1987)
A Freeman Hardy & Willis outlet in Porthmadog, Wales in 1987

Wood began manufacturing shoes and boots from 1870, when he joined two relatives by marriage at premises on Marble Street. By the following year he employed seven men and one boy.

Wood succeeded due to a keen business sense and a high standard of integrity.

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

The first retail outlet was opened at Wandsworth, London, in 1877.

The wholesale business had been divested by 1879.

Freeman Hardy & Willis employed 55 men by 1881.

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

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 in recognition of his philanthropy and civic work. A dedicated Baptist, he served as Mayor of Leicester on four occasions.

Edward Wood (1839-1917) in 1898 by Walter William Ouless. Credit: Leicester Town Hall via Art UK

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

Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest non-grocery retailer in Britain by 1913.

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

Freeman Hardy & Willis was massively profitable during the First World War due to army contracts.

Wood died in 1917 with an estate valued at £172,649. His charitable bequests amounted to over £23,000.

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

The Leicester business 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.

Sir Arthur Wheeler (1860 – 1943) in 1925. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Freeman Hardy & Willis was sold to J Sears & Co of Northampton for over £4 million in 1928. Sears was a large shoe manufacturer and retailer, 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.

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