Category Archives: Footwear

R & J Dick of Greenhead

R & J Dick was the largest boot manufacturer in the world. Dick’s established the first national shoe shop chain in Britain. The business was later reinvented to become the largest manufacturer of industrial belting.

Robert Dick (1820 – 1891) and James Dick (1823 – 1902) were the sons of a Kilmarnock sailor. Robert trained as a jeweller, and James was apprenticed to an upholsterer.

The two brothers entered into partnership as R & J Dick from 1846.

The brothers utilised gutta-percha, a gum-based leather substitute. 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.

R & J Dick supplied the greater part of the insulation for underwater telegraph cables.

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. That year the factory was struck by a fire which caused damage to the value of £25,000.

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.

R & J Dick employed 610 men, 83 boys, 204 women and 46 girls in 1881.

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

There were 1,500 employees in 1886.

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 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 management of the company.

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

A new American tariff on belting imports led the company to build 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.

R & J Dick acquired estates in Venezuela to provide balata gum in 1918.

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

R & J Dick sustained heavy losses relating to its Venezuelan operation in 1921, following a slump in balata prices, and was forced to mortgage its properties in order to maintain sufficient working capital. The trading loss for the year amounted to £298,463.

J Parker Smith, company chairman, 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 12 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.

The company was acquired by the Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Co in 1962, 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.

Establishment of the business
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 from 1834. Boots were manufactured from around 1840.

Edward Simpson (1819 – 1904), brother to Morris, later joined the partnership. He was possessed of good judgement and a 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 from 1844.

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

Stead & Simpson was best known for the manufacture of footwear by 1855. The firm 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.

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 gifted with 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.

The largest footwear manufacturer in the world
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.

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.

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.

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 owned 223 retail branches by 1963.

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

End of shoemaking, and demise of the business
Stead & Simpson closed its shoe manufacturing operations in Daventry and Leicester in 1973 with the loss of 400 jobs. The company announced that it would concentrate on its retail business of over 200 shops.

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

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

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

Stead & Simpson was acquired by Clayform Properties for £120 million in cash in 1989.

Stead & Simpson was bought out by its management for £50 million in 2005. By this time the firm 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.

Clores out: Freeman Hardy & Willis

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

Edward Wood (1839 – 1917) was born in Derby to a railway engine driver father. 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.

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 Willis, his salesman.

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

The wholesale business was divested from 1879.

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

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. 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 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.

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 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.