R & J Dick was the largest boot manufacturer in the world. It established the first national shoe shop chain in Britain. 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.
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 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.
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.