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.

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