Category Archives: Clothing & textiles

Taking umbrage: a stripped down history of Umbro

How did Umbro became the leading football brand in the world?

The Humphreys brothers establish the Umbro brand
Harold Charles Humphreys (1902 – 1974) was born at Mobberley in Cheshire, the son of a house painter. He found work as a salesman for Bukta, a football kit manufacturer.

Predicting that football kit sales would continue to grow, Humphreys entered into the sportswear retail business for himself from 1920. He was joined by his brother, Wallace James Humphreys (1900 -1950), and the firm traded as Humphreys Brothers.

Harold Humphreys (1902 – 1974). Image courtesy of Umbro

Harold Humphreys initially operated the business from rooms above a pub that his parents managed in Mobberley.

The Umbro brand was introduced from 1924, with the name derived from a portmanteau of Humphreys Brothers. Clothing manufacture was originally subcontracted, but growing sales saw an Umbro factory established from 1930.

Wallace Humphreys (1900 – 1950). Image courtesy of Umbro

Umbro kits were worn by both teams at the Wembley finals in 1934.

Umbro manufactured military uniforms and Lancaster Bomber aircraft interiors during the Second World War.

Umbro manufactured the England international kit from 1952.

Roger Bannister (1929 – 2018) wore Umbro clothing when he ran the first ever sub-four minute mile in 1954.

Umbro began to outfit overseas international teams from 1958. When Brazil won the World Cup that year, they were kitted out in Umbro clothing.

The second generation takeover the business
Umbro was being managed by the two sons of Harold Humphreys by the early 1960s: John Humphreys (1929 – 1979) and Stuart Humphreys (1931 – 2005). John Humphreys took the managerial lead at the business.

Umbro won a 25-year contract as sole distributor of Adidas products in Britain in 1961. Adidas was the largest manufacturer of soccer boots in the world, but this was its only manufacture, so there was no conflict of interest.

Umbro entered its peak in 1966, when it kitted out 15 out of 16 teams in the World Cup Finals.

A factory had been established at Wilmslow, Cheshire, by 1967.

Distribution of Adidas footwear and clothing had become the largest source of income for Umbro by the early 1970s.

Umbro supplied the football kits to all 16 teams in the World Cup Finals in 1974.

The England international football team switched their kit manufacturer to Admiral, who had made a superior cash offer, in 1974.

John Humphreys died in 1979. His unexpected death affected corporate development. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy, with short-time working, redundancies and factory closures.

Arnold Copley, a former partner at Price Waterhouse, the accountancy firm, was appointed chief executive of Umbro from 1982. He initiated a corporate revival by entering the leisurewear market and boosting the marketing budget.

A new factory was established at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, in 1984.

Umbro regained sponsorship of the England international football team kit from 1984.

Copley retired in 1985.

Meanwhile, Adidas had entered the leisurewear market, which resulted in increasing conflicts of interest with Umbro, so the distribution contract was ended in 1986. The termination of the contract gave Umbro free reign to enter into the footwear market.

Umbro employed 650 people at factories in Macclesfield, Ellesmere Port and Wilmslow by 1985. Umbro was the largest sportswear manufacturer in Britain.

Umbro was the market leader in football kits in the United States by 1990.

Umbro produced kits for half of the Premier League teams by 1992.

Umbro is acquired by Stone Manufacturing
Umbro was acquired by Stone Manufacturing, its United States franchise holder, for £2.9 million in 1992. The increasing cost of club sponsorship saw Umbro abandon its interests in squash and rugby in order to focus solely on football.

A slump in sales saw Umbro enter into cash flow problems. It sold its factories at Macclesfield and Stockport, with the loss of 146 jobs, in 1992.

Umbro employed nearly 700 people across two factories in South Carolina by 1994.

The death of Eugene Stone in 1997 left the remaining family members conflicted regarding the future direction for Umbro. Phenomenal growth left capital stretched.

Several cost-saving measures were introduced in order to stave off bankruptcy in 1998. Most of the United States workforce were made redundant. The remaining English factories at Wythenshawe, Ellesmere Port and Biddulph were closed, with production relocated to the Far East and Europe. Headquarters were relocated to Cheadle in Greater Manchester.

Subsequent ownership
Umbro was sold to Doughty Hanson, a private equity group, for £90 million in 1999.

Under new ownership, Umbro underwent a remarkable turnaround. The Wythenshawe factory was closed in 1999, and manufacturing was outsourced to China and Hong Kong. The Umbro brand was repositioned to focus solely on football.

Umbro was acquired by Nike for a generous £285 million in 2008 in order to build its presence in the football market. At the time Umbro was the leading supplier of soccer clothing in the world, and the third largest supplier of branded athletic apparel in the United Kingdom.

Nike unsuccessfully attempted to impose its own manufacturing and sales logistics onto Umbro. Nike executives struggled to understand the niche company, and the business was sold to Iconix Brand Group for £137 million in 2012.

England football kit sponsorship was switched to Nike from 2013.

Stocking trade: N Corah of Leicester

N Corah operated the largest hosiery factory in Britain and employed 6,500 people.

Origins and early success
Nathaniel Corah (1776 – 1832) was a Baptist from Bagworth, a Leicestershire village. He entered into the local knitting industry, and trained as a framesmith.

Corah established himself as a hosiery trader in Leicester from 1815. He would purchase hosiery at the Globe public house on Silver Street in Leicester and sell it in Birmingham. He was initially assisted in business by his wife Sarah (1784 – 1856).

The Globe on Silver Street, Leicester, is still trading

Corah became a successful trader, and was able to purchase the freehold of a block of buildings on Union Street, Leicester, to house his increasing stocks, in 1824.

N Corah & Sons
Corah’s sons, John, William and Thomas, entered into the business as partners from 1830, and the firm began to trade as N Corah & Sons.

N Corah & Sons relocated to a purpose-built factory on Granby Street from 1845. Steam-powered manufacturing was introduced at the new premises. The business employed around 1,000 old hand frames for stocking manufacturing by 1846.

John Harris Cooper (1832 – 1906) joined N Corah & Sons in 1846.  He became involved in management at the firm following the completion of his seven year apprenticeship.

John Harris Cooper and Edwin Corah (1832 – 1880) acquired the business in 1857.

Relocation to the St Margaret’s Works
N Corah & Sons relocated to the St Margaret’s Works in Leicester from 1865. Named after the parish in which it was located, the site originally had a floor space of two acres. The firm introduced the St Margaret’s trademark for clothing at this time. A large beam engine was operated from 1866.

N Corah & Sons employed a workforce of 1,500 and produced about 2,000 tons of product annually by 1872.

Upon the death of Edwin Corah in 1880, John Arthur Corah (1846 – 1917) and Alfred Corah joined Cooper in partnership, and the firm began to trade as N Corah, Sons & Cooper. J A Corah had previously managed the Liverpool branch of the business, and Alfred Corah had managed the Birmingham branch.

Electric lighting was installed at the St Margaret’s Works from 1883. The firm paid wages substantially above average, and thus avoided strike action by its workers. The firm was a substantial benefactor to various charitable causes, especially the elderly poor of Leicester.

50 percent of the male staff at Corah joined the armed forces during the First World War. The firm produced ten million articles of knitwear during the war, with over 70 percent destined for government contracts.

John Arthur Corah died in 1917 with a gross estate valued at £143,208.

Incorporation as a private company
N Corah & Sons was incorporated as a private company in 1919. The St Margaret’s Works was the largest factory of its kind in Britain and probably the largest single-site hosiery works in the world. 2,500 people were employed on a five acre site. Production largely consisted of hosiery and other woollen goods.

King George V visited the factory in 1919, partly in recognition of its contribution to the war effort.

King George V and Queen Mary visit St Margaret’s Works in 1919

N Corah & Sons became a supplier to Marks & Spencer from 1926. The two companies would develop a strong relationship.

Authorised capital was increased to £750,000 in 1939. The company employed 4,500 people.

During the Second World War, half the company’s staff either went into the armed services or were transferred to munitions production. Some 26 million articles were produced during the war. The engineering department was largely given over to producing gun components and parts for tank landing craft.

Conversion into a public company
N Corah & Sons was converted into a public company in 1946. Marks & Spencer was the principal customer. The St Margaret’s Works in Leicester covered six acres and was the largest hosiery factory in Britain. Around 2,500 people were employed.

Marks & Spencer was a dynamic retailer, and Lord Marks encouraged Corah to become more ambitious. Marks & Spencer made the transition from a low-cost retailer to a quality purveyor from 1951. As a major supplier, Corah too entered this transition. Encouraged by Marks & Spencer, Corah entered into a policy of long-term planning and development.

Image of the Corah building in Leicester in 1990. Image used with permission from the Leicester Mercury archive.

To reflect the success of its trademark, the company name was changed to N Corah (St Margaret) Ltd in 1954.

The St Margaret’s Works covered a floor space of twelve acres by 1965. Corah employed 6,500 people across the company.

Corah was the second largest supplier of hosiery and knitwear to chain stores and supermarkets by 1968. Marks & Spencer accounted for 75 percent of sales.

Nicholas Corah (1932 – 2010) became company chairman from the late 1960s.

Financial difficulties and demise
Corah entered into difficulty in the 1980s. It was squeezed by its larger rivals Coats Viyella and Courtaulds and by low overhead Asian operators in the English Midlands. It acquired Reliance, a fellow Marks & Spencer supplier, but struggled to integrate the business. This was followed by a strike at one of its factories. Meanwhile, tastes in fashion began to change.

The struggling knitwear division was closed with the loss of nearly 800 jobs in 1988. Corah sold its sock division to Courtaulds for £7.5 million in cash in 1988. Corah concentrated on its three remaining businesses: knitted fabric, underwear and outerwear.

The loss-making Corah was acquired by Charterhall, an Australian investment group, for £27.2 million in 1988. Charterhall entered into administration in 1990.

Coats Viyella, the largest textiles company in Britain, acquired Corah for around £25 million in cash in 1994.

Coats Viyella closed the Leicester factory in 2000.

Running the show: Reebok

J W Foster & Sons produced some of the most highly-regarded running shoes in the world in the 1920s. The business was revived as Reebok, and had grown to take one fifth of the global athletic shoe market by the early 1990s.

J W Foster & Sons
Joseph William Foster (1881 – 1933) was a cobbler and keen amateur runner. He developed a spiked running shoe in 1895.

Foster began to manufacture shoes for other runners, and established a shoe manufacturing business at 57 Deane Road, Bolton from 1900.

The business was trading as J W Foster & Sons by 1910. This was presumably an attempt to make the firm seem larger or longer-established than it really was, as his sons at the time were eight and four years old.

Production switched to army boots during the First World War.

Foster’s running shoes were the elite athletic item of their era. A large number of professional athletes used his shoes.

J W Foster & Sons advertised that 90 percent of English and Scottish football league clubs used their shoes for training by 1922. The firm also supplied the 1924 British Olympic track team.

J W Foster & Sons advertised itself as the oldest manufacturer of entirely handmade running shoes in the world by 1926.

C Ellis broke the one mile running record wearing Foster’s shoes in 1928. Percy Williams (1908 – 1982) used Foster’s shoes to win the 100m and 200m races at the 1928 Olympic games.

Joseph William Foster died in 1933 and left an estate valued at £5,598. His two sons, John William Foster (1902 – 1960) and James William Foster (1906 – 1976) took over the business.

Army boots were produced during the Second World War.

Reebok is established; expansion in North America
German rivals Adidas and Puma began to entered the athletic shoe market from the post-war period, with lower-cost and more effective models.

The founder’s grandsons, Joseph “Joe” William Foster (born 1935) and Jeffrey “Jeff” William Foster (1933 – 1980), entered into the business during this period.

After returning from national service, the two brothers became frustrated at their fathers’ lack of vision. The business was not adapting to their rivals, and did not pursue sales or overseas markets.

The two brothers broke free from their fathers, and established Reebok at Bury in 1958 in order to manufacture their own athletic shoes. Joe Foster was the chairman and managing director, whilst Jeff Foster had responsibility for production.

The Reebok brand was well known throughout the North West of England by the 1970s.

Following the death of James W Foster in 1976, J W Foster & Sons was absorbed into Reebok.

A new footwear range was introduced in 1978: the Aztec trainer, the Midas racing shoe and the Inca spiked track shoe. All three products received a five-star review in Runner’s World, an influential American magazine.

Joe Foster sold the American sales rights for Reebok to Paul Fireman (born 1944), an affable and easygoing outdoor equipment marketer, for $65,000 in 1979.

Assembly of Reebok shoes was transferred to South Korea, where production costs were lower, from 1980. Shoe components continued to be manufactured in the original factory in Bury.

Reebok registered United States sales of around $300,000 in 1980.

High demand saw Reebok USA suffer from cash flow problems. Stephen Rubin (born 1937) acquired 55 percent of Reebok USA for $77,500 in August 1981. Rubin contributed knowledge of the sports shoe market, and experience with Asian outsourcing.

Reebok identified the growing market for aerobics, and launched two shoes, Freestyle and Energizer, in 1982. Total US sales had climbed to $12.9 million by the end of 1983. Meanwhile, Nike was suffering a downturn, which allowed Reebok to flourish.

Production capacity at Bury was doubled to 1,000 pairs a week in 1983. Reebok was the fourth largest manufacturer of training shoes in Britain with a ten percent market share, behind Nike, New Balance and Adidas.

A 1985 advertisement for the Reebok Freestyle

Reebok International and Reebok USA merged in April 1984. Stephen Rubin maintained his 55 percent stake and was named chairman of Reebok International. Paul Fireman was named President and CEO of Reebok International, and held the remaining 45 percent share.

Reebok headquarters were relocated from Bolton, England to Avon, Massachusetts. The site had 52 employees. The relocation was based on the fact that most Reebok sales were in the US.

Warehouse and office facilities were maintained in Bolton, and Joe Foster remained President of Reebok International.

In 1984 all the lasts, dies and markings were made in England. Research and development took place in England and South Korea.

Reebok becomes a public company; acquisition by Adidas
Stephen Rubin took Reebok International public in 1985. Sales for that year totalled over $300 million.

Reebok overtook Nike as the largest athletic shoe manufacturer in the United States in 1986. Growing sales saw the head office relocated from Avon to Canton.

The British factory was relocated from Bury to Bolton in 1986.

Rockport was acquired for $118.5 million in cash in 1986.

85 percent of Reebok shoes were made in South Korea by 1987.

Nike reclaimed its position as the largest athletic shoe manufacturer in the United States from 1988.

Reebok International was the most profitable company in the United States, based on return on equity, by the late 1980s.

Joe Foster retired as President of Reebok International in 1990, but remained in a consultancy position.

The cost-conscious Rubin clashed with Fireman, who argued for lavish marketing campaigns. Rubin sold his stake in Reebok for $770 million in 1991.

Reebok controlled around one fifth of the worldwide athletic shoe market in the first half of the 1990s.

Reebok International registered sales of $3 billion in 1996. Its products were sold across 170 different countries.

Reebok became the sponsor of the Bolton Wanderers football stadium from 1997.

Reebok was acquired by Adidas for £2.1 billion (US$3.8 billion) in 2005.

Adidas closed down the Reebok head office in Bolton in 2009, ending the brand’s association with its home town.

Joe Foster stepped down from his consultancy position in 2015.

Adidas underinvested in the Reebok brand. Joe Foster remarked:

there is no doubt that Adidas knew exactly what it needed to do to grow Reebok, but doing so would have affected their own brand. I can’t say it is wrong when a company that pays $3.8 billion makes those decisions. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

Adidas sold Reebok to Authentic Brands for $2.5 billion in 2021. Reebok controlled less than two percent of the global athletic shoe market.

Further reading
I would highly recommend Shoe Maker by Joe Foster (2020)

Leave your hat on: Kangol

How did Kangol become the largest hat manufacturer in the world?


Jacques Spreiregen
Jakob Henryk Spreiregen (1894 – 1982) was born to a Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland. He emigrated with his family to France in 1910, and adopted the name Jacques Henry Sergene.

Spreiregen emigrated to England to escape the First World War in 1915. As “Jacques Spreiregen” he was manufacturing hats at 28 Castle Street, London by 1916. He also imported basque berets from France, which proved popular.

Spreiregen served in the British army and was naturalised as a British citizen in 1920. He was a tall and courtly man.

Kangol and mass production
The Kangol brand was introduced from 1930. The name was derived from K for knitting, ANG for Angora and OL for wool.

As the prospect of another conflict in Europe began to appear increasingly certain, Spreiregen reasoned that there would be a likely increase in demand for military berets. With funding from the Cumberland Development Company, he leased the former Ainsworth thread mill in Cleator, North West England, from 1938.

Machinery was imported from a beret factory in France. Spreiregen was initially assisted by his two nephews, Joseph (born 1913) and Sylvain Meisner (1916 – 2001). There was an initial labour force of 35 people. Competition from Czech imports meant that the business was not an immediate success.

Kangol became the major beret supplier to the British armed forces during the Second World War. All manufacture was dedicated to the army, and production reached one million berets a year.

Field Marshal Montgomery wears a Kangol beret
Field Marshal Montgomery (1887 – 1976) wearing a Kangol beret.

The British Olympic team of 1948 wore Kangol berets.

Kangol opened a new factory at Frizington, Cleator in 1950. The new site allowed the company to meet demand, and profits subsequently increased exponentially.

Kangol became a public company with an authorised capital of £200,000 in 1952.

William Carrick & Sons of Carlisle, a fur felt hat manufacturer, was acquired in 1952. The takeover added a workforce of 100 to Kangol, to give a total of 500. Part of the Carricks production facility was given over to the manufacture of Kangol berets.

Kangol produced around six million berets every year by 1953, and employed 110 people.

Kangol used around one million lbs of woollen spun yarn every year, and its principal supplier, Thompson Bros of Huddersfield, was acquired in 1953.

The British armed forces continued to be a significant customer following the Second World War, purchasing 16 percent of beret production in 1953. A further 15 percent of berets were exported to 49 different countries.

Spreiregen introduced the 504 cap from 1954. It enjoyed immediate success in the United States.

Kangol Magnet was established as a subsidiary to manufacture fibreglass safety helmets from 1954. It later expanded into seat belts.

Womens fashion hats began to be produced from 1955.

The loss-making manufacture of fur felt hats at Carricks of Carlisle was discontinued in 1956-7.

Around 120,000 berets a week were produced by 1957. About half of all civilian berets were exported. The British armed forces acquired around 10,000 berets a week.

45,000 to 50,000 hats were produced every week by 1960.

Kangol was one of the largest manufacturers of crash helmets in the world by 1960, with a weekly output of 4,000.

The end of national service in Britain in 1960 dramatically lessened the demand for berets. Kangol turned its attention to exports and the fashion market. A worldwide distribution network was established, and 70 percent of production was exported by 1964-5.

Sylvain Meisner was managing director of the Kangol by 1964.

Kangol held one third of the British seat belt market by 1964.

A factory was opened in South Africa in 1965 with a productive capacity of 1.2 million berets a year, which would cover “the bulk” of demand in that market.

Mary Quant (1930 – 2023), inventor of the miniskirt, and Pierre Cardin (1922 – 2020) designed berets for Kangol in 1966. Exports represented 66 percent of turnover for the headwear division by 1969.

Kangol Magnet was the largest manufacturer of seat belts in Europe by 1969. From its factory in Carlisle it produced over 40 percent of all seat belts in the United Kingdom.

Kangol held 40 percent of the British crash helmet market by 1971.

Acquisition by American Safety Equipment
Kangol was acquired by American Safety Equipment, a seat belt manufacturer, for £3.2 million in 1972. Company directors, who held 42 percent of the Kangol equity, recommended the offer. Jacques Spreiregen took the opportunity to retire as company chairman.

Due to the growth of the seat belt business, Kangol Helmets was relocated to Stranraer in Scotland from 1973.

Kangol produced four million hats in 1975. The principal export market was Sweden, followed by the United States, then Japan and Canada. Exports to the US amounted to around 200,000 caps in 1976, accounting for over £1 million in sales. The headwear division won the Queen’s Award for Export in 1966, 1971 and 1978.

Kangol was the largest hat manufacturer in the world by 1978.

American Safety Equipment was acquired by Marmon Group of Chicago in 1978. Marmon afforded local management significant autonomy. The seat belt factory in Carlisle was expanded that year, and a further 200 people were employed.

The Kangol beret enjoyed a huge growth in sales among the African American community in New York from the late 1970s. Kangol headwear was versatile, as well as aspirational yet affordable. Kangol hats adorned the heads of numerous hip-hop notables, including Grandmaster Flash and LL Cool J.

Kangol acquired a millinery factory in Luton in 1979. There they installed Graham Smith (born 1938), a well-regarded milliner, as their design director from 1981. Smith would design Kangol hats that would be worn by Diana, Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997), among others.

Lady Diana (1961 – 1997) wears a Graham Smith designed Kangol hat in 1985

Marmon Group was keen to divest Kangol Helmets due its small turnover and its exposure to lawsuits in the United States. To prevent the closure of the factory, management bought the company for £450,000 in 1981. The former subsidiary did not retain the rights to the Kangol brand name.

Kangol recorded sales of 4.8 million hats in America in 1985. The kangaroo logo was added from 1985, supposedly because American consumers were requesting “the kangaroo hats”.

Kangol acquired J W Myers of Leeds, its major British hat-making rival, in 1990.

Kangol employed 690 people at Cleator and Frizington in 1995. The Cleator site was the largest hat factory in Britain.

Licensed production of Kangol branded sportswear began from 1995, and shoes from 1996. Kangol received five to seven percent of wholesale value for licensed sales.

Kangol headwear made $40 million in sales in 1996, and sales of licensed products amounted to around $100 million.

Due to rising manufacturing costs in Britain, Kangol had lost some valuable contracts. As a response to this, a factory was opened in Panyu City, China, where production costs were lower, in 1996.

Five million Kangol hats were exported every year by 1997.

Management buyout and subsequent ownership
Kangol headwear was subject to a management buyout for £32 million in May 1997, with financial backing from Kleinwort Capital, a private equity firm. Marmon retained the seat belt operations in Carlisle, but lost the rights to the Kangol brand.

Samuel L Jackson is well known for wearing Kangol berets
Samuel L Jackson is well known for wearing Kangol berets

Headwear sales were declining. The Cleator factory was closed in 1997, although the site continued to act as a distribution centre. The Luton factory was closed in 1998.

Kangol was the largest designer hat company in the world by 2000, with global sales of around $100 million a year, but the business was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The unprofitable Leeds factory was closed in 2000, with the loss of 40 jobs. Production was relocated to the Panyu City factory in China, which had lower labour costs. The Cleator and Frizington workforce was reduced from 700 to 200 people between 1996 and 2001.

The Kangol brand was moved upmarket in order to improve profit margins. Prices were increased, and distribution was restricted to high quality retailers.

Bollman, an American hat manufacturer, acquired the operating assets and the licence to produce Kangol headwear from 2001. The Frizington factory was closed with the loss of 80 jobs in 2001. The majority of production was relocated to China.

The licensing rights for Kangol, excluding headwear, were sold to August Equity Trust for an estimated £30 million in 2004, and then sold on to Sports Direct for £12 million in 2006.

Bollman closed the Cleator distribution site with the loss of 32 jobs in 2009.

Sports Direct sold a 51 percent stake and the full intellectual property rights of Kangol to Bollman for $21.4 million in 2023.

A history of John White shoes

John White was the largest shoemaking company in Britain.

John White enters the shoe trade
John White (1885 – 1974) was born into a strict Calvinist Baptist family. His ancestors had been engaged in the shoemaking trade since the mid-eighteenth century.

White was trained as a clicker, one who cuts the uppers of shoes and boots from leather. He cut the uppers of 650,000 pairs of shoes and boots before 1918.

White went into business for himself from 1918. He bought a small workshop in Rushden, Northamptonshire using savings of £200. He acquired a shoe press in 1919, and by the end of the year he had three employees.

White acquired small local factories during a trade slump. His business produced 100,000 pairs of boots and shoes by 1921.

The John White brand is introduced
John White launched his own brand of shoes in 1930. He promoted the new brand with national advertising.

John White was the largest shoemaking business in Britain by 1935. The Rushden factories employed 1,200 people, and 1.75 million pairs of shoes were manufactured each year.

White acquired a factory at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, from Owen Parker in 1936. Adjacent offices were constructed.

John White supplied both armies during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Each side placed orders for 100,000 pairs of shoes.

White undercut his competitors by efficiently cutting costs and accepting low margins. He avoided trade union disruption by paying for piecework; payment for work completed, rather than basic wages.

White built a new factory on Lime Street, Rushden in 1939. It was designed by Albert Richardson (1880 -1964), a leading architect whose work included the Manchester Opera House.

John White had nine factories, a staff of nearly 2,000 and production of three million pairs of boots and shoes a year by 1941.

During the Second World War the business sold over eight million pairs of boots to the armed forces; one ninth of all footwear supplied to the troops.

White sells directly to retailers
Wholesalers were not marketing his product as effectively, so White began to sell directly to retailers after the Second World War. Profits mounted rapidly. The company employed 2,600 people by 1951.

John White was exporting 400,000 pairs of shoes a year to America by the 1950s, and the company accounted for 90 percent of British footwear exports. John White shoes were exported to 56 territories.

Expansion saw a factory opened in Corby, Northamptonshire in 1954.

White was a dynamic man, and had an obsession for efficiency. He invested heavily to ensure that he used the most modern shoe manufacturing equipment available.

John White retires; later history
John White retired in 1962. The company initially struggled in his absence, but had regained profitability by 1968.

George Ward of Leicester was acquired for £4 million in 1972. The name of the company was changed to Ward White Group.

G B Britton, a large footwear manufacturer, was acquired in 1973.

Ward White was the third largest footwear manufacturer in Britain in 1974. The company had 9,000 employees across nine countries.

The Ward White footwear business was subject to a management buyout, called UK Safety, in 1988.

The last remaining John White shoe factory closed in 1991.

The John White brand was revived in 2000.

Crepe expectations: Grout & Co

Grout & Co was the largest manufacturer of crepe in Britain.

Grout & Co is established
Joseph Grout (1781 – 1853) was born in Bocking, Essex. The family were apparently descended from Huguenot refugees from the Low Countries, and anglicized their name from Groot.

Joseph Grout became a saddle and harness maker. He began to manufacture “Norwich crepe”, a lower cost imitation of French crepe, at Patteson’s Yard, Magdalen Street, Norwich, from 1806.

Grout was the first person in Britain to produce crepe. He was soon joined in partnership by his brother George Grout (1781 – 1860).

Large mills were soon established at Lower Westwick Street, Norwich.

A silk factory was established at a former military barracks at St Nicholas Road, Great Yarmouth from 1815. The Yarmouth site was selected due to its lower labour costs.

An average of 3,908 people were directly employed in 1825. A large proportion of employees were young women aged 16 to 24.

A silk crepe factory had been established at Ponder’s End, Enfield, by 1829.

The capital invested by Grout & Co amounted to £143,546 in 1832. Around one third of raw silk came from Bengal, one third from China and one third from Italy.

The Great Yarmouth site was destroyed by fire in 1832, and had to be rebuilt.

Mills were established at Ditchingham, Norfolk, around 1833.

The largest manufacturer of crepe in Britain
The Grout brothers became extremely wealthy, and had entered into retirement by 1835. Management of the firm was taken over by William Martin (died 1849), a close relative.

The Great Yarmouth factory employed 1,100 workers in 1837. 970 people were employed at Norwich, and 560 were employed at Ditchingham.

Following the death of William Martin in 1849, the firm was managed by John Brown, a Mr Robison and a Mr Hall.

The Norwich, Yarmouth and Ditchingham mills regularly employed over 2,000 people by 1854. The predominant manufacture was gauze, which was then sent to the Ponder’s End factory to be converted into crepe for mourning purposes.

Grout & Co was the largest manufacturer of crepe in Britain by 1862. Over 3,000 workers were employed. The Norwich factory was the principal production site.

Grout & Co was the leading crepe manufacturer in Britain in 1887. There were warehouses in London, Manchester, Paris and New York, and factories at Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Ditchingham and Ponder’s End.

Crepe went out of fashion in Britain, and almost all production was exported to Latin countries by 1890. That year, manufacturing was centralised at Great Yarmouth, and all other factories were closed. The company also expanded into other textiles.

Grout & Co and Courtauld dominated English crepe manufacture by this time.

Grout & Co was registered as a company in 1894.

The Great Yarmouth factory employed around 1,000 workers in 1907.

Crepe bandages were manufactured from 1920.

Grout & Co produced silk parachutes during the Second World War.

Sale of the company and closure of the factory
Grout & Co was acquired by Carrington & Dewhurst, the largest manufacturer of filament fabrics in Europe, in 1962.

Carrington & Dewhurst merged with Viyella to form Carrington Viyella in 1970, one of the largest textile manufacturers in Europe.

The factory was relocated to Harfreys Industrial Estate, Great Yarmouth, from 1975. Grout & Co focused on the production of crepe bandages.

Smith & Nephew acquired the Great Yarmouth factory from Coats Viyella in 1994. The factory was closed in 1996.

Admirable feat: Lilley & Skinner

Lilley & Skinner was one of the largest footwear retailers in Britain, and operated the largest shoe shop in the world for many years.

Early history
Thomas Lilley (1814 – 1899) established a shoe manufacturing business at Southwark, London in 1835. He sold ready-to-wear shoes, a relative novelty for the time, when most footwear was tailor-made.

Lilley established a factory at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire in 1851. Northamptonshire was a nucleus for the footwear manufacturing trade.

Thomas Lilley employed 233 people in 1871. He became a generous philanthropist. He enjoyed good relations with his workforce and was regarded as fair and honest.

Lilley employed 42 men and 12 boys in 1881. A factory had been established at Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire by this time.

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Thomas Lilley II (1846 – 1916) joined his father in partnership and was joined by his brother-in-law, William Banks Skinner (1847 – 1914) in 1881. By this time there were six shoe shops.

Lilley & Skinner is incorporated
Lilley & Skinner was incorporated in 1894. The company had a capital of £260,000 when it made a limited offering of shares to the public in 1896. Its head office was at Paddington Green, London. There were factories at Bristol and Chesham and a leather warehouse at Rushden.

There were around 50 retail shops by 1896, all situated in London and its suburbs. There was a large export trade to Australia and South Africa.

The London warehouse was destroyed by fire in 1900. The Bristol factory was destroyed by fire in 1905.

Thomas Lilley II left an estate valued at £100,801 in 1916. He was succeeded as chairman by his son, Thomas Lilley III (1872 – 1951), a shrewd and financially astute man who would guide the company to greater prosperity.

A flagship store was opened on Oxford Street in 1921. It was extended to become the largest shoe shop in the world in 1931.

Lilley & Skinner becomes a public company
Lilley & Skinner became a public company in 1950.

Thomas Lilley III died with an estate valued at £178,697 in 1951. He was succeeded as chairman and managing director by his son, Thomas Lilley IV (1902 – 1960).

Thomas Lilley IV (1902 – 1960)

Lilley & Skinner had a fully-paid share capital of £2 million in 1951. The company was one of the largest footwear retailers in Britain, with 84 branches mostly situated in London and the Home Counties. The company employed over 2,300 people.

Benefit Footwear, with 143 branches mostly located in the Midlands and the North East of England, was acquired in 1956.

Merger with Saxone and acquisition by British Shoe Corporation
Lilley & Skinner merged with Saxone to form Saxone, Lilley & Skinner, in 1956. Thomas Lilley played a major part in the merger, and became chairman of the new company. Saxone, Lilley & Skinner was second in size only to British Shoe Corporation. Saxone concentrated on men’s and children’s shoes, whilst Lilley & Skinner specialised in fashion.

Saxone, Lilley & Skinner had 470 retail outlets by 1958, including over 60 department store concessions. There were five factories in Kilmarnock and Leicester. A new distribution warehouse was opened in Leeds in order to supply northern branches in 1959.

Thomas Lilley IV died with an estate valued at £429,625 in 1960.

British Shoe Corporation acquired Saxone, Lilley & Skinner for £27.3 million in 1962. Following the takeover, BSC controlled forty percent of the leather shoe trade in Britain.

Lilley & Skinner still operated the largest shoe shop in the world in 1974. Located at 360-366 Oxford Street, it had 76,000 square feet of floor space across four storeys. It had ten departments, 250,000 pairs of shoes and a staff of 180. An average of over 45,000 people visited the store every week.

The Oxford Street site was sold off in the early 1990s, and the retail brand had disappeared by the late 1990s.

The rights to the Lilley & Skinner name were acquired by Stead & Simpson in 1998. Stead & Simpson reintroduced Lilley & Skinner as an upmarket ladies’ shoe brand. Stead & Simpson was acquired by Shoe Zone in 2008. Shoe Zone still use Lilley & Skinner as an in-house brand.

Hell for leather: Pocock Brothers

Pocock Brothers was the largest boot manufacturer in the world.

Thomas Pocock (1791 – 1879) was born in Shoreditch, London. He entered into business as a boot manufacturer and leather merchant from 1815.

Pocock was soon assisted by his three sons, Thomas Gotch Pocock (1815 – 1883), Alfred Pocock (1822 – 1887) and Ebenezer Pocock (1824 – 1902).

By 1855 the sons had taken over management of the business, and began to trade as Pocock Brothers. A boot factory was established at 20-23 Southwark Bridge Road, London.

A workforce of 400 to 500 was employed by 1871.

T G Pocock was a model employer, guided by his Christian faith. He provided a pension scheme for elderly and infirm employees and was well-regarded by his workforce.

Pocock Brothers also produced padded cells for “lunatic asylums” by 1886.

Pocock Brothers advertised itself as the largest boot manufacturer in the world in 1888.

Ebenezer Pocock retired in 1889 to leave three brothers, Thomas Pocock (1844 – 1891), George Pocock (born 1853) and Percy Rogers Pocock (1857 – 1934) to manage the business.

Pocock Brothers employed well over 1,000 men and women by 1891, and along with Rabbits & Co, was the largest shoe manufacturer in London.

Pocock Brothers held contracts to supply boots to the Army and the Metropolitan Police in the 1890s.

The retail operations were sold to Freeman Hardy & Willis in 1910, but the boot manufacturing operations continued.

300 people were employed in 1914.

The business was registered as a limited company, Pocock Brothers Ltd, from 1927.

By 1988 the business was based at 235 Southwark Bridge Road and was a leading supplier to the shoe repair trade.

A new angle: Saxone Shoe Company

Saxone was the largest footwear manufacturer in Scotland.

Clark & Co of Kilmarnock was established in 1820. The firm largely manufactured shoes for export, particularly to South America.

Following the implementation of import tariffs in many countries, Clark began to open retail outlets across Great Britain from 1887.

The company factory at Titchfield Street, Kilmarnock, employed 150 people by 1904.

F & G Abbott Ltd was a shoe retailer established in 1902 which purchased much of its stock from Clark & Co. Saxone was their own-label brand for an American-style men’s shoe.

The Saxone brand offered half sizes, as well as five different fittings for each size. This wide offering of varieties was the key behind its success.

Saxone Shoe Company
Clark & Sons merged with F & G Abbott in 1908 to form the Saxone Shoe Company. George Clark (1861 – 1937) and George Sutherland Abbott (1862 – 1940) became joint-managing directors.

The Saxone Shoe Co went public with a share capital of £1 million in 1928. There were 106 retail stores by this time.

George Clark, chairman and managing director, died in 1937. G S Abbott died in 1940 and left an estate valued at £133,592.

Throughout the Second World War a large proportion of production was devoted to military service contracts, including regulation army boots and officer’s footwear.

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1,200 people were employed at 180 retail branches by 1948, and 1,000 people were employed at the Kilmarnock factory.

Merger with Lilley & Skinner
The company merged with Lilley & Skinner to form Saxone, Lilley & Skinner in 1956. The merger combined the second and third largest shoe retailers in Britain, largely in order to combat the rise of British Shoe Corporation, the largest shoe retailer in Britain.

The merger was to prove a success, and profits rose considerably. Saxone, Lilley & Skinner operated 475 shops, four major factories and 15 repair workshops by 1961.

Acquisition by British Shoe Corporation
Saxone, Lilley & Skinner was acquired by British Shoe Corporation, the largest shoe retailer in Britain, for £27 million in 1962. The merged company was the largest shoe chain business in the world with 40 percent of the British shoe market and 2,000 shops.

British Shoe realised between £10 million and £15 million by selling the freehold of the majority of the Saxone, Lilley & Skinner sites and leasing them back.

The company introduced American Hush Puppie shoes to Britain in the 1960s.

Saxone manufacturing was severely affected by Italian imports to Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Saxone had 111 outlets and 1,100 full-time equivalent staff in 1995, but the chain was loss-making. British Shoe Corporation closed the unprofitable Saxone stores in 1996, and the profitable outlets were sold to Facia. Later that year Facia entered receivership and 61 Saxone stores were acquired by the Stylo sports footwear group (now Barratts of Bradford).

All’s fair in war: Faire Brothers of Leicester

Faire Brothers of Leicester operated the largest shoe findings factory in England.

Watkin Lewis Faire (1819 – 1892) was born in Kidderminster. He relocated to Leicester from 1850 to work as an agent for the Leicester Temperance Society. He visited 3,030 houses in 1851.

Faire established Faire Brothers, lace manufacturers, in partnership with his brother in 1855.

His son, Arthur Faire (1854 – 1933), established Smith Faire & Co, boot and shoe manufacturers, in 1876.

Watkin Lewis Faire retired from Faire Brothers in 1886, and the business was continued by his three sons, Joseph Louis Faire (1841 – 1898), John Edward Faire (1843 – 1929) and Samuel Faire (1849 – 1931).

Watkin Lewis Faire died in 1892, and his funeral took place immediately after that of Thomas Cook, travel agent and fellow temperance advocate.

Faire Brothers operated factories at Wimbledon Street and Southampton Street, Leicester by 1892.

Joseph Louis Faire was the head of Faire Brothers when he died in 1898.

Watkin Lewis Faire built a new factory at Rutland Street, Leicester in 1898. The firm acquired a factory at Borrowash, Derbyshire, in 1900.

Faire Brothers became a limited company with a capital of £250,000 in 1900.

St George’s Mills, Wimbledon Street, Leicester was the largest shoe findings factory in England by 1912. Faire Brothers employed 600 workers. Most of the factory machinery was built by the company itself.

St George's Mills in Leicester
St George’s Mills in Leicester

John Edward Faire was chairman by 1916.

Faire Brothers received a contract to provide around one million pairs of braces for the army in 1916. The firm also manufactured suspenders and garters.

Faire Brothers had seven factories across Leicester, Burton upon Trent and Borrowash in Derbyshire by 1917. They included the largest small wares factories in Britain.

During the First World War, the firm was able to take a large share of the shoe and boot lace market, which had largely been held by German manufacturers.

John Edward Faire died in 1929 and left a gross estate valued at £166,113.

Sir Samuel Faire died in 1931 and left £271,874. A Liberal Unionist, he had been a keen philanthropist throughout his life.

Ernest Alfred Lillie, company chairman, died in 1956. By this time Faire Brothers had factories at Burton upon Trent, Thorne near Doncaster, Mansfield, Borrowash and Leicester.

Faire Brothers was acquired by Phipps & Son in 1967.

Faire Brothers employed 1,000 people by 1970, including 400 at the Rutland Street factory. That year the unprofitable braces and suspenders manufacturing operation was closed down due to declining sales.

Phipps extensively streamlined the Faire Brothers operations, reducing eight factories to two large factories and two smaller specialist supporting factories.

Smith Faire & Co was liquidated in 1982.

Chamberlain Phipps entered into receivership in 1996 and was subject to a management buyout.