Category Archives: Footwear

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)

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.

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.

Sole survivor: Manfield of Northampton

Manfield & Sons became one of the largest shoemakers in Northampton, and opened retail shops in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Moses Philip Manfield establishes the business
Moses Philip Manfield (1819 – 1899) was born in Bristol, the son of a poor shoemaker. He was raised as a Unitarian.

At the age of twelve he was apprenticed as a boot closer (one who sewed the uppers of boots) at a shoe factory. He eventually rose to the position of manager.

Manfield relocated to manage a business in Northampton in 1843. The business failed, but local Unitarians assisted Manfield to re-establish himself.

Manfield decided to target the lower-end of the market, and government contracts.The business employed 200 workers by 1851.

Manfield built a large factory on Campbell Square, Northampton in 1862.

Growth of the business and expansion into retail
Manfield became one of the leading shoe manufacturers in Northampton. The business employed a workforce of 688 people by 1871.

The introduction of mechanisation allowed Manfield to lower staffing levels. He employed 231 men and 20 boys in 1881.

Harry Manfield (1855 – 1923) and James Manfield (1857 – 1925) entered the firm as partners in 1883, and the business became known as Manfield & Sons.

Retail branches were opened in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Sheffield and Birmingham in 1884. A retail branch was opened in Paris in 1889.

A larger factory was built on Wellingborough Road in 1892, and the Campbell Square site was closed. The new factory was capable of producing 350,000 pairs of shoes a year. It was the first shoe factory in England to utilise the American system of keeping all the workshops on the ground floor.

Moses Philip Manfield used this juncture to delegate day to day management of the firm to his two sons.

Moses Philip Manfield was knighted in 1894. He was one of the best known boot and shoe manufacturers in Britain.

Moses Philip Manfield died in 1899. There were over 30 retail shops by this time.

Retail branches were opened in Belgium and the Netherlands in 1901.

By 1910 the firm employed over 1,300 workers at its Northampton factory, and there were over 70 retail branches across Britain and Europe.

Manfield & Sons was incorporated as a private company in 1920.

The company employed 2,525 people by 1944.

Manfield & Sons was converted into a public company with an authorised capital of £3 million in 1950. The business could produce 27,000 pairs of shoes and boots in a week. There were 102 retail branches, including eight in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. The company employed around 2,500 people.

Loss of independence and recent history
Manfield & Sons was acquired by the Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) controlled J Sears & Co for £3.37 million in 1956. Manfield operated 180 retail branches, as well as interests in France and the Netherlands.

The quality middle-market Manfield was merged with Saxone, another Sears subsidiary, in 1990. A new chain of 30 Manfield stores was established to cater to the over-40s market.

Sears divested a number of shops, including Manfield, to Fascia in 1995. Manfield in the Netherlands was subject to a management buyout in 1996. Facia entered into administration in 1997.

Manfield footwear and retail shops still exist in the Netherlands and France. In the Netherlands the chain has 69 stores and 620 employees. In France there are 33 Manfield stores.

Manfield shoes are still sold in Britain, where the brand is owned by the Jacobson Group, which also owns the Gola sportswear and Dolcis shoe brands.

Clores out: J Sears & Co

J Sears & Co was the largest shoe manufacturer and distributor in the world.

John George Sears establishes his business
John George Sears (1870 – 1916) was the son of a Northampton leather seller. He was raised as a Congregationalist.

Sears began his working life as a clicker (one who cuts the uppers for shoes and boots from leather). He eventually rose to the position of factory foreman.

Sears established J Sears & Co with a small factory on Derby Road, Northampton, in 1891. He was able to win market share from the strike-affected Manfield of Northampton in 1895.

Sears was joined by his brother, William Thomas Sears (1877 – 1950), from 1897.

J Sears & Co opened its first retail outlet in 1897. A branch was opened on Fleet Street, London in 1900.

A large factory on Adnitt Road, Northampton, was acquired in 1904.

The J Sears & Co factory on Adnitt Road, Northampton (c.1913)

Much of the success of the business was due to extensive advertising, and the energy, bold application and sound judgement of J G Sears.

J Sears & Co goes public
J Sears & Co went public with a capital of £350,000 in 1912. 12,500 pairs of boots were produced every week from one of the largest shoe factories in Britain. The company had 80 retail branches, including 47 in London, which targeted the mid-range market and operated on a high sales, low-margin basis. The shops pioneered the establishment of attractive window displays, with clearly marked prices.

J Sears & Co produced boots for the army during the First World War. The company employed 1,000 people in manufacture, and 1,000 people in retail by 1916.

Sears was a generous, likeable and unaffected man. Shortly after the public offering his health broke down, “undermined by years of almost superhuman activity”, according to the Taunton Courier. He died in 1916 with a net personalty of £356,287. William Thomas Sears succeeded his brother as chairman and managing director.

J Sears & Co acquires Freeman Hardy & Willis
J Sears & Co acquired Freeman Hardy & Willis, probably the largest shoe retailer in Britain, for over £4 million in 1928. The merger created the largest shoe manufacturing and distribution business in the world, with 796 shops and a market value of over £9 million.

J Sears & Co operated eight factories and 800 retail outlets by 1934. Approximately 10,000 people were employed. Around eight million pairs of shoes were sold every year, supplying about 20 percent of the British market. The company operated a retail outlet in every British community with a population of over 20,000.

William Thomas Sears retired as chairman and managing director in 1948.

J Sears & Co is acquired by Charles Clore
Investor Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) had noticed that the J Sears & Co property assets were undervalued on the company balance sheet. His acquisition of the company for £4.5 million in 1953 represented the first successful hostile takeover in British history.

Clore immediately sold around half of the freehold and leasehold shop properties to gain over £4.6 million. He later commented, “In some businesses the profits earned show that existing assets are not being employed in the fullest capacity… [no] business can afford to have its resources remaining stagnant”. He also announced plans to modernise the business, update branches and increase export sales.

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Clore acquired Dolcis, with 250 shoe shops, in 1956.

By 1959 Clore controlled 1,500 shoe shops, and accounted for 25 percent of all footwear sales in Britain. Sears manufactured footwear accounted for around one third of sales.

Saxone-Lilley & Skinner, with 475 shoe shops, was acquired in 1962. Sears became the largest shoemaker in Europe, and with 2,000 shops, controlled over half of the footwear retail trade in Britain. Charles Clore was reputedly one of the richest men in the world.

J Sears & Co divested its shoe factories in a management buyout in 1988.

J Sears & Co had exited the shoe retail business by 1998.

Bouncing back: Rabbits & Co

Edward Harris Rabbits established one of the largest shoe factories in the world. His financial backing for Charles Booth helped to establish the Salvation Army.

Edward Harris Rabbits
Edward Harris Rabbits (1818 – 1874) was born in Frome, Somerset, the son of an agricultural labourer.

Edward Rabbits borrowed half a crown and established himself as a shoe maker and retailer in Newington, London. His factory was at the Elephant Buildings, Newington Butts.

Edward Harris Rabbits (1818 – 1874)

Edward Rabbits was a argumentative and characterful man. Originally a Wesleyan Methodist, he tired of the formality of the church and became a Methodist Reformer, and later a dedicated member of the evangelical Methodist New Connexion.

Edward Rabbits employed 90 men and 85 women by 1851. He operated multiple retail branches by 1856.

The E H Rabbits shoe factory was described as one of the largest in the world by 1861. With a height of 68 feet, it was one of the tallest industrial buildings in London. The warehouse constantly employed nearly 400 people. Well-heated and well-lit, it also contained a sixty foot-long lecture hall for the discussion of religion and philanthropy.

Edward Rabbits first met William Booth (1829 – 1912), a penniless yet gifted Methodist preacher, in 1850. He encouraged Booth to continue as a preacher, provided him with financial support, and introduced him to his future wife, Catherine Mumford. Booth went on to establish the Salvation Army in 1865.

Edward Rabbits died in 1874. He had been a keen donor to religious and philanthropic causes throughout his life.

Rabbits & Sons
The business passed to William Rabbits (1827 – 1878), brother to Edward Rabbits, who was also a boot maker with a factory at St Thomas’s Works, Whites Grounds, Bermondsey. The business was renamed Rabbits & Sons.

William Rabbits was a modest and hard-working man. He died with an estate valued at under £70,000 in 1878.

The business was managed by his executors until 1880, when it was taken over in partnership by his sons, William Thomas Rabbits (1847 – 1908) and Charles Joseph Whittuck Rabbits (1854 – 1901). By this time the firm had 18 retail outlets across London.

William Thomas Rabbits left the partnership in 1887, likely due to ill health, and Charles Rabbits became sole proprietor.

Charles Rabbits registered the business as a private limited liability company in 1891. Rabbits & Sons ranked as one of the largest shoe manufacturers in London, rivalled only by Pocock Brothers in scale.

A workforce of 671 was employed in 1893. Charles Rabbits was recognised as a model employer, who supported pension schemes and sickness insurance for his staff.

Charles Rabbits died in 1901, with a gross estate valued at £321,179.

Rabbits & Sons was acquired by Freeman Hardy & Willis, a larger shoe retail chain, in 1903.

The Elephant Buildings at Newington Butts had become an engineering store by 1909.

Footnotes: George Oliver & Co of Leicester

George Oliver was the largest retailer of shoes and boots in the world.

George Oliver establishes a shoe retail business
George Oliver (1836 – 1896) was born in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire, to humble circumstances. He was apprenticed to a cordwainer (shoemaker) in his native village.

Oliver opened his first shoe shop in Willenhall, Staffordshire in 1860. He employed three men by 1861. He opened a second shop with his brother Charles Oliver (1845 – 1897) in nearby Neath in 1868. Additional shops soon followed. The business catered towards the low-cost segment of the market.

George Oliver established a shoe factory in Wolverhampton in 1869, but it was sold in order to concentrate on the retail business in 1875. A distribution warehouse was established in Leicester. Oliver employed twelve men in 1881.

By 1889 there were over 100 shops, located in the more densely populated parts of Britain. George Oliver had one of the largest shoe retail businesses in Britain by 1896.

George Oliver had a shrewd mind and a keen business sense. His rugged exterior and brusque manner disguised a kindly personality. A keen Conservative and Freemason, he was a retiring man, renowned in Leicester for his generosity. He died from a sudden haemorrhage or stroke in 1896.

Charles Frederick Oliver takes over the business
George Oliver was succeeded in the management of the business by his brother Charles Oliver. A buoyant man with a genial temperament, he followed his brother by dying of a sudden haemorrhage or stroke in 1897.

Management of the business was taken over by George Oliver’s son, Charles Frederick Oliver (1868 – 1939).

In 1897 George Oliver advertised itself as the largest retailer of boots and shoes in the world, with 140 branches. Between 1915 and 1918 the firm claimed to be the largest footwear retailer in the world.

Charles Frederick Oliver was created a knight in 1933.

George Carter Oliver (1864 – 1935), a director of the firm and a son of George Oliver, died in 1935 with an estate valued at £158,206.

George Oliver was incorporated as a private company in 1936.

The third generation inherits the business
Sir Charles Frederick Oliver died in 1939, with a gross estate valued at £125,047. He was succeeded by his sons, Frederick Ernest Oliver (1900 – 1994) and Claude Danolds Oliver (1904 – 1987) as joint managing directors.

The family sold 36 percent of the company to the banking firm Robert Benson Lonsdale & Co in 1950 in order to pay the death duties of Lady Oliver.

George Oliver went public with a fully-paid share capital of £450,000 in 1954. Frederick Ernest Oliver was chairman. The business sold medium-priced footwear and hosiery for men, women and children. There were 111 branches, including 63 in England, principally in the South and West, and 48 in Wales. There were around 580 employees. Headquarters were at 18 Charles Street, Leicester.

F E Oliver was knighted in 1962 in recognition of his public and political service to Leicester. He was a modest, humble man. He retired from George Oliver in 1973.

George Oliver expands, and is acquired by Shoe Zone
With both firms suffering from the recession, George Oliver acquired Hiltons Footwear, a retail firm, for £9.8 million in 1981. Oliver had 130 branches and Hilton had 189, but only 25 overlapped. Oliver then sold and leased back 14 properties for £7.8 million to an investment group to fund the acquisition.

George Oliver had 1.7 percent of the British shoe retail market in 1986.

Timpson Shoes, with 228 shops, was acquired for £15 million in 1987. This doubled Oliver in size and created the third largest footwear retailing chain in Britain, with around 500 shops. The Timpson shoe shops were mostly located in Lancashire, Scotland, Teesside and Yorkshire, and only overlapped with Oliver in 30 locations. However they were not particularly profitable at the time of takeover.

George Oliver (now renamed the Oliver Group) acquired Frame Express, a London-based picture framing chain with 16 outlets for £1.8 million in 1989.

The Oliver Group employed around 4,000 people by 1989.

No members of the Oliver family worked at the Oliver Group by 1994.

The Oliver Group had become loss-making by 2000 and its estate of stores had been reduced to 258. The business was acquired by Shoe Zone of Leicester for £6.1 million. Oliver, Timpson and Olivers Timpson stores were rebranded under the Shoe Zone format. Loss-making outlets were closed.

As of 2020, the George Oliver name is still used as a Shoe Zone sub-brand.