Category Archives: Clothing & textiles

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 a small factory on Derby Road, Northampton, in 1891. He traded as J Sears & Co.

Sears 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
J Sears & Co was acquired by Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) in 1953. It was one of the first hostile takeovers in British history.

Clore had noticed that the property assets of Sears were undervalued. He immediately sold around half of the freehold and leasehold shop properties, and realised over £4.5 million.

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Clore later commented, whilst not mentioning J Sears & Co specifically, “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.”

However Clore demonstrated that he was no mere asset stripper. He announced plans to modernise the business, update branches and increase export sales.

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.

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.

Built to last: Stead & Simpson

Stead & Simpson is best-remembered as one of the largest footwear retail chains in Britain. However the business has its origins in production, and became the largest footwear manufacturer in the world.

Establishment of the business
Edmund Stead (1803 – 1881) was born in Darlington, the son of a well-respected innkeeper and coachman. He relocated to Leeds from 1824, and found employment in the shoe-making trade.

Stead formed a partnership with Morris Simpson (1808 – 1888). The two men established a curriers shop, to process leather for shoemaking, on Kirkgate, Leeds from 1834. Stead & Simpson declared their intent as, “to supply every article of sterling quality at the lowest rate of profit”. Boot manufacturing commenced from around 1840.

Edward Simpson (1819 – 1904), brother to Morris Simpson, joined the partnership, initially as a bookkeeper. Edward Simpson was a likeable man who stood over six feet tall. He was a talented businessman, as well as a keen Wesleyan Methodist, and a Radical in politics.

Morris Simpson left the partnership in order to establish his own shoe-making business in 1844.

Problems in sourcing sufficient skilled labour in Leeds led the firm to open a second factory at London Road, Daventry in Northamptonshire in 1844.

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

Footwear manufacturing had become the principal trade by the mid-1850s.

A Goodyear welting machine was installed in 1858, which enabled the replacement of hand-sewn labour.

Further premises in Leeds were acquired in 1860 in order to produce patent leather.

Stead & Simpson employed 314 people in 1861.

Two nephews enter the firm
Stead and Simpson each introduced a nephew to the business in 1863: Richard Fawcett (1828 – 1889) was enlisted as a salesman, and Henry Simpson Gee (1842 – 1924) became the factories manager.

It was around this time that the business began to enter into mass production.

Gee was responsible for the construction of new factories, and pioneered the introduction of steam-powered machinery in shoe and boot manufacture. Gee was gifted with a clear vision and an highly practical nature.

The growth of the 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 was the largest footwear manufacturer in the world by 1875. The business 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.

The business became known as Stead, Simpson & Nephews from 1878.

Business headquarters had been relocated to Leicester by 1884, with a head office on Belgrave Gate. 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 Belgrave Gate factory 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 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.

Henry Simpson Gee became company chairman. J G Ward and J L Ward 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.

470 employees were called up for active service during the First World War.

Henry Simpson Gee died in 1924 with an estate valued at £659,699. He was one of the best known businessmen in the Midlands. His will included a bequest of £20,000 to Leicester College, later to become the University of Leicester. He was succeeded as company chairman by Harry Percy Gee.

A Stead & Simpson shop at Anglesey, Wales in 1930. Image from People’s Collection Wales.

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 operated 223 retail branches by 1963. Its sites were largely sited in rural market downs, with regional strengths in East Anglia, the East Midlands, the Welsh Marches and parts of the West Country.

Shoemaking and family ownership end
Stead & Simpson closed its shoe manufacturing operations in Daventry and Leicester with the loss of 400 jobs in 1973. The company would focus on its retail business, which could be managed more competitively if its products were acquired on the open market.

Members of the Gee family continued to hold voting control over Stead & Simpson. The Daily Mail described the chain as “downmarket”.

Stead & Simpson was acquired by Clayform Properties, a property developer, for £120 million in cash in 1989. Clayform was attracted to the value of Stead & Simpson’s 110 freehold high street properties, which it divested and leased back. 15 city centre locations were sold off. Stead & Simpson was starved of cash and investment, and became loss-making.

Stead & Simpson was acquired by its management, led by Peter Gee, in 1993. It was the third largest shoe shop chain in Britain, with 286 shops.

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39 stores were acquired from Facia in 1996.

Shoe Express, with 77 shops, was acquired from the British Shoe Corporation in 1998.

Stead & Simpson was subject to a management buyout for £51.4 million in 2005. By this time the company had around 400 stores.

Stead & Simpson is acquired by Shoe Zone
Stead & Simpson lost market share as supermarkets and clothing retailers moved into the footwear market.

Stead & Simpson entered into administration in 2008, and the business was acquired by Shoe Zone of Leicester. 309 stores were retained, whilst 37 were closed. Anthony Smith, the chairman of Shoe Zone, later reflected that the takeover was “probably the worst acquisition we ever made. We ended up spending £10 million trying to run the Steads business, but it didn’t work”.

Stead & Simpson was placed into liquidation in 2012 and 90 unprofitable stores were closed. The Stead & Simpson brand had disappeared by the end of 2016, with stores either closed or converted to the Shoe Zone fascia.

Smith explained, “there’s a misconception about what happened with Steads. We paid off all suppliers and looked after all staff. We gave as many of them jobs as we could and those we couldn’t, we made them properly redundant … morally … I think we did the best thing we possible could under the circumstances.

A shoe in: Freeman Hardy & Willis

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

Edward Wood (1839 – 1917) was born in Derby, the son of a railway engine driver. 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.

Freeman Hardy & Willis outlet in Porthmadog (1987)
A Freeman Hardy & Willis outlet in Porthmadog, Wales in 1987

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 a Mr Willis, his salesman.

The first retail outlet was opened at Wandsworth, London, in 1877.

The wholesale business had been divested by 1879.

Freeman Hardy & Willis employed 55 men by 1881.

Freeman Hardy & Willis was the largest footwear retailer in the world by 1900. There were about 300 shops, mostly located in the Midlands and the North of England, by January 1903.

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.

Edward Wood (1839-1917) in 1898 by Walter William Ouless. Credit: Leicester Town Hall via Art UK

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. His charitable bequests amounted to over £23,000.

Freeman Hardy & Willis operated 428 shops in 1921. There were 500 shops by 1923.

The Leicester business 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.

Sir Arthur Wheeler (1860 – 1943) in 1925. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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.

The Leicester factory was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940.

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.

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.

Weaving history: John Crossley & Sons

John Crossley & Sons of Halifax was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The business eventually declined as cheaper imports arrived from overseas, and the factory was closed in 1982.

Establishment and growth
John Crossley (1772 – 1837) was a hand weaver of carpets in Halifax, Yorkshire. He was promoted to mill manager. Crossley went on to lease a modest-sized mill at Dean Clough, eventually buying the property outright.

John Crossley died in 1837, and his three sons, John Crossley, Joseph Crossley and Francis Crossley took over management of the business. John Crossley & Sons had 300 employees and the fourth largest mill in Britain.

John Crossley was the general manager, Joseph was in charge of the machinery and Francis was the commercial mind.

Francis Crossley was responsible for the rapid expansion of the business throughout the mid-nineteenth century. He pioneered the development of steam-powered carpet manufacturing, which afforded the business an enormous cost advantage. Licensing the use of their patents to other carpet manufacturers brought in substantial revenues from royalties.

Francis Crossley (1817 – 1872), c. 1862. Image used with kind permission from the National Portrait Gallery.

John Crossley & Sons operated the largest carpet factory in England by 1848. By this time the business held a Royal Warrant to supply Queen Victoria. Carpets were retailed in Halifax and also supplied to London and Liverpool, with a substantial export market in the United States.

Many of the Crossley family values were inspired by their Congregationalist faith. Unusually for the time, Francis Crossley operated a policy of paying women equal wages to men for doing the same job.

Largest carpet manufacturer in the world
John Crossley & Sons was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world by 1862.

The business was transferred to a joint-stock company from 1864, with the primary aim of allowing its 3,500 employees to become shareholders. 20 percent of the company was sold to the workforce at preferential rates. John Crossley & Sons was perhaps the first large industrial business to provide a profit-sharing scheme for its staff.

John Crossley & Sons was the largest publicly-quoted industrial company in Britain by 1868, with an ordinary share capitalization of £2.2 million (about £220 million in 2014). 5,000 people were employed.

The company boasted annual carpet sales of £1.1 million by 1872, including exports to the United States valued at nearly £500,000. The buildings at Dean Clough Mill covered 20 acres, where concentration of production at a single site lowered costs.

Dean Clough Mills in 2008. Image credit.

John Crossley & Sons was one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world by 1877.

John Crossley & Sons employed 3,770 people in 1903.

John Crossley & Sons employed about 5,000 people at the largest carpet works in the world in 1923.

During the Second World War the company was largely engaged in cotton spinning (identified by the government as an essential industry) from its mill in Rochdale as well as the carpet export trade.

Post-war developments
Around half of production was exported in the post-war period, with Australia and New Zealand representing the largest markets.

John Crossley & Sons merged with Carpet Trades, one of the largest carpet manufacturers in Kidderminster, in 1953. The two companies continued to be managed separately.

The former Meredith & Drew factory at Brighouse near Halifax was acquired in order to produce the new, lower-cost, tufted-style carpets. The carpets were sold under the Kosset brand, using American marketing techniques.

John Crossley & Sons was the largest carpet manufacturer in Europe in 1968.

John Crossley & Sons-Carpet Trades merged with the Carpet Manufacturing Company of Kidderminster to form Carpets International in 1969. The company was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, with 29 percent of United Kingdom sales. Company headquarters were transferred to Kidderminster. Kosset and Crossley were the leading brands.

Sales of imported carpets grew to take the majority of the market between 1970 and 1980. Between December 1979 and 1982 the workforce was reduced from 6,071 to 3,600.

Carpets International suffered heavy profit losses between 1980 and 1982. The Dean Clough Mills had been rendered uneconomical, and the site was closed in 1982. The company blamed the impact of the economic recession and competition from Belgian, Danish and American imports. 800 staff were relocated to other sites, although 400 jobs were lost.

Carpets International entered into administration with the loss of 1,200 jobs in 2003. The company blamed increasing imports and a growing preference for wooden laminate-style flooring.