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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.