Mixed Blessings (1950s-2009)

Location : Norwich

Graham started his working life as an apprentice pattern-cutter in his father’s shoe factory, Batson & Webster, in Fishergate in Norwich. He and his brother then started their own factory, Arthur Howlett, also in Fishergate. Graham worked in the shoe industry, including as a director for the Norvic Shoe Company, until the mid-1980s. He then started a second career as an artist, specialising in traditional Norfolk scenes such as wherries and mills.

My future career was decided for me by my parents who were in the shoe industry. I was told that I was to go into the shoe industry, and that’s what happened!

School days, and life as an apprentice: ‘It was quite a culture shock!’

I was at a prep school in Norwich, at Town Close, and then I went to Gresham’s School, which is a public school, at Holt. I left there at the age of 16 or 17. I can’t quite remember what happened about exams. I don’t think it was matriculation, but we did something. I wasn’t terribly academic anyway.

My father had a business, a shoe factory, and I was apprenticed under him at the factory. I got pitched straight in to working as an apprentice on the shop floor with working men. I was quite amazed. It was quite a culture shock. I’d never had any experience of working on a factory floor.

Different backgrounds, but a lot of fun

On my first morning I wasn’t apprehensive or frightened at all. I think, being in a public school, they give you enough confidence to be able to get on with anybody. So I was able to get on with people who I had not much in common with. But they fascinated me!

I met a lot of people there who were in the First World War, who’d never slept in a bed for three years. And all they talked about was the First World War. They never, ever talked about anything else. I never could understand it, but suddenly I realised it was the only thing that had ever happened to them.

I think the workers were a bit apprehensive with me because I was the boss’s son. They were rather guarded in what they said. But eventually we managed to get on all right, and it was very interesting. We had a lot of fun. I enjoyed it immensely, because I met people I’d never had the opportunity to meet and to work with, and I’ve never had that opportunity again.

The daily routine, and pay

Working hours were 8 o’clock till 6 o’clock at night with an hour and a half for lunch. In those days everybody went home for lunch. They left off at half past 12 and came back at 2 after having their meat dumplings or whatever it was, and their custard tarts. Then they came back at 2 and worked through till half past 5, or 6 o’clock if they were on overtime.

They would all walk into work, or cycle into work. Initially I used to cycle, I used to catch the bus, I used to get lifts, until I earned enough money to be able to afford a small second-hand motor car.

I was waged. The minimum wage that had to be paid to anybody working in a shoe factory in those days was £8. So whatever they did, whether they swept up or whether they were operating a machine, the minimum wage you had to pay them was £8. I earned £5 a week as an apprentice, which was the normal apprentice wage. Don’t forget you could buy four gallons of petrol for a pound and have 3d left over!

Norwich’s place as a major shoe manufacturing centre

There were a lot of women working in the factory as well. This would have been about 1955, when Norwich was being rebuilt after the Second World War. During the war we played our part in making equipment, basically shoes, for the armed forces. My father made all the government contracts. He made the WAAF shoes.

At that particular time, I was the only apprentice, but the workforce moved forwards because workers came in from other factories, and from other areas. You see, Norwich had 25 shoe factories in those days, and we were employing in Norwich 10,000 people. Of course, it was even bigger in Leicester, bigger in the north of England and in London as well. And of course, all the men’s shoes in those days were made in Northampton.

Life as an apprentice pattern-cutter: ‘the architect of the shoe’

I was brought up on ladies’ shoes really. When I started, I think we were turning out about ten thousand ladies’ shoes in the course of a week. I went into manufacturing children’s shoes later.

I was an apprentice pattern-cutter, which meant that you had to go through the whole of the operations which are incurred in making the shoes.

First of all, I became a clicker, and then I worked in the making room. I worked in the closing room and I worked in the finishing rooms. Then I went to technical school in the evening, and I took my shoe examinations in the evening.

To be an apprentice pattern-cutter (they are really the architect of the shoe) is a highly technical business. You have to know a great deal about shoe manufacturing to be able to do it correctly and properly and effectively. That would have taken me five years. If I hadn’t have gone to night school, which I did for two days a week, took my City & Guilds, I would have to have been longer. But I was able to be an effective pattern-cutter after about three years.

We only had two pattern-cutters. I was the third one. That was enough for the whole workforce. But you had to know every side of the industry. Which was the leather, all the materials that you used. You had to know all about sewing materials, insole materials, lining materials. The leather, you had to learn about semi-chrome leather, full-chrome leather, synthetic materials. Everything that you used.

As a pattern-cutter you had to be able to know everything that went on in a shoe factory, every operation, every stitch that went into a pair of shoes.

The leather comes in finished. It’s cut up by the clickers, then it goes to the closing room where all the girls are, and they stitch the various items together. It then goes into the making room where it’s pulled over a form, which they call a last, tacked at the bottom, soles put on, and then it goes into the shoe room where it’s finished. That’s put very simply. It’s a bit more complicated than that! Took me five years to learn that!

Two days to make a pair of ladies’ shoes….

In those days it took a lot longer to make a pair of shoes than it did in the latter days. To make a pair of ladies’ shoes it’d take you two days because it had to stay on the last for a length of time to make sure it conformed to the shape you wanted. With modern methods you could make them in a day if you wanted to.

They are all different colours, but the colour was all decided upon the leather that was cut out initially. The shoe was designed, then the leather was sorted out, that was cut, the lining material was cut, all the solings were cut and then all the bits met and went through a process of manufacture, and a pair of shoes finished up in a box at the end of the day. We had packers to put them in the boxes.

The boxes went into a stockroom. They were then packed and put into huge cardboard cases. They were picked up by various methods of transport and then they were distributed all over the country.

Setting up a new company

I left my father’s factory, which was called Batson & Webster, because I had to go and help my brother, whose health was not terribly good, in a small shoe factory that we had decided to start, in Fishergate. We left my father to look after his own business, as it were. The factory my brother and I started was called Arthur Howlett.

I went in there in 1957. We were making twelve hundred pairs of shoes a week then. I was fully trained. My brother, who was a bit older than me, was fully trained on the production side. He looked after production and the organisation of the business. We had a Finance Director who looked after all the costings and finance. I was the Sales Director and the director in charge of the development of the design.

So I was on the road at the age of 19. I had a big car. I made all my own samples, all my own ranges, and I went off and sold them.

The new business takes off….

The point is this: we eventually developed a new concept of children’s footwear, a much more fashionable concept of children’s footwear, which was really the secret to our success.

We were living in a very competitive world, but we hit the birth rate right, when it was rising, and we just had one success after another. It grew and it grew and it grew, and I was responsible for selling twelve thousand pairs of shoes per week, which we were making. And on the way I was developing the footwear and the ranges I produced, maybe four or five ranges of footwear a year for various organisations.

….and branches out into Europe

I had to travel throughout Europe. I always did two trips to Paris per year, shoe fairs at Dusseldorf, Milan, Florence and Rome. That’s where I picked up a lot of the ideas. I met a lot of my customers out there, so we were able to discuss the ideas and build the ranges exclusively for them. I would come back, produce the ranges and go out and show them, and sell them to them, and they would write out orders.

A skilled workforce is key

We employed about 200 people. I was responsible for filling the factory to keep 200 people and their families going.12,000 pairs of shoes per week might sound a lot, but in actual fact it’s not, and therefore the factory was relatively small. When you have a small factory, it is much easier to manage because it’s much more personal.

You have a hard core of first-class operatives. If you have a slack period then you have to dismiss or lay off several of the surplus people that you’ve built round that hard core. You bring them in and take them out, but you would never get rid of the hard core of your skilled workforce, because it was a highly skilled workforce. It was also a semi-craft, you see, so you had craftsmen as well as highly skilled people.

We had people who maybe went into the factory at 15 and worked until their retirement. If you looked after them, they would always look after you. We weren’t a big factory needing a canteen. They brought their sandwich boxes and whatnot. We had a room where you could get a cup of tea and a slice of cake, but that was for the staff rather than for the shop floor people.

Health & Safety: a big responsibility

Health & Safety was just coming. I mean, you had to have a certain amount of Health & Safety because a lot of the operations in a shoe factory were where you used cellulose cements which were highly toxic. Therefore you had to have dust extraction plants and all that sort of thing to protect the workforce. The actual stitching was done with Singer sewing machines.

We did have work accidents. Yes, yes. When I started off as an apprentice I worked in a room which prepared all the bottom leather. They had these huge presses, and they had to work very quickly, these operatives did, to make their money. I saw several fingers which had been cut off, which were at the back of the board, where chaps had cut their fingers off. That was when the Health & Safety Act came in.

Those presses were redesigned inasmuch that you had to have both hands on the top of the press before it would come down. But that slowed up the operation, of course, so you had a lot of the men who would take the bits out so that they could move it along much quicker without having two hands. We had to come down on them pretty heavily because Health & Safety meant we were entirely responsible for them.

Outworkers play an important role

Every operation was on piece work. The minimum they had to earn was £8, but they made up their money by piece work. And, of course, you see, you had outworkers in those days. You’ve probably seen photographs of two chaps carrying a pole, with uppers on the pole. They took them round to what they called the outworkers, which were individuals, housewives, who couldn’t get out to work. We installed a machine for them so they could work from home. We delivered the materials for them to work on and then we collected them.

Shoes really do run in the family!

My grandfather on my father’s side used to work in a little garret, up in a room. He was an outworker for a length of time. Years ago, in my father’s time, they used to carry the uppers around on poles. In my time we had vans!

Ever since I can remember as a child, my father and my mother talked nothing else but shoes at breakfast time, at lunchtime, at tea time and in the evening. I heard it every day, exactly what went on each morning with all the various individuals and the characters: the orders that had come in, and the orders that hadn’t come in, how many people they’d got to lay off or how many people they’d got to find to get the shoes out in time. I never heard anything else!

Pressures mount on the shoe manufacturing business: ‘a lot of the workforce just faded away….’

It all started to fade out in about 1970. What happened was, we were always threatened with cheap imports, and there were a lot of cheap imports coming in from Italy, Portugal and also, of course, Eastern Europe. That was really the beginning.

Then there was a big hike in the price of fuel, and I remember that put on another 16% on a pair of shoes. It wasn’t just a question of petrol. A lot of the materials that you used were petroleum based, and that was the beginning of the end really.

If one looks back and thinks about it, it was a gentle decline, but right at the end in about 1978, ’79, ’80 it rapidly went. It didn’t just go from Norwich, it went from all over the country.

There were 10,000 people in Norwich who were involved in the shoe industry, directly and indirectly, because they made boxes and they were the support industries. It’s amazing how they’ve all been absorbed.

The factory just closed. I’m talking about 1980 now. A lot of the workforce just faded away, just retired and never did anything. Their skills weren’t transferable, not really. A lot of the younger ones had to do other things, of course. They went into other industries. It’s exactly the same thing is happening now in the car industry. Frightening really.

Working for the Norvic Shoe Company; but the pressures on the shoe industry continue

I can’t remember the last working day of the factory. You see, by that time we had sold our business. We sold our business in 1967 to the Norvic Shoe Company, and so I went to work for a very large organisation.

I became a Director of Norvic Children’s Division. With Arthur Howlett Ltd and the production at Norvic there was nearly a hundred thousand pairs a week going out, of children’s footwear. Well, that slowly declined as the birth rate dropped, you see, due to the pill and due to the society.

As society has more money the birth rate is inclined to drop, as it’s dropped in Germany. People don’t have big families any more, such as my father had come from. You had big families in those days as a form of insurance. But with all the welfare benefits coming in, you see, there was no need to have large families, so if people had one or two children it was considered enough.

Norvic went bust when all the other shoe factories did, in 1980. That was the same time that Bally was going down the chute. Start-rite were making very few shoes in their own factory, they were resourcing everything from abroad. Bally was resourcing everything from abroad. They were getting a lot of uppers from India, Italy, Portugal, South America. So, 1980 saw the end of the shoes. Not just in Norwich but throughout the country.

The shoe manufacturing industry outside the UK

I had an opportunity to go and work in South Africa. In fact, my brother and I had a company in South Africa, a consultancy business, which was very profitable. Although I never had to go there.

That’s quite an interesting point actually, because, you see, in those days you didn’t have computers, and if you took Australia and New Zealand and South Africa, they were miles away really from the central sophistication of fashion, and it was a long way for them to travel to Paris and to Florence and to Milan and whatnot. They relied on people to supply them with all the know-how and the designs and the fashions.

So we opened up a business in South Africa, supplying children’s shoe factories in South Africa with the know-how, and we sent them all our lasts and all the specifications that I used and worked on with our own home industry.

They had more up-to-date machinery in the Third World than we did! And, of course, you see, all the Third World countries, such as Rumania, Czechoslovakia, all the countries like that, they were subsidised by the government. So we were importing shoes in this country which we couldn’t possibly compete with. They were desperate for foreign currency. And of course, that was one of the things that caused the big demise in the shoe industry, especially in men’s shoes, because they made a lot of men’s shoes in Czechoslovakia and Rumania and Hungary.

Some hand-made shoes remain….

There are still some hand-made shoes. Barker’s, Church’s, as far as I know, are still making shoes. Van Dal is still making a few shoes. But they’re not making very many. And it’s a highly specialised aspect of their business, and very, very expensive. I mean, I think a pair of men’s Church’s now would cost you in excess of £200. Well, there’s not many shoes sold at £200. But there are still people who are prepared to buy shoes at £200, and they are made in very, very small quantities.

The big problem is they haven’t got the industrial support systems to back them up. They haven’t got the last manufacturers, they haven’t got the leather manufacturers, because the tanning business has gone too, you see, except for the tanning business which supplies leather to the clothing industry.

Final employment in the shoe industry

After the factory closed, I got a job selling imported footwear throughout East Anglia. A small company in Leicester called Wilfords, and I was selling cheap imported footwear, clearing lines. I sold them to discount shops, discount warehouses, market traders, all the way up the East coast.

The majority of them were pretty below the standard which I’d been used to making. But you can’t have sentiments in that direction. You had to earn a living. I got a job there selling, and I did quite well out of it.

I did that for a year. Then I founded another business with two other colleagues of mine, called John Graham Shoes, in resourcing uppers from India and Italy and assembling the bits at a small factory in Waterworks Road. We assembled them and just put them into boxes and sold them, with tongue in our cheeks, as ‘British made’. They were made in Britain; they were assembled in Britain! But really all the uppers and that came from India.

Then two years later the business was sold to Lambert Howarth, which was a big shoe manufacturer up in the North of England. They had to go into resourcing in a big way because they couldn’t afford to make shoes in this country. That was the beginning of their resourcing. We sold that company to them and then I had nothing to do. This was in the mid-1980s.

A change of career….

So, just as my parents decided I would go into the shoe industry, I didn’t make a decision myself. The decision was made for me there again! I didn’t have anything to do with the decision at all.

….to painting!

I started to look for another job, and the only thing I ever knew anything about was the shoe industry. I got bored stiff looking for another job, and I started to paint pictures.

A life-long interest in pictures

I’d always been interested in pictures all my life. My father was an amateur water colourist and an oil painter, and my mother was more of a musician, so we had creative things running in the family. I was used to designing shoes and drawing, as I was brought up to do, and so I started to paint a few pictures to keep myself occupied while I was looking for a job.

Well, what happened was, I never found a job! I started to sell these pictures, and I proved that I taught myself how to do this and how to handle water colour. It was a long, arduous business. It took me a couple of years, I suppose, before I could do it, but I painted the odd picture which people bought.

‘My whole life unfolded again’

Then a gallery approached me in Norwich and asked if they could they have some pictures, and I said, ‘Yes.’

They told me what pictures they wanted. I painted these pictures they wanted, and my whole life sort of unfolded again. It was with the Glass House Gallery. As I knew a great deal of people in Norwich, he eventually asked me if I’d go down there to give him a hand, to work in the gallery when he was not there. I used to go down there a couple of days a week and work in the gallery. So I had the opportunity not only of selling my own pictures, but of selling other people’s pictures.

I started to learn a lot more, because I met a lot of artists, and they taught me and showed me how to do things. So I helped him really to develop it. All that time I was painting four or five pictures a week myself, and then from there I went into other galleries. I was supplying seven galleries in East Anglia.

I had no formal training. I taught myself. There’s no natural talent in water colour. There is talent, but there’s a natural feel for it, but there’s no natural talent for it. Talent is perspiration!

The art of business, the business of art

Once this started to happen, I had to run it like any other business. A lot of the art world might be seen as a bit airy-fairy. When it actually comes down to earning a living, it’s hard graft and a general business sense that you need. You paint what is required, not what you want to be required, so to say.

You contact galleries and you’re selling yourself, which I was used to doing. You went round and you talked to them, and you said, ‘Look, what do you want?’ You find out what they want, what they can sell, and you come back and you produce what they can sell. I mean, it’s relatively simple. It’s a simple rule of business!

There’s one gallery that used to write to me every week and tell me exactly what they wanted, the size of the picture. I paint a lot of wherries (became an authority on wherries) and various windmills throughout Norfolk. They’d tell me what colour they wanted the wherry sail, whether it was black or whether it was red, what size the windmill was, and whether it was the Red Mill at Thurne or the White Mill at Thurne, or wherever it was!

And there were diagrams. I produced these and I took them down there and they put them in frames, put them on the wall, and it just unfolded.

A commercial success; and some teaching, too

The art business was incredible in those days. It wasn’t till about ten years later it began to tighten up a bit, and we went through a recession and began to tighten up a bit, and then I had to spread my wings even further.

This was art for the ordinary person. My big pictures then, half imperial, I think they sold for about £160. Now I’ve become established they’re nearly £500. Some of them are £800, but they’re the much bigger ones.

I exhibit out of Norfolk, in Suffolk, throughout East Anglia. But I’m semi-retired, so I don’t do a great deal of it now. I just sell local pictures.

I also taught painting. In those days I had about four groups. I had two private groups, a chapel in Norwich, and then there was Snape Maltings, which I used to do for a week three times a year. That was great fun! Thoroughly enjoyed all that!

A good framer is vital

There’s a lot of people who will frame pictures for you. But there are good framers and there are bad framers.

I had a framer for nearly 15 years at Beccles. Every Saturday afternoon at four o’clock I would take all my water colours down there that I’d painted for the week, discuss them with him, how he was going to frame them, and pick up the ones he’d already framed. I used to buy the buns, the teacakes, one week, every other Saturday. Then he would buy the teacakes and he would supply the tea. He did that every Saturday afternoon for 20-odd years.

‘Two very interesting careers’ – and a move into writing?

I enjoyed painting much more than I did making shoes. I was my own boss. I didn’t have to employ anyone, I didn’t have to borrow vast amounts of money, because, don’t forget, when I was in business with my brother our houses were in the bank to raise the money to run the business.

When I was a painter I didn’t have to borrow a great deal of money. I had the future in my hands. You didn’t have to have a great deal of money. You didn’t have to have much equipment, you see.

I’ve had two very interesting, very different careers. It’s been very eventful, absolutely fascinating, never boring, and now I’m into writing. I’ve written a lot of poetry. I hope to publish a book called ‘A Letter to my Father’, which will be a lot of short stories and poetry.

It will have nothing to do with shoes. Nothing at all!

Graham Howlett (1937-2021) talking to WISEArchive on 23rd March 2009 in Brooke.

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