Mixed Blessings

Location : Norwich

Can I ask you, when you were at school how you made a decision about your future career, or was it decided for you?

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

Right! And your school? You were in a Norwich school?

No. I was at a prep school in Norwich, at town Close, and then I went to Gresham’s School at Holt. I left there at the age of 16 or 17, I can’t quite remember what it was, and I went straight on the factory floor as an apprentice.

It was quite a shock to work on the factory floor with working people of those days, who I’d never had any experience of working with.

Because Gresham’s was a Public School?

Yes, Gresham’s was a Public School, and I got pitched straight in to working on the shop floor with working men, and I was quite amazed. It was quite a culture shock.

And did you in those days take exams before you left school as they do these days?

Yes, but it was all very different in those days. I can’t quite remember what happened. We did . . . I don’t think it was Matriculation, but we did something . .. I wasn’t terribly academic anyway.

So your parents decided when you were 16 that you’d had your education and, as you say, you moved onto the shop floor – with your father being in charge?

My father had a business, a shoe factory, and I was apprenticed under him at the factory. And I was an apprentice pattern-cutter. Being an apprentice pattern-cutter meant that you had to go through the whole of the operations which are incurred in making the shoes.

So can you describe then . . . Day One, you finish school and you turn up at the factory. Were you then given over to like a foreman to guide you through?

Yes. 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. And then I went to technical school in the evening, and I took my shoe examinations in the evening.

So, on that first morning, can I take you back to how you thought when you turned up? I mean, were you apprehensive .. frightened?

No, 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!

In what way?

Well, 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.

These were all the men. Were there women working in the factory as well?

Oh yes, there were a lot of women working in the factory.

And what year would this have been?

About 1955.

So the War was over, and Norwich was being rebuilt?

That’s right.

So, your factory. Had that been taken over to be used for other purposes?

No, no. During the War my father made all the Government contracts. He made the WAF shoes.

So it was always shoes?

Always shoes, yes. We played our part during the War in making equipment, basically shoes, for the Armed Forces.

And how many shoes would you turn out in the course of say a week?

Oh I think we were turning out then about ten thousand. Ladies’ shoes. I was brought up on ladies’ shoes really, although I went into manufacturing children’s shoes later.

Do you think the workforce treated you in any way differently because you were the boss’ son? Would they have been nervous of the fact that you had that connection, do you think?

I think they were a bit apprehensive with me. They were rather guarded in what they said. But eventually we managed to get on all right, and it was very interesting and we had a lot of fun.

You enjoyed that?

Oh I enjoyed it, immensely, yes. Because I met people I’d never had the opportunity to meet and to work with, and I’ve never had that opportunity again.

What time of the day would you turn up for work?

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. And then they came back at 2 and then they worked through till half past 5, or 6 o’clock if they were on overtime.

And how did you get to work? They would walk into work, would they?

Oh 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.

Were you waged?

Yes, I earned £5 a week. 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 as an apprentice.

That was the normal apprentice wage?

Yes. Don’t forget you could buy 4 gallons of petrol and have 3d left over, for a pound. (laughs).

And were you the only apprentice?

Yes. At that particular time, yes.

So how would the workforce move forward if they didn’t have more apprentices learning the trade?

Oh, they came from other factories. And from other areas. Because you see Norwich had 25 shoe factories in those days, and we were employing in Norwich 10,000 people. And 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.

So you were doing the ladies’ shoes and you started off in one section and moved through the various sections. Can you tell me how long . . .?

To be an apprentice pattern-cutter … they are really the architect of the shoe . . . is a highly technical business and you have to know a great deal about shoe manufacturing to be able to do it correctly and properly and effectively. And that would have taken me 5 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 3 years.

How many other people were also pattern-cutters?

Oh, we only had two. I was the third one.

And that was enough for all the workforce?


And from pattern-cutting what other side of the industry would you need to be . . .?

Well, you had to know every side of it. 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.

So, as a person like myself who has no idea of the shoe industry, would there be a section in the factory where the leather is arriving in its raw state?

Well, it comes in finished, and then 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 (laughs) Took me five years to learn that!

And how long from start to finish to make a pair of shoes?

Oh, in those days it took a lot longer 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.

So each pair of shoes took two days?

Yes, but with modern methods you could make them in a day if you wanted to.

And would there have been a dyeing section? Are they all different colours?

Oh yes, 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.

So you would have packers as well, putting them into the boxes?

Oh yes.

And then where did they go?

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

So you finished your apprenticeship of five years and then you were fully qualified . . .?

I didn’t finish my full year because I had to go and help my brother, because his health was not terribly good, in a small shoe factory that we had decided to start. My brother was a bit older than me. So I went in there in 1957, and we were making twelve hundred pairs of shoes a week then. So I went in there and became the Sales Director and the Director in charge of the development of the design.

And your father was still working?

Yes, we left my father to look after his own business, as it were. I was fully trained. My brother was fully trained on the production side, and so we started off business there, in Fishergate. And that was a company called Arthur Howlett in Fishergate. My father’s factory was called Batson & Webster.

Now you’d gone through your apprenticeship and learned how to make the shoes. You’re a businessman. How did you learn to actually run the business?

Well, my brother was the elder one. He looked after production and looked after the organisation of the business. We also had a Finance Director who looked after all the costings and finance, and I looked after all the sales and the development. So I was on the road at the age of 19.

So you had a car .. ?

Oh yes, I had a big car and I made all my own samples, all my own ranges and I went off and sold them, But 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. And 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 in the way I was developing the footwear and the ranges I produced . .. what? . .. four or five ranges of footwear a year for various organisations. I had to travel throughout Europe. I always did two trips to Paris per year, shoe fairs at Dusseldorf, Milan, Florence and Rome. And that’s where I picked up a lot of the ideas, and I met a lot of my customers out there, so we were able to discuss the ideas and build the ranges exclusively for them. And I would come back, and then produce the ranges and go out and show them, and sell them to them, and they would write out orders.

How many people back in the factories were dependant for their livelihoods on you?

We employed about 200 people. I was responsible for filling the factory to keep 200 people and their families going.

And were they loyal employees?

12,000 pairs per week might sound a lot to you, but in actual fact it’s not that amount, and therefore the factory was relatively small, and when you have a small factory it is much easier to manage because it’s much more personal. So 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. So 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, and it was also a semi-craft, you see, so you had craftsmen as well as highly skilled people.

You would have had people who maybe went into the factory at 15 and worked until their retirement?

Oh yes.

So they were very loyal in that case?

Oh yes, if you looked after them they would always look after you.

So, as part of that, you say they went home for lunchtime. You weren’t a big factory needing a canteen?

No, 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.

Nowadays you hear a lot about Health & Safety. Was that an issue in your days?

It was just coming, Health & Safety. 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, and therefore you had to have dust extraction plants and all that sort of thing to protect the workforce.

And the actual stitching, was that done with machinery?

Singer sewing machines.

Did you have work accidents?

Oh yes. Yes, yes. When I started off as an apprentice I worked in a room which prepared all the bottom leather, and they had these huge presses, and they had to work very quickly, these operatives did, to make their money. And I saw several fingers which had been cut off, which were at the back of the board, where chaps had cut their fingers off. And that was when the Health & Safety Act came in. Well, then those presses were redesigned whereasmuch 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 he could move it along much quicker without having two hands. And then we had to come down on them pretty heavily because Health & Safety meant we were entirely responsible for them.

So were they on some sort of piece work then?

Yes. Every operation was on piece work.

So although you said at the beginning that they had to earn £8 .. .. .

That was the minimum.

But they made up their money by piece work?

Yes, 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, and 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, so we delivered the materials for them to work on and then we collected them. Years ago in my father’s time they used to carry them around on poles. In my time we had vans! (laughs)

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.

So shoe work goes right back in your family?

Oh yes. 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. And I heard it every day, exactly what went on each morning with all the various individuals and the characters, and what had happened and 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 . . .! And it went on . .. I never heard anything else!

And now there isn’t a shoe industry. So can you remember how it all began to fade out?

Oh yes. It all started to fade out in . .. er .. . 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. And that was really the beginning. Well 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.

So was it a rapid decline?

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.

It must have had a dramatic effect on the workforce.

Well 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.

And the factory eventually got down to just closing, did it?

It did. It just closed.

That must have been extremely difficult for you and your father.

Well, my father was dead. He died in 1962. I’m talking about 1980 now.

And the workforce – were their skills transferable?

No, they weren’t transferable, not really. A lot of them just faded away, just retired and never did anything. A lot of the younger ones had to do other things, of course. They went into other industries.

Rather similar to what’s happening now in the country.

In the car industry. It’s exactly the same thing. Frightening really.

And can you remember the last working day, when the factory finished and you locked it up for the last time?

Well, no. 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. We were making nearly a hundred odd thousand pairs of shoes per week then. 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. 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, because big families 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.

So you sold the Howlett business, but you transferred to Norvic to carry on with your career. What then happened to Norvic?

It went bust. It went bust when all the other shoe factories did. It went bust in 1980. That was the same time that Ballys were going down the chute, Startrite were not making any shoes. . . . very few shoes, in their own factory, they were resourcing everything from abroad. Ballys was resourcing everything from abroad, and they were getting a lot of uppers from India, Italy, Portugal, South America.

So the 1980s saw the end of shoes?

1980 saw the end of the shoes. Not just in Norwich but throughout the country.

And then you came out of shoes yourself?

Well, there was no shoe industry there. I had an opportunity to go and work in South Africa. In fact we had a company in South Africa, 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. So they relied on people to supply them with all the know-how and the designs and the fashions. And 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.

Would a lot of the redundant equipment from the factories have been shipped out to the Third World countries?

No, no! They had more up to date machinery than we did in the Third World! And, of course, you see, all the Third World countries, such as Rumania, Czechoslovakia, all the countries like that, you see, 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.

So your career continued until when? What age did you then come out of shoes?

Well, in 1979 / 1980 it all finished. And I got a job then selling imported footwear throughout East Anglia. A small company in Leicester called Wilfords, and I was selling cheap imported footwear, clearing lines, and I sold them to discount shops, discount warehouses, market traders, all the way up the East coast.

And how did that make you feel? You had created a quality product in your small firm. Were these of a similar quality or were you having to sell a low standard . .. ?

No, 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, and I got a job there selling, and I did quite well out of it. I did that for a year, but 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 Rod. 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! (laughs) But really all the uppers and that came from India.

So that’s taken us right up into the 1980s. So you were still in shoes in the 1980s . . .?

Yes. Well then two years later the business was sold to Lambert Howarth, which was a big shoe manufacturer up in the north of England, which had to go into resourcing in a big way because they couldn’t afford to make shoes in this country. So that was the beginning of their resourcing. So we sold that company to them and then I had nothing to do.

And this was in the middle 1980s?

Yes. So I started painting pictures.

And before we started you said that that was another era that we could discuss.

Yes, that was the end of an era.

Can I ask you, as somebody who was in shoes for all those years – there are still some hand made shoes. Is it Church’s? Would they be of a similar quality?

Church’s are still making 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. But 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. So what’s happened with that I don’t know. It’s a long time now since . . . 20 odd years is a long time, 25 years is a long time.

A New Era

After a long period in the shoe industry in Norfolk the contributor was then able to start another career in painting and teaching.

So, having finished with shoes you made a big decision about what you w ere going to do with the rest of your working life.

Well, no, 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. I started to look for another job, and the only thing I ever knew anything about was the shoe industry. So I got bored stiff looking for another job, and I started to paint pictures, which 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 (laughs), and 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. Well then a gallery approached me in Norwich and said could they have some pictures, and I said “yes”. They told me what pictures they wanted, and so I painted these pictures they wanted, and my whole life sort of unfolded again. And it was with the Glass House Gallery. And, 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. So 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, and I started to learn a lot more, because I met a lot of artists, and they taught me and shew me how to do things. So I helped him really to develop it. And 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.

So, without any formal training, not Art School or .. . ? It was a natural talent?

No, 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! (laughs)

So your paintings, were they landscapes around Norfolk or what?

Well what I had to do: Once this started to happen I had to run it like any other business, where you contact galleries and you’re selling yourself, which I was used to doing. And you went round and you talked to them, and you said “look, what do you want?” And 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!

I never thought of that in the art world!

No, no! 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.

So they could say, for instance, “fields of poppies are doing well this season” and you would come back and paint several pictures of poppies?

Yes, that’s right. That’s right. 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, and 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. And I produced these and I took them down there and they put them in frames, put them on the wall, and it just unfolded.

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.

So your paintings would be ones where individuals have a plain wall and they want to display some landscapes, and they would go and buy those pictures? Not the sort of people who would go and buy a very expensive . .. . ? This was art for the ordinary person?

That’s right, yes. 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.

And do you exhibit out of Norfolk?

Oh yes. 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.

You said you went into teaching. Teaching art?

Yes, teaching painting.

So do you have many groups?

Yes, 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 about three times a year – for a week three times a year. That was great fun! Thoroughly enjoyed all that! 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.

What about the framing?

Oh well, 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 4 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 and he did that every Saturday afternoon for 20 odd years.

So you’ve had two very interesting, very different careers?

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

Will that have anything to do with shoes?

No, nothing at all. Nothing at all.

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