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How Norwich made its name in shoe manufacturing

PUBLISHED: 12:43 22 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:45 22 August 2018

The clicking section of the Van Dal factory in September 1964. Production was planned so that all operatives could see the various stages of the work and eventually the finished shoe. Picture: Archant

The clicking section of the Van Dal factory in September 1964. Production was planned so that all operatives could see the various stages of the work and eventually the finished shoe. Picture: Archant

Archant

For more than 200 years Norwich has been a bastion of traditional shoemaking.

The Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

At its peak the shoe manufacturing industry employed 12,000 in the city, working in at least 30 factories producing mainly women’s and children’s shoes.

Only three other places in the UK – London, Leicester and Northampton – produced more shoes.

The story of shoemaking in Norwich goes back as far as the 10th century, and by the 14th century it was one of around 130 trades being plied in the city.

READ MORE: Norwich’s shoemaking era coming to an end as Van Dal looks to close factory

One of the shoemakers who started Norwich’s rise to prominence in the industry was James Smith, a leather worker who in 1792 opened premises on the Market Place and started the business that would one day become Start-Rite Shoes.

In the mid-19th century John Howlett and George White joined forces to create shoemaker Howlett and White, which built and occupied one of the city’s biggest shoe factories, on St George’s Plain.

Workers at the Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich, pictured in the early 20th century. The factory opened in 1936. Picture: ArchantWorkers at the Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich, pictured in the early 20th century. The factory opened in 1936. Picture: Archant

This was the boom time for Norwich shoe production – the city was able to build its reputation as a centre of shoemaking excellence, with products made in its factories being shipped around the world.

But after the First World War manufacturers had to pull back to the home market as overseas customers like Germany began to develop their own shoemaking industries.

This change of direction did not cause the industry to shrink. By the 1930s more than 10,000 people – 15% of Norwich’s total workforce – were employed in shoemaking.

But the late 20th century brought tougher challenges of the city’s shoe manufacturers, which eventually spelled the end for many.

Howlett and White – renamed Norvic in 1935 – was one of many industry casualties between 1970 and 1990, folding in 1981 after its takeover by William Timpson.

Famous names

The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, chatting to one of the clickers (leather cutters) at Edwards & Holmes'  factory in Norwich in June 1951. Also pictured, extreme left, Geoffrey Holmes, managing director of the company. Edwards & Holmes was bought by Van Dal (Florida Group) in 1987. Picture: ArchantThe Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, chatting to one of the clickers (leather cutters) at Edwards & Holmes' factory in Norwich in June 1951. Also pictured, extreme left, Geoffrey Holmes, managing director of the company. Edwards & Holmes was bought by Van Dal (Florida Group) in 1987. Picture: Archant

Florida Group founder Adelman Goodman moved his shoemaking business from London to Norwich in 1936 to take advantage of its thriving manufacturing scene.

After producing unbranded footwear through the Second World War the group introduced the Van Dal brand in 1946.

Florida was the last remaining shoemaker in the city, and indeed the last traditional ladies’ shoe factory in the UK, before deciding to close its facility and move all Van Dal production to Italy and India, where around 85% of its shoes are already made.

But the company says its warehouse and design teams will remain in Norwich.

Start-Rite Shoes is another famous maker which retains its city heritage.

It began life in 1792 when James Smith established his shoemaker’s stall on Norwich Market.

The Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich. Factory supervisor Angie Wood checking the shoe uppers.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe Van Dal shoe factory in Norwich. Factory supervisor Angie Wood checking the shoe uppers. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

His great-great-grandson James Southall rechristened the company Start-Rite in 1921. It went on to challenge traditional wisdom about how children’s shoes should be made and earned a Royal Warrant in 1955 to supply footwear to the young Prince Charles.

While the firm is still based on Broadland Business Park, it closed its manufacturing facility in Norwich in 2003 to outsource production to India and Portugal after more than 200 years of shoemaking in Norwich.

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