How Norwich made its name in shoe manufacturing
PUBLISHED: 12:43 22 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:45 22 August 2018
For more than 200 years Norwich has been a bastion of traditional shoemaking.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.