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Workers at one of Norwich’s last traditional shoemakers face uncertain future

PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 August 2020 | UPDATED: 12:07 12 August 2020

Freed Shoe Factory Norwich Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Freed Shoe Factory Norwich Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Archant

Staff at one of Norwich’s last factories to make shoes by hand have been told they are at risk of redundancy.

Making the pink ballerina slippers in Norwich. Pic: FreedMaking the pink ballerina slippers in Norwich. Pic: Freed

Workers at Freed of Norwich, based in Mason Road, off the inner ring road, were told their jobs were at risk when the firm reopened earlier this week after closing because of coronavirus.

The business, which dates to 1929, makes classic pink satin pointe ballet shoes using traditional methods and has supplied some of the ballerina greats such as Margot Fonteyn as well as for Moira Shearer in the famous film The Red Shoes.

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The Norwich factory is just one of two in the UK run outside London, the other being in Leicester.

Moira Shearer, who wore shoes by Freed in the famous film The Red Shoes. Pic; PAMoira Shearer, who wore shoes by Freed in the famous film The Red Shoes. Pic; PA

A spokeswoman from Freed of London, based in Hackney, said: “This is a difficult and sensitive time for all the employees in Norwich. No decision has been made but staff have been notified that their jobs are at risk of potential redundancy.”

It is believed around 26 people work in the Norwich factory, which closed in March because of coronavirus, with staff put on furlough.

A staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, said they were in a 30-day consultation period with a 12-week notice period starting after that.

“The workforce of 26 people returned from furlough since March, only to be told on our first day back we are closing due to the virus and the dancing industry being closed down and no dancing shoes being sold.

Making the pink ballerina shoes in Norwich. Pic: FreedMaking the pink ballerina shoes in Norwich. Pic: Freed

“It saddens me as I’ve worked in the shoe trade for almost 50 years,” the employee said.

Another staff member said the workforce had been told the news by people who visited Norwich from head office. The worker added some staff had worked for the firm for more than 30 years.

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Norwich was at one time the centre of UK shoemaking, once employing 12,000 people in 30 factories. But over the decades, firms gradually disappeared from the local landscape, moving production abroad.

The late Dame Margot Fonteyn, who wore shoes made by Freed. Pic: Archant libraryThe late Dame Margot Fonteyn, who wore shoes made by Freed. Pic: Archant library

Freed of London was founded by cobbler Frederick Freed, originally working from a basement in Covent Garden. At its height, it made 250,000 pairs of ballerina shoes every year using the traditional ‘turn-shoe’ method with two thirds made to a dancer’s individual specifications, which requires accuracy to within three millimetres.

History of Freed

Freed of London shoes are sold in more than 50 countries and the firm has nine retail stores, seven offices, five warehouses and three manufacturing sites, including in Norwich.

Freed Shoe Factory Norwich Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANFreed Shoe Factory Norwich Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Cobbler Frederick Freed and his wife, who worked as a milliner, gained their very first customer by putting up a sign that said they would make bespoke shoes for ballerinas.

Mr Freed retired in 1968 and the company was acquired by D H Sam Thomson Limited and Magdalen Shoes of Norwich. The three companies joined together and continued to operate as Freed. Later it started selling dancewear and equipment as well as shoes and in 1993, the company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Japanese apparel company Onward Kashiyama.

The Freed corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities were retained after the acquisition and continue to operate at their original location in London.

Ballet shoes are made in the Norwich factory by hand.

Freed Shoe Factory Norwich Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANFreed Shoe Factory Norwich Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN


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