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THE HOME OF FINE ENGLISH SHOES
Northampton, situated in the heart of England, is a town renowned for its shoe industry – the history of which goes back hundreds of years.
Cordwainers (a medieval term for shoemakers) were first attracted to the county of Northamptonshire because of the area’s thriving tanning industry. Every village and town within the county had its own cordwainers, the number of whom would continue to grow throughout the middle ages.
By 1642, the reputation of Northampton town had grown so much that 13 shoemakers were commissioned to produce 600 pairs of boots and 4000 pairs of shoes for England’s army going to Ireland. The order was fulfilled and it was now known that the town possessed the ability to produce footwear on a large scale.
The industry continued to flourish, propelled by previous successes, arguably in line with necessities of war. The town was called upon to produce army boots for multiple wars from the English Civil War to the Boer War centuries later. Demand for Northampton shoes became so strong that by the year 1841 there were 1,821 shoe makers in the town.
Machinery would soon follow enabling footwear to be produced on an industrial scale.
Crockett & Jones was established in 1879 by two brothers in law, James Crockett & Charles Jones.
James was raised by his grandfather Henry Marshall, who was a boot and shoe manufacturer in Northampton. James left school at the age of 10 to work as an errand boy before becoming an apprentice clicker. He would go on to work as a shoe maker in Worcester, London and Birmingham.
Charles, meanwhile, was from a long line (at least 3 generations) of respectable shoemakers in Northamptonshire, and was himself a clicker by trade. He married James’ younger sister, Annie Marshall – a shoe fitter, in 1873.
Six years after this marriage, James and Charles decided to go into business together but they lacked the necessary funds to open a factory.
To overcome this, they applied for, and were granted, a sum of £100 each from the Thomas White Trust which was established to ‘encourage young men of good character in the towns of Northampton and Coventry to set up business on their own’.
The first Crockett & Jones factory was a small building on Exeter Road, Northampton which housed the initial 20 employees. Family was crucial from the start as the firm employed two of Charles’ brothers, his sister and his wife.
Leathers were cut at the factory before being distributed to out-workers, who would take the parts home, complete their process and then return all components to the factory, where the shoes or boots could be completed.
Business flourished and production needed to expand, so in the early 1880s Crockett & Jones moved into premises on Carey Street allowing more and more work to be done inside the factory.
Here they would install the latest machinery invented by Charles Goodyear from the USA for stitching the upper and insole to a welt. This made the process much easier and faster whilst also providing a superior construction. It would be known as Goodyear-welting.
With the arrival of the 1890s came the 2nd generation of family to join the business; Harry Crockett, Fred Crockett and Frank Jones – sons of James and Charles respectively.
James Crockett and Charles Jones again recognised the need to find a larger factory for continued expansion of the business. By 1891 they had relocated to a new factory in Magee Street, where the company continues to produce footwear to this day.
Growth continued and although the majority of the shoes were sold in the home market, the company was beginning to develop an important export market by ‘following the flag’ through the British Empire.
The continued success meant the relatively new factory was soon reaching its production capacity.
So, in 1910, a 5-storey factory expansion commenced that was the first steel structured building in Northampton. It benefited from a huge proportion of glass to give superb natural lighting for production – an asset which is still integral for the workforce.
Crockett & Jones now had an established reputation as one of the best shoe makers in the country and in 1911 were awarded the Diploma of Honour at the International Manufacturing Exhibition in Turin for their footwear designs.
In the same year as this success, James’ youngest son Clifden Crockett joined the company, followed a year later by Percy Jones, Charles’ youngest son.
The quality and reputation of Crockett & Jones footwear at this time had become so revered that the firm was asked to provide specially designed boots for an Antarctic expedition. They proved so successful that C&J was requested to produce boots a 2nd time for the Shackleton Endurance Expedition in 1914.
When the First World War broke out, both Clifden Crockett and Percy Jones were called upon to serve their country, and, in a sense, so was Crockett & Jones. The company manufactured boots for the army, with production increasing so that over 600,000 pairs were being made in a year.
Sadly, Clifden was killed in action in 1916 during the Battle of Pozieres Ridge aged just 22. Percy however was lucky enough to return to Crockett & Jones after the war, and would become a partner within 4 years.
1924 was a year of great pride for all at the company. Crockett & Jones was honoured with a visit from the future King George VI who paid great attention to the shoe making process on a tour around the factory, led by recently knighted Sir James Crockett.
In 1927 Gilbert Jones, son of Frank, joined Crockett & Jones. There were now 3 generations working together for the first time, truly cementing the status of Crockett & Jones as a family company.
The period after the First World War was one of consolidation for the UK as the home market was beginning to change, increasingly influenced by fashion. The demand for women’s shoes had grown over the years and was in fact so strong that ladies’ footwear would soon account for more than 60% of total production at Crockett & Jones.
As the company continued to grow, a second wing was added to the factory in 1935 to provide a new office block, showroom and in-stock department. The original front door was moved from Magee Street to Perry Street where it is still used as the main entrance today, retaining its impressive 1930s Art Deco design.
Soon, war would again rear its ugly head, and Crockett & Jones would be called upon once more to manufacture shoes and boots for the armed forces.
In fact, the company made over 1 million pairs over the course of the war, and, as many of the workforce left to fight, many retired men and married women returned to work as part of the war effort.
After the war, in 1946, Clifton Crockett, grandson of Sir James, joined the company. He would stay for 6 years before leaving in 1952, making him the last member of the Crockett family to work at Crockett & Jones.
A year later, in 1947, Richard Jones, son of Percy and grandson of founder Charles, joined the business after serving in the Royal Navy.
The post war era once again led to some interesting changes in market tastes in the UK with everchanging ‘fashions’. This, combined with the effects of war on the supply of materials and ability to export, meant Crockett & Jones had to reassess its position in the marketplace.
Throughout the 1950s the bulk of production was sold in the home market, although the overseas market had begun to expand again so that by 1962 around 18-19% of the total output was exported. By this time, production focus had returned more to producing men’s shoes.
Beginning in the 70s, times proved to be much harder for the Northampton shoe industry with increased competition from the global markets, predominantly in the form of cheaper imports. There still remained more than 100 small family firms making shoes in Northampton, a significant number but a huge reduction nonetheless from the early 1900s.