The year 1981 was a fateful one for Norwich manufacturing industry with substantial job losses in the city. A major contribution was the closing of the Norvic Shoe Company factory at St. George‘s Plain. This factory had become a major player in the shoe industry, not just in Norwich but in England, employing about 2,000 people and producing 25,000 pairs of shoes per week. The loss of such a factory seemed to herald a period of great economic change for Norwich when, not for the first time in its history, it had to adapt to see itself through a time of uncertainty. The shoe industry had been very important to Norwich, with others it had picked up the torch when the great staple of weaving was beginning to falter.
In the past, every village would have had a shoemaker providing for the immediate locality. It is said that traditionally boots were bought with extra money earned at harvest-time to ensure the workers and their families were well-shod through the approaching winter. The more wealthy would travel into Norwich and the really well-to-do (well-heeled) would buy shoes from the fashionable London makers. By the 1830s shoe shops with branches were beginning to appear - the London firm of Bowtell had a branch in Brighton and one at No.1, Davey Place, Norwich. It was also possible to buy shoes by sending measurements to London makers with the finished article being sent to the customer by carrier‘s cart In Norwich, it was at the turn of the 18th and 19th century that the roots of what was to become a great industry began to appear. Norwich in the middle of the 18th century was still a prosperous textile manufacturing city but, additionally, provided goods and services, including footwear, for the surrounding region. In the next century, it was the business acumen of a small number of shoe manufacturers that was to turn their industry in the old provincial city into one with international markets. Some of these men are worthy of study.
James Smith had established a business in 1792, with his factory standing on the site of what is now the City Hall. After moving to Crome Road the firm was to grow into what was to be known as Startrite. In 1799, David Soman, an immigrant from France, began a cap-making business in Norwich but soon changed to shoes. In 1853, this business passed into the hands of Soman‘s son-in-law, Philip Haldinstein. This business was to occupy much of the block between Queen Street and Princes Street and later merged with the Swiss manufacturer, Bally, to become Bally and Haldinstein, known to every city boy in the 1940s.
One of the most notable of the Norwich shoe-making businesses had its origins in 1846 when James Howlett invested the very large sum of £10,000 in the leather-currying business of Robert Tillyard. Thus started a shoe-making empire that was to become known across the world and later change its name to the Norvic Shoe Company. At the time of Howlett‘s investment, Tillyard was operating from rooms on Elm Hill but the additional money enabled him to move to larger premises in Princes Street, then Swan Lane and lastly to St. George‘s Plain. It was John Geoffrey Howlett, son of James, who, with his father‘s great encouragement studied the leather trade and by 1859, was cutting the uppers for harness and heavy boots. Traveling by horse and trap over vast distances, John collected orders and at Bourne in Lincolnshire he had a fateful meeting with a customer, Thomas White and his 14 years-old son, George. George joined the firm as a junior and worked his way to the top. When the firm became known as Howlett and White, it was George White who realised that outwork - where part of the manufacturing process was carried out in workers‘ homes - was wasteful of time so the firm built a factory instead.
It was a factory indeed, effectively two great buildings built side by side and by the end of the nineteenth century it was making footwear for the world. There was a mass of machinery, all powered by electricity, also the source of lighting throughout the factory. Innovation had its place: the Norvic solid rubber heel was in use, believed at that time to be the only solid heel in existence. Sport uses were well catered for, there was a machine for inserting running spikes into shoes that once fitted were said to be "quite immovable". There was also a "corrugating machine" for tennis shoes. It was not only machinery that made for success, there was a large and skilled workforce with the firm being proud of its hand-sewn work and the "Goodyear" welted sole system that made for a superior product. It was said that the "commonest footwear" went through thirty-four hands in the finishing department before leaving the factory. A "Dust Cyclone" extracted dust from the factory and thus protected the health of the workers. The bulk of the leather in use was British being tanned in Norfolk, but there were also to be found stacks of leather from American, Australian and East Indian sources. The firm had its own box-making department and thousands of boxed shoes made their way to such places as Sydney and Melbourne. So what came from the world supplied the world after Norwich manufacturing skill had been applied.
The factory at St. George‘s Plain had become one of the great centres of the footwear industry. The great building is still there, albeit used for other purposes, much of it residential. In the 1950s and 1960s the workers employed at St. George‘s Plain made their contribution to the great influx of cyclists who would make their way into the central area for the 8.00a.m. start to the working day. Held by the traffic signals at such places as St. Augustine‘s Gates, they made an animated scene that people presumed would always be part of the city‘s life
This was not to be, various factors not least foreign competition, brought an end to the great enterprise in 1981. Other shoe-factory closures were to follow and the employment scene in Norwich became very different.
George White certainly left his mark on Norwich. In 1900, when he was 58 years old, he became the Member of Parliament for North-West Norfolk. In 1907 he was knighted and in 1910 he became a Freeman of the City of Norwich. At his death in 1912, it is said the City came to a standstill, with hundreds of people turning out to pay their last respects and most shops closing early. The Evening News of the time described him as the father of the shoe industry in Norwich. A city school was named after him. George‘s son, Sir George Ernest White, became Lord Mayor of Norwich in 1931.