It appears from Norwich records that leather and shoemaking played an important part in the life of the city from as early as the 13th century. There are frequent references to parmenters (leather workers) and cordwainers (shoemakers). The name of one of our churches in King Street, St. Peter Parmentergate and streets formerly called Saddlegate and Cordwainers‘ Row, bear testimony to their importance
Shoes were an important mark of social class. The labouring classes would have made their own, whilst master shoe-makers, employing apprentices, fashioned footwear for the landowners and gentry of the neighbourhood.
James Southall & Company can trace their origins to the latter part of the 18th century, when James Smith, a leather seller and shoemaker, with a shop on Norwich Market Place, started making ready-made shoes. Charles Winter, James Smith‘s grandson, took over the business in 1816, and introduced machines from America for sewing uppers. Subsequently he bought machines for stitching soles to uppers at the rate of a pair per minute. In this way a pair of boots could be cut out, and the uppers, after fitting, sewn together and finished in an hour; and the work, moreover, was more skilfully completed. Three operatives were required for each machine, two fitters and one machinist.
Sales increased, both for the home and colonial market. By 1860 Thomas, Singer and Howes hand machines were in use in the factory at numbers 7, 8 and 9 Upper Market, and later steam power was introduced to work the machinery. Winter, who lived in Heigham Grove, was, in the manner of many Victorian businessmen, prominent in social, civic and political life. Sheriff in 1846, he became a magistrate, and was elected Mayor of Norwich in 1851 - there is a monument to his memory in St. Peter Mancroft church. After his death the business was taken over by John Willis and James Southall. They maintained the reputation of the company, improved the quality of the merchandise, and carried on a large export trade to Canada, the Cape of Good Hope and India.
After Willis died the business was carried on by James Southall and his two sons Charles and Frederick, and became a Limited Company. In 1891 Bernard James Hanly joined the company as Manufacturing Manager. Born in 1872 at Colchester and educated at Trinity House School, he had been on the staff of S.A. Morgan & Co., shoe manufacturers, before joining Southall.
The original factory in the parish of St. Peter Mancroft is now only a memory. In 1904 it was described as having a leather warehouse, counting house, a warehouse for ‘bottom stuff‘, and an additional storehouse where thousands of pairs of higher grade ladies and children‘s boots and shoes, and men‘s light and fancy footwear were stored. The sample room is said to have contained specimens of high-grade footwear, brocaded and plain evening shoes, hand-made goods and children‘s shoes and sandals. There were 20 different sorts of machines, operated by girls and women. Technical innovation continued to improve the firm‘s efficiency. The Amazeen Skiving Machine, for instance, did in an hour what it took a day to do by hand, also the machine was more precise: One straight sewing machine made 3,000 stitches a minute. Other machines were the Lufkin Folding Machine, Wheel & Wilson‘s Closing Machine, Singer‘s Binder, and Singer‘s New Rapid Machine.
In the Turn-round Sewing Department, a transition in the trade could be seen. Almost all the men stood to do their work, but two or three of the old school found it impossible to accommodate themselves to the new order, and were seated. They would not have made a living wage if they had stood at their work whilst the younger men would have found it hard to sit and retain their efficiency. Finishing and rubbing down the heels caused clouds of small particles of leather and dust. The machines were fitted with large fans, and pipes through which the dirt and dust were extracted and deposited as refuse outside the building. Possibly this may have been for the benefit of the workers, (there was not a Health & Safety at Work Act in those days!) but the dust could have caused serious problems if lodged in the machinery, to the detriment of the quality of the shoes.
Expansion continued and in 1907 a large new factory was erected on Crome Road, once part of the Mousehold Heath, overlooking the city. It was a one storey building, except for the Stock Room, and covered 62,000 square feet. The old factory remained in use until 1935 but was later swept away to clear the site for the new City Hall.
In a 1910/11 Trade Directory James Southall & Co. Ltd., of Crome Road are offering specialities in fine footwear, ‘The Lightfoot‘, ‘The Sandringham Flexible‘ and ‘The Satisfaction Welted‘. The company received the Diploma of Honour at the Franco British Exhibition in 1908, the Diploma of Honour at the Bruxelles Exhibition in 1910, and the Grand Prix at Turin in 1911.
Bernard Hanly married James Southall‘s youngest daughter, Mabel Rosa, in 1901 and in the same year was appointed Managing Director, whilst Frederick Southall became Chairman. It was Bernard Hanly who piloted the firm through the trade depression of the 1920s and 1930s, becoming Chairman and Managing Director in 1927. Also active in civic life Hanly was elected Sheriff and a magistrate in 1932 and sat as a Liberal Councillor on Norwich City Council from 1933 to 1936. He had two sons and two daughters.
In 1935 the firm was advertising ‘The artistic traditions of the city and generations of skilled hand labour have made an indelible impression on the footwear produced, and which are in great demand, not only for the home market, but in every quarter of the globe. The prominent features of the output are the Start-rite brand of shoes for children, and. Lightfoot and Jasco fashion and comfort shoes for ladies. Nearly 1,000 men and women are constantly employed and contribute largely to the prosperity of this renowned city.‘ Prior to the Second World War their output was 11,500 pairs per week with a labour force of 850 people. Bernard Hanly and Frederick Southall both died on the same day in 1942, and James Laffan Hanly, Bernard‘s eldest son, became Chairman.
The shoe trade was very labour intensive, but despite losing many operatives to war service, the company continued to cater for ladies and children. After hostilities ceased the firm started concentrating on the manufacture of children‘s shoes .The original Start-rite shoe was an adaptation design known as the ‘Thomas heel‘, its main chacteristic being a V -shaped heel. A two-year nation-wide survey had been carried out on children‘s .feet in order to produce better fitting shoes and from this evolved the unique foot system used, which ensured a perfectly formed shoe to fit any size or shape of child‘s foot.
The famous Start-rite twins became known all over the world and featured in posters used by police forces around the country in their ‘Say No to Strangers Campaign.‘
James Hanly died in November, 1985, but the family tradition was maintained with his nephew David White becoming Chairman and Managing Director. At that time the company employed 700 people at its various sites and sold one and a half million pairs of shoes annually through over 1,200 stockists and exported world wide including to Australasia, North America, France and the Republic of Ireland.
Since then production of shoes has ceased in Norwich; the Crome Road factory closed in September 2003, making the workers redundant, and is currently being re-developed as housing. The company, chaired by Peter Lamble, the great nephew of James Hanly, retains a product design and development office in Norwich at the Broadland Business Park but production of shoes takes place in India and Portugal.
Revised by Nick Williams March 2008