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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

George White

George White 1840 - 1912

As chairman and joint managing director of Howlett & White George White was hugely influential in the efforts of the Norwich shoe manufacturers to convert shoe making in Norwich from a cottage industry based on outworking to one where mass production was the norm.

The son of a Lincolnshire bootmaker, he was taken on as a clerk by Norwich leather merchants Tillyard and Howlett in 1840 at the age of 16. Within 20 years George was a partner in the company which was subsequently renamed Howlett and White and later  became the Norvic Shoe Company. By his death in 1912 the company employed 1,200 employees who produced 150,000-200,000 pairs of shoes annually at their factory in St Georges Plain. The factory, designed by Edward Boardman, was reportedly the largest shoe factory under one roof in Great Britain.

Mass production

White's efforts to introduce mass production methods into the making of shoes did not go unchallenged. The 1897 shoe workers strike was the culmination of series of disputes and the most extensive and bitter as over 1,500 workers were on strike from February until October. The outcome was a disaster for the striking workers; although some obtained a pay increase of £5, over 200 were not reinstated and Smith and Mason, the leaders of the strike, were blacklisted. However the strike provided an example of George White's compassion. When approached by Mason with a request for help after strike pay failed to arrive from the union's headquarters White agreed to lend them enough money to tide them over until he could be repaid. At the end of the strike he assisted the blacklisted Mason to set himself up as a shoemaker.

George White was also prominent in civic life, becoming a Norwich City Councillor in 1876 and serving as Sheriff in 1888. The main focus of his civic endeavours was education, serving as Chairman of the Norwich School Board from 1890 until its abolition in 1903. A prominent Baptist, he fought for the right of the dissenting Christian churches to influence education policy and participate in its implementation. He opposed the control of education exercised by the Church of England whilst also promoting the benefits of secondary and technical education.

George White School

His memorial is the George White School on Silver Road, Norwich. The school built at a cost of £13,800 to accommodate over 1,000 pupils, was opened by White himself on Thursday 17th December 1903 in front of ' a large gathering of members of the Corporation Education Committee and Managers. A Band and Choir from Angel Road School provided several musical items'.

White attended St Mary's Baptist Church in Duke Street for many years and was a Deacon there for 29 of them. The church was a fashionable place of worship for prominent Liberal businessman and provided a forum for debate on the moral and political issues of the day under the ministration of George Gould and his successor J H Shakespeare. It was an arena where White's beliefs in the benefits of temperance and Sunday school attendance would receive a sympathetic hearing,

Elected as Member of Parliament for North West Norfolk in 1900 with a majority of 476 over his Conservative opponent White held the seat until his death in 1912. At the Liberal landslide of 1906 he increased in majority to 2,800 and comfortably held the seat in the two general elections held in 1910, albeit with reduced majorities. In Parliament White devoted his energies to the reform of the education system. He was knighted in 1907.

White could be a demanding boss and didn't suffer fools gladly. Whilst his parliamentary commitments kept him away from Norwich he retained a keen interest in the operation of Howlett and White and expected his subordinates to maintain his high standards.  One well known incident, although possibly apocryphal, illustrates his managerial approach. Arriving at his desk in the factory one Saturday morning at his usual time of 8am, having returned late from the House of Commons the previous evening, he requested his clerk to summon the two principle junior directors. He was informed that they were yet to arrive. Upon their eventual arrival they were summoned to his presence. Looking from one to the other he sternly told them, in the presence of his clerk 'The workers in this factory clock in at 8am'.

In May of 1912 he died at his Unthank Road home, having being diagnosed with lung cancer some months earlier. The funeral, held on 15th May, was reportedly "one of the most extraordinary manifestations of sympathy and public interest ever witnessed in Norwich".  Following a private service at his home and a public memorial service at St Mary's conducted by J.H. Shakespeare he was buried at the Rosary cemetery on 15th May 1912 witnessed by a crowd of some 3,000 gathered on the slopes around the grave.

Sources/Further reading:

  • School Log Book, George White Junior School
  • Sir George White, Barry M Doyle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004-7
  • A Norvic Century, F.W. Wheldon, Jarrold & Son, 1946
  • Doing Different, Steven Cherry, Centre for East Anglian Studies, 1989

Nick Williams

September 2007