Working Lives

Thoughts on the Shoe Industry (1950-1985)

Location: Norwich

Michael was a sales manager in the Norwich shoe firms of Norvic and Bally. He reviews the processes of factory-made shoes and gives his thoughts on how developments in demand and design affected price and quality in the trade.

Finding a job in Norwich

My father, as a Freeman of the City of Norwich, was really anxious that either my brother or I stayed in Norwich. My father had been secretary of the Freemen of Norwich, which I eventually became as well. I said, ‘Well look, I, I love living in Norwich, I’ve travelled quite a bit in the army and everything like that, certainly I would be prepared to stay in Norwich, all other things being equal, and providing I can find the right opportunity’. And, so, I did that.

After I left the army I was fortunate enough to go to St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. I read geography. In my last year there, when I was looking for a job, I went to see the appointments officer of the university, and told him that I wanted to find a job in Norwich if possible. He said, ‘Well, it’s an extraordinary coincidence, but we get very few organizations in Norwich who ask for our graduates. It so happens that last week I got a letter from a director of a company in Norwich saying they had heard that one or two other firms, usually big firms like Clarks and K, were starting a graduate trading scheme. This company was the Norvic Shoe Company. They were not quite as big as Clarks but as big as K, and as a big national company, they felt they should have a graduate training scheme. Would you be interested in going along to see them?’ I said, ‘Of course. I want a job in Norwich and if you haven’t got anything else in Norwich, then I’ll certainly consider it.’ I’d had no connection with the shoe trade whatsoever. And, to cut a long story short, I went along for an interview. I had a very satisfactory interview, and they offered me a graduate training programme, which they’d had to work out how to start because they’d never done it before.

Sales at Norvic and then on to Bally

Luckily Norvic was a big enough company to be able to train you in several ways. They had factories. They had not only factories in Norwich, the ladies factory and the children’s Kiltie factory, but they had factories in Northampton making men’s shoes and a factory in Mansfield making sandals and slippers and things of that nature. But not only did they have factories, they sold their own shoes through a sales organization. They had a sales force. They also had a series of shops … they had a retail organization, as well. In the end they had about 150 shops. And they had display and advertising departments, so this training scheme, which lasted twelve months, was able to go through all the facets of the industry. I was very fortunate really, to be able to train in all their sections. And then I was able to decide, having done all that training, decide I would go into … From my point of view I was more interested in the retail side than working in the factory, and so I opted to go into sales. They said, ‘It so happens that our assistant managing director who is actually in charge of sales, wants an assistant. You can go and work in his office.’ And I did that for two or three years, learned that side of the business, was sent out, with representatives and everything, and, gradually moved up the scale, became sales manager and eventually sales director. I worked for Norvic for twenty or twenty-five years.

Then, sadly, they were taken over in an asset stripping takeover, at a time when a lot of companies were broken up. The people who took it over decided to break up the company, sold off the shops, and as sales director that was a crippling blow because I found it very difficult to maintain the factory output when the shops that took about a third of our income had gone. The company was eventually sold off completely and closed down and Norvic was no more. But very luckily I was able to find a new appointment in Bally shoes here at Norwich. A friend of mine who’d moved from Norvic to Bally several years before was able to get me into Bally’s, and I started off as a sales administration manager and eventually became a director of Bally’s, and worked the rest of my time with Bally’s.  I was very fortunate to be able to stay in Norwich and with enough training to do the sales administrative job that I’d done at Norvic. So that was my history in the trade.

Making a shoe

I could just tell you a few words about the process of a shoe being made. As I’ve told you, I wasn’t on the manufacturing side, although I did have a very sound grounding in how shoes were made. The shoe starts off in the leather room, where the skins from which the shoes were made come in from various places, mostly from India, the Argentine, or from Italy. There were a few home-produced skins. We originally had a tannery in Norwich where the skins were tanned, but that closed and moved to another part of the country, so we never had an actual tannery for tanning leather to turn it into a usable skin for shoes. So we had to buy all our leather in and that was taken into the leather room, sorted, and graded, and then the order would come through that we were going to make a particular line of shoes in black calf or black kid or something like that. The sorters in the leather room would sort out the skins. The average skin would be probably about four or five feet of leather that you could actually use.

That would be then sent up to the clicking room. The clicking room is the room where the uppers are cut to shape – the upper, or the front of the shoe, the heel, and the back. The reason it’s called the clicking room is that they use a very sharp little knife, a curved knife, called a clicking knife, and as you cut the leather it clicks. The skin is on a hard surface and then you cut around it, so, as I was saying, the knife makes a click! That’s how the room where the uppers are cut to shape got called the clicking room. The uppers then passed down eventually to the closing room. Now the closing room is where the pieces of the leather, the front part, the piece in the back, are sewn together by machinery into an upper shape. And it’s called the closing room because the uppers are closed, they are joined together into a shape, the upper part of the shoe. It’s one of the biggest rooms, and that is where the main skills are necessary. They’re all done by Singer sewing machine. They’re all sewn together, and you can imagine that if you don’t let the thing go in the right place it ruins the shoe! So they’re fairly skilled operatives in the closing room.

There’s another room where they cut the soles to fit. The soles are in a different type of leather, more solid – or, not all our shoes had leather soles, some of them had resin soles. They would be cut to shape, and then they would be joined together in the making room, and that is where the two halves of the shoe, the upper and the sole area, were actually put together. They were pulled over a last, and then the sole was put on and the two parts would be joined together. That’s in the making room.

The main factor in joining the two together was the solution that was used. In the old shoemaking days they were sewn together and everything, but they literally were stuck together, simple as that. So there was, in the making room, as well as the noise, a smell of rubber solution which was quite noticeable.

The offices obviously were quiet, but certainly to the uninitiated the noise in the factory in certain rooms was considerable. I mean, it was quiet in the clicking room, it was quiet in the shoe room, but in the factory itself, the making room, the clatter of machines actually making the shoes was very noisy.  The other thing was the distinctive smell of leather, which I like, but not everybody likes. It was particularly strong, in the leather room and the clicking room.

And then they would go to the shoe room to be what we called finished – some people refer to it as the finishing room – that was where things like the bows would be attached, the shoes were cleaned and polished. There would be a little trimming necessary probably too; when the sole goes onto the upper, there might be a bit still had to be trimmed off with the knife. So all those little operations were done in the shoe room, then the shoes were boxed and they’d go to the box room, labels put on to identify the size, the style, everything like that. And then they’d go through to the warehouse to be subsequently distributed. So that’s the process the shoes go through. As I said earlier, not so much of the making is done now, in that the uppers are brought in from India and other Far Eastern countries. The closing room exercise of putting the parts of the upper of the shoe together are now done in India, and they just send the uppers in a made-up basis. They fly them into England and all that is done in the local factory in Norwich is that the upper of the shoe is joined to the sole. It’s a comparatively simple operation. The skills are gradually disappearing. So, from that point of view, that’s the shoemaking story.

Selling Norvic shoes

We mainly sold to private retailers through a sales force. By the time I became sales director about a third of our shoes, about five to six thousand pairs a week, were going to our own shops, all over the country. We would buy private retailers that were closing and there were some small, little chains of shops bought. We had two shops in Jersey and Guernsey and we didn’t have a rep for the Channel Islands, so I used to go and do selling in Jersey and Guernsey. That was a nice little trip we made each year, it used to be one of my favourite journeys. We originally used to sell shoes to the big multiples like the British Shoe Corporation, which incorporated Dolcis and Freeman Hardy Willis and those shops. But in the end the BSC bought nearly all their shoes from abroad because they were cheaper. So instead we used to sell to private retailers.

In Norwich we used to sell to shops like Buckingham’s, Bowhill and Elliot’s in London Street – private retailers. Each town or city used to have at least one or two independent retailers, and they were our main customers. Apart from, I’d say, a third of our shoes were going into our own shops. Our retail shops would come and buy for their shops here in Norwich, but the other shoe shops were sold to by the reps we had around the country. They would go around either selling to stockrooms in Newcastle and Leeds and places like that, or else literally to the smaller retailers you couldn’t get into the stockrooms. Towards the end of the selling season they would have to take their cases with their cars and literally go and sell in the shops.

There were two main selling seasons for the spring and autumn. The new shoes would go into the shops in say, February for selling in March, April, May. For ladies’ shoes in October, we would sell them up until Christmas, and they would then be delivered into the shops in January, February for the main. I mean, shoes sell all the year round, but the seasonal trends were very much peaks and troughs of selling. And then we would do the same thing in the autumn – the shoes would go into the shops in August, July-August, for selling in September, October, which are the big selling months in the autumn. We would start to sell those in April. The same thing with sandals and boots, they were sold on a seasonal basis as well. The shops were able to buy shoes from other sources. We didn’t make every type of shoe, so they could still buy rubber boots and plimsolls and all those sort of things from other sources. It was the Sales Director’s job to ensure that the bulk of the shoes that they stocked were our manufacture. So that was the selling system.

We had our own advertising and display departments – they were not run from Norwich  but from London. We had a display manager who would design displays to promote our shoes in the shops. Show cards and things that went in the shops would be all produced by the display department, and they would be distributed to our agents. We used to be a national brand and would probably spend anything up to half a million pounds a year in advertising. They had advertising programmes that would go into the national papers like The Times and Telegraph, and they used to produce small ones for use by retailers, for instance they could go into the EDP for Norwich. So that was the advantage of working for a national company rather than a small firm, where you just made shoes and sold them.


Each firm would have its own designer, or if it was a bigger firm, designers. We had three designers at Norvic and two designers in Bally. They would work exclusively for the firm, and they would go round, not only to Italy and Spain and places like that, but even in England. In fact we used to go over to Ireland because Dublin is a little bit in advance even – a very fashionable city, Dublin, and they would get certain designs before we did, and occasionally one of our designers would go over to Ireland to look for designs there. In the Norwich City College there was a sort of design department I believe, and there was a cordwainer’s college. Cordwainers was the old term for shoemaking.

If you were a cordwainer you were a shoemaker. And there was a cordwainer’s college – it’s either in Leicester or Northampton, I think it was in Northampton – and they had a design school there as well where potential shoe designers could go. But most of them I think just picked up the art, having been to an art college or something like that.  They’d come in and the existing designer would show them the form and they would gradually pick it up. The smaller firms – they would probably have a designer. They would also have what was called a pattern cutter. I didn’t mention when I was talking about the make-up at the factory that before the leather went to the designer, it would go to the pattern maker, who would actually design the pattern for the shoe to see how it was cut out to shape. Pattern cutters are skilled chaps, and sometimes you would have what you call a designer-pattern cutter. He would design the shoes and cut the patterns himself. A small firm, only probably ten, twenty people – couldn’t afford to have both, so you would have a joint thing. But the big firms certainly had a design team of their own.

We always had a pretty good range of shoes. Norvic and Bally would produce a range of ladies’ shoes, about fifty to sixty different styles. Some would run all season – a plain black court, you wouldn’t change that, but you might change the last because the fashion was instead of square toes, you had a pointed toe. So you would have to have new lasts and new patterns for them. So there was a lot of variety there. But several styles stayed the same. I had one style in Norvic that was there when I started and was there when I finished! They call them granny shoes, a three or four-hole lace hole tie. We sold the same amount of shoes every year to the same retailers. And as the ladies grew older, they would just come in and buy their shoes. That shoe was called Charlotte, and you knew that you were going to sell about two thousand two hundred and fifty pairs of Charlottes a year. A thousand in black, and seven-hundred and fifty in brown, and five hundred in blue.

Children’s shoes were the same. This is another thing that changed through the years, but in brands like Start-rite, I noticed that in particular – and even Kiltie. I was brought up in Kiltie shoes. In the time I was in the trade that began to change – there was still the basic sandal and the basic two-holed school shoe made then, but there was increasing demand for more fashionable shoes, even for the younger children.

Not just the teenagers. Children want something other than the basic school shoe now. If you look at the Start-rite catalogue now, I’m amazed at some of the shoes they’ve got in there. As I said, I know the sales director of Start-rite very well. He said, ‘It is a nightmare, we’re really into your business now’ – meaning the ladies’ business. Fashion. I’ve got an eleven-year-old granddaughter now, and she’s already beginning to choose more fashionable, grown-up shoes.. Luckily they’re still making what I call sensible teenage shoes – not with a high heel or anything – but she doesn’t want a basic two-hole tie shoe. That is quite a significant change in the last fifteen to twenty years.

Quality, price and quantity

I don’t think our quality went down because people wanted cheaper things. All that happened was the price went up! When I started, for the main ladies’ shoes our price was ‘sixty-nine and eleven’. Now the average price of ladies shoes – Bally shoes – is probably about sixty pounds! Instead of about three pounds ten, three pounds fifty, the average prices were higher. That’s inflation and maintaining the quality. In a lot of cases, some firms have gone cheaper and stopped making leather shoes, making only synthetic shoes. We even had to do that in Bally’s – they opened a factory in Lowestoft, which made simply synthetic shoes.

We brought in new materials in order to try and continue to trade with big firms like the British Shoe Corporation, which was Dolcis and Freeman, Hardy, Willis, who insisted on having cheaper shoes. Our buckle shoes in those days were say sixty-nine and eleven, it seems a ludicrous price for them, but that’s what they were. They wanted shoes that they could sell for forty-nine and eleven. You couldn’t do it with leather shoes, so you had to go into synthetics. And so we bought a factory in Lowestoft at peak times was making eight thousand pairs a week of synthetic shoes. And they probably dropped our Norwich production to about twelve thousand, something like that. That was a significant change. Our basic quality didn’t alter, we were still making the same quality of shoes. Bally’s has done the same, which is why their shoes are so expensive now, but luckily there is still a demand for that.

But in the end when the crunch came we’d had to sell the Bally firm – well, we lost the British Shoe Corporation business when they started to break up and everything, we had to close our factory. If you looked at our shoes in our Bally shops in Bond Street and Regents’ Street, you’d be amazed. Well, you only need to look in Russell and Bromley’s in Norwich.

I think they’re probably the most expensive shop in Norwich now. And I mean, I look in there now and say, ‘How on earth do they sell those shoes?’ I mean, I don’t know what’s happened. But we used to sell to Russell and Bromley – in fact, at one stage Bally’s had a forty-nine percent share in Russell and Bromley’s, but they eventually sold it because they wanted to remain independent, so Bally sold their share and now it’s a hundred percent owned by the Bromley family.

A strong sense of religion

The original industries were based on a fairly strong sense of religion. The Howlett and White factory, which was the original factory of Norvic, was run by the Howlett family and the White family. And every morning, and I’m talking probably a hundred years ago now, prayers would be said before work started in the morning. The chairman or the managing director would say a prayer to the whole workforce. When you think of that happening today, people would laugh at you, wouldn’t they?

Michael Quinton (1926-2013) talking to WISEArchive on 2 November 2010 in Norwich.

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