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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Ancestors' Occupations: Footwear Trades

They Pulled Themselves Up By Their Bootstraps

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Practical Family History]

When my father proposed to my mother in 1961, he told her that he would give her a diamond ring that he had kept in a shoebox at home. My mother was rather concerned about the shoebox, but she accepted anyway. For me, this story is as much about the shoebox as the ring it contained. It struck me that my father kept lots of things in shoeboxes; they made fine receptacles for anything from pens to cufflinks. Shoeboxes were his repository of choice because he was born and brought up above a shoe shop – a branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis - in Walton, Liverpool where his father, William John (Jack) Symes, was the manager from the 1920s right through to the 1950s.

Jack Symes: The Bootseller’s Apprentice

I recently started to look further into my grandfather’s past. Born in 1894 in Ancoats, Manchester ( a place made famous by L. S. Lowry for the kids who had ‘nowt on their feet’), he was 21 in 1915 and joined up for the army, first in the Royal Cheshire regiment and then in the Tank Regiment. I found 30 pages of his army records at British Army World War I Service Records and was interested to see that on joining up, he gave his occupation as a ‘Boot Salesman’ in Doncaster, Yorkshire. An email from the archivist at Doncaster Record Office confirmed that there was a branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis in the town at that time.

I worked back in time. On the 1911 census (now available to view online at, I discovered that Jack Symes (then aged 18) was living in Pontefract with his uncle, Charles Terrell. As Jack’s father had died when he was just twelve, it was natural that he should spend some time working for another elder male family member. Uncle Charles Terrell is described as ‘the manager of a bootshop’ in ‘Marketplace,’ Pontefract and Jack Symes as an ‘assistant bootseller.’ I contacted Wakefield Library and discovered that there was a branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis in the Marketplace, Pontefract at that time. Evidently this was where my grandfather’s work among shoes and boots began.

Charles Terrell: The Bootmaker’s Apprentice

Charles Terrell, my great-great uncle, was as tough as old boots according to my   family folklore.   Among family papers, I have a letter from a great niece of his who described him as an almost fanatical Methodist: a believer in hard work, saving money and teetotalism. Family rumour has it that Charles saved his earnings from the shoe shop and invested any fifty-pound notes he acquired in shares in Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s and Lipton’s. Apparently, he hastily withdrew these shares when he suspected that Lipton’s had begun to sell wines and spirits!

But how (and indeed why) had Charles Terrell started out in his boot-selling career? Looking back in time again to the 1901 census, I discovered that he was already managing the Marketplace shop in Pontefract. Further back still, on the 1891 census, he was running what appears to have been an independent bootshop in another part of Pontefract - Mounthill. I doubted that the previous census (of 1881) would give me any further clues about how his career in footwear had started. After all, he would have been only fifteen at the time it was taken. I was wrong, this census was actually to lead me on to a great deal of interesting information.

In 1881, the young Charles Terrell was living in Sheffield and described as a ‘servant and a bootmaker’s apprentice.’ The ‘master bootmaker’ at this establishment was one William Rodgers and, according to the census, he employed four men. Charles was the only one of these who lived on the premises. I noted that the company were ‘bootmakers’ and not ‘bootsellers.’ The footwear trades were some of the last in Britain to be mechanised, much of the work was done by hand until well into the nineteenth century. Charles Terrell must have gained ‘hands-on’ expertise of his trade at William Rodgers’ establishment and later, this practical experience, must have made him a very appropriate choice of manager for Freeman, Hardy and Willis, a high street shoe retail company that would grow out of the boot and shoe manufacturing business.

Charles Terrell’s boss, William Rodgers, is listed as an independent bootmaker in the 1884 Whites Sheffield trade directory. As there is no reference in that directory to a Freeman, Hardy and Willis shop existing in the city, it seems safe to assume that Charles Terrell was probably apprenticed as a boy to a privately-owned business. It is possible that William Rodgers was later taken over by the company of Freeman Hardy and Willis, as subsequent trade directories show that he had ceased trading by 1900 and that there was, by that time a branch of the famous chain in Sheffield.

In all of the census records for Charles Terrell, there was a hint of a mystery that urged me on to further investigation. Whilst his employers, neighbours and (later his wife and daughter) gave their place of birth as other Yorkshire towns, Charles is recorded as hailing from a small village right at the other end of the country - Henstridge in Somersetshire. From his mid teens, the young bootmaker was an exceedingly long way from home. Why, I wondered, had he moved all the way from the South West to Yorkshire to take up a job making boots?

The obvious place to look for answers about Charles’s migration was yet further back in time in the 1871 census – when he was just six years old. It was soon apparent that he was one of a large and impoverished family of eight children. His father, William Terrell (spelt Terrel this time)  was an agricultural labourer. His mother, Phillis, and sisters, Anne and Jane, were glovers. The British History Online site (using information from the Victoria County Histories Publications ( records that in Henstridge. ‘Gloving had been established by 1841 and by 1851 there were 100 glovers, mainly female, probably outworkers to Milborne Port manufacturers. In 1871 there were a gloving agent, 152 female glovers, and 5 male glove cutters and finishers.’

Charles Terrell would have grown up watching his mothers and sisters making gloves at home.  His eldest sister Elizabeth (my great-grandmother)  - herself a former glover – was employed by cousins of the family as a servant in the nearby town of Street by the time of the 1871 census. Interestingly, this is where the Clarks brothers began manufacturing footwear in 1825. I am assuming, therefore, that the Terrell family were familiar with the processes of shoe production. The so-called ‘Brown Petersburg’ sheepskin slipper was made by hand in the cottages of the residents of Street. Later (in the 1860s) the Singer sewing machine would bring some mechanisation to the process. Clarks became the first footwear company that exactly matched shoes to the shape of the wearers’ feet. Since cladding the hands and cladding the feet were trades that were in the blood of the men and women of Somersetshire, I remain puzzled as to why the young Charles Terrell was sent as far away as Sheffield to learn his bootmaking trade.

Charles was, of course, among many thousands of young men who migrated to the industrial North of England to find work in the late nineteenth century. It was probably his youthful success as a bootseller and as a manager for Freeman, Hardy and Willis that tempted many of his sisters and brothers to move North too. Elizabeth, Anna and Jane came up to Manchester to work as a cook, undermaid and housemaid to three wealthy families, brother Joe worked as a packer for Westinghouse Gas Engines, and, another brother, Jim came to work for the Manchester Cleansing Department and was employed emptying privies onto wagons at night. None of these jobs could be considered glamorous by any stretch of the imagination.

In the eyes of these close relatives, shop managers Charles Terrell and Jack Symes would have been considered very successful. Adhering to the strict rules of Methodism that benefited so many businesses of the era – hard work, sobriety, careful spending and saving – they managed to leave behind poverty-stricken circumstances in rural Somerset and the slums of Manchester respectively. And the decades that they spent measuring and fitting the feet of the prospering businessmen of the North allowed them to pulled their own families up – as it were – by the bootstraps – into the realms of the lower middle class.

Freeman, Hardy and Willis: A Brief History

My ancestors Charles Terrell and Jack Symes became shop managers for one of Britain’s most famous and successful shoe retailers. Freeman Hardy and Willis began in Leicester in 1875 and was incorporated in 1876 (when future bootmaker Charles Terrell would have been just eleven years old). The founder of the company, Edward Wood, a boot and shoe manufacturer, named his new enterprise after three of the company’s employees: architect, Arthur Hardy,  factory manager, William Freeman, and traveller, Charles Willis. The first branch of the retail shoe business was opened in Wandsworth, London in 1877.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the company acquired the boot and shoe retailers, Rabbits and Sons Ltd (1903); and The Kettering Boot and Shoe Company Ltd (1913).  By the time Jack Symes, started work (just before the First World War), the chain was already well established. In 1921 (when Jack was demobbed from the Tank Corps and back in the boot trade), the company had 428 shops.

In 1925, Freeman, Hardy and Willis acquired the shoe capital of the Leicester firm Leavesley and North Ltd and by 1927, Jack Symes was manager of a branch of the shop in County Road, Walton, Liverpool. In 1929,  Freeman, Hardy and Willis was acquired by Sears of Northampton  (operating under the brand name of Trueform). The shops continued to operate under the Freeman, Hardy and Willis name.

The joint shoe business, (consisting by then of over 900 shops) was acquired in 1955 by the entrepreneur Charles Clore. He added many other businesses to his conglomerate including more shoe retailers (two of which were Manfield and Dolcis). The footwear side of the business became known as the British Shoe Corporation and, with 1,500 shops, soon had over one quarter of the British footwear market.

Archival papers relating to Freeman, Hardy and Willis (in its various incarnations) are described at  and available to view in the Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office

Useful Books

Fox, Alan, A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives 1874-1957, Blackwell, 1954.

Hall, Joseph Sparkes The Book of the Feet: A History of Boots and Shoes, BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Lehane, Brendan, C and J Clark, 1825-1975, Street , 1975.

Reynolds, Helen, A Fashionable History of the Shoe, Heinemann Library, 2004.

Riello, Giorgio and McNeil, Peter, Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, Berg Publishers, 2006.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Websites Military Records of Ancestors Who Fought in the First World War. The history of Clarks shoes.

This site gives an overview of the development of Sears PLC including its acquisition of Freeman, Hardy and Willis and other shoe retailers. British History Online Site, Victoria County Histories description of the village of Henstridge. History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives Website of the Wakefield District in words and pictures Description of archival papers relating to Freeman, Hardy and Willis. Clarks Village and shoe museum 

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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, shoes, footwear, Freeman, Hardy and Willis

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